The cost of degradation

Environmental damage comes with a staggering price tag. In an age of runaway consumerism, it is this aspect of the problem that must be stressed if a more mainstream audience is to be brought on board and convinced of the gravity of the situation. Over the decades, those who have gone the extra mile in espousing the cause of the environment have, through no fault of their own, appealed largely to the converted. New laws have been enacted as a consequence of their valiant struggle but mindsets haven’t changed for the most part. Sadly, most people attach little intrinsic value to trees, animals and ecosystems, all of which tend to be seen only as resources ripe for exploitation and material gain. Nor are the elite concerned in any tangible sense with the plight of the poor who suffer disproportionately from the ravages of air, water and soil degradation. Forgotten in all this is the fact that sustainable economic growth is critically dependent on the state of the environment. Biting the hand that feeds you is, needless to say, a recipe for disaster. Still, the tendency to look no further than short-term gratification continues to dominate our lifestyles and modes of production. Ignorance is a factor but so is wilful disregard of what the future may hold so long as the present is profitable.

The key then lies in convincing policymakers and the purely money-minded that environmental protection is cost-effective, that environmental fiscal reform is necessary for long-term growth. According to the Pakistan Strategic Country Environmental Assessment released by the World Bank on

Monday, environment and natural resource damage costs the country at least Rs365 billion a year, or roughly six per cent of GDP. According to the World Bank, the primary causes of environmental damage in Pakistan are “(i) illness and premature mortality caused by [indoor and outdoor] air pollution (almost 50 per cent of the total damage cost); (ii) diarrhoeal diseases and typhoid due to inadequate water supply, sanitation and hygiene (about 30 per cent

of the total), and (iii) reduced agricultural productivity due to soil degradation (about 20 per cent of the total).” Pollution, it is estimated, claims over 50,000 lives a year.

While the poor are clearly the biggest losers in all this, it would be myopic of the privileged to think they will somehow remain unaffected. Factories that pollute also employ workers that are forced to breathe toxic air and drink contaminated water. An ailing workforce will, in turn, lower urban and rural productivity and reduce the profits of industrialists as well as big agriculturists. Deforestation in the northern areas is triggering landslides and floods which necessitate relief operations paid for with taxpayers’ money. Besides improving the lot of the poor, even the wealthy would benefit if these funds could instead be channelled towards infrastructure development and other socially productive avenues. Large-scale logging is also silting reservoirs and affecting power generation. Meanwhile, soil degradation in the rural areas is prompting migration to cities struggling to cater to the needs of existing residents. These are issues that affect everyone, not just tree-huggers and the socially conscious. It is time to take stock of the situation and pull back from the brink before it is too late.

Mr Sharif’s dilemma

GIVEN the enormous media attention the issue has received worldwide, it was inevitable that Saudi Arabia would have to break its silence on its agreement with Nawaz Sharif. This was especially unavoidable because there has been much speculation about how the Saudis have reacted to the Sharifs’ decision to return to Pakistan — from being happy for the brothers to being so annoyed that they asked the family to vacate the palace they were living in since they were exiled in 2000. So far, Mr Sharif has remained mum on the agreement itself, asking the press on Aug 25 not to drag Saudi Arabia’s name into the debate, which is rather ironic since he succeeded in doing that himself by opting to go into exile. That may all change after Tuesday’s announcement by a Saudi government spokesperson who said that Riyadh expected Mr Sharif to honour his commitment about not returning home or taking part in politics for ten years. How this will actually impact Mr Sharif’s decision to return home next Monday will only become clear closer to the date.

It is up to Mr Sharif to decide how to take the Saudi ‘advice’ but it is clear he will make that decision after assessing ground realities, which at this moment, seem to tilt in his favour. For starters, the Supreme Court has rightly said that no one can stop him from returning to Pakistan. Secondly, any agreement he made with the Saudi government or General Musharraf can best be described as a gentleman’s agreement so it has no legal ramifications. Mr Sharif is aware of the surge in his popularity and how he is being seen, perhaps for the first time, as the only leader standing up to a military dictator. And as a political leader, he has to decide where he and his party stand to benefit the most: by returning home or staying back to honour his pledge to the Saudis on moral grounds. The government has clearly exhausted all options of trying to keep Mr Sharif out and should now accept his decision to return

(or not) with dignity and grace. It is up to the people to judge Mr Sharif’s decision to go into exile and/or violate agreements.

Neglect of children

THE need for a comprehensive child protection law has never been greater. This has as much to do with the sheer number of children — who constitute more than half the population — in the country as the perpetuation of regressive cultural traditions and the alarming increase in child abuse cases. Exposed to violence on all fronts and as victims of reprehensible social practices like child marriages, vani and swara, Pakistan’s children have little to look forward to. The state has not given them the protection and care that is their due. It has not even adequately provided for basic rights such as education and healthcare. Instead, faulty policies and misgovernance have combined to produce an environment where poverty has forced our young ones into backbreaking labour at the cost of their schooling and exposed them to severe forms of violence. And when our lawmakers participate in jirgas that order minor girls to be given in marriage as compensation for murder, there is really nothing left to be said for the priorities of the state vis-à-vis its vulnerable under-18 population.

Judicial activism on the part of the courts has led to some hope that the lot of Pakistan’s children may improve in some aspects. But the effect of this will be limited unless accompanied by a sea-change in the public’s attitude. So far, we have displayed a callous disregard for the plight of our children, and it is only international concern and the growing linkage between trade and human rights that has led us to take some note of their desperate situation. But there is a silver lining. Of late, we have seen that the mobilisation of public opinion, as in the case of organ sales, has led to positive government action. If civil society can be galvanised into applying the same kind of pressure for the rehabilitation of children, we may yet usher in an environment conducive to their rights.

Economy’s primary role

By Sultan Ahmed

“ECONOMY should be in the driving seat in Pakistan, not politics” says Dr Salman Shah, advisor to the prime minister on finance.

He wants Pakistan to be a global player economically as is India trying to do. To make that a reality, the country has to achieve a growth rate of 7-9 per cent, he says.

To achieve that, the political leaders should be in the political seat and not the military, and occupation of that seat should not be eternally controversial. And all deviations from it should be corrected by the judiciary and the Constitution should be upheld by all the political forces and economic players. Dr. Shah wants Pakistan to be a global economic player, in its own interest, but not a mere regional player. That, in fact, demands of each stakeholder to play its due role as outlined in the Constitution and in case of dispute that should be resolved by the judiciary.

That happens in India by and large in letter and spirit and each sector is playing its assigned role though not too efficiently.

The economy has to be in the driver’s seat in Pakistan as it is still a poor country and at least one third of its 160 million population is very poor and overwhelmingly illiterate. Besides, it is a developing country and the people labour hard to earn for a better life desperately. They have been promised a better deal time and again by regime after regime, civil and military, only to add to their disappointment. If one third of the people live below the poverty line of a dollar a day, another one third live barely above that or below two dollars a day.

It is a country where barely 20 per cent people are effectively literate and they relapse into illiteracy too often, more so in the case of women, and there is an acute shortage of skills compared to what the country needs and the world wants. It is a country where too many people are malnourished or ailing and hence unproductive. Industrial progress is held up by the dearth of skills.

The latest World Bank report says that pollution in Pakistan is causing 500 deaths and Rs356 billion economic loss annually. This is a colossal loss for a poor country. Then, there is a massive unemployment and underemployment; elders live much longer than before, and new employment avenues fall far short of the number of people entering the job market each year.

It is a country where the population increases by 1.8 per cent annually as official figures show. The annual population growth was 3.1 per cent in the 1980s and 1990s. But when one looks around, one finds families with large number of children and that makes one wonder whether the 1.8 per cent growth is an understatement.

It is a country where barely 13 per cent of women are in the regular workforce and it has the smallest women workforce in South Asia and it is not doing justice to its women beginning with facilities for going to school and is not profiting from women’s abundant talent. There are too many small children who go to work instead of going to schools. Poverty drives them back to work for a pittance to add to the family kitty. Such abuses have to come to an end.

It is the only country in South Asia where feudalism predominates along with the supremacy of the tribal overlords. Under this system, bonded labour with all its abuses prevails. As some are exposed, more come to light.

Successive regimes had accepted the feudal system and perpetrated it with all its abuses. The feudal system resists change and makes the new leaders accept and profit by it as co-sharers of power. And capitalism in Pakistan is mostly an unbridled capitalism with many of its primitive features, without real competition and a free market and while trade unions have been allowed, the largest industry in the country, the textile industry, relies on the notorious group system for employing workers.

Some labour leaders on their part also usurp the rights of the workers and corruption in the labour departments deny workers their legitimate rights however legally comprehensive.

Such abuses are possible as the number of people seeking employment is much larger than the number of jobs available and the workers are willing to give up their rights for the sake of getting jobs. American scholar Walter Russel Mead who addressed the Institute of Business Administration students recently cautioned the country against the abuses of unbridled capitalism and stressed the need to watch capitalism in action. He suggested a level playing field for all the stakeholders in the economy and measures to ensure real competition. He laid stress on inculcating a sense of responsibility among all the players in the Pakistani economy, for if capitalism was allowed to degenerate into cartels and monopolies, it will be a negation of the basic principles of capitalism .

One way of protecting the consumers in a capitalist order is the steady development of a middle class. But it is not easy for such a class to come up within a feudal-cum-tribal political system with its false values and dubious claims to honour. Such a class will develop with the growth of skilled workers, managerial personnel and sales community.

But a middle class cannot come up in a normal manner if its economy is constantly afflicted by high and sustained inflation. Inflation warps the development of the middle class, keeps it small and socially and politically ineffective and now if the middle class apes the feudal lord its growth will be stunted and political efficacy undermined.

India has a large middle class despite its caste system. Islam has no caste system but in Pakistan we have that, though without the untouchables.

If the middle class has to grow, inflation should be kept below 5 per cent and not the food inflation of 10.5 per cent. Growth of the middle class is affected by the country’s education system. The English and Urdu medium schools create two classes but higher salaries are paid to those educated in English. At the moment most of the benefits of the economic growth inclusive of the advantages of consumer banking go largely to the privileged class and not spread widely.

It is good the import duty on machinery is being done away with, beginning with the machinery imported for the Chinese special economic zone. More such zones should be coming up and Pakistani investors should also have the same relief. The wage differential between the managers of foreign companies and those of Pakistani companies is at the moment very high. Major foreign companies should take the lead in reducing this inequity.

If the economy were to be in the driver’s seat, all other players in the national arena would be in their proper seats and the military would not be playing the political role. If each one plays his assigned role, there will be real harmony among all the stakeholders.

A call worth heeding

Former president Professor Burhanuddin Rabbani's call for negotiations between the Afghan government and dissident groups, including Taliban and the Hezb-i-Islami Afghanistan (HIA) led by Gulbadin Hekmatyar, can’t be faulted. Given his immense popularity with the masses because of his instrumental role in the jihad against the Soviet invasion, Rabbani's sagacious suggestion floated at a seminar in Peshawar will hopefully strike a chord with official circles as well as mainstream political parties.

There is no gainsaying the fact that dialogue with anti-government forces, a move supported by the opposition, holds the key to lasting peace and stability — a sine qua non for the rebuilding of a country in urgent need of an adequate and easily accessible health-care system, a network of paved roads, schools, parks and other civic amenities.

The call is worth heeding, not least in that it has come at a time of heightened militant-linked violence that has already claimed thousands of lives. Needless to say, all cracks at ameliorating the lot of the war-weary people have particularly been stymied in insurgency-plagued provinces, where bloodletting has come to be accepted as a fact of life. Murder and mayhem will certainly taper off when the antagonists sit across the negotiating table to sort out their differences in an atmosphere of cordiality. The Karzai-led administration, all political actors, religious scholars, tribal elders and civil society organisations are duty-bound to sweet-talk the rebels into renouncing armed resistance.

Equally welcome is Rabbani’s emphasis on continued efforts at further cementing Kabul-Islamabad ties, which have started thawing as a result of a recent peace jirga. In order to give their relations a strategic depth, the neighbours ought to shift their focus from disagreements to common ground and confidence-building measures. In their drive for enduring friendship, they should put their best foot forward. (Sept 3)

Pakistan and war on terror

Pakistan is the worst hit by the sweeping change in the global environment in the wake of the cataclysmic 9/11 attacks on the United States. Our troops have since been a prime target for terrorists on the one hand and the country's economy is taking a battering on the other. Apart from growing political turmoil, sectarian strife has also soared to a new high.

Suicide bombers are so deeply indoctrinated that they have come to believe — albeit mistakenly — they would end up in heaven the moment they blow themselves up or cut short the lives of innocent people. The amorphous phenomenon called the war on terror is exacting a heavy toll on Pakistan in a variety of ways — politically, economically and from the security point of view.

While counting the costs, we cannot afford to lose sight of the unpalatable reality that our myopic rulers have contributed in no small measure to the sorry state of affairs the country is in today. In order to achieve immediate gains, our officialdom fashions policies that are not informed by long-term strategic interests of the country.

Although Washington is extolling Islamabad to the skies as an 'indispensable' ally in the war on terror, we know to our dismay the reality is quite the contrary: Today, the US is as much focused on terrorist safe havens in Pakistan's tribal badlands as it is on Afghanistan. Granted this war is an international responsibility, as put by President Musharraf. However, Pakistan will have to discharge its duty in a realistic manner that gives neither the Karzai government nor the Bush administration an opportunity to launch into a tirade against it. With an impeccable track record, Islamabad will be better-placed to assert its enormous contribution to warding off the threat posed by extremism. (Aug 27)

Selected and translated by Syed Mudassir Shah

© DAWN Group of Newspapers, 2007


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