DAWN - Editorial; August 24, 2003

Published August 24, 2003

The goodwill bonus

IT IS unfortunate that while the people of Pakistan and India will like to believe that the climate between the two countries has improved somewhat in recent weeks, officials on both sides continue to be oppressively belligerent in their statements. The old ding-dong continues, as if the past six months since the Indian prime minister’s Srinagar speech and the Pakistani premier’s warm response to it had never happened. In a letter sent to the presidents of the General Assembly and Security Council the other day by Pakistan’s permanent UN representative, a number of charges have been levelled against India for dragging its feet on opening serious negotiations. Indian foreign office spokesmen have talked in similarly negative terms while commenting on proposals for re-establishing air and rail links and the reported US sale of some C-130 aircraft to Pakistan. It is perhaps not so much what is said during these bureaucratic exchanges that is important as the tone, which continues to reflect a mindset that many will now wish was changed or moderated.

Political leaders saying one thing and sounding extremely positive and their officials striking an altogether different posture may be considered sound strategy to keep options open and maintain pressure. Its fallout at the public level, however, has a disconcerting effect, and people are left guessing as to whom and what to believe. It is, of course, impossible that habits formed over five decades of intermittent hostility and bickering should disappear overnight. But a conscious effort should, nevertheless, be made on both sides to promote the atmosphere of popular goodwill that is slowly beginning to take hold and to whose creation a number of peace delegations have made a significant contribution. This would mean softening some of the official rhetoric and commentaries on state-run media. We have played to the gallery for far too long to continue to delude ourselves that this has either a serious vote-catching potential or helps promote patriotism and national solidarity. These attributes are more constructively stimulated by following domestic policies that increase popular participation in governance and further people’s welfare.

The governments of Pakistan and India should realize that the longer steps essential to normalization are delayed, the greater the danger both for disillusionment to set in and for hard-crust ideologues on either side to again try to seize centrestage, making compromises difficult. Islamabad at least has repeatedly said that it is prepared to enter into an immediate bilateral dialogue with New Delhi. India appears to hesitate and to link talks with a number of stipulations. But to discuss these stipulations, it is also necessary that these should be taken up at some level. It is not necessary that Mr Jamali and Mr Vajpayee should rush into each other’s arms, but contacts at various official levels can at least be started without further loss of time. The question of air and rail links and visa facilities, for instance, should not be the subject of daily statements from either side but form the agenda of a proper and structured negotiating process. President Pervez Musharraf felt confident enough to go up to shake Mr Vajpayee’s hand at a Saarc summit despite the Agra debacle; Mr Vajpayee should not fear a loss of face at home if he meets the general when the two are in New York for the General Assembly session next month. Even an exchange of pleasantries should help. The crucial thing is that the present momentum for a rapprochement should not be permitted to dissipate.

Oil spill again

THIS has now happened a second time this month: the Tasman Spirit is prolifically leaking its oil again, proving the government agencies wrong. Bad weather and stormy seas predicted for the next few days will obviously make salvage operations even more difficult, making it certain that the ship’s remaining cargo of 20,000 tonnes of oil will empty into the sea. This will add to the miseries of those citizens who have still not recovered from the effects of the spill earlier this month. All commercial activity in the area has come to a halt, and the beach is no more a place fit for picnicking and a bit of fresh air. One does not know for how long the Clifton beach will remain closed to the public. But one thing is obvious: the KPT and other government departments have not learnt any lessons from the oil leakage disaster earlier this month.

Foreign experts have been called in for help in the clean-up process, but their presence seems to be having no effect on the situation. Perhaps, this results from the fact that the Pakistani authorities never had a contingency plan of their own and because the foreign experts are suggesting environment-friendly measures for disposing of the contaminated sand and dead marine animals. Many of our NGOs, too, seem to have a lot of academic knowledge about environmental degradation, and a penchant for holding seminars, but have no practical knowledge or experience of dealing with such disasters. The dispute between the Defence Housing Authority and the city government over where to dispose of the contaminated sand and dead fish needs to be sorted out. The government has instituted an inquiry into the oil spill but some have questioned its independence given that it is made up of officials serving in organizations whose performance the inquiry will seek to investigate. One wonders whether heads will roll and the government will break from tradition and release to the public the findings of the inquiry.

Wheat shortage

THERE are fears that, with the exception of Punjab, all other provinces will face a wheat shortage early next year. News reports suggest that the present stocks of the three provinces will be exhausted by February 2004. While Punjab will be safe with its stock of over 2.5 million tons in the current fiscal, Sindh is expected to face a deficit of 100,000 tons, the NWFP a deficit of 65,000 tons and Balochistan 165,000 tons. Overall, the country will face a deficit of nearly half a million tons, according to details released by the Kissan Board of Pakistan. At the same time, the food and agriculture minister, Sardar Yar Mohammad Rind, has allayed these fears by saying that there is no shortage of wheat in the country and that the present stocks are enough to meet the requirements of all the provinces. The minister warned that the impression of an impending shortage was being created by vested quarters who want to import wheat to make money. However, other officials from within the same ministry have told the media that doubts are being expressed over the claims about carry-over stocks made by some provinces. If these claims are not what they are made out to be, then, they warn, there will be a shortage.

It is time the government cleared up this confusion about stocks and supplies. It is this uncertainty that often leads to panic buying and higher prices. What is clear is that adverse weather conditions and the decision about stopping the export of wheat have played up fears of a lower than expected harvest. Keeping this in mind, it is vital that the government act fast to ascertain what the facts are and, if need be, make alternative arrangements for wheat procurement. This will help avoid a lot of unnecessary hassle.

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