DAWN - Editorial; 15 October, 2004

Published October 15, 2004

Backtracking on laws?

Religious Affairs Minister Ijazul Haq's statement on the blasphemy and Hudood laws on Wednesday runs counter to the government's well-known position on the issue.

Speaking at a seminar in Islamabad, Mr Haq declared that there would be no changes in the blasphemy law and the Hudood ordinances, adding that no law would be made if it was against the Quran and Sunnah.

This part of his statement is something nobody would have a quarrel with. What is controversial about his statement, however, is his remark that the laws in question would not be amended.

The federal government must now clarify what exactly is its position with regard to the blasphemy and Hudood laws. Has it gone back on its commitment to amend these laws, which were imposed through ordinances by a dictator? No one has stressed the importance of amending these laws more than President Pervez Musharraf himself.

About the blasphemy law, the president once proposed that the deputy commissioner of the area be required to conduct a preliminary investigation as to the veracity of the charge before an FIR could be registered.

This was the right thing to do, because the blasphemy law is often misused, especially in the rural areas, to settle personal scores. However, following opposition from obscurantist circles, the government reneged on its decision.

But the president nor any other high-ranking federal official has said anything that could be construed to mean that the government has gone back on its commitment to amend these laws.

That all laws must conform to the Quran and Sunnah has been laid down in the Constitution. The point about the blasphemy and Hudood ordinances is that some of their clauses do not conform to the Islamic principles of justice and fair play.

The rules regarding rape are especially abhorrent because they are tilted heavily against women. In fact, they victimize the victim, for a woman is arrested the moment she reports rape.

In one of the most unfortunate cases, a blind girl who was raped was arrested and asked to identify her rapists. This is something that can by no stretch of the imagination be called Islamic.

The blasphemy and Hudood laws were imposed through decrees by Gen. Ziaul Haq. He did not bother to consult all schools of Islamic thought and fiqh. The National Assembly that had come into existence on the basis of non-party elections did not debate these laws, which were then indemnified by parliament as part of a package of other arbitrary laws made during Zia's tenure.

The laws were politically motivated, the aim being to stifle dissent and keep the regime's critics and opponents under threat. Of late, some sections of the ulema, women's organizations, the intelligentsia and NGOs have been demanding a review of these laws so as to make them conform to the Quran and Sunnah.

This government stands committed to these laws' revision, and the Islamic Ideology Council is seized of the matter. In view of all this, one wonders whether Mr Ijazul Haq's statement constitutes his personal opinion or it marks a shift in the government's stand on the issue.

These laws need amendments and that must be done in a transparent manner. This means that the views of the academia, ulema of all schools of thought, intellectuals, women's agencies and the media should be taken into consideration so as to develop a consensus. Then the issue should be debated by parliament and voted upon. This is the only way of making and amending laws.

Ramazan price hike

With the advent of the holy month of Ramazan comes the inevitable rise in prices of essential commodities, particularly edibles, despite official claims that no such increases will be allowed.

Prices of many items across the country have registered increase in anticipation of higher demand in the coming days. This is a clear case of profiteering at the expense of the consumer.

The government has tried to lessen the burden by supplying 200,000 tons of sugar in the market and also further slashing prices of consumer items at the utility stores. However, the bulk of trade is conducted through retail markets and it is here that the government has failed to make any regulatory impact.

A meeting between retailers and government officials this week in Karachi did not result in any understanding, so that there would be no official price list on display, as has been the practice in the past, for the guidance of customers.

The inability of the government to ensure that prices stay at normal levels can also be blamed on the lack of consumer resistance to over-pricing for reasons of profiteering. One hopes that the proposal to set up a consumer rights council in Karachi will raise consumer awareness and inculcate in citizens a spirit of active resistance to profiteering by some retailers and wholesalers.

If successful, this experiment can then be replicated in other cities across the country. At the same time, the government cannot be absolved of its responsibility to ensure that prices remain in check.

Senior officials and magistrates should regularly visit markets and act on complaints made by consumers so that there is some form of discipline in place to check unbridled price manipulation during the month of Ramazan.

Reducing child mortality

UNICEF recently released a report on the progress so far achieved on the fourth millennium development goal (MDG-4) that seeks to reduce by two-thirds the global, under-five mortality rate by the year 2015.

While Pakistan ranks among countries that are advancing - it might be more appropriate to say inching - towards the goal, there are clear indicators that much remains to be done if it is to meet UN targets.

This observation is reinforced by the fact that in the region classified as South Asia, Pakistan is just ahead of Afghanistan in its efforts to meet the MDG-4 target.

To be on track, the country will have to speed up the pace of work in the health sector and reduce child mortality by seven per cent. This, no doubt, is a gargantuan task considering the poor access to medical facilities available to the bulk of the people, including a huge population of children, and the fact that Pakistan's under-five mortality rate was 107 (per 1,000 live births) just two years ago.

The alarming statistics cited by the report should propel health authorities towards greater action in an area where very little progress has been achieved over the years.

This is unfortunate for most of the causes of death - poor perinatal care, acute respiratory infections and diarrhoea - in young children under five can either be prevented or treated, or both.

However, poor public awareness and the acute scarcity of proper medical facilities, especially in the rural areas, have contributed to a situation where families either turn to quacks for help or run from pillar to post in search of a cure for their afflicted young ones.

Positive results can be achieved by reviving the health units in rural areas, equipping them with essential medical staff and trained midwives, and by fulfilling the requirements of the Expanded Programme on Immunization that seeks to protect children against a host of childhood diseases.

In addition, providing people with tips such as boiling drinking water, and using oral rehydration in times of gastrointestinal upsets in children would be a good beginning for any public awareness campaign aimed at reducing child mortality. Provision of safe drinking water across the country must also be given the priority it deserves.

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