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DAWN - Editorial; October 1, 2007

October 01, 2007


US and them

THE time for doubt has passed, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon informed a high-level summit meeting on climate change at the United Nations headquarters. The gathering on Sept 24 was a precursor to a major UN conference later this year in Bali, where delegates will discuss a post-Kyoto deal on cutting emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) and five other greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming. The Kyoto Protocol, which came into force in 2005, is set to expire in 2012. Playing its role of the spoiler, the US hosted its own climate-change meeting in Washington three days after the UN event. Unlike the overwhelming majority of the developed world, America does not want to be bound by what it calls a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to global warming. The US, which has not ratified Kyoto, wants individual countries to set their own emission caps, as opposed to mandatory limits prescribed by the UN. As the US secretary of state said on Thursday, ‘all nations should tackle climate change in the ways that they deem best’. The US already has the support of Canada and Australia, the world’s biggest polluter per capita, and hopes to bring on board developing countries like China, India and Brazil.

To its detractors, the US plan is a recipe for disaster. Allowing countries to prescribe their own carbon limits makes it impossible to set a global target for emissions reduction, without which climate change cannot be tackled effectively. The US ‘model’ is also flawed in the sense that individual countries may well revise their targets in keeping with changing political and economic expediency. How can long-term objectives ever be firmed up, let alone met, when so many variables are at play? In any case, Kyoto’s approach is anything but ‘one-size-fits-all’, based as it is on a set of ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’. Varying CO2 reduction goals apply to different nations and regions, and the developing countries are currently exempt altogether. There is, however, a mandatory collective target for the developed world.

Pakistan is not a major polluter but global warming knows no geographical boundaries. Already the weather is becoming increasingly erratic, and more flux may be in store. The Arabian Sea has become warmer by 0.2 to 0.8 degrees Celsius over the last decade, leading to an ‘increase in extreme weather events in our coastal areas’, according to the Met department. The impact of climate change may be most telling on our water resources. The Himalayan glaciers that feed the Indus are melting at an alarming rate and may disappear altogether in 50 years. What we may see initially is a period of excess and flooding, followed by a drying up of the waterways. This, coupled with rising ocean levels, could greatly accelerate sea intrusion, cause further loss of arable land and lead to mass migration from the coastal areas. Agriculture would also take a massive hit from floods and drought, and climate change could shrink the country’s already paltry forest cover. Pakistan’s problems are compounded by the fact that sea intrusion and resulting migration, parched fields in downstream areas and deforestation in the north are already in evidence — not necessarily on account of climate change but the diversion of Indus waters for agricultural and urban consumption, and rampant logging by the timber mafia. The human misery that the future could bring does not bear contemplation.

What’s in a name?

IF THE practice weren’t frowned upon by the clerical brigade, statues honouring the rulers of the day would probably litter the urban landscape. Deprived of this outlet, our politicians must feed their egos as best they can through the naming or renaming of public buildings, parks and streets. Take the case of Multan. If you feel unwell while visiting the city of the saints, don’t make the mistake of rushing to the Multan Institute of Cardiology, for the place doesn’t exist any more. Ask, instead, to be taken to the Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi Institute of Cardiology. If hale and hearty, take a stroll through a park named after a ruling party MPA or another that honours the city nazim. In any case, you will never be far from a glowing tribute to a PML-Q leader or his relatives. This barefaced self-promotion should startle no one in a province whose chief minister spends millions on a daily basis touting his ‘achievements’ through television ads paid for with public money.

The disease is by no means confined to the PML-Q. Those who called the shots in earlier governments behaved in a similarly shameless manner and the trend continues. From Islamabad to Karachi, any new road, park or other public facility is described by our leaders and their sycophants as a ‘gift’ to the people, even though it was the taxpayers themselves who paid for it through the nose. Though the more tasteful prefer anonymity, only philanthropists whose generosity helps construct, say, a hospital or park are qualified to have the facility named after them. This does not apply to our politicians who, even if they contribute for a change to the public good, are merely doing their job, not doling out any favours. There ought to be a law stipulating that projects underwritten by public funds cannot be named after a living politician or government functionary. This obsession with self-aggrandisement also casts a blinding light on the true worth of the country’s politicians, for it is generally the incompetent who blow their own horn. As the wit said, egotism is usually just a case of mistaken non-entity.

Road development hiccups

ONE after another ambitious road development projects in Islamabad are being redesigned after the original design had been approved and, in some cases, after construction work has started or been completed. The need for redesigning in most cases appears to stem from a lack of foresight by the original planners in identifying potential problems or flaws in the completed projects. In the case of the recently inaugurated 7th Avenue, the design revisions that were proposed are minor and relatively easy to execute, that is, widening of all entry points and the building of at least two overhead pedestrian bridges. But in the case of the under construction interchange at Faisal Chowk, which will be the first three-tier interchange in Islamabad when completed, the flaw is major enough to require going back to the drawing board and getting the revised design approved by the Planning Commission again. This involves unnecessary extra expenditure, effort and time. And the end product may not be efficient either.

If flaws in the Faisal Chowk interchange and 7th Avenue are attributed to hurried designing, the procrastination in the Zero Point interchange project, on the other hand, may be attributed to cautious designing. The latest design of the project is known to be the fourth design that has been approved since the need for a flyover at Zero Point was decided upon in the mid-1990s. Three earlier designs and PC-1 work on the project are known to have been revoked before they reached the construction stage, and even the latest design is now being closely reviewed because it was prepared by the same company which designed the ill-fated Shershah Bridge of the Northern Bypass in Karachi. It might do well for the Capital Development Authority to learn some lessons, both positive and negative, from Karachi’s experience in road development.

Housing’s tough challenge

By Dr Noman Ahmed

THE United Nations commemorates World Habitat Day on the first Monday of October every year, thus providing an opportunity to take stock of the housing and shelter situation and community issues across the globe. In Pakistan, the status of human habitat is far from satisfactory.

Conservative statistics inform us that there is a shortage of more than 19.3 million housing units in the country.

This figure keeps increasing with each passing year. It is disappointing to note that while knowledge about habitat-related issues has increased substantially thanks to research and documentation by various institutions, the response of policymakers has been inadequate. This betrays a lack of awareness of the nature and magnitude of the problem.

It is officially recognised that more than half the population in Pakistan subsists on less than two dollars a day. The capacity to build up any monetary asset to acquire shelter of even a basic kind is simply non-existent. People survive either as nomads or dwell in the wild terrains of various regions.

The breakdown of the village economy — which was largely barter-oriented — has had a grave impact on the marginalised population. The landless artisans and labourers do not find sustainable access to land for housing. They keep moving from place to place.

Natural calamities, disasters and security hazards have also uprooted thousands of people from their native habitat. Pakistan’s continued participation in the war on terror has caused sizable displacement of many communities from the central tribal belts of the NWFP and northern Balochistan.

Amongst other problems, shelterlessness is the most traumatic issue and people are confronted with forced dislocations on a massive scale. Small wonder that these areas are in the grip of deadly violence, given the presence of a large number of socially uprooted and psychologically disturbed people.

Urban centres face acute problems spawned by squatter settlements which have emerged in all major towns and cities. These are the people’s response to the state’s failure to address the housing needs of the poor.

As state land was abundant, many katchi abadis sprang up on these loosely guarded territories. Landlords in peri-urban areas also encouraged the growth of katchi abadis for their own benefit. With the passage of time, options of any affordable housing for the poor have simply vanished.

Burgeoning land prices, high construction costs, very low savings/capital accumulation among the needy groups and the absence of housing credit facilities are some of the reasons that make it difficult for a person from the low-income classes to even aspire for a properly constructed house.

In the case of Karachi, one factor adversely affecting habitat is the in-migration from various backward regions that continues even today at a very high pace. Much of this incoming population is absorbed within the confines of existing katchi abadis.

Admittedly, one cannot ignore the squalor and dilapidated conditions that currently prevail in the squatter settlements. But they at least provide a roof above the head for people who arrive in the city in search of a job. This demands a people-friendly approach and the upgradation of these abadis.

The housing problem of the low- and middle-income groups has assumed serious proportions. According to recent statistics, these groups constitute around two-thirds of the total population of the country. Their large numbers notwithstanding, they face an acute shortage of housing choices.

With very limited financial means, they find it extremely difficult to sustain their white-collar lifestyles. In the absence of affordable land, lack of credit facilities, the absence of proportional technical and managerial support, gaining access to housing appears to be an elusive goal.

The prices of housing and land which is available have shot up in recent years. For example, an apartment measuring 1,200 square feet in Gulshan-i-Iqbal in Karachi, which had a price tag of Rs1.5m about a year ago, is now being sold for Rs2.5m.

Similarly, land supply and development is mostly done in high-income areas where the property market is experiencing a meteoric rise. Undeveloped land is being rated at Rs12,000 — Rs15,000 per square yard. The unbounded speculations in land and property markets are acting as a catalyst in this phenomenon. No new scheme for low-income groups has been launched since 1979 in Karachi.

The poor or low-income groups either walk away from such schemes or consider them a waste of time and resources. Scores of research studies have established that housing and community development cannot be achieved by creating extraordinary stimulus in real estate markets. Both of these sub sectors have an entirely different clientele.

Land supply is the primary factor that has an impact on habitat. Land was traditionally considered a social asset. Now it is treated as a saleable commodity.

Another major change is the growing inability of the government to influence what is now termed as the land market. Since decisions related to land supply and transactions involve a widely dispersed cadre of stakeholders, the mechanics of land delivery for housing and other functions are determined in proportion to the relative influence exercised by each category of stakeholders.

Thus the armed forces, their foundations and countless enterprises; real estate investors from the country and abroad; international financial institutions; political groups; communal, ethnic and religious lobbies; transporters and civilian bureaucracy are some prominent categories of stakeholders that directly affect decisions pertaining to land.

It is obvious that neither the poor nor their well-wishers figure in any of these categories. The outcome is clear. The choices, formats and typologies of housing development are undertaken in an entirely self-fulfilling manner without any trace of social justice towards the really needy groups.

Evidence of this manifests itself in the scores of real estate schemes announced in different parts of the country under the garb of providing housing for those who are really needy. A few basic measures need to be adopted without delay. Credit must be provided to the poor and the needy to enable them to gain access to land for effective and equitable utilisation. Effective checks must be applied to the snowballing rise in real estate development.

Appropriate changes must be introduced in the zoning and building regulations to promote mixed land use in an effective manner. The old principle of cross subsidy must be re-introduced where land and housing prices may be augmented by the levies on real estate enterprises.

It must be remembered that no urban and regional security and prosperity can be achieved in conditions when more than half the population is denied the right to a decent roof above their heads.

OTHER VOICES - Indian Press

Reshuffling brass

The Hindu

THE Pakistan army’s top hierarchy evokes special interest even in ordinary times... In the present circumstances, promotions and reassignments in the army assume even more significance. President Pervez Musharraf recently promised the Supreme Court that he would step down as army chief if elected to the office for another term…General Musharraf’s reshuffle of his top brass suggested that he was securing the fort and preparing the ground for a chosen successor.

As the army vice-chief of staff and the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff committee are due to retire in the second week of October, a reshuffle was on the cards. If all goes according to plan and promise, the next vice-chief will take over as army chief. A civilian President Musharraf will have reason to feel as insecure about his army chief as Pakistan’s non-military presidents have felt in the past. It is in this sense that the likelihood of Lt Gen Ashfaq Kiyani, who has been replaced as the head of Inter-Services Intelligence, being appointed to the number two position in the army is significant. Both Lt Gen Kiyani and Lt General Nadeem Taj, the new ISI chief, enjoy the Pakistan leader’s trust and are known to be competent officers.

… If President Musharraf hopes to have any kind of political future, he will need to wield indirect influence over the army after moving to Civvy Street. But how realistic is it to expect senior generals in uniform to defer to a retired boss under politically volatile circumstances… — (Sept 26)

Lessons of history…

The Tribune

ARMY Chief General J.J. Singh has added his voice to that of all students of modern Indian military history…and called for the declassification of the official records of the 1962, 1965 and 1971 wars. Though much sought after, these records have escaped being made public after a stipulated period of time…and have lately resisted even various applications under the Right To Information…Act.

The Henderson report on the 1962 war, in fact, has attained a mystique of its own… The general has rightly stressed the usefulness of such official reports and histories to those wishing to draw lessons from those wars. Defence Minister A.K. Antony must do more than merely “consider” the request for opening the old records.Western democracies have long recognised the limited usefulness, indeed, even the corrupting nature, of needless secrecy, and have made many attempts to evolve a rational declassification policy. While these by no means yield perfect results, such a mechanism forces administrators to evaluate the worth of government records and decide whether their sensitive contents would fare better with a public airing.

Ultimately, this aids the security of the country, even as it advances superior knowledge and understanding. History cannot teach if we do not know it well, and mistakes cannot help but be repeated if we do not know what they were in the first place… — (Sept 29)

© DAWN Group of Newspapers, 2007