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DAWN - Editorial; October 20, 2006

October 20, 2006

Poverty alleviation: hard task ahead

PRELIMINARY estimates released on Wednesday by the World Bank show that Pakistan’s poverty rate declined by five percentage points in the first half of the current decade. Though the relevant reports do not give details of the World Bank’s estimates of poverty rate at the start of the decade and its level in 2005, the five per cent decline in poverty in 10 years in a developing country like Pakistan should be a matter of great satisfaction for all the policymakers and official economic managers. The first three years of the current decade were taken up by belt tightening reforms and focused attention on reducing budgetary deficits under the watchful eye of the IMF. Then there was this three-year cycle of one of the worst droughts that Pakistan ever suffered. In the face of all this, if the government succeeded in reducing poverty by five per cent, it should feel proud of its achievement. The release of the latest estimates by the World Bank which earlier had strongly endorsed Pakistan’s official claim that poverty had gone down from 34 per cent in 2001 to 23.9 per cent in 2005 — a reduction of over 10 per cent in five years, a world record by any standard — should therefore be used for taking corrective measures with regard to data collection and methodology used for arriving at estimates of poverty levels.

Indeed, it is the sustainability of this trend that should be a mater of concern for the official policymakers rather than them unnecessarily worrying over the wide gap between what they have been claiming to have achieved between 2001-2005 by way of poverty reduction and the WB’s latest estimates of the extent of reduction. Already Pakistan’s macroeconomic stability achieved with a great deal of hard work and sacrifices has come under severe strain in recent months with both the trade and the current account deficits reflecting a downward trend. The rate of inflation meanwhile has shown a rising trend, especially in the food part of the CPI basket. On the other hand, investment has started to stagnate in response to the monetary tightening by the State Bank of Pakistan which, in turn, is making the unemployment situation even more serious.

The government decision not to reduce the domestic prices of petroleum products following the massive reduction in recent weeks in the world oil prices is also likely to keep the prices of both domestic consumer durables and the exportable surpluses at a high level, causing a drop in domestic demand and making our exports less competitive in the world markets. The impact of all this is likely to be highly adverse on the poverty situation in the country. What Pakistan, therefore, is faced with at this juncture on the economic front is a great challenge. It has to sustain the high growth trend of the last three years and at the same time, keep inflation under control. This calls for designing our economic policies in such way that helps generate new jobs and all this without affecting in any way its poverty alleviation policies and efforts. It is not going to be an easy task but then there are no free lunches in this free world.

A case for clemency

ONE hopes that President Musharraf will intervene and pardon Mirza Tahir Hussain, the Briton who has been on death row for the last 18 years and now faces execution on November 1. There are many reasons to pay heed to the international community’s pleas to avert what they describe as “a miscarriage of justice”. Mr Hussain was visiting Pakistan in 1988 when he hired a taxi to take him to his family’s village in Chakwal. He claims that the taxi driver tried to sexually assault him and produced a gun, which went off during a scuffle between the two men, killing the driver. Mr Hussain drove the taxi until he found the police, ostensibly for help, but was instead arrested for the crime. He has always maintained his innocence and says that he acted in self-defense. He was initially sentenced to death by a sessions court but was cleared of the charges by a high court in 1996 which criticised police investigation of the case. However, that decision was overturned by a shariat court which reinstated the death sentence.

President Musharraf has stayed the execution three times, perhaps because he hopes to give time to Mr Hussain’s family to reach a settlement with the victim’s family. Under Islamic laws, in murder cases, the victim’s heirs have the right to pardon the murderer. But President Musharraf too can exercise his powers under Article 45 of the Constitution and grant a pardon. While reviewing Mr Hussain’s petition, the president should focus mainly on the legal merits of the case. The shariat court judgment was a split verdict with one dissenting judge calling the three versions of the crime presented by the prosecution “mutually annihilating”. The death penalty is awarded when the crime has been proved beyond all reasonable doubt. Moreover, in a country where torture is frequently used to extract confessions, where police investigation is usually shoddy and the judicial system deficient, many innocent people have languished in jail for crimes they have not committed. According to the HRCP, over 7,000 men and 33 women are on death row now. Mr Hussain has already served a life term in prison and deserves to be granted clemency.

The battle must be won

WITH an upsurge in dengue cases in Karachi — 20 people have died and 186 patients are under treatment — it is worrying that the municipal authorities are not too concerned about this preventable health problem. It is well known that the Dengue Haemorrhagic Fever is caused by the aedes aegypti mosquito. But strangely the city government has failed to find effective means to check the growth of this vector which has found new breeding grounds in the pools of water that have accumulated in the city and have yet to be drained out after the rains two months ago. Evidently, spraying — if it has been actually carried out — has not made any difference. Now we are being told that there were plans for aerial spraying that have been rightly vetoed by the Civil Aviation Authority.

Why are many of the traditional strategies that have been in use for ages to pre-empt the breeding of mosquitoes not been adopted? At one time the normal practice was to cover pools of water with a layer of kerosene oil. It has also been reported that Vietnam and Cuba have successfully checked the growth of mosquito population by releasing into stagnant water organisms that feed on mosquito larvae. Some of the agents used to fight this biological battle are specific species of fish, tadpoles and others. The so-called experts in the local government will have to put their heads together and look for a solution. It is unbelievable that we cannot even fight the puny mosquito. The low incidence of malaria in many countries with swampy terrain is a proof of their success in this field. Perhaps we could learn from their experience. But the first lesson they are bound to give us will be: clean up your cities, towns and villages.

Friday feature: A cornerstone of Islam

By Dr Tanzilur Rahman

ZAKAT is a cornerstone of the financial structure of an Islamic State and plays a vital role in the well-being and prosperity of common man.

Zakat is a very old concept, as old as the society organised by Prophet Abraham or even earlier than that, but Islam has, for the first time, defined its dimensions, widened its scope and has, given practical demonstration of its application/manifestation.

The word ‘Zakat’ has been derived from its root ‘Zaka’ which means ‘to purify’, ‘to foster’, ‘to cherish’. The word ‘Zakat’ thus means ‘that which purifies’, and ‘that which fosters or cherishes’. In a spiritual sense, it purifies the soul which is neither miserly nor has love for wealth, the mal. The orientalists have translated the term ‘Zakat’ as ‘poor rate’ or ‘compulsory levy on affluent Muslim.’

Shah Wali Ullah in his noted work Hujjat Allah al-Balighah states that the purpose of Zakat is to curtail love of wealth and to provide means of help to poor and the needy and all those who under the Shari’ah are entitled to receive Zakat.

Zakat is one of the five pillars of Islam. It is next to Salat (the prescribed prayers). The Almighty Allah at several places in the Qur’an calls upon the believers to pay Zakat, for instance. “And there are those who hoard gold and silver, and spend it not in the way of Allah; announce unto them a most grievous penalty” (Al-Qur’an, 11: 34). It includes payment of Zakat on gold and silver, bullion, coins, utensils and ornaments of gold and silver.

For payment of Zakat on agricultural produce, the mandate is as follows: “It is He, who produceth gardens, with trellises and without, and dates and tilth with produce of all kinds, and olives and pomegranates, similar (in kind) and different (in variety): Eat of their fruit in their season, but render the dues that are roper on the day that the harvest is gathered.” (Al-Qur’an 6: 141).

The Holy Quran directs “the collection of Zakat, from Muslim community ‘of their amwal’ i.e. goods meaning wealth, assets and effects. (Al-Quran 9: 103). It includes Zakat on merchandise and cash. For the payment of Zakat on other benefits derived from the land, the Holy Qur’an says: “Give of the good which ye have (honourably) earned, and the fruits of the earth which we have produced for you,” (Al-Qur’an 2: 267). It includes Zakat on precious metals obtained from the mines, treasure troves and sea products.

The mandate for Zakat on cattle has been derived from the following verses of the Holy Qur’an: “Out of what Allah, hath produced in abundance in the earth and in cattle, they (pagans) assigned Him a share, they say according to their fancies: ‘This is for Allah and this for our partners’. But the share of their partners reaches not Allah, whilst the share of Allah reaches their partners. Evil and unjust is their assignments.” (Al-Qur’an 6: 136).

Zakat is payable by Muslims only, owning property of minimum prescribed quantum equivalent to 87.48 grams of gold or 612.32 grams of silver or the cash or currency notes or merchandise of equivalent value thereof which is liable to Zakat, subject to the various exemptions, such as house, wearing apparels, household utensils, transport for self and family, arms for self use, gems, pearls and like in personal use, books, tools and implements etc.

Let it, however, be made clear that Zakat is not levy on or a deduction from income but it is levied on the value of various specified kinds and forms of assets that constitute wealth, which an individual, up to a specified quantity, has been retaining for a complete year or has thus saved at the end of his accounting year; if he has been holding the prescribed minimum wealth liable to Zakat during the preceding year.

The Zakat is charged at the flat rate of two and a half per cent from a Muslim on his wealth if it exceeds the limit prescribed by the Holy Prophet (PBUH) as pointed out above payable in the same kind of wealth or its value thereof.

The philosophy underlying the concept of Zakat is that the wealth of the Muslim community be shared by its people, on social plane. This provides for 1/40th in the case of bullion, currency notes, stock-in-trade of what one possesses, 1/20th of what one grows on land irrigated by canal or well or gets from the under surface of the land such as mines and 1/10th of what he produces from the land irrigated by rain-water, i.e. the barani land.

The system of collection of Zakat and its distribution will, undoubtedly, ensure a barest minimum to every poor and needy. It tends to narrow down the economic and social inequalities to a minimum possible level. It is a unique way of distribution of wealth of the rich among the poor, a way of keeping wealth in circulation and its non-concentration in the hands of a few.

And above all, it is Fard ‘Ayn, an absolute personal obligation imposed on all affluent Muslims by the Creator and the Maintainer, the Almighty Allah, It is an article of faith with a Muslim, a source of purifying one’s soul and getting a reward in the Hereafter.

The scandalous pandemic

By Henning Mankell

FEW things make me wake in the early hours. In Sweden we call the time between four and five in the morning “the hour of the wolf”. According to folklore that was the hour when most people died and most people were born. But that was long before the hospitals stopped admitting women to give birth outside office hours.

There is, however, one thing that wakes me up. And that is my fear in relation to Aids — the fear that people in the western world still do not understand the impact of the pandemic. Since I have spent a lot of my time over the last 20 years in Mozambique, my concern is for this country and the African continent. But I am certain that what I say is just as true about India, for example, or countries in eastern Europe.

We don’t know what is going on because we do not want to know. Too many people are still thinking about “us” and “them” when relating to Aids. We are not dying, they are. What is mostly a chronic disease in the rich part of the world is undoubtedly deadly in poor countries. But there must be a single “we” when we look at Aids. It is a problem for us all. Humanity cannot confront epidemics in any other way than with perfectly open eyes, whoever is being hit.

We are stupid if we believe that this galloping pandemic will not reach us. It will. But I wake up in the early mornings and think: we refuse to see that this is our problem. Still we repeat the mantra: they die, not us, they die, not us.

There are some hospitals in South Africa where more than half of the patients are HIV positive. They are dying. In the same hospitals half of the nurses are also infected. Sooner or later we will have to ask: who is finally going to take care of whom?

There are more African doctors working in Europe than on the whole African continent. But who can blame all the nurses going to Britain from South Africa or Kenya when you look at the salaries and remember that many of these nurses will have an extended family of maybe 15 people to take care of. Count the number of Malawian doctors in a European city such as Manchester. Then count how many Malawian doctors are working in Malawi. Guess the result.

These are facts and they are disgusting. And it becomes worse when you hear it said that people are free to move and find work where they are better paid. Is there really anyone who believes that all these nurses or doctors would have left if they did not have to?

Of course we have all the power in the world to do something about it. We could, for example, give specific amounts of money in aid - money to boost the salaries of nurses and doctors, so that they can stay where they are needed most.

It has been done before. When the Soviet Union broke down, there were many Russian doctors in Mozambique without anyone paying their salaries. Sweden went in and took over. The most important thing was to keep these doctors working, not where the money came from. I strongly believe that the idea of solidarity has to be redefined for our times - especially in relation to Aids.

There are two laws that I have formulated when talking about us and Aids: whatever we do in relation to Aids we will always do too little; and whatever we do will always be done too late. But this should not be an excuse for failing to do what we could have done yesterday. One of the most important tools we could put in the hands of people in poor countries is to ensure that every child in the world gets a book to teach them the ABC and basic literacy. I have seen too many young people being infected and dying before the age of 20. They didn’t stand a chance of getting the necessary information about health because they were never offered the chance to learn the alphabet.

It is a shame that hangs over us all that today, in 2006, we have not solved the problem of illiteracy. We have the logistics, we have the resources - but still it is not done.

Let’s approach it another way, then. Put half a euro on every book sold, an “ABC tax” that is earmarked to be part of the struggle against illiteracy. Who would refuse to buy that book? Nobody, I say. The reader knows what it means not to be able to read. And would he or she not want everyone else to have that same capacity?

I wake up in the early mornings, and I force myself to think: everything is still possible. Nothing is too late. Yet. —Dawn/Guardian Service