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DAWN - Editorial; July 12, 2007

July 12, 2007

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Let us know the truth

BARRING a small minority, most sane minds throughout Pakistan have heaved a sigh of relief over the end of the Lal Masjid stand-off that dragged on for a painful six months. That so many people should have been killed while the security forces tried to flush the terrorists out of the mosque’s sacred precincts is indeed a tragedy not only for the bereaved families but for the entire nation. The militants fought back with tenacity and preferred death to surrender. This highlights two facts — one, the militants were well indoctrinated and as trained guerillas knew how to take on a professional army; two, they had ample stocks of arms and ammunition, which obviously they had not hoarded in a day or two. The militants were finally overpowered by the use of superior fire power, but they never ran out of ammunition. How did they manage to smuggle arms and ammunition in such huge quantities right in the heart of the capital city? There are many other, more frightful apprehensions that deserve to be addressed.

The Lal Masjid complex today is not what it was when the mosque was built in the sixties. Over the decades, as the mosque became a family concern — father Abdullah and his two sons running the show — the Lal Masjid management began adding more facilities to the mosque. What the security forces raided on July 3 was a complex that included the six-storey Jamia Hafsa building and Ghazi’s living quarters. The Capital Development Authority approached the Lal Masjid management and warned them against illegal construction, but the Aziz-Rashid brothers had influence in important government quarters and they continued to add to the complex. This establishes one truth beyond any shadow of doubt: all that has happened in the Lal Masjid could not have been possible without support from some powerful quarters in the administration.

Were the intelligence agencies incompetent or did they know all along what was going on and how the two brothers were gradually turning the mosque into a fortress? And did they merely look the other way or did they actively help them in the growth and expansion of what later became a mini-government well armed and well funded, with brainwashed soldiers going out into the heart of Islamabad to attack and kidnap? Many people are asking whether all this was a drama to divert attention from other, more pressing problems the government was faced with. To link it to the CJ affair is, of course, illogical. The Hafsa girls occupied the library in January, while the reference against the CJ was filed in March, and the misery wrought by the cyclone in Sindh and Balochistan could hardly be called a god-send the government needed to divert attention from the judicial crisis. Nevertheless, the gradual build-up of the Lal Masjid affair into a full-blown crisis and the authorities’ failure to tackle it in time have raised questions among all thinking people in Pakistan. Operation Silence may have ended, but it has raised questions that need to be fully and fairly answered for the benefit of the people of Pakistan. This calls for the government to order a judicial inquiry into the violent Lal Masjid stand-off, make the findings public and punish those found guilty of acts of omission and commission in the discharge of duty or in violation of the law.

Lahore mass transit system

THE Punjab government continues to shuttle between the rail and the road in its search for a way out of the great commuters’ muddle which grows denser by the day. So when the government is not mulling improvements in its famous ring road plan for Lahore, it is thinking about providing the city with a mass train transit system. In fact, venturing beyond the planning stage, Chief Minister Pervaiz Elahi has now announced that the project will be launched in September this year. The idea is most probably inspired by Delhi. The man behind the Delhi mass transit system was in the Punjab capital not too long ago to give a green signal to the Lahore rail project. An average Lahore wayfarer would be hoping that the path to the train would be less bumpy than has been the fate of the ring road plan that is there one moment and gone the next — which doesn’t rule out controversy.

The chief minister says that initially, two lines — orange line and green line — would be constructed by 2015. Each of it would be 27-kilometres long. Later, two more lines, purple and blue, will be added to complete the system. For long stretches, these lines would run overhead given that constructing an underground rail network in the city is not very feasible. To be completed with what an official handout calls ‘cooperation’ of the Asian Development Bank, the first two lines will cost $3.3 billion. In real terms, the cost of the project is yet to be worked out. Surely, notes of dissent are expected to start pouring in. The economists are going to question the heavy debt the project will incur for the government and the citizens, while the opposition politicians are most definitely going to give their own colour to these lines and the sabza group may soon be out to enumerate the effects of this development on Lahore’s environment. Some of these points may be very valid and should elicit a thoughtful response from the government. There can be no moving ahead without this exercise. The sooner this essential exercise is carried out the better it would be for everyone.

Rise in Hepatitis C

THE results of an informal survey conducted by the Prime Minister’s National Programme for Prevention and control of Hepatitis and the Punjab health department are disturbing. Out of 34 districts in the province, including Lahore, 30 face a serious threat of Hepatitis C. This is not good news for the programme that was launched two years ago and, despite many promises about providing medicines and screening tests, does not have much to show for its success. An increase in Hepatitis B cases has been found in D. G. Khan, Muzaffargarh, Multan and Bahawalnagar which too calls for speedy preventive and curative measures. These are life-threatening diseases and for Hepatitis C, no real cure has been found so far. There has been some breakthrough in treatments abroad but these must be very expensive. The government must explore ways in which patients afflicted with the disease can best be treated for it is ultimately its responsibility to care for its people. It must also ensure that blood screening tests, vaccinations and treatment is provided, particularly in the rural areas where healthcare is lacking. This is not an illness that can be “treated” by quacks so the health department has to dispatch doctors to remote areas so that they can treat the poor.

There are however many steps that can, and should, be taken by the health authorities. For starters, awareness on the blood-borne diseases must be raised. A lack of it is largely responsible for the large number of hepatitis B and C patients, once estimated to be ten million by the World Health Organisation. A big contributing factor is medical malpractice like the reuse of syringes, which also spreads Aids. People must know the dangers of this and their safe disposal must be strictly monitored at hospitals. The government cannot afford to be complacent on this score.

Expanding trade with China

By Sultan Ahmed


THE Pakistan-China free trade area agreement has come into force from July 1. The first of its kind for Pakistan to have with a major developing country, it is very comprehensive and seeks to promote bilateral trade with many thousands of goods being on concessional tariff and eventually no tariff.

Initially it provides for increasing trade from under five billion dollars to 15 billion dollars by 2011. How far we can benefit from this trade agreement depends on how shrewd and effective is our government and how adventurous and far-sighted are our exporters. The FTA only opens the gate wide. It is for the participants to make the best of that.

The FTA with China has been negotiated in record time. Once the top leadership of China decided to agree to Pakistan’s proposal for an FTA everything went smooth and climaxed in its signing. There is already in the region a large FTA in the shape of South Asian Free Trade Area (Safta) which is already a year old, but it has made little headway due to political roadblocks. The Saarc summit has tried to remove the political stumbling blocks but not effectively. So the Safta remains an infant with a great promise if India and Pakistan can close their ranks.

But in the case of Pak-China FTA, there are no political or economic hitches. The leaders of both the countries are keen on promoting much larger trade between the neighbours. Pakistan has been trying to negotiate another FTA with a major power –– the United States –– but it has made little headway as the initial bilateral investment treaty has not been negotiated. There is a good deal of foot dragging and decisive leadership is needed to clear the decks, although America has little to fear from Pakistan’s exports.

Meanwhile, the US has at last signed an FTA agreement with South Korea which is the biggest trade agreement signed by it after the Nafta treaty over 15 years ago. The Americans are looking forward to gain by that agreement.

The treaty was opposed strongly by the South Korean labour that feared they may lose jobs following the flood of American goods into the country at concessional rates or on no tariff. But the government stood firm and argued the country would gain from the FTA and prevailed.

Pakistan has issued a notification announcing the first phase of cuts in duty ion import of goods under 4700 tariff lines. China has already lowered import taxes by 11 per cent on 3975 categories of goods from Pakistan to an average tax rate of 8 per cent from July 1. The notification issued by Pakistan has two tables. Table 1 includes fresh items of around 4700 tariff lines for duty reduction from China and table 2 includes 1190 tariff lines which were already availing preferential customs duty under an early harvest programme till January 1, 2008. From that date, these items will be merged into the ambit of the FTA. The service chapter of the agreement is still under negotiation which will end by the end of the year. And that will make this FTA Pakistan’s first ever comprehensive treaty with any country.

Under the treaty, both sides will reduce customs duty to zero per cent on 5014 products in 3 years, and zero to five per cent on 3942 items within a period of five years after the implementation of the agreement.

Under the agreement Pakistan will further reduce custom duty to zero per cent on 2423 tariff lines and China on 2681 tariff lines in the first three years of the agreement.

Another tariff reduction in the range of zero to five per cent will be completed in five years which would allow reduction on 1338 items by Pakistan and 2604 items by China.

Both the sides agreed that the reduction on margin of preference at 50 per cent would be completed in five years. Pakistan will reduce duty on 157 items and China on 604 items. Pakistan will have to compete in China not only with Chinese goods but also the goods of other countries coming into it through FTA deals. China is to sign an FTA agreement with Australia when President Hu visits that country before the end of the year. China is negotiating such trade deals with many countries.

Meanwhile, the killing of three Chinese nationals near Peshawar this week and the storming of Chinese beauty parlours in Islamabad are bound to anger the people in China. But they know that the Pakistan government and the people as a whole are with China, their traditional friend. It is strange to punish the Chinese if you do not like the Pakistani government.

Meanwhile, following the setback to the Doha round of trade talks, the US is sounding out members of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation Organization for FTA agreements. But the power of President Bush for negotiating fast track trade deals has expired. The FTA treaty with South Korea was signed immediately before the fast track authority expired.

Russia has been showing keen interest in not only expanding economic trade and economic cooperation with Pakistan, but also in signing an FTA agreement. When the Russian Consul-General in Karachi visited the federation of chambers of Commerce last week, he stressed the need for an FTA agreement between the two countries. He said since there is an FTA agreement between Russia and India, latter’s goods are cheap in Russia. While Pakistani goods are expensive, he suggested cooperation between the two countries in the area of oil exploration, gas and steel. He was also interested in bringing gas from Central Asia to Pakistan and India. The Russian interest in Pakistan is also genuine.

Russia is a re-emerging power without the Soviet weightage and it is playing a major role in the oil and gas industry of the world. There is every reason we should have the best of relations with Russia in the manner India has such relations with the US. Signing an FTA agreement is usually a measure taken by countries with surplus production or with surplus reserve capacity. But Pakistan has taken this step and has been approaching almost every country in the world for free trade area deals in the hope of expanding its exports.

But the FTA is a double edged weapon, unless we are prudent and persistent, we may import more than what we export. There is urgency in the country today to increase production, industrial as well as agricultural. The products we produce and exports should be priced competitively and be of better quality. They should be based more on local raw materials and produce value added goods. We should become known as a quality market with splendid products.

That was what Japan did. Following the oil shock of 1973, it decided to export more of its skills and brain power than import millions of tones of cotton in a country with limited land to store it, and produce textiles and compete with all the countries in the world producing textiles. So it moved quickly towards transistors and then to computers while specialising in the automobile industry in a big way. We in Pakistan are exporting the cotton produced in the Punjab and Sindh instead of producing finer varieties of cloth by using our skills. We are to export more of our skills and brain power than the conventional items produced by sweating it out.

Now we are to import three million bales of cotton again from India to meet the demands of the spinning mills which hardly produce any value added items. When we import raw materials from outside, we should be able to put them to good use particularly when oil and gas are imported.

Signing FTA is one part of an economic deal, the other should be to produce enough to feed the FTA partners and benefit by that. Unless the second half of the bargain is effective, signing FTAs will bring small relief.

Ending the Korean war

THE architects of North Korea's putative nuclear disarmament are holding their breath this week. There's a lot riding on the events of the next few days or weeks — including the success or failure of a new diplomatic approach by Washington to the baffling regime of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il.

Under the terms of a disarmament accord reached in February by the United States, North Korea and four other nations (South Korea, China, Japan and Russia), Pyongyang is supposed to shut down its Yongbyon nuclear plant in exchange for economic and political assistance, including 50,000 tons of oil.

The deal was in limbo for months as Kim's regime fussed over $25 million frozen in a Macao bank, but after US officials arranged to have the money released, Pyongyang suggested that it would close the plant as soon as it received a tenth of the oil. On Thursday, South Korea will ship 6,200 tons north.

After years of broken promises and overheated rhetoric from Kim, nobody in Washington is naive enough to take him at his word. Yet Kim's adherence to some of the preliminary procedural niceties — his regime agreed on verification terms with UN inspectors, after kicking them out of the country in 2002 — seems to have generated unusual giddiness at the State Department.

According to a report in the Wall Street Journal, US officials have even begun studying ways to formally end the Korean War, settled in 1953 with an armistice rather than a permanent peace treaty.

A bit of wishful thinking is understandable, given the shift in Washington's diplomatic culture.

—Los Angeles Times



© DAWN Group of Newspapers, 2007