DAWN - Editorial; December 01, 2007

Published December 1, 2007

The task ahead

WITH difficulties, unforeseen developments and violence characterising the political scene at every step since March 9, it would be too optimistic to believe that the nation will head toward the polls on Jan 8 in peace. Even though the denouement seems to have begun, the reconciliation President Pervez Musharraf has in mind does not appear to be within the realms of possibility in the near future. As announced by the president, the state of emergency and the Provisional Constitution Order will stand withdrawn on Dec 16, but it is still not clear whether this will satisfy all segments of the fractious opposition and move them toward a consensus on the vote. The APDM’s major demands have been met: Mr Musharraf has become a civilian head of state, the date for lifting the PCO and emergency has been announced, and political prisoners have been released. But one of their demands — reinstating the pre-Nov 3 judiciary — has not only not been met, it is unlikely to be accepted by the president, because the very edifice of his political power and the plans he has for the future rest on the post-PCO judiciary’s verdicts.

Even though Ms Benazir Bhutto has kept her options open, she has made it repeatedly clear that she will not leave the field open for her rivals. But Maulana Fazlur Rehman’s pro-election stance seems to have an air of finality about it. It is to be noted that Thursday’s APDM decision was announced after the president’s address to the nation, but the decision itself was taken hours earlier. This means we still do not know whether the APDM will stick to the boycott decision or reconsider it, more so because the ANP, an important APDM component, has made its decisions dependent upon what the JUI-F chief does. However, even if the PML-Q, PPP, ANP and MQM take part in the elections, the electoral exercise will still lack credibility because of the absence of the PML-N and Jamaat-i-Islami.

There is more to the elections than satisfying the APDM. A greater precondition for a fair and transparent election is the need for lifting the curbs on the media and releasing some of the lawyers, like Aitzaz Ahsan, Ali Ahmed Kurd and Tariq Mahmood. This has nothing to do with doing things ‘our way’ as the president told foreign diplomats after the oath-taking ceremony. The man who founded Pakistan never deviated from the universally accepted principles of democracy, constitutionalism and rule of law because, as Jinnah told the Daily Worker, London in 1944, “Muslims in Pakistan want to be able to establish their own real democratic popular government. This government will have the sanction … of the people of Pakistan and will function with the will and sanction of the entire body of people in Pakistan”. The transition to full democracy will not be complete with the doffing of the uniform; that was an essential prerequisite for civilian supremacy in the body politic. The true transition to democracy will be complete after a fair election that leads to the establishment of a government that derives its mandate to rule from the people of Pakistan.

Wasting the essence of life

WE live in perilous times, and not just for reasons of extremism, censorship and autocracy. However damaging it may be to the socio-political fabric of the country, it is possible to stay alive without freedom of expression. Not so water, the cornerstone of life itself. According to a study conducted earlier this year by the environment ministry, Pakistan’s per capita availability of water fell by 80 per cent between 1951 and 2006, from 5,300 to 1,105 cubic metres per person per year. Now a report by the Asian Development Bank confirms that the situation is dire and worsening by the year. Anything under 1,700 cubic metres per person falls below the ‘water stress threshold’ and Pakistan is well short of this benchmark — we are hovering, in fact, just above the scarcity ceiling of 1,000 cubic metres. Water quality and waterborne diseases are also pressing concerns, as are salinity, waterlogging and contamination of underground reservoirs. In terms of efficient use, Pakistan is rated at ‘zero’ by the ADB. The bank stresses that this value must quickly rise to 40.

Irrational use is indeed the crux of the problem and the biggest culprit is agriculture, a sector that consumes 95 to 97 per cent of all available water resources. Most irrigation canals and watercourses remain unlined, causing massive losses through seepage and bank breaches. Under the National Programme for Improvement of Watercourses, nearly 86,000 waterways are to be brick-lined by the end of 2009. But progress has been painfully slow in this key project which could annually save eight million acre feet of the 105 MAF of water released into the canal system. With only 33,000 watercourses lined to date, experts are now looking at a completion date of 2011. In some cases, the quality of construction has left a lot to be desired as well. Also on the back-burner are the levelling of agricultural land, to reduce run-off and soil erosion, and the introduction of water-efficient farming techniques. At the same time the telemetry system, which is supposed to verify discharges made into the Indus water distribution network, is in a shambles, adding to the growing mistrust between the provinces on this sensitive issue. On the urban front, water treatment plants are either dysfunctional or conspicuous by their absence. The ADB estimates that Pakistan’s outlay on the water sector is a mere 0.25 per cent of GDP, or 47 times less than the defence budget. It is time we set our priorities right.

Poor cellular services

THE more the number of cellphone owners grows, the greater are the complaints against mobile phone operators. This is why we have been urging the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority for some time now to take action against erring mobile phone operators for the various complaints registered against them. Customer complaints largely centre on the operators’ poor services whereas law enforcers complain that mobile phone operators are hesitant to comply with the rules of the anti mobile phone theft device which can enable them to address this crime. The PTA needs to come down harder on companies on both fronts; otherwise it risks tarnishing the image of the telecom sector which is recognised internationally for doing remarkably well. In the last few years, several new mobile phone companies have come in and the playing field has been levelled, which is good for consumers provided their complaints are taken into account. The PTA’s annual report for this year documents a 70 per cent increase in cellphone complaints from last year. Clearly whatever the PTA was doing vis-à-vis these complaints has not worked and requires a new strategy, perhaps one that includes punitive action or harsher fines. For example, of the 3,500 or so complaints received, most were registered against the largest mobile phone operator in the country.

The PTA has to play its role as a regulatory body more effectively. It must take consumer complaints seriously and take to task those who do not comply with the rules. All companies should have been on board when the anti mobile phone theft system was put in place last year in September. But they weren’t, for whatever reasons, and this should have been unacceptable to the PTA. It has a chance to act now which we hope it will.

It is America’s war

By Zahid U. Kramet

THE visit of the US Deputy Secretary of State, John Negroponte, to Islamabad recently, was an attempt to pour oil on the troubled waters for a besieged ally. It became clear that the Bush administration had no intention of leaving Pakistan’s president completely in the lurch, despite the US media’s punishing stories suggestive of the general having run his course and outlived his utility.

This Negroponte repudiated, but somewhat guardedly. While expressing America’s reservations on emergency rule, the arrests that went along with it and the clamp-down on Pakistani news channels, he commended Musharraf’s efforts in fighting extremism and terrorism. The US Deputy Secretary of State then applauded the general’s leadership saying, “Pakistan had made great progress…the Pakistani people have witnessed expanded and freer media, unprecedented economic growth and development, and the moderation of gender based laws.”

But Negroponte is not a particularly admired figure outside of Bush’s inner circle. General Musharraf may have taken heart from this inclination, for his reaction post the Negroponte trip has been telling. Subsequent to the positioning of a recently instated and manifestly more cooperative Supreme Court bench to ratify his holding on to power, he has gone the whole hog in issuing a set of constitutional amendments validating his every move since Nov 3. President Bush, in turn, has held firm on what has been termed by Washington Post columnist Michael Abramowitz as “his personal investment in the Pakistani president”, parrying questions on Musharraf’s performance as he defended the general for not having “crossed the line”.

This prompted Senator Joseph Bidden of the US Foreign Relations Committee to marvel “What exactly would it take for the president to conclude Musharraf has crossed the line? Suspend the constitution? Impose emergency law? (Continue to) beat and jail his political opponents?”

He has done all of that, but does President Pervez Musharraf have any real political opponents? Ms Bhutto is in a quandary on how to handle a situation where she could lose all she had gained from her return. And, with her unable to make common cause with the opposition parties standing against the elections being held under President Musharraf, she is left with little choice but to fall in line. So too will eventually arch-rival Nawaz Sharif on his re-entry into the country as he is very much a product of the sensitive agencies.

Then there is Imran Khan, who though he has made some personal headway with the youth after his trying ordeal on the Punjab University campus, still has to impact on society as a whole. As for Qazi Hussain Ahmed’s fundamentalist Jamaat-i-Islami, it stands discredited after its student wing, the Jamiat, brutally bundled Imran Khan into a police van (at the behest of the government?). And, finally there is the wily Maulana Falzur Rehman of the purportedly Islamist JUI who, when push has come to shove, has invariably toed the establishment line.

No, Musharraf has little to fear from the mainstream political parties, but what would be the cause of serious concern to him, is the bar and bench’s struggle for the independence of the judiciary along with the support this has drawn from the general public. That, he has effectively stifled for the moment courtesy the newly instated Supreme Court judges sanctifying his right to hold presidential office, buttressed by presidential orders which can’t be challenged in any other court of law. But it is moot how long this will hold up in the face of mounting international pressure for constitutional governance and the independence of the judiciary – more especially after the 53-nation Commonwealth bloc elected to exorcise Pakistan from its body pending “the restoration of democracy and the rule of law”?

Of course, the US’s dilemma is that it has invested close to $11bn in Musharraf’s government since 9/11, and to safeguard this substantial investment it continues to plough in around $200 million in annual assistance, as well as $100m monthly in military aid. All of this says Lisa Curtis an analyst at Heritage Foundation, “is a (direct) cash transfer” with no process of accountability.

Joshua Hammer writing in The Atlantic goes a step further implying much of this money may have found its way into the coffers of the Pakistan military’s corporate sector which is known to have “banks, cable-TV companies, insurance agencies, sugar refineries, private security firms, schools, airlines, cargo services and textile factories.”

But those who are untowardly critical of this fail to take into account that the military’s corporate sector provides employment to a huge number of people, for the bigger part civilians, who might otherwise be found engaged in crime, or with the Taliban.

Keeping this in view the US administration appears predisposed towards an authoritarian figure preferably from a military background and General Musharraf is the chosen one. But as a serving officer who has not run the course of the constitutional two-year time bar on government servants, he surfaces as an aberration on moral grounds. Pakistan thus finds itself once again in a catch-22 situation and the president between a rock and a hard place with a larger revolt brewing in Balochistan and open rebellion on in the North West Frontier Province, and none of the civilian leaders are in a position to confront the crisis without the tacit support of the military. At the same time, the military’s step-brotherly treatment towards civilians has hardly been conducive to resolving the problems being faced. General Musharraf had the solution in the palm of his hand when he came close to calling on a government of national reconciliation to oversee the general elections -- and arguably constitutional reforms that were sustainable -- but he failed to avail the opportunity. Instead, he imposed an emergency under a Provisional Constitution Order (PCO) which suspended key members of the apex court and imprisoned opponents.

In close wake came the killing of yet another Baloch nationalist leader, Balach Marri, at the hand of unknowns, to add fuel to the fire, and leave confounded citizens wondering how many more fronts were to be opened before peace and stability were restored.

Pakistan is in a predicament not entirely of its own making, the only solution to which has been presented by former CIA official Graham Fuller. As reported, Fuller is of the opinion that “the US military presence is perhaps the single most inflammatory element in politics across the region…Sadly Pakistan is now swift on the heels of Iraq and Afghanistan (harbouring) anti-American emotion…The region will only calm down following a withdrawal of US forces.”

But this counsel is unlikely to be heeded given the construct of the US’s presence in the area pending an increasingly doubtful NATO victory in Afghanistan. And, the question hanging on everyone in this country’s lips now is: how long can Pakistan fight America’s war?

OTHER VOICES – Bangladesh Press

Colossal damage

IT will take Bangladesh many more months to recover from the aftermath of Cyclone Sidr as the damage is colossal. According to an initial estimate, the cyclone, packing the strength of a mini tsunami, cost the country Tk18, 500 crores worth of resources, apart from human casualties. It is feared that the country will run a deficit of a million tonnes of food grains.

Country representative of Asian Development Bank, Hua Du said Bangladesh was passing through the “most critical time.” Even two weeks after the cyclone, Sidr survivors are living in the open, with their homes washed away. The uncertainty of food looms larger as winter closes in.

The government formed a committee to ratchet up and coordinate relief efforts. Although aid was thought to be enough for the survivors, many were left out as it was not possible to reach remote pockets in the battered south.

The government and non-governmental organisations have cast their sharp focus on disaster zones. But Sidr made it clear that the numbers of cyclone shelters were too inadequate for coastal residents. The government should build more for them.

A study group was formed after the 1991 cyclone that killed about 1, 40000 people. The group turned in a report after a visit to the affected areas, but none of their recommendations were implemented.

It is also clear that shelters were necessary not only for people, but also for the livestock as about 1, 10,000 animals died in the Nov 15 storm.

Natural disasters are part of life in Bangladesh and their aftermaths linger. However, our aim must be to cope with the tragedies and limit the losses. — (Nov 29)

Shrimp industry under threat

THE cyclone that cut a swathe through southwestern Bangladesh on Nov 15 devastated shrimp farming. The government should move fast to revive the industry, one of its biggest export earners.

Joydeb Kumar Biswas, deputy director for the fisheries department and in charge of Khulna division said that in the southwestern administrative district of Khulna, the cyclone destroyed 11,000 shrimp farms, causing losses to the tune of Tk14 crores. He also added that thousands of people involved in shrimp farming have been rendered unemployed. We think the government should fast-track shrimp fry and soft loans to help farmers pick up the pieces.

Economist Abu Ahmed has said that the government must waive the burden of loans on farmers and disburse new loans to rescue them from such destitution. Although rich businessmen own the big farms, small pockets of farms are owned by minor businessmen who are the hardest-hit of them all.

These small entrepreneurs depend largely on banks for loans or money from local loan sharks. Abu Ahmed suggested that the government channel funds to the shrimp farmers from the aid money pledged by donors.

The government must cut red tape and prioritise efforts to rehabilitate shrimp farmers. If the government dithers on the issue, Bangladesh will lose out to other exporting countries and will be edged out of the US and European markets. This is one of the biggest challenges that Bangladesh faces today. (Nov 29)
Prothom Alo

— Selected and translated by Arun Devnath

© DAWN Group of Newspapers, 2007



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