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DAWN - Editorial; February 02, 2009

February 02, 2009

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Plight of the displaced

IT was Swat first. Then came Bajaur followed by Mohmand. These areas have witnessed the exodus of a large number of people since August 2008. As the war on terror has escalated in response to the Taliban’s intensification of militant activities, the civilians caught in the crossfire have become the hapless casualties of this terrible conflict. Now it is estimated that there are nearly 100,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) living in dire straits in 11 camps in the NWFP. Many more have fled their homes but since they have taken refuge with relatives and friends their accurate numbers may never be known. It is not just the trauma of homelessness that is devastating. They also have to suffer the hardship brought on by the lack of basic amenities, such as adequate shelter, sanitation, water and food supplies, and medical care. Small wonder the reports that emanate from the IDP camps do not generally inspire hope and confidence.

Recognising the human rights violations that accompany displacement of people — families are broken up, employment and education are disrupted, and sociocultural ties are cut — the UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, adopted in 1998 a document setting out guiding principles on internal displacement. These 30 principles state that IDPs have certain basic rights, the most important being their claim to equality with other citizens, and are entitled to adequate living standards for which the government must provide protection and humanitarian assistance. Hence the authorities are duty bound to take care of displaced persons in the NWFP, who have been affected by failed government policies. Seen against this background, the failure of the various departments to coordinate their working and generate resources for IDPs cannot be condoned. Moreover, the guiding principles also speak of the primary responsibility of authorities to “establish conditions, as well as provide the means, which allow IDPs to return voluntarily, in safety and with dignity to their homes”. How aware are we of these principles? Hardly, it would seem, as the government appears to lack the will and resources to honour them fully.

Another matter of serious concern is the long-term responsibility of the government vis-à-vis the displaced. Not only should they be rehabilitated once peace returns, it is also important that sufficient uplift projects be undertaken in the affected areas so that the returnees can look forward to a brighter future. So far there is not much happening on the ground to give rise to such optimism. Caught between the devil and the deep sea, many IDPs have found their homes blown up by the army while militants appear averse to allowing any official development projects to be undertaken. This is a dilemma that must be resolved.

Oil and gas exploration

GIVEN the energy crunch facing Pakistan, it is heartening to note that exploration activities are picking up pace in the country. According to the PM’s adviser on petroleum and natural resources, 100 new oil and gas wells will be drilled this year. It is said that the success rate in Pakistan is exceptionally good, with every third or fourth well hitting pay dirt compared to the international average of one success in eight to 10 attempts. That means we can expect upwards of 25 new productive oil and gas wells this year. Hardly any room for complaint there. But there is cause for concern because such exploration — most of it in Sindh and Balochistan — cannot come at the cost of the environment and must benefit the people who reside in these resource-rich areas. A balance has to be struck, for any ‘development’ that is not sustainable will ultimately result in economic hardship, not betterment. Improvement of human lives and protection of our flora and fauna must be factored into the equation because otherwise the country will be poorer in real terms, not richer, no matter how many new wells we tap.

Some basic ground rules need to be put in place. Environmental impact assessments (EIAs) should be carried out before a single hole has been dug in the ground, not after the project is already under way. As things stand, the Pakistan Environmental Protection Agency allows project owners to hire companies that carry out the EIA. There is considerable scope for conflict of interest here (wouldn’t your loyalties lie with your employers?) and this rule needs to be changed. Environmental impact assessments will become meaningful only when they are conducted by reputable neutral agencies. Then there is the ethics of doing business. In August last year, the Sindh Assembly adopted resolutions pertaining to the oil and gas sector that deserved greater publicity than they received. It was said that the federal government should be approached to ensure that exploration companies hire local people. In another call, the provincial legislature demanded that oil and gas companies must invest in the areas they exploit, as per the terms of their concession agreements. This, regrettably, has not been happening. It is estimated that Sindh produces nearly 70 per cent of the country’s gas and oil, yet the people who live in the vicinity of gas fields must cut down trees to light a stove. Injustice and development cannot go hand in hand.

Unauthorised occupation

HOW can the executors of law and order be trusted when they themselves are violating the law? This is the sentiment the Islamabad police have provoked ever since it surfaced that members of the capital’s police force were illegally occupying public and private properties. As was revealed recently in the Senate, the Islamabad police are the top unauthorised occupiers of government accommodation in the capital city, its employees being in possession of 167 of the total of 337 government flats known to be illegally occupied. Retired officials from the Intelligence Bureau and the Federal Investigation Agency are also included in the list of 377 illegal occupants. Earlier, a report had exposed the unauthorised acquisition by the Islamabad police of an unoccupied private house owned by a former bureau chief of Dawn who passed away many years ago, and its conversion into an office for a superintendent of the police. The police may justify this action under Section 17 of the Land Acquisition Act of 1894 under which the government can acquire a piece of property anywhere in the country in “public and national interest”. However, the 1973 Constitution protects citizens’ basic rights in this respect by not allowing government acquisition of any piece of land at will, especially when there are legitimate heirs.

One can understand the tremendous pressures on office space and the living quarters faced by federal government employees, including members of the Islamabad police force. This is evident by the fact that a total of 12,868 applications were received against the availability of 672 flats in a housing scheme for federal government employees in Grade 1 to 16. But this is no justification for unauthorised occupation. It is obvious that the basic requirements of government employees need to be quickly addressed and a solution found to the urgent problem of shortage of government housing and office space, particularly for employees in important organisations such as the police. But it is also necessary to ensure that ‘police power’ is not wielded to get what one is apparently not entitled to, not eligible for and not authorised to take hold of.

OTHER VOICES - North American Press

Obama’s missing timetable for Afghanistan

The Christian Science Monitor

FEW doubts exist that Barack Obama will pull the US out of Iraq. But when will the US exit Afghanistan? That depends on what he wants to leave behind in the former Al Qaeda haven. By April, when Mr Obama goes to a Nato summit, he must form a consensus on Afghanistan’s future to create a US path out of this historic quagmire country.

Before his election, Mr Obama talked of a need for democracy in a land that had largely been ruled by kings, warlords, and Islamists before the 2001 US-led invasion.

The government of President Hamid Karzai, elected in 2004, is weak and largely confined to the capital, Kabul. The former rulers, the Taliban, are rising in strength despite the efforts by some 70,000 Nato troops, nearly half of them American.

A US downgrade of expectations for Afghanistan began when Obama said in his inaugural address that he hoped merely to “forge a hard-earned peace in Afghanistan”. During her confirmation hearing to be secretary of state, Hillary Clinton described Afghanistan as a “narco-state plagued by limited capacity and widespread corruption.”

Then this week, Defense Secretary Robert Gates … warned against setting unrealistic goals.

The idea of creating democracies in Muslim places as a bulwark against Islamic terrorism may be too costly, Obama seems to be saying. But then what kind of rule should the US help create in Afghanistan or other terrorist-laden places such as Somalia? Will he settle for dictators, like those in most Arab states?

For now, the Obama strategy appears to be threefold: send 30,000 more US troops, twist Europe’s arm to provide more civilian aid in Taliban-infected areas and appoint an envoy for the region. That envoy, Richard Holbrooke, is tasked to curb the pressures on Afghanistan that arise from the unresolved territorial issues between Pakistan and India, which help drive Islamic militancy and provide a base for Al Qaeda in Pakistan. (Mr Holbrooke must also look at Iran’s meddling hand in Afghanistan.) He must balance the costs in lives and money of keeping Afghanistan from again becoming a terrorist launching pad on the West against the possible costs of failing to do that — another Sept 11-type attack on the US.

With more peace and democracy now in Iraq, Afghanistan has become the deadliest place for US soldiers as well as the greatest military challenge for the US. American impatience once directed at the Iraq war may be expressed at the once “good war” in Afghanistan. It will soon be either “yes we can” in that country, or not. — (Jan 30)

Health lacking sufficient funds

By Hilda Saeed


IN the national budget, announced last June for fiscal year 2008-2009, Rs19bn was allocated for health. In GNP terms, was this the usual one per cent or thereabouts or more, like the advocated four per cent?

Further probing was definitely called for, and it was certainly worthwhile. The Rs19bn spells a 37 per cent increase in government health-sector allocations, of which Rs11.5bn is earmarked for family planning and immunisation programmes.

The deployment of Lady Health Workers, who presently number 100,000, is to be doubled. Rs7.5bn has been set aside for 111 developmental projects, of which only three are new ones, maternal and child health projects and infectious disease control programmes for malaria, TB, HIV/AIDS and hepatitis.

That said, the fact remains that all together this amount constitutes only 0.8 per cent of the federal budget, and falls grossly short of the 15 per cent recommended by WHO. Seventeen of the developmental projects mentioned above have not been allocated any funds; most are focused on the urban areas, again relegating rural areas to a subsidiary status. It is difficult to see how the health scenario will improve with this limited budget.

In the past, the role of health as an integral partner to human development appeared not to have been fully recognised; rather, its role as an ‘eroder’ of people’s strength, vitality and resistance to disease has been prominent. This negative role remains a silent, but steady contributor to the millions of needless deaths that occur around us.

Past damaging budgetary cuts and short-sighted policies have proved to be the equivalent of shooting ourselves in the foot, with low allocations for health causing long-term damage. Similar low allocations for education have resulted in low literacy rates, with women the worst affected. The spin-off has been uneducated families, whose lack of knowledge often renders them and their children vulnerable to disease. The near-absence in many localities of clean drinking water and sanitation facilities deprive people of the wherewithal for a healthy life. Pollution-free air is a rarity. .Around 30 per cent of the population is poverty-stricken, unable to afford even one square meal a day. The stresses and strains of modern living lead to increased mental tension, a high incidence of psychiatric problems, even suicides.

Not a pretty picture. Today’s people are functioning at sub-optimal health levels, unable to put their best foot forward.

The majority population is malnourished, physically stunted and susceptible to a host of illnesses. Relatively newer diseases, like cancer and HIV/AIDS, show increasing incidence. In addition, the country’s crumbling medicare system has to deal with the consequences of alarmingly high numbers of traffic accidents, bomb explosions and the like, all requiring emergency medical treatment.

There is, in short, a huge backlog of needs to be met. To what extent does the new health budget meet these needs? The health ministry’s plans are commendable: fully staffed, equipped Basic Health Units and district hospitals are to be upgraded throughout the country. It would not be amiss to mention here that Pakistan has a substantial number of young medical graduates, who would be happy to work in rural areas if work conditions and emoluments, including rural area incentives, were satisfactory.

The LHW network is to be expanded, to facilitate improved outreach of preventive, cost-effective healthcare, a fact particularly important for vulnerable young mothers and children. Immunisation programmes for children against major communicable diseases, and for mothers-to-be against tetanus, are to be expanded. Further preventive measures include accelerated programmes for TB Control, HIV/AIDS, hepatitis, and improvement of maternal and neonatal health. Hospital-based tertiary care is to receive specific funding

Plans are to provide clean drinking water to a larger population, via filtration plants established throughout the country. This can make a dent in the currently high incidence of diarrhoeal disease but only if this facility reaches the poor.

The budget mentions increased allocations for family planning, but details are still awaited about innovative programmes. This is important particularly because of its close linkage to maternal and child health and development. High birth rates, linked often to barely adult young mothers leave women weakened, exhausted, overworked and susceptible to disease. High population growth contributes to poor health, burdens the public health system and is a significant reason for the present economic and development crisis. Inexplicably, the cost-effectiveness of the electronic media in spreading awareness about simple healthcare measures has not yet been fully explored.

The critical economic situation and the high levels of poverty are likely to push more people below the poverty line, into growing malnourishment. A major illness or a serious accident can reduce a family from middle- to lower middle-class level, or to a poor or even subsistence level existence, particularly if public health facilities cannot provide the expected care.

Given the economic crisis, and possibly forthcoming IMF conditions, budgetary cuts may be required, but they must not affect the health and social sector. Any further erosion of the health sector budget could lead to calamitous consequences. Right now, except for rapid population growth, which itself is adding to greater economic and developmental stress, human development in Pakistan is almost at a standstill.

A bailout for schools

By Polly Curtis


THE British government will nationalise recession-hit private schools by turning them into state-funded academies, ministers have confirmed.

Headteachers predict that some struggling fee-charging schools will seek to join the scheme to stave off closure, as more parents desert the private sector.

There are warnings, too, that thousands of pupils may seek places at already-stretched state schools this September if private schools fail.

The schools minister, Jim Knight, said the government would consider applications for academy status from fee-charging schools affected by the downturn in areas where there was demand for more school places.

Anthony Seldon, the headteacher of Wellington College, said becoming an academy would not be the “move of choice” for many private schools, but it could be their only option. Teachers’ leaders said it amounted to a “bailout” for failing private schools.

Five private schools, including two in Bristol, have already joined the academies scheme and another is to follow in September. In areas with many private schools, competition is fierce.

Under the programme, private schools in England can convert to academy status by dropping fees and entry tests, and promising to comply with the admissions code and teach the core national curriculum. They gain state funding but retain more independence around employing staff and their wider curriculum than other state schools.

Knight said: “The current economic situation might lead to a greater interest in the academies programme from independent schools. We will continue to consider applications from independent schools in areas where there is a need for additional good secondary school places, and where that independent school becoming an academy can support this goal.”

He insisted any private school joining the programme would have to adopt “fair, non-selective, admissions policies”.

Local authorities are already warning of an influx of pupils who would normally have gone to private schools. In west London, councils report record applications for state schools this year. An Audit Commission report last month revealed a surge, triggered by families wanting to take their children out of fee-paying schools, with London worst hit.

John Dunford, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, thought it likely that some schools would approach the government. “In the recession, the numbers applying to private schools will inevitably fall. Some independent schools will choose academy status rather than closure.”

Seldon said: “In some cases, it’s possible schools will want to become academies. There are benefits — above all, avoiding closing down.

Nearly 600,000 pupils attend private schools, around seven per cent of the total school-age population. Private school numbers held up in 1991, the first full year of the last recession, but then fell and took seven years to recover. They have since climbed to levels not seen since the 1960s. Over the same period, academic results in the state sector have also improved substantially, in some cases rivalling private schools.

The five private schools which have become academies say their conversions were not prompted by financial troubles, but two are in Bristol, which has among the highest concentrations of private schools in the country.

— The Guardian, London