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DAWN - Editorial; April 17, 2008

April 17, 2008


Need to shift gears

MULTAN burned on Monday as enraged residents led by textile workers went on the rampage in protest against crippling power cuts of up to 18 hours a day. Nearly 60 people were injured and buildings and vehicles were torched by the rioters, some of whom brandished and fired weapons in broad daylight and in the full gaze of the media. The powerlooms may not have been spinning that day but the rumour mills certainly were in the wake of the riots. Coming close on the heels of violence in Karachi, Monday’s madness in Multan was bound to hatch conspiracy theories. But all the speculation, and there is a lot of it, overlooks a more telling aspect of the riots: it was clear that ordinary citizens who may otherwise abide by the law were all too willing to participate in the mayhem. This phenomenon of the unempowered venting their frustration at any given opportunity has been witnessed elsewhere as well, most notably in Lahore during the protest-turned-riot against objectionable cartoons in the Danish press. The bottom line is that people are fed up — with spiralling inflation and food shortages, joblessness and underemployment, the ostentatiously rich exploiting the miserably poor, crime without punishment. The electricity shortage is only one indigestible ingredient in the bubbling brew of public discontent and almost any provocation can trigger a free-for-all.

The government has much on its plate and must move quickly to offer tangible relief to the people. True, it has inherited grave problems but this will not be accepted indefinitely as an excuse. Priority number one must be bringing food inflation under control and one option, besides cracking down on smuggling and hoarding, may be to halt the export of all staples. As for the energy crisis, conservation appears to be the only salve for the immediate term. To increase generation capacity, operationally expensive oil-fired plants will be inevitable in the short term but headway is needed in exploiting Thar’s coal reserves. Hand in hand, the renewable energy policy announced in December 2006 requires serious follow-up. All possible support must be extended to the wind-power projects in Sindh so they can come on line as quickly as possible, and the opportunities offered by small dams as well as biomass, solar and wave power ought to be explored in earnest.

Also making life a misery for ordinary people is the rampant crime in both urban and rural areas. Hold-ups on busy streets, armed robberies in the home and at the workplace, and kidnapping for ransom are commonplace across the country, as are heinous crimes against women and children. Major reform in the police force, carried out with honesty of purpose and with an eye on offering incentives for diligence, is the order of the day. The new government is currently absorbed in issues and resolutions that, significant as they are, have little to do with the most pressing of public needs. It is time politicians moved on from matters close to their hearts and began focusing on what is dear to the people.

Nepal’s next rulers

IT will take a few days more before the Maoists can legitimately lay claim to being the party with the largest number of votes in the 601-seat Nepalese parliament. But so far, the trend in the April 10 polls results has been clearly in their favour. At the time of writing, the Maoists had won 116 out of 217 directly elected seats, with some results still awaited. They had also won a large share of the 335 seats allocated on the basis of proportional representation. The results have confounded all expectations, including the Maoists’, who as a rebel organisation and categorised by some as a terrorist group, had until recently no experience of mainstream politics. Indeed, they fought the Nepalese army in a 10-year war in which there were thousands of casualties. Even in their countryside stronghold, they were known to have perpetrated excesses on the people. One would, therefore, be justified in asking why the people voted for the Maoists. The answer probably lies in the reasoning that, aware of their clout, the electorate would not want them to go back to their violent ways, and would want them to be accountable to the people through parliament. Equally significant is the fact that most Nepalese would like to see the monarchy abolished and their country’s much-disliked monarch, Gyanendra, give up the throne. This has been the Maoists’ main demand and one that is now on the point of being fulfilled by a new constituent assembly.

Being unused to parliamentary politics, it will obviously take the Maoists, who entered into a transitional power-sharing arrangement with the government only last year, some time to find their bearings. The way ahead is difficult, for Nepal is mired in poverty and underdevelopment and the Maoists know that their actions will initially be watched with unease by the international community. They are also aware that the Nepalese people will be expecting large-scale reforms and complete accountability on the part of the communists. Otherwise, they could take to the streets as they did in 2006 when they forced King Gyanendra to reinstate parliament. The army has said that it would accept any government elected by the people. But considering the long history of animosities between the Maoists and the Nepalese forces, both would have to tread carefully. There is then no option for the Maoists other than to follow democratic principles and engage in the politics of consensus. Otherwise, chaos would once again engulf Nepal.

Unjust, unlawful school fee

THE recent threat by private schools to hold back admit cards of matric students who have not paid their July fee is nothing new. It happens every year without fail. Also without any element of novelty is the condemnation of this blatant exploitation by the authorities and their threat to cancel the registration of errant schools. How empty these warnings are and how insincere the authorities are in dealing with the matter can be seen by the mere fact that the helpline number announced through a report in this newspaper by the Sindh Education Department’s Directorate of Private Schools remains constantly unattended, except for a recorded voice that is not much of a help. The official, who called the action of the schools both ‘unjust’ and ‘unlawful’, also advised the parents to approach a committee in case their complaint was not entertained on the phone. How would one get hold of an official in person of a department which finds it impossible to depute someone to attend to phone calls is something that begs an answer.

There is obviously an unholy nexus between private schools and their regulators to fleece the masses. This is mid-April and the matriculation exams are already underway. What justification is there for the schools to charge fees for June and July from students whose term has virtually ended? The regulatory body has also termed illegal the annual charges that private schools levy with impunity, and no different is the case of the hefty admission fee. Though the fee charged against summer vacations does have official sanction, should this be done cumulatively and now when it is easy to coerce parents by withholding school exams entrance cards? Besides there is enough strength in the longstanding public demand for a 50 per cent reduction because almost all private schools are known to shed a majority of their staff at the end of each academic year to avoid paying salaries to them during vacations.

OTHER VOICES - Middle East Press

Muslim heritage

Arab News

IN an age when heritage in so many parts of the world is either ignored, Disneyised into theme parks or … subjected to the destructive onslaught of the bulldozer … it is encouraging to learn that the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology … and the US Library of Congress plan to digitise all Arab and Muslim scientific records. The information, showing clearly the great achievements of Arab Muslim civilisation, will be available free of charge on the Internet through the World Digital Library.

This is very significant and important news. One of the aims of the library, to be launched by Unesco early next year, is the promotion of international and intercultural understanding. Access, at the touch of a mouse, to proof of past Arab scientific prowess will promote just that. For Arabs and Muslims, it will be cause for pride and should help strip away the destructive sense of intellectual inferiority to western culture that has been such a debilitating element in much of Arab thinking over the past century....

The part played by Arabs and Muslim scientists was momentous and influenced later European science. Some in the West have heard of Ibn Sina and Ibn Rushd under their Europeanised names of Avicenna and Averroes, but how many have heard of Yuhanna ibn Massuwayh and his work on allergy? Or Abu Bakr Muhammad ibn Zakariyya Ar-Razi, who wrote the famous Al-Hawi, a 30-volume medical encyclopaedia and studied the nature of smallpox 900 years before the Englishman Edward Jenner came up with a vaccine? ... — (April 15)

Cost of tourism

Oman Tribune

THE Sultanate’s stress on tourism over the years is known to all. During the Five-Year Development Plans and at other times … [t]he spending of millions of rials over the years has seen many projects coming up in many parts of the country. But this does not mean that development of this sector, which is considered crucial to the country’s economy, is being executed in the way it should be.

A lot more needs to be done even as there is little doubt that the government is geared to meet the great challenges that lie ahead in the coming years to ensure that the Sultanate becomes a major tourist destination. Care should be the buzzword in the new scheme of things.

The Sultanate, no doubt, is a foreign tourist’s delight. Ancient forts, castles and other monuments are strewn across the length and breadth of the land. Tourists are flocking to them in large numbers. The golden beaches along the country’s long coastline are another attraction. The hills and mountains enhance the beauty of the landscape. But these very gifts of nature are being exploited to attract tourists….

The projects in question are definitely disturbing the equilibrium. Plush hotels have been built in the process of attracting foreign visitors and restaurants serving a variety of cuisines from different parts of the world can be found in these hotels and elsewhere. It is all very well to think of the foreigner’s palate but it is equally important to consider the case of the citizens who are displaced by a tourism project…. — (April 14)

Achieving consensus on NFC award

By Sanaullah Baloch

ONE of the major political tasks before the newly elected central government is to create a broad consensus on the overdue National Finance Commission before the 2008-2009 budget.

Fiscal decentralisation envisaged under the NFC is an issue of prime national importance and the government in Islamabad truly needs to understand the significance and principles of fiscal federalism for a workable political system and sustainability of the nascent democracy.

No one disputes the need for a policy of fairness and equity in governance, development and equal distribution of resources. The unfair distribution of monetary assets is one of the foremost causes for the political and social unrest in the deprived provinces.

Previous governments continuously ignored the constitutional guarantees with regard to the fair and just distribution of fiscal resources among the federating units. Despite the expiry of its five-year term in 2002, the 1997 controversial NFC award is still in force with some minor amendments introduced unilaterally by President Musharraf in 2005. Calculated delays in the fair and equitable distribution of national resources have had a crippling effect on the economies of the suppressed provinces.

Historically, all NFC awards have been imposed by the central government — ignoring the basic needs and demands of the depri ved provinces. The resource distribution controversy dates back to the breakup of Pakistan. But after the fall of Dhaka, the proponents (Punjab) of the parity principle became the pleaders of population as the only criterion for the distribution. Punjab insists on making population the sole basis, while Sindh, Balochistan and the NWFP demand that revenue-generation collection, geographical size and underdevelopment must be given due weight for resource distribution.

However, the universal criteria for the sharing or allocation of resources are multiple and include resource generation, the area, social and economic needs and future prospects of the regions. The government of India considers 11 principles for the distribution of fiscal resources to the unions (provinces) and there has been no delay in announcing the NFC since 1947.

The newly elected government, if it genuinely wants to redress the grievances of the smaller provinces and get rid of the unjust policies of past regimes, must come up with a universally accepted and justified policy of resource distribution. As signatories of the Charter of Democracy, the PPP and the PML-N are morally duty-bound to announce a fresh, justified and consensus NFC award before the budget.

The NFC is linked to two major issues that have to be addressed including the vertical and horizontal distribution of financial resources. Vertical imbalance arises from the centralisation of revenue collection with the federal government and excessive dependence of provincial governments on federal transfers. However, the disproportionate horizontal distribution of resources on the basis of population results in disparities in the capacities and needs of the provinces and in the relative costs of development and the provision of public services.

Repeatedly provinces have raised their concerns over the unfair (both vertical and horizontal) distribution and the deliberate delay in working out a resource distribution formula by the central government.

A view that prevails in Sindh, Balochistan and the NWFP is that these provinces must contribute their resources to the centre in proportion to their population, contrary to the policy of the central government. In this regard on May 8, 2003, the NWFP provincial assembly passed a unanimous resolution that the provinces should contribute funds — in proportion to their respective share under the country’s total population — to the federal government to meet its expenses. In the same resolution, the assembly asked the federal government to allocate all national resources to the federating units. Similar demands were raised by the Balochistan assembly.

All three provinces also demand that the central government must distribute fairly the amount generated from its borrowings and privatisation and the aid received after 9/11. They also want the advantage of the relief procured from the rescheduling of foreign debts to go to the federating units.

Being a democratic government, the present rulers have to avoid further injustice to the smaller provinces. The longstanding demands of the provinces and the recommendations that have been ignored deliberately by the central government must be incorporated in the proposed upcoming NFC award.

Balochistan’s demands for equal wellhead price for gas, increase in gas development surcharge and gas royalty must be addressed accordingly. Sindh’s demands for multiple criteria and for reconsidering its share in the NFC award on the basis of revenue generation also need to be considered. The NWFP’s demands for net hydel power profit as per decision of the Council of Common Interest of January 1991 will also have to be reviewed. The grievances of the province regarding net hydel profit, particularly the arrears of Rs342bn accumulated against the Wapda, have been ignored by the central government for long.

Provinces have also recommended that sales tax collection be kept outside the divisible pool and be given to the provinces and that the central government should retain only two per cent — not five per cent — of the total divisible pool as collection or service charges.

Balochistan remains the most neglected province and 88 per cent of its population lives in subhuman conditions. The province has suffered at the hands of almost every award on account of the population criterion that does not take into consideration the problems of poverty and territory.

Balochistan needs more resources and authority to exercise its choice to develop a strategy of its own for economic and social development. Its share in gas-related revenues and supply are minimal. The gas distribution companies are controlled by the federal government and stationed outside the province. Sui gas has been Pakistan’s household name for the last 55 years. Yet of the Rs85bn generated by natural gas only five billion rupees accrue to the province as royalty every year. Baloch youth do not benefit from this natural resource in terms of jobs and service-related development.

For the restoration of the people’s trust in democracy and federalism the new government in Islamabad will have to pay more attention to the appalling social and economic problems of the marginalised provinces. Revenue-sharing among the provinces under a new NFC award is an issue of prime importance.

The writer is a senator.

Madressah reforms?

By Mushfiq Murshed

IN his maiden speech to the National Assembly, the prime minister identified the fight against terrorism as a national priority. He declared: “The war on terror has become our war, because it has posed serious threats to our own country.”

The indiscriminate terrorism-generated bloodletting in 2007 and in the first quarter of the current year, has created the perception that violence is endemic and peace alien to Pakistan. As the prime minister spoke, sectarian clashes were raging in Kohat resulting in 22 deaths (50 according to unofficial accounts). The city even has an Al Qaeda monument that commemorates the killing of a bus-load of foreign terrorists by Pakistani forces in 2001.

The measures enunciated by Gilani to deal with the problem of extremist violence include a comprehensive economic and social package for the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, the prospective scrapping of the Frontier Crimes Regulation and madressah reforms. For the latter, he announced the establishment of a Madressah Welfare Authority to reform the seminaries in Pakistan which have grown exponentially after the Soviet incursion into Afghanistan.

However even before the echoes of the prime minister’s speech had faded, there was criticism from the JUI-F, a component of the coalition. Maulana Fazlur Rahman accused Gilani of merely emulating the previous government’s ‘anti-madressah’ policy. His accusation is belied by Chaudhry Shujaat’s recent statement describing madressahs as ‘the ideological fortresses of the country’. The obvious implication is that the former ruling coalition was as much against madressah reform as the religious parties and that they will not countenance any form of control on the seminaries or their proliferation.

In 1947, there were 245 madressahs in Pakistan. The current estimates put their number at 20,000 with approximately 1.8 million students enrolled. However, Steven Coll’s computation in his bestselling Ghost Wars claims that there were approximately 900 madressahs by 1971 but by mid-1988 the number soared to 8,000 recognised religious schools and ‘an estimated 25,000 unregistered ones’.

The rejectionist and regressive policies of these madressahs have produced a breed of religiously intolerant scholars. Their obscurantist worldview has, since 9/11, increasingly found expression in militancy and violence.

The ministry of interior has, in the past, tried to play down the enormity of the problem by advancing the unconvincing argument that only around 10 per cent of the seminaries have a militant wing while the remaining 90 per cent provide board, lodging and education to millions of children whose families live in poverty.

This not only smacks of complacency but is tantamount to admitting that the state has failed in its responsibility of providing basic amenities to its citizens. Furthermore, the brainwashing imparted to students in the seminaries is not education as it does not ensure either gainful employment or a seat in higher institutions.

As long as there continues to be a lack of proper education, exploitation by those with violence-based agendas will persist. It is disconcerting that despite its urgency, education projects are put on the backburner by successive governments. The big chunk of the population is, therefore, left with no choice but to send their children to madressahs.

Education is witnessing a decline in most Islamic countries. This is evident from a telling comment in a survey conducted by the United Nations Development Programme in July 2002: “In the 1,000 years since the reign of the Caliph Mamoun, the Arabs have translated as many books as Spain translates in a single year.” According to the same UNDP report, among the approximately 280 million Arabs, 65 million adults are illiterate and 10 million children do not attend any school.

A recent study done by a Pakistani scholar shows that 57 Muslim majority countries have an average of 10 universities each. This means that there are not even 600 universities catering to 1.5 billion Muslims. In contrast, India has 8,407 universities and the US 5,758. No less appalling is the finding that in the Islamic world there are less than 300,000 who qualify as scientists i.e. 230 scientists per one million Muslims. In comparison, the US has 1.1 million scientists (4,099 per million) and Japan 700,000 (5,095 per million).

The English jurist and politician, Lord Brougham (1778-1868), once said: “Education makes a people easy to lead, but difficult to drive; easy to govern but impossible to enslave.” If the lack of education leads to the enslavement of people, then this also makes them vulnerable to exploitation in the guise of religion and this is precisely what has been happening in Pakistan.

In the past a combination of autocratic regimes and clerics has not allowed a knowledge-based society to flourish in Pakistan. Madressahs have only reinforced obscurantism and spawned violence in the name of religion. The main damage was done in the Ziaul Haq years.

In a recent article, Dr Tariq Rahman wrote: “The use of religion to legitimise the rule of the elite, as has been happening so far, will also have to stop. This would mean the reversal of laws enacted during Ziaul Haq’s rule which are misused and give more power to the religious lobby.”

Prime Minister Gilani’s call for madressah reform is on track. However, terrorism is as much an outcome of economic deprivation as it is of ideological distortion. According to statistics cited in a recent study, economic and social reasons account for 89.58 per cent of madressah enrolment and the remaining 10.42 per cent for religious, educational and political considerations.

The new government has, therefore, to take into account that the war on terror cannot be won if a substantial segment of society lives below the poverty line. Social and economic inequalities may weigh more in a jihadi mindset than the desire to establish an Islamic emirate. The idea of living on the street, not being able to educate one’s children or, even worse, not being able to put food on the table may be more threatening than any amount of negative indoctrination by clerics.

The time has come for the government to reclaim the public services provided by religious seminaries. Massive projects on a national level pertaining to low-income housing, educational and vocational training, healthcare and employment opportunities have to be implemented. It is only when these basic necessities are met that the ideological battle against extremist violence will yield results. n

The writer is editor-in-chief of Criterion Quarterly.