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DAWN - Editorial; October 25, 2007

October 25, 2007


For clean politics?

SO much positive has happened in Pakistan since July. Let us note it to make us happy: the end of the Lal Masjid rebellion, the legal community’s successful struggle for judicial independence, historic Supreme Court judgments on different issues, President Pervez Musharraf’s promise to shed his uniform ‘if elected’, the orderly presidential election, even though the SC has still to pronounce a judgment on its constitutionality, Benazir Bhutto’s homecoming — though marred as it was by the suicidal attacks — and the evolving consensus among all political parties on the need for a fair and free election under a caretaker set-up. However, there are dangers lurking in the shadows, and there is a serious possibility that a misstep, a bit of over-reaction, a hasty decision borne out of a perceived risk, or an act of terror could block the thrust toward democracy and create political chaos.

The ruling coalition has failed to hide its nervousness. Benazir’s return has been welcomed even by parties traditionally hostile to the PPP. But they have welcomed her homecoming for the specific reason that it will help strengthen the political process and — together with the expected return of the Sharifs — make the general election truly national in dimensions. Unfortunately, reticence is not one of the PML chief’s strong points, and the PPP leadership has not helped matters by adopting what appears to be a maximal approach. Even more unfortunate has been the PPP leaders’ bid to involve some leading PML personalities in the Oct 18 carnage and demand the IB chief’s dismissal. This is in addition to the differences between the government and the PPP over the latter’s demand for foreign experts to probe the bombing.

On Tuesday, Mr Shaukat Aziz told pressmen in Quetta that the National Reconciliation Ordinance will, among other things, promote clean politics. Does the prime minister really expect us to believe in this nonsense? Have the plethora of legal nostrums and tricks adopted over the last five decades — martial law courts, summary trials, special tribunals, the bureaus, the disqualification of politicians, the exile and self-exile, the jailing of politicians not on the right side, the confiscation of property — succeeded in giving us clean politics? From Ayub to Musharraf, the periodic ‘cleansing’ drives have only further muddied politics instead of giving us a workable political system that in itself could serve as a permanent forum for accountability.

Let the people decide who is clean and who is not. Special laws and tribunals are not needed for cleansing the body politic; ultimately, it is an uninterrupted democratic process that will serve as an instrument of accountability and ensure clean politics. The prime minister’s statement coincides with a report by the International Crisis Group, which says the insurgency in Balochistan could be subdued only by a free and fair general election. The ICG is saying something obvious, but what it says about Balochistan applies to the entire country. Pakistan needs this, and all future elections, to be fair and free if it is to have political stability, clean politics, and a better life for its people and command the world’s respect.

Need for choices in Fata

GEARING up for the next general elections, political activists in Fata demanded on Tuesday that the Political Parties’ Act (PPA) of 1962 be extended to the tribal areas. To lobby the government on this count, local leaders of seven mainstream national parties had announced the formation of the Fata Siasi Ittehad (political alliance) earlier this year in July. The same month, PPP chairperson Benazir Bhutto filed a petition in the Supreme Court seeking the PPA’s extension to Fata on the grounds that unrestricted participation in the political process was the fundamental right of every citizen. Bringing Fata within the purview of the PPA, it was further argued, could help restore peace to the region. How much legwork the Fata Siasi Ittehad has put in over the last few months remains unclear, while Ms Bhutto’s petition is still pending in the Supreme Court. The situation on the ground, meanwhile, remains unchanged: all contenders for Fata’s quota of National Assembly seats must contest elections as independent candidates even if they are supported by political parties. As things stand, pro-Taliban clerics and the religio-political parties wield the most clout in Fata.

It is time for the government to finally pay heed to a plea that has for decades fallen on deaf ears. The historical mistake of excluding the tribal areas from the mainstream of life in Pakistan urgently needs to be rectified if the marginalised people of Fata are to develop a sense of stake in the country. Extending the Political Parties’ Act to the tribal areas suggests itself as the first of several steps to be taken in this direction. Replacing the Frontier Crimes Regulation with the Pakistan Penal Code and changing the system of governance are also called for, but these are far trickier issues requiring careful spadework over a period of time. There are fewer hurdles in the implementation of the PPA which could be enforced well in time for the next elections. The people of Fata deserve a choice when it comes to candidates, and they can make an informed decision only if the political parties are allowed to campaign openly and with fervour. World views cannot widen without exposure to competing manifestos and mindsets of varying ilk. As the interior minister himself suggested in April last year, ‘progressive political parties’ should be allowed to operate in Fata to counter the influence of the extremists. The need for political solutions to the problems of the tribal areas has never been greater.

At fever pitch

AEDES aegypto, a black and white mosquito, has Karachi hostage. The vector-borne virus of dengue has resurfaced to claim over 30 lives in the city and is well on its way to becoming an epidemic again. The provincial dengue monitoring cell and health experts warn that had the reporting from various hospitals been efficient, the number of reported dengue incidents would have crossed 1,500. Unfortunately, despite last year’s 1,600 dengue-positive cases, the health authorities initiated precious little to either prevent or curtail the disease this year. A stark absence of any media campaigns or prevention drives to generate awareness about precautionary measures to stay safe from the infection is ample evidence of neglect. The authorities also failed to conduct comprehensive surveillance and monitoring for sustainable control through the season of high mosquito activity such as the monsoon.

As there is no real cure for dengue, prevention remains the only remedy. Pools of stagnant water continue to fester in underprivileged as well as prime localities of the city, becoming fertile breeding grounds for mosquitoes. These need to be drained since the city government’s large-scale fumigation drive cannot curb a disease, which thrives in standing water, open garbage dumps, clogged sewerage, and storm drains. Health authorities must clean these up apart from spraying areas where mosquitos thrive. On the individual level, some protective measures such as use of mosquito repellents, outdoor netting, and full-sleeved clothing can prevent mosquito bites. Food and containers have to be covered, still water must be drained or dried in areas such as bathrooms and kitchens, while lawns and potted plants must be fumigated regularly. Perhaps, health movements such as establishing neighbourhood watch committees to keep areas sanitised can serve as a shot in the arm for disease-control.

Food inflation on the rise

By Sultan Ahmed

THE holy month of Ramazan was conspicuous for accelerating the rate of inflation, particularly food inflation in the country. In fact, the inflation rate was the highest in this month during the last five years.

Islamabad had a taste of that when its residents had to buy tomatoes at Rs140 per kilo. Wheat at many places was sold for Rs16,000 per tonne, a new record. That is without adding the expenses of turning the wheat into flour which varied from place to place, sometimes exorbitantly.

Since it was a pre-election Ramazan and the ruling coalition was anxious to do a great deal to win over the electorate, it was hoped that adequate and effective measures will be taken to keep the prices down, particularly those which rise in spite of the official controls. The government, it seemed, was not ready to exert enough. It was one thing for the government to decide, plan and promise and quite another to deliver what has been promised. The gap between the promise and the performance continues to be very wide. But the people judge the government’s attitude by what is actually delivered and this was far less.

This year the government had the advantage of a bumper wheat crop of 22.5 million tonnes. Although the move to export part of the surplus to India was shot down, still the government could not hold down the prices because of excessive hoarding and profiteering. In an election year, the National Assembly was expected to play a major role in the economic sector particularly in combating inflation.

The food inflation in Pakistan is now admitted to be higher than what it is in other South Asian countries. Despite surplus wheat crop, it is deplorable that the government failed to overcome the wheat crisis and the National Assembly was not interested in protesting against inflation as part of its swan song.

Following people’s protests and clamour, the Supreme Court did intervene but it didn’t know how to go about it in a highly tricky area. It called on the government to launch a crackdown on the hoarders of wheat and other food stuff and raid the large farm houses where wheat was being hoarded. Some action was taken in this regard, some raids were conducted and some persons detained, but these actions were not enough to produce the desired result.

A raid on some wheat storages resulted in uncovering 35,000 tonnes of wheat . However there was a bitter argument between the federal ministers and the Punjab government with regard to the origin of the crisis. Federal commerce minister Humayun Akhtar accused the Punjab government of not tracing and busting the large-scale hoardings and letting its favourites thrive for that. The provincial government, in turn, accused the federal government of showing more interest in exporting wheat and permitting smuggling of wheat to India, Central Asia and Afghanistan. The controversy died down after a short while and there was hardly a group in an election year interested in lowering the prices and caring for broad consumer interests.

Above all, the labour unions which are the watchdog of labour interests, particularly of wages and prices, have seldom been conspicuous for waging any battle against prices. Instead, they had always agitated for higher wages for workers.

In Europe or Britain, labour unions ultimately become labour parties or socialist parties and try to take over the administration by electoral means as is the case in Britain. But Pakistan’s labour unions have played a very limited role. So, others could not be blamed much when those representing the consumers in the country do not want to play an active role in achieving better conditions for them. What is obvious is that the consumers have no strong group to support them.

A Consumer Council has been setup by the governor in Karachi after a long time but it has not been asserting itself, upholding the rights of the consumers and protecting their interests.

But the consumers cannot be blamed altogether for their poor role. The consumers realise that they live in a high-profit country where importers, industrialists, wholesaler, middlemen and retailers believe in high profits. The retailer profit is as good as 200 per cent or more.

Consumers also find that, unlike in the West, they have no alternative to the high priced commodities. The moment the people prefer an alternative item, their prices shoot up or they become adulterated such as medicines.

When wheat becomes expensive, rice is more expensive and when beef and mutton become expensive, chicken also becomes more expensive. So, the consumer does not have an alternative of choosing a less-priced item.

And now, after promising Cash and Carry kind of stores for the middle class, the government is encouraging more and more Makro stores for wholesale buyers which do not help the middle income group.

The World Bank’s new development report is on agriculture which means far more will be done by it to help agriculture in countries like Pakistan, to reduce the 600 million farm poor. The annual report notes that China, India and Morocco have reduced their rural poverty through an agricultural growth of seven per cent. Other agricultural countries could do the same so that absolute poverty is reduced by a half to meet the UN’s millennium goals. At the same time it has been reported that banks in Sindh , Balochistan and the frontier province are reluctant to give farm loans because of poor returns. This trend should be reversed and more farm loans should be available in these areas.

Sixty per cent of the people of Pakistan still live in agricultural areas and unless their problems are solved poverty cannot be reduced and since the industrial jobs cannot be increased rapidly, the farms and agro industries should provide the workers more jobs.

Meanwhile, high inflation acts as a deterrent to poverty reduction. When low wages combine with high inflation the results can be disastrous. But the consumers have to wake up and assert themselves so that they do not get a raw deal in spite of their best efforts.

OTHER VOICES – Pushto Press

Good news for peace drive

ISLAMABAD has finally announced a sub-jirga tasked with implementing decisions of a Pakistan-Afghanistan peace forum, pinning down the causes of militant attacks in the region and suggesting ways of tackling extremism. The announcement came ahead of significant changes expected at different levels of government and bureaucracy in the neighbouring country. For instance, Gen Pervez Musharraf — enjoying sweeping powers as army chief and president — may relinquish his top military office and PPP chairperson Benazir Bhutto will likely get ensconced in the prime ministerial saddle. By the same token, the army chief slot will eventually go to somebody else.

On Thursday, high-casualty suicide attacks on Bhutto’s massive welcome procession in the port city of Karachi once again highlighted the appalling threat that militancy posed to the South Asian neighbours — and the world at that. In the prevailing grim situation, Islamabad and Kabul need to sort out bilateral spats by following up on recommendations contained in a joint declaration issued at the end of the jirga held in mid-August…Pakistan will hopefully initiate determined steps towards using this mechanism if it is really sincere about resolving the crisis in the region.

It is woefully clear to both sides that the ongoing wave of instability has wide ramifications … a problem that can neither be wished away nor resolved with overblown promises or rhetorical statements. On the other hand, good-faith efforts by the two nations can go a long way in measuring up to common challenges… The most complex of all issues is that peoples living on both sides of the Durand Line — bracketed together with terrorists — are being subjected to brutal air strikes and missile attacks. Reassuring the tribespeople that they can play a crucial role in fostering peace and amity will enable the sub-jirga to move forward on proposals of the grand gathering. — (Oct 23)

Fighting menace of terror

ONE cannot take issue with caretaker Chief Minister Shamsul Mulk’s observation that achieving peace — a shared aspiration of the rulers as well as the ruled — will benefit all and sundry. The use of government machinery may enforce peace in the short term but security over the longer haul requires concerted efforts from political forces, community leaders and the general public. The chief minister pledged his administration would not rest until normality was restored to the scenic region of Swat, as indeed to the whole province.

A cursory look at Pakistan’s 60-year history will lay bare the stark reality that there has been a dramatic rise in anarchy since the spectacular 9/11 attacks on the United States. The ominous atmosphere of terror in...Fata and the NWFP over the last 18 months has been a cause for hand-wringing. Internationally lauded for its proactive role in the war on terrorism … Pakistan’s internal security has deteriorated at a disconcertingly steady clip. In Waziristan, Bajaur, Swat, Karachi, Peshawar and other major cities, threats to the lives and property of the people lurk round the clock. Today, much of the country is enveloped by chaos, with citizens feeling insecure even in drawing rooms, mosques, schools and offices.

However, it does not connote the government has shied away from taking drastic steps to rein in growing lawlessness in the country…There is no gainsaying the fact that Pakistan, like many developed countries of the world, has failed to adequately address the phenomenon of suicide assaults. It is for this reason that the need to enlist the help of political groups, influential elders and concerned citizens for fighting terrorism is increasingly being felt…Paying greater heed to the root causes of the scourge will be consistent with demands of the taxing times we are living in. — (Oct 22)

––Selected and translated by S. Mudassir Ali Shah

© DAWN Group of Newspapers, 2007