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DAWN - Editorial; December 29, 2008

December 29, 2008

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Accident management

ACCIDENTS will happen but we as a nation have consistently failed to learn from past mistakes. More than five years ago the oil tanker Tasman Spirit ran aground as it tried to enter the Karachi harbour and eventually split apart, releasing vast quantities of its toxic cargo into the Arabian Sea. The result was the worst environmental disaster in the history of Pakistan. With no contingency plan in place, the shipping, port and government authorities either watched, ran around like headless chickens or opted for denial mode. The leakage was minor, according to a Karachi Port Trust official, and that there was nothing to worry about. The communications minister — and this was a classic — reportedly said that the beaches weren’t that clean to begin with. Meanwhile, with no master plan of action and an inexcusable lack of coordination between the relevant agencies, almost 20 days passed between the time the Tasman Spirit ran aground, started leaking and finally broke up, wreaking havoc.

The Tasman Spirit disaster was huge, but to this day we are unequipped to deal with even relatively minor accidents that can damage the environment. Take the puncturing earlier this month in Karachi of a pipeline which drenched an entire neighbourhood in oil. Faced with an emergency situation, the relevant authorities responded in an ad hoc fashion, for the simple reason that no mechanism is followed for the environmentally safe disposal of hazardous materials. Oil was pumped into drains that discharge into the sea. Truckloads after truckloads of sand were brought in to stanch the flow but as yet no official has satisfactorily explained how and where the oil-drenched detritus was disposed of after being hauled away. On Friday, a truck-tanker overturned in the streets of Karachi and spilled some 44,000 litres of petrol. What did the rescue workers do? They diverted the petrol to a stormwater drain that leads to the nearby Arabian Sea. But they were not at fault, really. The problem lies elsewhere.

There are few laws and no clear-cut contingency plans to follow. The Pakistan Environmental Protection Act 1997 calls for the “preparation of emergency contingency plans for coping with environmental hazards and pollution caused by accidents, natural disasters and calamities”. This is yet to happen. According to the website of the Pakistan Environmental Protection Agency (Pak-EPA), new ‘Hazardous Substances Rules’, which cover the kind of accidents under discussion, were drafted in 2003. Going by the information on the Pak-EPA’s own website, these rules still remain in draft form. The result: there is no central plan or policy to tackle such accidents in a coordinated fashion. That said, laws or policies alone cannot achieve much. Implementation is the key, and in this context what is required is a coordinated system of accident management that includes the training of those involved in rescue operations and the rapid mobilisation of the concerned provincial environmental protection agency. It may sound like a tall order but it can be done.

Taliban’s dilemma

TO educate or not to educate — girls in particular — seems to be the question the Taliban are agonising over. They have yet to make up their mind and demonstrate their honesty in the matter. On Thursday it was reported by a section of the media that militants in Swat have announced a total ban on female education in the district from Jan 15. Such a move, if it is actually implemented, would keep an estimated 40,000 girls out of school. But a day later the leadership of Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan sought to distance itself from the ban that smacked of anti-social obscurantism. Mercifully, the TTP chief has now proclaimed that he was not opposed to female education, so long as the girls are properly veiled. He has promised to probe the issue and get the Taliban in Swat to rescind their decision about which they are now being equivocal.

All’s well that ends well, it is said. But can we be certain girls’ schools will not be bombed? Even when no formal ban had been announced, the Taliban proceeded to bomb girls’ educational institutions as a matter of routine. The worst affected were the regions where their writ runs since the war on terror intensified. In the last 14 months they have destroyed over 100 schools in Swat and this has been done even when they have entered into accords with the Pakistan authorities not to do so.

Although strategically speaking, bombing girls’ schools may not create such a critical impact on the course of the war, it certainly has profound implications in terms of the political and social message it sends. In a society where women are an underclass by virtue of their gender and are denied equal advantages of education — only 36 per cent of women over 15 years of age are literate compared to 63 per cent men — bombing of girls’ schools comes as a warning to parents to desist from changing this pattern. In a wider sense it also means that no change in the status of women will be brooked. Since the education of girls poses a threat to the ideological beliefs of the Taliban they want to resist it. This should also come as a wake-up call to the policymakers in Pakistan. The emergence of the Taliban reflects, amongst others, our failure to make education accessible to all and inculcate tolerance, compassion and humanism in the population.

Christmas Eve slaughter

BESTIALITY is not confined to animals alone as the callous behaviour of man often shows. On Christmas Eve in Los Angeles on Friday, an armed Santa Claus left nine people dead in a murder and arson spree. Then he shot himself. A jobless aerospace worker, Bruce Jeffrey Pardo organised his massacre with scientific precision. Carrying four guns, Pardo took with him a device, wrapped like a Christmas gift that contained a mechanism for spraying fuel. Dressed as jovial Santa Claus, he rang the bell of a home and fired on the eight-year-old girl who opened the door. He then fired at random at a party of 25 people and went looking for his former in-laws, shooting them in what the police said looked like execution-style killings. He then sprayed the party room with fuel, lit it and fled, but not before he himself got burnt.

In Pakistan, men have blown themselves up in mosques and churches, bombed Eid congregations and funerals and destroyed schools, ironically enough all in the name of religion. Just as Pardo performed his fiendish deed on the sacred and joyous Christmas Eve, so also in September fanatics bombed Islamabad Marriott during Ramazan. The deed would have been dastardly at any time, but the occasion underlines the cold-bloodedness of those with a ‘mission’ regardless of their ideological leanings . Last month, we saw in Mumbai innocent men, women and children belonging to various nationalities and different faiths die in a criminal act by men whose identity has yet to be confirmed. Pardo had no criminal record, and his neighbours remember him as a nice man who walked his dog and attended church regularly. Yet, cold-blooded murder was his intention. Whether it is perceived injustices by society or noble political causes, nothing justifies mass murder. In more pragmatic terms, as recent history shows, acts of terror whose victims are innocent people have hurt rather than advanced ideological movements.

OTHER VOICES - North American Press

Rethinking packaging

Toronto Star

WHY does a child’s plastic doll come covered in plastic, inside a cardboard box, protected by yet more plastic?

Ontario’s living rooms, recycling bins and garbage cans will be overflowing this morning with the leftovers from over-packaged presents.

We can easily do something about wrapping paper if we want to celebrate a greener Christmas. (Reusable gift bags, or using old newspapers and magazines for wrapping are simple options.) But what about all the manufacturers’ packaging that the gifts come in?

Yes, consumer choice is always an option. But how do you tell a four-year-old that Santa Claus couldn’t bring her the toy she really, really wanted because it came with too much packaging?

If Ontario’s Environment Minister John Gerretsen has his way, there’s a chance that next year’s post-Christmas garbage cans won’t be quite as full of seemingly unnecessary packaging....

Gerretsen vows that the provincial ministers will raise “in a stronger way than we have in the past” the need for Ottawa to introduce nationwide packaging standards that would restrict material that is difficult to recycle.

This is by no means the first time a provincial environment minister has promised action on packaging, but Queen’s Park does seem to be more serious about it this time.

In a review underway of Ontario’s own waste diversion act … reduction plays a much more prominent role than it has in the past.

The discussion paper goes so far as to talk about a “zero waste” future. Given Ontario’s dismal failure to achieve any of its waste reduction targets to date, this must be taken with not just a grain of salt, but the entire shaker.

Yet the vision is the right one and the first of the 3Rs — reduction — is the key to reaching this lofty goal. That means less packaging to begin with and making producers of products responsible for disposal of their packaging. “You make it, you take it back,” says Gerretsen.

This extended producer responsibility model has been used in Europe to prod companies to improve the design of their products so they can be reused or recycled more easily.

We’re recycling more — that’s good — but we’re consuming more too. That’s not so good. In the coming year, we’re all going to hear more about how to boost the 3Rs — reduce, reuse and recycle — to help limit our footprint on the planet. ... — (Dec 26)

Language and politics

By Dr Shahid Siddiqui


THE significance of language in individual and societal lives is vital. It’s one of the important cultural expressions that act as an identity marker. With the passage of time the socio-political aspects of language were brought to light by linguists, anthropologists and social thinkers.

Now language is considered a linguistics phenomenon and a highly socio-political concept that is linked to power.

Language is no more viewed as merely a neutral and passive tool of communication but a powerful constituent of social reality. In a number of imperialist adventures language was used as a weapon to gain and sustain control over the colonised nations. The cultural hegemony is generally facilitated and made possible with the help of language. Power groups consider their language and culture as supreme and take on the job of civilising others by imposing their language and culture on them.

No language is inherently superior or inferior but its speakers’ status lends to social prestige to the language. Powerful groups consider their language supreme and view others’ as substandard. Terms such as ‘dialect’ and ‘vernacular’ were used to downgrade a language. The contemporary view, however, suggests that all languages are equally respectable. That is why the term ‘dialect’ that had a negative connotation, is no more in vogue and linguists prefer the term ‘variety’ instead.

During the imperial rule in pre-independence India, English was used as a tool to create a class of people who could act as a liaison between the colonisers and the Indian masses. Macaulay’s Minute on Indian Education was a typical example of the imperialistic technique of glorifying one’s own language and culture and stigmatising others’. Comparing the superiority of English over Sanskrit and Arabic, the two languages so dear to Hindus and Muslim, Macaulay’s view was sweeping and judgmental, “A single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature in India and Arabia.”

The imposition of English was made possible in a strategic manner by attaching benefits and perks to it which included government jobs in the British Empire and a relatively elevated social status. These pragmatic benefits persuaded people to learn English.

Some religious groups in India opposed English as a symbol of imperial rule but very soon Sir Syed Ahmed Khan and his colleagues realised that closing the doors to English would simply mean giving up opportunities for an improved life during British rule. During the Pakistan Movement language emerged as an important factor to fight the case of an independent country on the basis of the two-nation theory. Urdu was adopted by Muslims as their language as compared to Hindi associated with the Hindus.

In 1947 when India was divided and Pakistan came into being, Urdu was declared the national language of the new state. We see three major trends in deciding the national language of a country. The first is that the mother tongue of the majority is given the status of national language as in the case of the US and UK where English is the mother tongue of the majority of people and thus the national language. The second trend is that liberated colonies decided to keep the language of their masters as the national language as happened in Africa. The third is that instead of one language certain countries declared more than one language as their national languages as in Canada where they have English and French.

In Pakistan we see that none of these trends were kept in view while deciding about the national language. Urdu was not the mother tongue of the majority. The majority comprised Bengalis followed by Punjabis, Sindhis, etc. There was not much resistance against Urdu from Punjab on two major counts: First because of the close affinity between Urdu and Punjabi at the grammar and lexicon levels; second, because Punjabis were in the army and in the bureaucracy and thus were close to the centres of power. This was not the case with the Bengalis as there was no affinity between the two languages and Bengalis, having minimum representation in the army and bureaucracy, were not present in the centres of power.

This sense of deprivation coupled with the centre’s insistence on having one national language led to historical protests. The demand was to declare Bangla, besides Urdu, as a national language. By the time centre was forced to declare Bangla as the second national language it was already too late. The death of Bengali students at Dhaka University gave impetus to the movement of freedom that culminated in the shape of Bangladesh.

In the recent past a group of scholars raised the issue of replacing English with Urdu. But this proposal is abstract in nature and not practicable in the absence of political will at the state level. The use of the mother tongue at an early level, however, needs serious consideration as there is ample research to suggest the usefulness of the mother tongue during the early phase of education for concept formation among children.Language choice should not be an either/or question. We need to expose our children to different languages, including English. But learning English should not mean sidelining our mother tongue and indigenous languages.

The writer is director of Centre for Humanities and Social Sciences at Lahore School of Economics and author of Rethinking Education in Pakistan.

shahidksiddiqui@yahoo.com

Tigers in trouble

By Justin McCurry


ASIAN economies on Friday showed more signs that recession is deepening with Japan’s industrial output falling at a record pace and South Korea warning it faces an “unprecedented crisis”.

The once unstoppable Chinese economy is also feeling the strain, with companies recording a sharp slowdown in profit growth in the first 11 months of the year. Japan’s industrial output marked a record fall last month, raising fears that the world’s second-biggest economy is sliding towards deflation.Output sank by 8.1 per cent in November, the biggest drop since records began in 1953. The ministry of economy, trade and industry estimates output will decline by a similar amount this month and by more than two per cent in January. If the forecasts are right, output for the three months to December will shrink by a record 11 per cent.

Unemployment rose to 3.9 per cent, up 0.2 per cent from the previous month, with the overall jobless rate reaching more than 2.5 million, an increase of 100,000 from last year, the health and welfare ministry said.

Japan’s exporters have seen their profits quickly eroded by the soaring yen — now hovering around a 13-year high against the dollar — and a decline in sales in the US and Europe. The downturn has forced the country’s powerhouse car and electronics makers to slash production and cut work forces, with Toyota announcing its first ever loss this week.

The government has unveiled financial stimulus packages that include 12 trillion yen in extra spending. Having taken interest rates to almost zero recently Japan’s financial authorities appear to be running out of options.

The Bank of Japan recently cut interest rates by 0.2 per cent to 0.1 per cent. The BoJ also increased its outright purchases of government bonds and, for the first time, said it would buy commercial paper outright in an attempt to ease the pressure on cash-strapped firms.

“We need to take unprecedented measures when in an extraordinary economic situation,” said the prime minister, Taro Aso. “Japan cannot evade this tsunami of world recession, but by taking bold measures we hope to be the first in the world to come out of recession.”

Analysts said production had “fallen off a cliff” and were pessimistic about the prospects for an early recovery. “What’s going on is beyond what Toyota and Sony ever imagined,” said Mitsuru Saito, chief economist at Tokai Tokyo Securities.

The mood was similarly grim in South Korea. “The Korean economy is faced with an unprecedented crisis with exports and domestic demand, the two pillars of economic growth, falling at the same time,” the ministry of knowledge economy said in a new year policy report.

The ministry said it would aim to boost 2009 exports to $450bn from about $430bn projected for this year.

Faced with slowing demand from export markets, China needed to take more steps to stimulate domestic consumption, central bank officials there said. China’s over-reliance on investment and exports has been exposed by the global financial crisis.

Profit growth at Chinese industrial firms rose 4.9 per cent in January-November from a year earlier, down sharply from annual growth of 19.4 per cent in the first eight months of the year, data showed on Friday.

— The Guardian, London