DAWN - Editorial; January 19, 2008

19 Jan 2008


The crime at Peshawar

THURSDAY’s bomb blast in a Peshawar imambargah that killed at least 12 mourners and maimed and injured 25 coincided with a reported decision by the Jamaat-i-Islami to contact the Taliban leadership to dissuade them from suicide bombings and other violent attacks. This is the second time that Mirza Qasim Baig Imambargah has been targeted; last year, too, a blast close to it left 15 people dead. That the bomber was once again a teenager shows the terrorists’ success in brainwashing raw minds for their fiendish philosophy and deadly deeds. So far no terrorist group has claimed responsibility for the crime but perhaps, given the situation the country is in, it does not really matter whether it is the Taliban or one of the banned outfits, like the Sipah-i-Sahaba, which struck. What matters is that mosques and imambargahs are no more safe places for the faithful to go to and pray in peace, for the suicide bomber seems to have become ubiquitous. Is Thursday’s crime at Peshawar a forerunner of what is to come on Ashura? The intelligence agencies already possess the information that several suicide bombers are on the move and will target processions tomorrow. The law enforcement agencies have, no doubt, been mobilised throughout the country, but it is doubtful if a show of force can deter a killer who is indifferent to his own death. The place to catch the suicide bombers are their training centres, and the people to be cornered, isolated and taken to court are those fanatics who plan these crimes and indoctrinate young minds into killing innocent human beings in the name of God. The intelligence agencies’ failure is thus obvious, for instead of tackling the fire at the source they are tackling the flames.

The Taliban and their supporters are a microscopic minority but they have succeeded in cowing the vast majority down because of the failure of the intelligentsia and religious elements to take a stand against extremism publicly. Regrettably, most religious parties have tacitly expressed approval of suicide bombings by either keeping quiet or condemning them for record’s sake. Against this background one is astonished that it should take the JI leadership more than half a decade to decide to “contact” the Taliban to make them see reason. It was on Thursday that the JI shoora conceded that the Taliban were bringing a bad name to Islam by their terror campaign. In fact, the extremists would not mind bombing even a school bus if it achieves their aim of creating terror — and they have.

Anyone can have reservations against the policy of the government of the day but must innocent men, women and children be slaughtered to register one’s protest against the rulers’ policies, howsoever flawed? All one can say is that it is never too late, and the JI and other religious parties will truly serve the nation if they use their influence with killers and potential killers to make them realise that there are better ways of displaying commitment to their ideology than spilling innocent blood.

Cost of doing business

THE WTO report on Pakistan’s trade-related economy appears to be a mixed bag of positives and negatives. What is of most serious concern, however, is the fact that there still remain a number of structural weaknesses in the economy despite claims by the Musharraf government over the last couple of years that Pakistan is now well placed for undertaking a second generation of reforms. These structural weaknesses could well have contributed to the increases in the cost of doing business in the country in the last five years. And infrastructural shortages have also compounded the situation. Indeed, an economy which suffers from massive power and water shortages cannot be expected to keep production costs down.

It would have also come as a surprise to some that the WTO has found regulatory controls excessive in Pakistan. On the face of it, the country appears to have the most liberal economy in the region. However, if one went behind the façade of the so-called regulatory bodies set up in the country ostensibly to keep the market economy from turning into a free-for-all, one would discover that organisations like Nepra, Ogra, Pemra, etc are not independent statutory bodies but are fully controlled by the government. Problems concerning governance have time and again caused demand and supply crises over the last eight years, the current flour shortage being a case in point.

The report also notes that Pakistan still lags behind in diversification of export items and direction. This is certainly a very high-risk situation. Already the country is facing stiff competition in major markets such as textiles and clothing which account for two-thirds of our total exports. And since the US and EU continue to be our major markets, any displacement from these regions by the competition would mean a virtual economic disaster for Pakistan. While conceding that by and large Pakistan’s economic fundamentals seemed to be good, the report very rightly cautions that sustained growth rests upon macroeconomic stability and microeconomic reforms to improve efficiency, diversification and export-led growth. Again, despite having had one of the most liberal trade regimes in the region, Pakistan according to WTO lacks international competitiveness because of low domestic efficiency. This needs to be improved on a war footing. The report’s assertion that the Doha Round, if successfully concluded, could help stem Pakistan’s drift towards increasing export assistance by facilitating its unilateral reforms is misplaced. Doha or no Doha, what Pakistan needs is reduced dependence on concessional market access. It must also increase its export competitiveness to achieve sustainable export-led growth.

Should kites fly?

AROUND this time every year, the debate rages on whether or not we should fly kites to welcome the spring. ‘Basant’ is remembered for the happy vibes it exudes as well as for the many deaths, including those of minors, that it causes each year. The jury is still out on which of the two situations represents basant best and how we can make the most of its positive aspects. But this is a most difficult time for pleading a case for basant, given the current socio-political situation in the country. Just bereft of a former prime minister and the leader of the biggest political party in the country, Pakistan and its hapless citizens are facing too much violence — suicide attacks, bomb blasts and a war-like situation — to find any occasion to celebrate.

The public mood suggests the spring may be better allowed to come and go as silently as it can. With elections planned smack in the middle of the basant season, observers say that is all the more reason to keep the kite-flying banned to avoid untoward incidents. The authorities have many other problems on their hands in terms of ensuring a smooth and transparent election exercise. They can do without having to deal with basant and its likely consequences, or so the theory, which is hard to contest, goes. Quite the opposite argument is put forward by those who lament the absence of entertainment opportunities in this ‘dry’ land of ours, those who hold that only a collective celebration of an event such as basant can lift the asphyxiating gloom cast over us, even if briefly. It is a classic tussle between desire and responsibility made more complicated by the presence of commercial interests. Notwithstanding the final decision on the issue, in a true reflection of our times, the spring is missing in the gait of the pro-basant lobby this season.

The Nano: small is beautiful

By Rahul Singh

NO prizes for guessing who is the best known — and most respected — personality currently in India. No, it isn’t Amitabh Bachchan, nor Aishwarya Rai. Not even Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, the best leader we have had since Jawaharlal Nehru. It is industrialist Ratan Tata.

For the past few days, he has been all over the print and electronic media, with rapturous front-page and editorial write-ups, not just in India, but all over the world. The staid London Economist gave him rare stellar coverage. What’s the fuss and hoopla about? Incredibly, a car — probably the smallest and certainly the cheapest ever produced.

Its name is an inspired one: Nano, taken from the phrase nano-technology, thereby signifying small, yet hi-tech.

As it so happens, nano also means small in Gujarati, the language of the Parsis, the fire-worshipping Iran-descended community from which Ratan Tata comes.

To recap, Ratan Tata is the nephew of the legendary J.R.D. Tata, one of the business doyens of post-Independence India. He, along with G.D. Birla, ran the two biggest industrial houses in the country, until the Ambanis and Mittals came along. Ratan Tata was virtually designated by J.R.D. as his successor, since he had no children.

The choice was not liked by many who had successfully run the Tata empire under the benevolence of J.R.D. Ratan slowly eased them out. But he truly came into his own when, with the opening up of the economy, India went global, buying up companies and properties abroad. He purchased steel conglomerate Corus, Tetley Tea and New York’s plush Pierre Hotel.

From making the best trucks in the country in collaboration with Mercedes Benz, he branched into passenger cars, the Indica and the Indigo models being the first entirely Indian-designed and India-produced cars. Then, four years ago, on a wet monsoon night when he was driving back home from his office at Bombay’s Flora Fountain, he saw something that transfixed him: a young couple were taking their two small children on a two-wheeler scooter, despite the rain and the hazards of a wet and slippery road.

A few days later, he went to his team of engineers and asked them if they could design a scooter that could be made safer.

“The first doodles were sketches of a two-wheeler, with a bar around it and some weather-proofing,” he said later. A core group, 500-strong, was formed and what eventually emerged was not a scooter but the concept of a small, affordable car which would meet the emission standards of today. The sceptics, which included rival car manufacturers, scoffed. It can’t be done, they said. He proved them wrong.

The Nano is priced at one lakh rupees for the dealer, Rs125,000 or $3,000 for the customer. It will revolutionise motoring not just in India, but probably in many other parts of the world, perhaps in Pakistan as well, if the Nano finds its way there.

Basically, what it means is that those Indian families who are presently paying Rs40,000 to Rs60,000 rupees for a scooter or motorcycle, will only have to pay two or three times more for a car. That too a car which can seat a comfortable four and squeeze in five, while giving 30kms to the litre, far more than the next small car available. The downside is that in the basic model, there is no air-conditioning, no dickey, no left-side mirror. And the engine — this is an innovation — is under the rear seat.

The grumblers also feel that with the Nano, the number of cars on the Indian streets — already very high for the existing roads — will become so large that it will lead to greater air pollution and chaos on the highways.

The pollution angle is debatable, as Ratan Tata has assured us that the car will meet the latest euro emission norms, but the answer to the road situation is “very likely”. The sad reality is that Indian roads are pathetic, not only in upkeep but in their number.

Tavleen Singh, the well-known Indian columnist who toured Pakistan, has written glowingly on the excellent highways in Pakistan, comparing them unfavourably with those in India. R.K. Laxman, India’s best cartoonist, had a cartoon the other day, commenting on both the launch of the Nano and our terrible roads.

It depicted the wife peering into a large pothole, saying to her husband: “I told you not to buy that small car till they repaired the roads!”

I have been a motoring enthusiast since my student days. After university in Cambridge, I drove with an English friend overland from England to India. I have also traversed all over India by car.

The Indian roads are a nightmare. Till the early 1980s, the cars we manufactured were also nightmarish, obsolete hand-downs from Europe.

The joke about the Ambassador, one of the two main cars on the Indian roads then, was that the only part of it which did not make a noise was the horn! Ridiculous though it may sound now, it had such a long waiting list that if you sold your two-year-old Ambassador, you could get more than what you had to pay for the new one!

Those bad old days mercifully came to an end in the early 1980s, with the launch of the Maruti Suzuki, a modest 800cc Japanese car largely manufactured in India that came up to international standards. After that, there has been a veritable deluge of models from Korea, Japan, Europe and the US.

What makes the launch of the Nano so significant? India’s economic upsurge has come from the outsourcing boom, IT and low-cost manufacturing. Now, Ratan Tata has shown that India’s engineers can outdo the best in the world. It’s time to celebrate.

The writer, based in Mumbai, was contributing editor of “Top Gear”, a motoring magazine brought out by the BBC in Britain and India.


OTHER VOICES - Bangladesh Press

Be patient

DHAKA University is again deadlocked by student protests. Hundreds of students took to the streets on Thursday, the tenth day of demonstrations. Teachers called an urgent meeting and decided to delay the enrolment tests — a decision we do not approve of.

We think that the university should complete the tests as soon as possible.

Caretaker government education adviser Hossain Zillur Rahman said the DU teachers would be freed whatever the court verdict may be. Home affairs adviser M.A. Matin said: “Teachers are respected in society.

Both teachers and students want them to be freed.

The government is seriously considering their freedom too.” Legal hurdles linger on.

In line with court procedure, prosecution and defence lawyers are expected to continue their arguments in court. But the court can find ways to put the trial on fast track. We believe that freedom will not be delayed and that the government will take the necessary steps to get the teachers out of prison. But no one can bypass the court in such cases.

We hope that the DU teachers who joined forces with the protesting students will understand the legal tangles. Rajshahi University teachers were sentenced to jail terms, but they were later pardoned by President Iajuddin Ahmed.

We should all keep in mind that the law applies to everybody equally. The pressing need is for teachers and students to keep the DU campus violence-free.

Let us stay alert and have patience. — (Jan 18)

Stop foot-dragging

THE government’s dithering over the release of four Dhaka University teachers and 15 students defies logic. Teachers and students with ties to the August violence at Dhaka University were arrested. They had broken the emergency rule.

The spasm of violence was a “spontaneous reaction” to the roughing up of some students by army personnel during a football match in the playground. The situation spiralled out of control. The government considered the matter a threat to its authority as it was thought that the students took to the streets, incited by their teachers.

Security forces arrested the teachers and students and put them behind bars. They are now on trial. Now the government probably realises that the teachers were not involved in the violence, and has moved to help free them from prison. But the government seems to be dragging its feet over the issue.

The campus again buzzes with protests. Students have started boycotting classes. Teachers have expressed solidarity with the protesters, adding their voice to the calls of freedom for their colleagues.

The enrolment tests at the university for newcomers are uncertain.

Whether students and teachers should engage in politics is a different question, but nobody expects Dhaka University to lurch back into unrest. The Dhaka University protests may spill over into a broader movement. On top of that, the government is facing mounting pressure to control the prices of essential commodities.

The government is under pressure to set a clear date for parliamentary elections by ending the state of emergency. — (Jan 18)

— Selected and translated by Arun Devnath

© DAWN Group of Newspapers, 2008