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DAWN - Editorial; March 23, 2008

March 23, 2008


The new prime minister

WITH Bilawal Bhutto Zardari ostensibly clearing the nomination of the PPP’s candidate for the coveted post, the way has been cleared for Yusuf Raza Gilani to take the oath of office on Tuesday as Pakistan’s 25th prime minister. A party loyalist who passed years in jail while on trial for charges which a court later found bogus, Gilani acquires the rare distinction of becoming the first PPP prime minister who is not a Bhutto. Tomorrow’s vote is a formality, but with the MQM joining the PPP-PML-N coalition, Gilani is likely to get more votes than Ms Fehmida Mirza did when she was elected Speaker with a two-thirds majority. While the uncertainty about the prime minister’s office is behind us, one cannot but notice the fissures in the PPP and question the leadership’s decision-making process, marked as it has been by vacillation and diffidence. The Amin Fahim episode serves to highlight the absence of a well-oiled consultative mechanism, and one is appalled that the PPP Central Executive Committee, which includes some stalwarts since the ZAB days, needed a 19-year-old to sell its decision to the party rank and file. If this is the beginning of the new, democratic era, one wonders how things will go when the PPP government is finally in the saddle and goes about meeting the gargantuan challenges facing the nation.

A list of priorities for the Gilani government is not difficult to draw. The economy and the menace of terrorism overshadow all other issues, including the nightmarish power crisis. The prices have registered an overall increase, oil prices have been raised twice in a fortnight, and the rate of food inflation is tormenting the people. Yet no crash programme was devised to give some interim relief to the pauperised people, because crisis after crisis — beginning with the sacking of the Chief Justice last March — seemed to have paralysed the government machinery. A major task before the new government will, therefore, be to restore the nation’s confidence in the administration’s ability to look after the people’s welfare and work with speed to ameliorate the citizen’s hardships.

Religious extremism and terrorism are destroying the very fabric of our society. Yet, in spite of our role in the war on terror as a much-flaunted ‘front-line state’, our people are less safe than they were seven years ago. While campaigning, the PPP and the PML-N had both pledged to continue the fight against terrorism. But the issue is far more complex than the rhetoric would have us believe. The frequency of suicide bombings has increased, and terrorists are striking deep into sensitive, no-go areas. Reliance on force alone is not going to deliver. Which means the new government has to develop a new policy based on national consensus to deflate the terrorists and make Fata part of the national mainstream. We hope the country will have a prime minister empowered to tackle the challenges, rather than a puppet on a string with real authority lying elsewhere in the party hierarchy.

Government must act

MUCH to the dismay of people with a conscience, the unlawful organ trade, which has brought such a bad name to Pakistan and its medical profession, is back with a bang. It was believed to have been checked when the Human Organ Transplantation Ordinance (HOTO) had been promulgated in September. Once again stories are rife of middlemen luring poverty-stricken men and women to sell their organs for a pittance and avaricious surgeons throwing their morals to the winds and using their skills to mint money by fleecing wealthy but desperately ill foreigners. Much to our ignominy the complaints are now coming in from abroad — from transplant surgeons and WHO. Small wonder, the director of SIUT, Dr Adib Rizvi, who had been at the forefront of the campaign for the adoption of HOTO, has strongly protested against the reported malpractice and demanded action against the wrongdoers.

This reaction is understandable. The organ trade must be condemned on ethical and humanitarian grounds. For several decades, Pakistan remained one of the few countries where organ transplantation was introduced and expanded without any law to regulate it. As has been amply demonstrated, unregulated medical practice is also open to abuse of the worst kind. It was therefore a happy occasion when the concerted struggle by transplantation surgeons and civil society led to the adoption of HOTO which inter alia bans the trade in human organs. It appears that HOTO which took off with many a hiccup is in danger of meeting the same fate as many other good laws in Pakistan that have come to nought due to non-implementation. The lobbies that had resisted the law initially are strongly entrenched. Once the law was adopted they tried to sabotage the spirit of the ordinance by attempting to manipulate the process of registration of health facilities entitled to carry on transplantation surgery. Now some of them are flouting the law and are back in their unscrupulous business with a higher price tag.

The government has so far turned a blind eye to the racket. This is inexcusable considering that trading in human organs is illegal under HOTO. It is important that the institutions that are indulging in this reprehensible activity should be identified and the surgeons named. Their registration must be cancelled by the PMDC. They do not deserve to be in this noble profession. It is also important to publicise the law so that transplant tourism is brought to an immediate end. To exploit the indigence of a person and the desperation of an ill person violates human dignity. It is also medically hazardous because a surgeon in a hurry to perform surgery surreptitiously is more likely to botch up his case and put two lives at risk.

Protecting women

ONE would have thought that the organisers of a recent workshop in Islamabad on domestic violence against women would be the National Commission on the Status of Women or an NGO concerned with the uplift of women. It was a pleasant surprise when the organisers turned out to be the Council of Islamic Ideology, and amongst the participants was the chairperson of the NCSW. Speakers at the workshop called for a change in the social and cultural attitudes responsible for domestic violence against women. They also urged legislation to curtail the prevalence of physical and mental abuse against women at home. Constitutionally, the CII is an important organisation mandated to vet all laws to ascertain whether they conform to the Sharia. If staffed by reformists, it can strike down obscurantist legislation or suggest amendments. The recent workshop may be an indication of a turning point in the CII’s role in our society.

That the CII has addressed a topic which it would traditionally have avoided touching upon is itself a refreshing change. Moreover, the points raised were pragmatic, reflecting more or less the views of women in general. Thus participants pointed out that women needed to be empowered through education, job opportunities and the provision of basic facilities; and that the right of divorce for women should not be a matter of choice but something that is an integral part of the marriage contract. The workshop also noted the sharp rise in the incidence of violence against women. This is an unhealthy trend that needs to be countered. Cooperation among all segments of society in curtailing violence against women and promoting their uplift will help to ensure better chances of success in our effort to improve the lot of women.

Balancing ends and means

By Anwar Syed

I CAN speak of matters in the realm of economics only as a layman. In hopes of improving my mind, I went to a meeting of economists at the Lahore School of Economics the other day. Dr Shamshad Akhtar, governor of the State Bank of Pakistan, was the principal speaker.

A lively discussion followed her presentation. Referring to our unbounded consumerism, spurred on by the easy availability of credit in this country, I asked if she intended to apply the brakes on the flow of credit. She did not, because she thought easy access to credit had improved the quality of life of many Pakistanis.

Her view may have merit from an economist’s perspective. One may say, for instance, that if women stopped buying things they did not need, the economies of the world, especially those of the highly developed societies, would come crashing down. But surely there are perspectives other than those of the proponents of capitalism. Quality of life is a subject open to interpretation.

I propose to present here my reading of the current urges to spend on the part of both individuals and public authorities and the styles of personal living and governance they call into being. People buy things they need. Needs vary from one person to the next, and from one situation to another. Genuineness of needs for the basic amenities of life can probably be verified and their limits determined. The happiness people expect from the fulfilment of their needs or wants is an ethereal state of mind. Different things or experiences make different persons, and the same person in different situations, happy.

These reservations notwithstanding, it seems to me that Pakistani culture is increasingly being monetised. People honour one another not so much for one’s attainments in arts and sciences and the professions as for the largeness of one’s material possessions. They compete with one another to demonstrate that they are just as well, or even better, endowed in this respect. A woman’s worth is judged largely by the brand name and estimated price of the handbag she carries and the shoes she wears.

I understand that a simple three-piece suit of clothes for women (shalwar, kameez and dupatta) can be had for as little as 300 rupees. (It looks pretty good to me.) Its defect is that maids and cleaning women can afford to buy and wear it. The ‘begums’ cannot be seen wearing the kind of outfits that their servants wear. If they want to maintain their higher status they will wear a known designer’s suits, carried by fancy boutiques, whose cost runs into thousands. They must consider what ladies in their peer group will think of them and say if they did any less.

I have no objection to high living on the part of those who can afford it and whose priorities include constructive pursuits beyond conspicuous consumption. I cherish the memory of Mr M.A. Jinnah and my admiration for him does not diminish because he spent a great deal of money on maintaining an elegant style of living. It pleases me that he was one of the world’s best-dressed men. But he did not borrow money to meet his expenses. He was wealthy, and he not only lived well but gave money to universities and charitable institutions. I admire M.K. Gandhi for his virtues and accomplishments but not for the fact that he went around in nothing more than a wraparound.

In sum I object not to living well but to living beyond one’s means. The culture of living on loans is not limited to Pakistan. It is spreading everywhere. Banks are in the business of lending money. If people did not borrow and pay interest on the loans they had taken out, banks would not be able to meet their operating costs: they would go under. They compete with one another in offering potential borrowers inducements to borrow from them.

Credit card companies do the same; many of them are willing to give you borrowing facility even if your credit rating is poor. Stores offer you merchandise on credit with no instalment payments due until a year after the date of purchase. A substantial part of many a citizen’s income goes towards the payment of interest on loans. The same kind of culture is making its way into Pakistan.

Public authorities are doing a lot worse than private individuals in respect of money management. Open-ended borrowing has become their norm at all levels — federal, provincial, and local. The federal government’s budget deficits run into hundreds of billions of rupees. Even when there is no money in its account with the State Bank, it keeps writing cheques which the Bank has to pay. These payments become part of the government’s domestic debt which is now counted in trillions.

The Bank keeps printing money to meet the government’s unending demands. The more money it prints for the government to throw into the market, the higher goes the rate of inflation which, according to some estimates, will soon reach 20 per cent. As prices of the necessities of life increase further, the poor will become poorer and more miserable than they are already.

In the mid-1950s Pakistan’s foreign debt used to be about $350m. It now stands at approximately $40bn. The country’s annual balance of trade deficit exceeds $10bn. This deficit may be met by dipping into overseas Pakistanis’ hard-currency remittances and foreign borrowings. Budget deficits are met by resort to the printing press and domestic borrowing. Nobody worries about whether the debts will ever be discharged. I suspect the lending institutions do not even want these debts to be repaid. They are happy to see the borrowers’ obligations mount so long as interest payments continue to flow into their coffers.

Numerous other states are acting the same way. America is the most heavily indebted country in the world. Its foreign debt surpasses that of many other nations put together. As this process goes on, an ever-increasing proportion of a nation’s public revenue goes towards paying the service charges on its domestic and foreign debt, leaving less and less for the delivery of vital services and amenities to its citizens, such as health care and education. This is already happening and it is being justified in the name of globalisation and privatisation.

I don’t know how economists see the future, but as a student of politics my own feeling is that the culture of spending beyond one’s own resources cannot last forever. I think that as more and more individuals approach bankruptcy, and as governments default on payments due and lose credit worthiness (so that no one will lend them any more funds), the prevailing culture and with it the economic system will collapse and spread chaos. The misery these developments cause the ordinary people will probably generate rebellions and bring down the existing political order.

The writer, professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, is currently a visiting professor at the Lahore School of Economics.

OTHER VOICES - Bangladesh Press

Making the OIC effective

Naya Diganta

HEADS of government and state of Islamic countries attended the 11th summit of the Organisation of Islamic Conference last week and called for world peace and security. The leaders promised a campaign to dispel misgivings about Islam and condemned terrorism and fanaticism at the summit in the Senegalese capital of Dakar.

In a five-page declaration, the leaders of the 57-member OIC said they condemn “all forms of terrorism”, asserting that terrorism and extremism are incompatible with Islam and contradict its teachings of “tolerance, mercy and non-violence”.

Much of the declaration focused on “Islamophobia” and the ways in which Islamic countries should combat the phenomenon which many said was a threat to world peace and security.

Support for the Palestinian cause took centre stage at the OIC summit, and the Palestinian issue is the only one mentioned by name in the preamble of the OIC charter.

The final declaration issued at the end of the Dakar summit included several dozen references to the Palestinian issue. The summit also passed resolutions accusing Israel of “war crimes” against Palestinians. World leaders (including chief adviser Fakhruddin Ahmed) voiced support for a Palestinian state. Islamic countries have not shown keen interest in implementing the promises made at successive summits. The OIC could play a vital role in bringing peace to the Middle East.

If the member countries fail to deliver on their pledges, the Dakar Declaration will lose its relevance. To make the OIC effective and meaningful, [Muslim] leaders must be sincere about the implementation of their promises. — (March 20)

Peace far off in Iraq

Jai Jai Din

THE Iraq war is five years old but the US and UK have failed to discover weapons of mass destruction, the reason the two powerful countries … attacked Iraq. Not a single day passes without Iraqis dying in mortar attacks, car-bomb blasts or gunfire but US President George Bush is holding firm on the war at any cost, bolstered by the false rhetoric of a waning administration.

The US and UK went to war … in the belief that Al Qaeda had found a strong foothold in Iraq. The UK believed that Iraq could attack … in 45 minutes … British Prime Minister Tony Blair had to leave the stage earlier than scheduled and Bush’s approval ratings dipped. Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was deposed and executed in the name of democracy. A rubber-stamp government was established in the country.

But peace is still far off. The number of deaths is climbing by the day…. Iraqis had been better off under Saddam, without the war. Essential commodities were within the reach of ordinary people as they were heavily subsidised by the government. Now people are passing their days in poverty. Educational and health care systems have collapsed.

As many as 2.2m people left the country and one million Iraqis were forced out of their ancestral homes. A further 54,000 people became homeless in a near-obliterated country.

The US does not have a solution to the Iraq crisis. America is looking for an escape route from the mess it has created…. The US presidential election lies ahead…. Ordinary Americans have backtracked on their support for the war and are calling for the immediate withdrawal of US soldiers. This will be a big issue in the 2008 election. — (March 20)

— Selected and translated by Arun Devnath.

© DAWN Media Group , 2008