A business-friendly anti-poor budget that leaves the well-heeled out of the tax net
“Politics is the gentle art of getting votes from the poor and campaign funds from the rich, by promising to protect each from the other”
–American labour organiser, writer and columnist Oscar Ameringer
To put it plainly the newly-elected PML-N’s budget is soft on the business class and hard on the common man. Many had expected this, for Mian Nawaz Sharif is a member of the business community and had shown a marked tilt towards business-friendly policies in his earlier stints in power.
Being business friendly is alright as long as one does not ignore the malpractices of the business community – especially those that go against national interests, to the extent of making the governments to seek loans. One also expects from a party elected by 14,874,104 voters, overwhelmingly comprising the poor and middle class, that it would not make policies that hurt the common man.
The government needs extra taxes to run the country and has set an ambitious target in the budget to finance an economic revival. Instead of burdening the rich and the mighty, it is putting most of the weight on the man in the street. Obviously it lacks either the will or courage to confront powerful lobbies, particularly those for which the party in power has a soft corner.
As things stand it is the ordinary man who will have to bear the burden of the new taxes despite the pitch having been already queered against him. Power shortages have hit him the hardest as he does not have the means to acquire generators etc. The shortages have led to industrial slowdown, thus adding to the number of the unemployed. The common man is also harassed by inflation. The factors have sent more and more people down the poverty line. Still the man in the street is being required to pay additional taxes.
The budge has considerably increased indirect taxes. The GST has been raised from 16 per cent to 17 per cent. This implies a universal increase in the prices of goods which would hit everyone including the poorest living on doles. A day after the announcement of the budget, petrol prices were increased by petrol pumps in Karachi without waiting for a government notification. A new wave of inflation is going to hit the country in the days to come.
There is also a proposal to bring down subsidy on power and gradually increasing the electricity tariff for all consumers. While an organized section of the population like government employees can pressurize the government through strikes to raise their pay to enable them to cope with rising prices, the vast majority of the people have no means to seek relief.
The budget would also adversely affect sections of the middle class. After the administration’s failure to provide quality education in government managed schools and colleges, parents have been forced to send their children to expensive private educational institutions even though they could bear the expense with great difficulty. Now an adjustable advance tax at 5 per cent of fee will be collected by these educational institutions from the person paying the fee. Increasing the taxes on marriage halls will further burden the common man who cannot hold these functions in his small house.
A number of economists had recommended measures to bring under the net those among the supper rich who continue to evade taxes. The culprits include those who purchase luxury cars, own palatial houses, frequently travel abroad, hold multiple bank accounts and pay hefty utility bills yet fail to pay taxes
Figures collected by NADRA last year show only the tip of the iceberg. There are 1.611 million people who frequently embark on international tours but do not pay a single penny as income tax. About 584,730 Pakistanis have multiple accounts in domestic and multinational banks, but do not possess NTNs. Over 56,000 people live in posh areas and more than 20,000 people own luxury cars, still pay no income tax. There are 66,736 individual consumers who pay large utility bills, but no income tax. More than 13,000 people have licences of both prohibited and non-prohibited weapons, but they do not possess an NTN. There are 25,130 people who are engaged in lucrative professions like medicine, engineering, law and chartered accountancy, but they do not pay a single penny as income tax. Nearly three million people possess a National Tax Number (NTN), but only 1.4 million of them filed income tax returns last year.
The PML-N rules Punjab where the tax to GDP ratio is lowest in the country. If it could persuade the Punjab Assembly to impose agricultural income tax, it would increase the ratio while it would also encourage other provinces to enforce the measure. But the PML-N government has no appetite to persuade or confront their landowning MPAs. Lack of political will stands in the way of taking a measure that would bring funds to the national kitty without causing problems to the common man.
The PML-N had conducted a campaign against Zardari’s corruption. It maintains that it is still committed to bringing back the looted wealth from Switzerland. Such claims sound hypocritical when over a million super rich who have amassed fortunes by defrauding the nation are not required to cough up what they are supposed to surrender to the national kitty under law?
There was no proposal to end the SRO culture in the budget. The SROs provide exemptions in taxes to the ruling parties’ financiers, cronies and powerful lobbies. The cost of such tax waivers and exemptions is in excess of Rs150 billion a year. As Shahid Kardar has put it, “The abuse of such discretionary powers has enabled inefficient producers to thrive at the expense of us unfortunate, hapless consumers who pay a heavy price for keeping afloat producers who are not competitive internationally.” According to the former Governor, State Bank of Pakistan, “the SROs encourage monopolies and discourage foreign capital which is shy of operating in an environment muddied by such concessions.”
The government is also not willing to annoy the powerful armed forces. The new budget marks a 10 per cent increase in defence budget. In fact defence gets much more than is shown in the annual budget. The pensions of the retired servicemen are outside the document. The periodic needs of the army require further allocations which are made after depriving other sectors of part of their allocated funds.
The claim to break the begging bowl therefore sounds hollow. While funds can be generated by taxing the rich and the powerful, the government would prefer to knock at the door of the IMF. By extending the tax net to the largest and richest section of the tax evaders soon after taking over with a solid mandate, the government would have met with little resistance. In the days to come the task would become increasingly difficult.
The writer is a political analyst and a former academic.
Who killed Israr Pehelvi?
In what was a shocking development, a man was found dead in the late hours of Wednesday night in the Parliament House, Islamabad. The Parliament House, where the National Assembly of Pakistan had met a few hours before the body was found, was the scene of budgetary discussions as the new government presented its first budget for the coming fiscal year. According to reports the man identified as one Israr Pahlavi, was stabbed in the back repeatedly before he succumbed to the wounds and died.
According to initial medical reports I. Pahlavi was killed around eight hours before his dead body was found. This makes the estimated time of his murder to be somewhere around late-afternoon, which in turn means that when Pahlavi was being stabbed in the back, the entire National Assembly was present in the Parliament.
Israr Pahlavi, 58, a man of Persian-Baloch origin, was an energy expert who had been touted as the man to solve the energy predicament of countries like Pakistan, India and even Bangladesh. After he was denied Indian visa in 2009, Pahlavi’s focus remained on solving Pakistan’s gas predicament and over the past couple of years he had managed to draw the roadmap of recovery for Pakistan’s energy and finance sectors. Despite having been threatened on numerous occasions, and having been attacked in January this year, Pahlavi’s murder has come as a shock for the region.
After thorough investigations on Thursday, the police, detectives, and the intelligence agency aren’t any closer to identifying the murderer. The members of the National Assembly are the first ones under suspicion of course, since they were in the Parliament House when Pahlavi was being stabbed. Even so, it is also a possibility that someone from outside might have sneaked inside the Parliament House and murdered him. Then there is the chance of someone having killed Pahlavi outside the Parliament House and hid the body inside to frame the National Assembly. A look at the collected evidence might give us a clearer picture.
According to the initial forensic analysis the weapon used for the murder was a GOS knife. The GOS Specialty Knives have their headquarters in Washington, and are renowned for exporting daggers and knives to all parts of the world. However, the follow-up forensic report revealed that when Pahlavi was stabbed, he’d already been poisoned owing to a venomous snakebite. The snake under question is said to be the Arabian cobra. Doctors say it is difficult to determine whether the cobra’s poison had spread sufficiently for the man to be dead by the time he was stabbed and there is still a fair chance that the fatal wound might have come from the GOS knife.
Being an energy expert, with the key to solving Pakistan’s escalating energy troubles, Israr Pahlavi’s murderer obviously seems to be someone who is against the country finding its feet in the realm of energy. However, when one digs into Pahlavi’s origin and his past, one realizes that it’s not quite as simple as that.
Israr Pahlavi was of Shia origin, and with the well-documented Shia genocide in Pakistan, his murder could have been a part of the Shia killings. Every time a Shia is blatantly murdered in Pakistan, the fingers inevitably point at banned organisations that spread anti-Shia sentiments in the country. With the Salafists trying to ensure that their ideology becomes ubiquitous in the country, it is pretty obvious that there are people and organisations that wouldn’t want Pakistan to be dragged out of the energy quagmire by a Shia.
Another motive behind Israr Pahlavi’s murder could be the fact that he was charging a lot for his services. Pahlavi, a daredevil at heart, was playing with the proverbial fire as he promised to single-handedly solve the energy puzzle amid antagonism galore, and hence, fittingly he cost a lot. And this is where Tachmukhammet Aziz Pena Italmaz, comes into the frame. T.A.P. Italmaz, was the second energy expert who was being considered for appointment in lieu of Pahlavi. Italmaz, a Turkmen-Afghan, might not be as qualified as Pahlavi but he has enough credentials to solve the gas shortage in the country, and also charges a lot less than what Pahlavi demanded. Italmaz might have benefited a lot from Pahlavi’s murder but the fact remains that he could have worked in tandem with the deceased to help ease out the energy crisis in Pakistan.
The next suspect is Ulrich Sam, the underground king of the energy mafia, whose family has ruled the roost over oil and gas since the 1860s. It is well documented that Sam preferred Italmaz over Pahlavi, since the latter refused to bow down to his bullying. Some people actually say that Italmaz was installed as the puppet in the South Asian energy game by Sam. Ulrich Sam had every reason to do away with Pahlavi, since it would ensure that his control over the region remains intact. It has also been reported that Sam keeps a huge collection of GOS knives at his place.
Another suspect is a leading industrial magnate, who is known by the pseudonym ‘Man of Steel’. The ‘Man of Steel’ is a businessman and had nothing personal against Pahlavi. However, his presence in the energy and finance sector wasn’t acceptable to the industrialist’s foreign investors. Who knows, the fear of being deprived of investment might have compelled the ‘Man of Steel’ to do something he might never have wanted to do otherwise. The sting in the tale is courtesy the fact that the ‘Man of Steel’ is also a member of the National Assembly.
The last of the major suspects is Sheikh Asadullah. Asadullah owns one of the biggest oil supply companies in the world and is hence, a leading player in the energy game all over the globe. Furthermore, a lesser known fact is that he is also the mastermind behind the spread of anti-Shia sentiments around the world. And therefore Asadullah had not one, but two huge motives, to do away with Pahlavi. The Sheikh is also fond of keeping snakes as pets.
One might want to examine the suspects individually, but the fact remains that all of them are bizarrely intertwined, in one way or the other. Sam is Asadullah’s chum and the man who installed Italmaz in Pakistan. Asadullah supports the banned anti-Shia organisations in Pakistan and is said to be a leading investor of the business of the ‘Man of Steel’. The ‘Man of Steel’, an MNA present in the Parliament House when Pahlavi was killed, has political connections with the banned organisations and is financially depended on Sam and Asadullah.
With every single suspect having a strong motive to kill Israr Pahlavi and being linked with one or more of the other suspects, the murder mystery has become an intriguing web of suspicion. The murder has a political, economic, ethnic, religious and diplomatic backdrop; and with so many likely murders it is becoming increasingly difficult to figure out who killed Israr Pahlavi.
The writer is a financial journalist and a cultural critic. Email: email@example.com, Twitter: @khuldune
‘Third World’ through the prism of development
It has been a decade of global gloom – terrorism is on the rise, economies have reached pitfalls and there is a general air of unrest. The idealism that characterised past decades is long gone and it has become increasingly difficult to talk about revolution, ideological movements and development with the same confidence with which intellectuals and radicals once spoke on these crucial matters. It is as if the neat discourses of 1960’s – the high decade of both development and revolution– have been suspended on their rise to their summit, leaving only a trace of their glorious path behind. Instead, a new discourse about the ‘crisis of development’ has set in; one that is faced with questions about hegemony, identity politics, gender dynamics and radical pluralism.
In terms of recent history, development has been understood as capital and technological advancement and the respective policy and planning mechanism that facilitated the materialisation of such change. Although the failure of many traditional development schemes has provoked us to conceive alternative models and designs for social change, it is hard to separate the concept development from the Western imaginary. Even today, the future ‘developed’ society is based on a Western capitalist model of progress. As it has become clear, development is not simply an instrument of economic control over the Global South (Africa, Asia and Latin America), it is also an invention and strategy produced by the ‘First World’ about the inferiority of the ‘Third World’. On a global scale, development is one of the primary mechanisms through which the ‘Third World’ is imagined or has imagined itself, thus undermining and precluding other ways of seeing.
The very concept of the ‘Third World’ hinges on development discourses and practices that idealise Western modernity. As renowned analyst Arturo Escobar puts it, “Development can be best described as an apparatus that links forms of knowledge about the Third World with the deployment of forms of power and intervention, resulting in the mapping and production of ‘Third World’ societies.” Michel Foucault’s notion of power comes into play here as development constructs and governs the Third World discreetly, without people noticing it. Through this discourse, individuals, governments and communities are characterised as “underdeveloped” and treated as such. The vision of development, as we understand it, “goes back only as far as the post-war period, when the apparatuses of Western knowledge production and intervention such as the World Bank, the United Nations, and bilateral development agencies were globalised and established new economies of truth” (Escobar).
Development shares features with other colonising discourses and has emerged as a powerful tool for the production and management of the Third World in the post-1945 era. As the United States emerged as a superpower, the knowledge-production system was designed to suit North American sensibility. ‘Third World’ countries were controllable – new strategies and programmes were designed for their alleged benefit and they became objects of knowledge that in turn opened up new possibilities for power. The new programmes and policies that characterised development at large – the Green Revolution, macroeconomic policy, rural development – were all rooted in the same basic notion: progress is about paving the way for conditions that characterise rich societies such as industrialisation, mechanisation and urbanisation.
Development existed by creating hegemonic categories that portrayed “Third World” populations as ‘poor’, ‘malnourished’ ‘illiterate’ ‘oppressed’ and sought to rectify these conditions. For the Global North, these signifiers of oppression captivated the very essence of what the “Third World” was, downplaying cultural, class and ethnic differences and consolidating disparate societies into a single group. Seeking to eradicate problems, the “First World” interference multiplied them indefinitely as the same model of growth could not possibly be sustained across a range of countries.
After analysing the past, the post-development era requires the rejection of the entire paradigm of development based on the monopolisation of power and knowledge by a select few. The new movement for reformation should be rooted in local autonomy, with an interest in regional culture, politics and economics, and the defence of localised, pluralised grass roots movements for social change. Escobar wisely offers, “What is at stake is the transformation of political, economic and institutional regime of truth production that has defined the era of development.” Social movements would then seek to question and weaken stereotypical notions about “Third World” identities and displace understandings of modernity. While a critical understanding of development strategy is required, seeking an alternative to development also calls for an awareness of the actions of social movements. Social movements that are organic do not merely reflect or react to a crisis but have to be understood in the system of organisation that they themselves produce.
“If I knew for certain that a man was coming to my house with the conscious design of doing me good, I should run for my life… for fear that I should get some of his good done to me.”– Henry David Thoreau
The writer is a staff member of Pakistan Today and holds a degree from Mount Holyoke College.
Would Pakistan’s corporate media televise a revolution?
Sometimes events in a foreign context open up space to look into a local reality. When the recent spate for protests broke out in Istanbul’s Taksim Square on May 31, following a brutal police crushing of an environmental activist sit-in to prevent the commercialization of a park, mainstream Turkish TV stations, including the MNSBC-affiliated NTV and CNN Turk did not cover them.
An article in The Guardian asks the question, “How come the news did not get out even though all major media outlets had live transmission vehicles on the ground, and reporters were trying to do their job – being tear-gassed and subjected to police violence in the process?” The article goes on to state that “the answer lies in the ownership structure of the main media companies and government interference with editorial policy. All major media groups in Turkey are now part of larger corporations with diversified interests ranging from banking to the hospitality sector.”
For those aware of the intricacies of the Pakistani media, the ownership structure and the finance structure of the news industry in the Pak-land can be said to replicate a similar pattern. Therefore the question that emerges from Turkey can be asked in the context of Pakistan too. The neoliberal turn of the State, both visible in Pakistan and Turkey (also now business partners with Turkish private companies being given preferential contracts in Pakistan), was supposed to have made it more open and easier to criticize. In fact it has translated into a much more opaque context, in which neither the State nor the working of private capital are considered under the purview of the media. The new neoliberal state is in fact harder to criticize as it combines the carrot-and-stick offered by private companies with the whim of the state’s writ.
Some examples of the situation in Pakistan are due, where a ‘media revolution’ is supposed to have freed up the media to criticize ‘anyone and everyone’.
One of the most critical examples is a telephony giant. In at least two English newspapers a moratorium was placed on news stories or op-eds critical of its controversial privitisation process. This was after columns appeared in both newspapers critical of selling the once profitable state entity. The company’s media cell had made it clear to both papers that it would “no longer give them ads”. When the advertiser, even though it makes losses and covers them with public funds, refuses ads, it speaks the language that editors in mainstream media hear.
Similar media management was seen in how another privatized electricity company in Karachi managed the media to report against its striking workers in 2011. Resorting to the most brutal forms of violence, including hiring gangsters and former intelligence agency officials, the company offered both ads to newspapers and television channels (directed against the workers) and took around 23 journalists on an all-expenses paid tour of its Abu Dhabi headquarters. Back in the day this newspaper printed the then COO of the company admitting to as much seated at his temporary office at a golf resort in Karachi.
One of the classic cases is of purposeful misrepresentation of the Baloch nationalist movement. While the Baloch nationalists have long since established their bases in non-sardar areas in southern Balochistan, whenever (if at all) the mainstream media wishes to take the “Baloch opinion”, they call on the sons of sardars in exile, such as Harbayar Marri or Brahamdagh Bugti. The choice of ‘sardar’ or ‘sardar-affiliate’ to represent the Baloch cause is to reify the narrative built in the Punjabi/Pakistani imaginary: ‘Sardars are evil. Balochistan is full of sardars’. And thus that bombing them and killing and dumping Baloch in the name of the federation is ‘justified’.
As a political party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) does the task of keeping the media’s mouth shut the best. It micro-manages stories and offers ads in exchange for stopping a story. Only recently a media organistion stopped a story exposing rule violations in the pet Daanish Schools project in exchange for an ad campaign. A reporter told this writer when a major exclusive against the PML-N government in Punjab was blocked that ‘he would rather take a car from the party in question the next time’.
Some personal examples should illustrate the case in point. In one of the newspapers I have contributed I was criticised for naming names of organisations that funded it; in another there was an explicit ban on criticising the PML-N, the MQM, various multinational companies, the country’s largest real estate magnate, while another held onto an article regarding a private university of Lahore’s janitors tussle for two weeks before deciding not to run it. The problem at each end was the same: advertisers.
And while it is true that the question of media sustainability is a genuine one – with a number of media organizations in Pakistan and around the globe crippled by financial constraints – but the fact is that the moment you become advertiser is the moment you are no longer criticised. This is part of the reason why barely any ‘negative stories’ are published against multinational corporations. This writer has had stories against one multinational (‘drenching water supplies’) while another one involving another multinational (‘cracking down on unions’) rejected on the grounds of these companies being ‘major advertisers’.
The ‘spotless, clean and do-gooder’ image of the multinational employee is built upon a close micromanagement of the relationship between advertising in the right amounts and preempting negative stories and ‘nipping them in the bud’ as it were. Again, another specific example is due. A senior editor told this writer that when a fire broke at the Auriga Centre in Lahore, housing a wireless telephony company’s corporate office and the blame was put on the organisation, it asked all major newspapers to publish ‘its version’ and promised a front page ad as incentive.
While the situation in Pakistan is perhaps not as bad as Turkey, where 33 journalists are under arrest, it remains the “most dangerous place for journalists” with an equal number or more dead. Of course there is a difference between Turkey and Pakistan. While the police clampdown on protestors in Turkey was not televised or printed at all in the Turkish press, in Pakistan, at least the press dared to air brutally beating up protestors and entering their houses and humiliating their families after a protest against the outages by power loom workers in Faisalabad this Wednesday. However, the brutality against the protestors and their families did not make it onto the debate shows.
While self-proclaimed revolutionaries like Imran Khan or Tahirul Qadri, who call for nothing but an adjustment within the system, can be projected to be the ‘next big thing’ within no time, it is the actual working class resistance on the ground that gets marginal coverage in niche spaces within the media. And so we must return to the rhetorical headline and ask: will the Pakistan media televise a real revolution? The answer – and I do ask my friends and colleagues in the media to undertake a sober assessment – is no..
The writer is the general secretary (Lahore) of the Awami Workers Party. He is a journalist and a researcher. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
Of the kind that makes everyone proud
Two events this past week pushed me to reflect on my community and the trajectory of our progress in American life.
On Wednesday, after delivering a briefing for the Arab League ambassadors on developments in Washington, one ambassador asked me a rather pointed question about the Arab American community – our organizations and accomplishments.
I answered the question, I hope to his satisfaction, noting the progress we had made during the past four decades: organizing ourselves and securing our identity; defending our heritage against defamation and ourselves against discrimination; and developing the capacity to provide services and support to our community.
A better answer to the ambassador’s question sat around a table the next day as my office hosted a luncheon for our summer interns. Sixteen in all, they are an impressive group. Most are Arab Americans, diverse in their backgrounds – Christian and Muslim, native born and recent immigrants from a variety of Arab countries. Some of our interns have come to us directly from the Arab World – Yemen, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, and Tunisia. And there are a few who are not of Arab descent, but who have come to learn more about our community and our work.
This year’s collection of interns – graduates from prestigious colleges and law schools – were selected from hundreds of applicants seeking an opportunity in public service. One intern is working at the US Mission to the United Nations. Four have taken posts at Washington think tanks. Still others are working in Congress, media institutions, and advocacy groups.
To understand what this outstanding group of committed young folks means to an old-timer like me, I must take you back three and one-half decades to when I first came to Washington to run the Palestine Human Rights Campaign – a group I had co-founded in 1977. Back then, there were only four Arab Americans working in community-based organizations in Washington. Most think tanks and advocacy groups who worked on our issue concerns had no Arab Americans on staff.
To be quite blunt about it, back in the 1970’s, there really wasn’t much of an Arab American community. Most people of Arabic descent didn’t even identify as “Arab American”. Instead, they used their country of origin, or religion, as their preferred self-identifier.
It is important to understand what has been accomplished since then. We’ve built institutions that have, first and foremost, enabled us to define ourselves as a community. In the process of doing this, we had to face down many challenges: some internal – from those who wanted to emphasize our differences of religion/sect/country-of-origin; and others external—from those who made a determined effort to exclude us and side-track our efforts to be recognized and included in the mainstream. One simple measure of our success can be demonstrated by our polling which shows that in just the last twenty years, the percentage of people of Arab descent calling themselves “Arab American” has doubled.
We also developed the capacity to provide services that have enabled us to: defend those whose rights have been violated; assist recent immigrants with basic needs; use our established networks to help young Arab Americans advance in government and public service; work with local communities to develop strategies that will support their empowerment; and defeat those who seek to defame our heritage or exclude us from full participation in civic life. And finally, and maybe most importantly, we have been able to elevate public service, especially service to the community, as a career option for hundreds of young dedicated Arab Americans.
The Washington I see today is dramatically different than the city I came to 35 years ago. Today we have two vital national Arab American organizations – the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) and the Arab American Institute (AAI). Next weekend ADC and AAI will host a joint meeting during the ADC Convention. They have invited the participation of over 40 local Arab American groups in an effort to foster coordination on programs and policy matters of shared concern.
Most major think tanks and important advocacy groups now have Arab Americans in residence or on staff. We are part of coalitions dealing with foreign and domestic policy concerns something that was denied to us three decades ago. And most significantly, there are Arab Americans working, at all levels, in every branch of government, at most major think tanks and advocacy groups, and playing leadership roles in both political parties.
To be clear, we are fully aware of our limitations and areas where we have not met goals we set for ourselves. But we also recognize what we have, in fact, accomplished. A friend with a slightly more negative take on our work once chided me saying “Zogby, let’s just say you see the glass half full, and I see it half empty’”. I did not agree with that characterization and responded, “a better way to look at our progress is to remember that just a short time ago we didn’t even have a glass. Now we do, and we’re filling it up, slowly but surely”.
And so to those who say “what have you done?” I am proud to say “come to our offices and ask our interns why they are there and what they are doing”. Despite hailing from a rich variety of backgrounds – with families from every part of the Arab World – they have come together with a commitment to serve their community. That consciousness, that commitment, and those opportunities to serve didn’t even exist 35 years ago. Now they do and, as a result, good work is being done by and for Arab Americans. That is the kind of progress of which we can all be proud.
The writer is President, Arab American Institute.
Monsanto dugs its heels in Pakistan
Coming from a politician or bureaucrat, it wouldn’t have been surprising. But it was unexpected from the Vice Chancellor of Faisalabad University of Agriculture when he claimed that GMOs would “bring about a new green revolution based on biotechnology, precision agriculture and climate change.” As if the first Green Revolution wasn’t bad enough! If it was for citizens’ benefit, why wasn’t Dr Iqrar Ahmad Khan addressing sustainable farmers and concerned citizens, instead of briefing diplomats from 24 countries? That fit more into loaded trade and investment talks, not a country’s delicate agricultural security.
Dr Khan offers no evidence based on local research whatsoever to prove that GMOs are “a great and safe invention that would enhance crop productivity”. He seems oblivious of the fact that even GM seed-producing corporations don’t make that claim.
“Where is the independent data which shows that GM Corn would increase average yield?” demands Ijaz Ahmed Rao, professional farmer, graduated from Australia, “Data from USDA clearly shows that despite GM technologies (Insect-resistant (Bt), Herbicide-tolerant, Stacked gene varieties), yields in USA have not increased since 1987!”
Rao sounds an alarm the government must note – that Pakistan’s corn exports to Europe and elsewhere would be seriously affected as they import non-GM corn and corn products from Pakistan at premium rates and on bases of certification. Far from boosting Pakistan’s output and earnings, Bt corn would be the ideal weapon to destroy our exports to Europe which recently banned Monsanto and other GMOs, with ongoing plans to wipe them out completely.
Similarly, sans evidence, Dr Khan claims that Bt (GM) cotton increased productivity while pesticide-application was reduced in Pakistan. Strange indeed, when in the rest of the world – including USA, the heaviest GM user – it rapidly lost resistance to pests and required increasing amounts of pesticides, now multiplied several-fold.
He disregards India’s terrible 15-year experience with Monsanto’s Bt cotton that, with Monsanto’s overpriced products and unfair practices, led to over 300,000 suicides since 1995, making India the world’s farmers’ suicide centre. Should we be joining their ranks?
Indeed, Dr Khan ignores Monsanto’s long and ignominious history around the world – originally a chemical corporation that co-supplied 19 million gallons of herbicide to defoliate Vietnam’s forests and crops on 4.5 million acres over 11 years, killing or maiming 400,000, causing half a million deformed children born, helpless and dependant for life, and two million cancer cases. After diverse other ventures, Monsanto got into GM seeds which are ‘successful’ only if Monsanto’s accompanying poisonous chemicals are heavily sprayed.
While appearing to promote Monsanto’s planned launch of ‘Herbicide Resistance Corn’, Dr Khan was blind to the dangerous ground he was treading on. Chemically-grown food crops have already lost nutritive value and led to malnutrition, in both South countries and USA.
Because it wasn’t reported here, the VC probably doesn’t know that on May 25, over two million participants in 436 cities across 52 countries, protested against Monsanto, demanding it gets out from everywhere. This, apart from the long-standing, ongoing “Millions against Monsanto” campaign that informs and brings together concerned citizens and activists globally.
Or that the Carnival of Corn in Mexico City coincided with and joined the global protest. Mexico was the cradle of corn boasting thousands of corn varieties; it needed no more, let alone GM corn, from outside. But their own president sold his country out to Monsanto and other GM corporations, just as Bush and Obama did the same to their people. In country after country, it was not the merit of the product but officials that succumbed to tempting lures.
And last week Japan and South Korea cancelled huge contracts for US wheat when it was revealed Monsanto’s unapproved GM seeds had contaminated vast farmlands in USA.
Monsanto dug in its heels in Pakistan over a decade ago since Musharraf’s time. The General probably didn’t understand agriculture which may have made it easy to sway him. His regime unilaterally sanctioned corporate farming, which is increasingly pursued with GM seeds. The timing was significant.
When Musharraf’s rule ended, the PPP government dealt an unexpected shock when Mr. Gilani’s very first speech as prime minister ended with the incongruous announcement – having nothing to do with his political statements – that they had decided to let Monsanto in. Clearly, political changes did not undo special interests. Since then, ceaseless crises in Pakistan have kept attention diverted from Monsanto activities in Pakistan.
Dr Khan should remember the ‘Precautionary Principle’ – unless he’s excluded ecology from agriculture – and investigate the extent of unchecked contamination in Pakistan. GM monoculture threatens to wipe out what’s left of our biodiversity without which even GM can’t continue, will further chemical-drench and kill our deteriorating farmlands, while he risks being remembered among the short-sighted responsible for near-extinction of species.
If the pledges are not met
The euphoria of democratic transition is gradually giving way to the realities of domestic politics and foreign policy. Every sector of governance is beset with problems that are multi-dimensional and interconnected with one another.
The ordinary people were told before and during the election campaign by the PML-N leadership that their problems were not resolved because the PPP-led government was incompetent, corrupt and inefficient and that the problems of the common people would be resolved quickly by the PML-N.
Now, the people are not going to wait for two-three years for the benefits of the policies of the PML-N government to reach them. A basic principle of politics is that if the people are mobilized heavily on certain issues they can go out of control of the mobiliser if the bases of mobilization are not accommodated into the governance arrangements. Pakistan can therefore experience more internal turmoil and violence if the high sounding slogans raised during the election period do not materialize into policies and help to improve the quality of life of the ordinary people.
The puritanical political ideologies that make people wait for total societal transformation have declined in Pakistani politics. The media and the political parties and groups are telling the people that Pakistan is ‘rich’ with resources and their socio-economic problems are caused because of corruption and mismanagement of the rulers. They have been mobilized for their rights without making them conscious of their corresponding duties. Consequently, the ordinary people have started judging the governments on the sole criterion of romanticized notion of good governance, an economy that provides material rewards and provision of civic facilities to the people.
The new federal and provincial governments, irrespective of their political identities, will face serious crisis in six months if they do not produce tangible results on the above issues. A failure to satisfy the people will make the people vulnerable to extremist appeals like that of the militant Islamic groups that pursue absolute control, violence and suppression to enforce their absolutist-tribal narrow vision of Islam. Though they tend to view them as an ideological Islamic entity these groups represent intolerance and violence to establish their absolute control devoid of any attempt for improving the quality of life for people. The people under their domain have to obey them unconditionally, leave their domain of authority or get killed. Such violent entities will increase in number in parts of Pakistan.
The scarcity of resources is a major challenge to the new government to satisfy people on the promises made during the election campaign. Pakistan does not have enough internal resources, hard cash, to run the state administration effectively and pursue societal development. This makes it imperative to prioritize domestic policies while not completely ignoring any sector.
The major focus should be on the domestic front because a country’s strength in world politics is derived mainly from internal political consolidation and economic resilience. Pakistan should work towards building peace on its border and creating normal working political and economic relations with immediate neighbours.
It is in Pakistan’s national interest to cope with the energy crisis (mainly electricity and gas shortages) to boost the economy. it should obtain energy from all domestic and external sources. Therefore, the prospects of getting gas and electricity from Iran and electricity from India need to be pursued. If Saudi Arabia and Qatar are making some offers for oil and gas these should also explored. However, if the energy offer from one country restricts Pakistan’s choice of getting energy from another country, this will adversely affect Pakistan’s national interest. No single country can underwrite Pakistan’s energy needs. Pakistan will have to explore different foreign sources simultaneously.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif held a major meeting on energy in Lahore on June 6. The decisions taken in this meeting reflect the government’s desire to cope with the energy crisis. However, all decisions will produce results in six months to two years. However, there was nothing significant in this meeting to show that the government was taking immediate steps to reduce the hours of electric load shedding from 12-18 hours a day to its half. This requires immediate funding to pay enough hard cash to the electricity generation companies to buy enough fuel to increase power generation.
The immediate improvement of electricity supply should be the highest priority because this will boost the economy and give relief to the people. How do they mobilize resources to pay for circular debt? The floating of bonds to get cash may be an option but this amounts to getting fresh loans for a government that is already burdened with loans and printing of notes.
If the federal government cannot reduce electricity load shedding by the beginning of Ramzan (second week of July), it will face street agitation. The reduction in load shedding will create space for medium and long term plans for socio-economic development and improvement of governance.
The increase in salaries and allowances in the next budget is no option for diverting attention from load shedding. Pakistan’s faltering economy cannot afford a big raise in salaries as was done in the past. Such an action wins some praise for the government but it adds to the government’s economic problems. The strategy of the government should be to make administrative expenditure cost effective, saving wastage and reducing unjustified facilities to top civilian and military officials.
There is an urgent need of giving enough representation to the provinces other than Punjab in the federal cabinet and other federal institutions. The PMLN mandate is heavily skewed in favour of the Punjab. Within that province the central and northern parts and especially the region from the city of Lahore to Rawalpindi/Hazara dominates high political positions, women for reserved seats and the composition of the federal cabinet. Out of 25 federal ministers and ministers of state, six belong to other provinces, mostly given lesser significant positions.
Nobody expects miracles from the government. However, it would be a mistake to assume that the people will wait and stay quiet for another 3-4 years for Pakistan’s economic recovery, significant decline in load shedding and improvement of law and order. The last election campaign has strengthened one-sided notion of citizenship. The people expect the state to provide them all kinds of services but they are hardly conscious of their responsibilities towards the state and society. This one-sided view of citizenship and expectations will be the major headache for the PML-N government.
The writer is an independent political and defence analyst.
Teachers complain about unfavourable work environment
While all political parties claim that they consider education to be a vital component of their policy agenda, their statements sound hollow, given their historical record and lack of political will. The problems in the education sector are real and do not show any signs of diminishing. While it is important to acknowledge some of the policies that have been implemented in the past, it is undeniable that these policies have not always achieved their objectives. It is important to identify the key issues before the policy-makers can design policies to improve the education sector. Here we are highlighting some of the self-reported problems faced by teachers.
When teachers, who play the most important role in the delivery of education, are dissatisfied with their profession, it speaks volumes about the current state of the education sector. As part of the campaign to raise awareness of the problems in the education sector, GEO invited its viewers to call and record their complaints which were then compiled by Alif Ailaan for the purpose of analysis. Around 1,300 teachers called in to express their grievances about the education system. The majority of the teachers (about 45 per cent) complained about governance issues, including job dissatisfaction and corruption in the education system. A sizeable proportion (around 20 per cent) complained about the poor infrastructure of the schools and its surroundings.
The majority of teachers’ complaints are about basic issues such as the poor conditions of the school buildings, uncertainty in the teaching career with unclear promotion structure and delayed salary payments, and lack of basic amenities for teachers.
Even though in Punjab there has been a recent drive to improve educational standards, including the introduction of Danish and Excellent Schools that are promised to be at par with schools such as Aitchison, a large number of complaints are still from Punjab (around 58 per cent of the total complaints). The nature of complaints shows that schooling system in Punjab has not overcome fundamental problems. Lack of books, desks, furniture, basic amenities and playgrounds form a regular feature of the complaints made by teachers in Punjab. In a developed city such as Lahore, it is surprising to find that some schools do not have libraries, labs and regular provision of books, despite being located in the urban part of the city.
In Lahore one of the teachers also complained about having no proper desks, hostel facilities, or drinking water in a school for the blind and disabled.
The Chief Minister’s initiatives in the Punjab such as the Debate, Speech and Essay Writing Competition in 2009-10 are praiseworthy but when viewed in context of the larger picture, where some students do not even have the requisite books it is debatable whether these initiatives are necessary. Deciding the right mix and the optimal timeframe for policies is one of the key steps required for the new federal and provincial governments to improve the current state of the educational sector.
The complaints regarding governance issues reveal the extent of corruption in this sector across all provinces. Teachers’ complaints suggest that there have been instances where some deserving individuals were not inducted into teaching service despite having achieved merit marks. Some of those who were in service for a while have had their terms terminated on pretexts such as lack of higher education even though they had completed their bachelors.
A few teachers also expressed their concern about corruption in the education department where teachers who have connections are favoured in cases of transfers, promotions and selection. Those who have strong connections are promoted to the position of Executive District Officer (EDO), District Education Officer (DEO) or head teachers, depending on the strength of his/her connections.
This rent seeking behaviour has also undermined the implementation of policies such as the rationalization policy in 2010 where teachers who had some influence did not let the transfer take place by either requesting the education department to stop the transfer or by filing court cases against the government at the high court and the service tribunal which ultimately forced the government to halt the implementation of this policy in some areas. Therefore, the government needs to cultivate its ability to withstand such pressures and eliminate rent seeking such that it is better able to implement fair recruitment, transfer and rationalization policies.
There are also complaints about the shortage of teachers in some schools which overburdens the teachers who are given the task to handle a considerably large number of students, often having to teach multiple grades at the same time. Although pre- and in-service training for teachers has been institutionalized under the Continuous Professional Development (CPD) framework, there are still gaps in the training system and teachers are not trained to handle such difficult situations.
There are additional reasons for teachers’ disinterest and lack of motivation at work. A few teachers complained about not receiving their salaries for the last six/seven months or not having the salary increase they deserved.
Although the governments have introduced incentive schemes for teachers, such as giving out monetary awards to teachers from best performing schools, these schemes have only benefited schools that were already performing well and have failed to alter the fundamental incentive structure for all teachers.
In a place where teachers face uncertainty about their promotion and delivery of salary, are distracted away from teaching due to multiple other tasks they are required to perform and face severe constraints due to poor support system and working conditions, it is hardly a surprise that teachers are not interested in teaching and thus perform poorly at work.
However, the government is not the only one to be held responsible for the poor state of the education sector. Some teachers also complain about the attitude of their colleagues, who are absent too often, are negligent in their duties or have been involved in unethical activities such as aiding some students to cheat on exams, or taking favours from the education department based on personal connections. Therefore, there is a part of the teaching community that shares the blame in undermining the standard of the education system in Pakistan.
It is hoped that the newly elected government will address issues of corruption at both departmental and school level and ensure clear, merit-based promotion systems, and proper and fair implementation of salary increases and payment delivery. In conjunction with this, the government should improve the infrastructure and facilities provided to the teachers to achieve better standards of education.
Neelum Maqsood is a Research Associate at the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives (IDEAS). She has an MPhil in Economics from the University of Cambridge. She is interested in research and policy analysis in the areas of labour economics and human development. Ammar Rashid is a development professional and an alumnus of LUMS. He is interested in political theory, populism and social movements.
Why taxing milk is an anti-people measure
Milk is one of the most important food items in Pakistan. Its presence is felt in all meals, at all times of the day. We drink it fresh, mix it in tea, boil it, use it to make yoghurt, lassi, butter, cheese, ice cream, and various other confectionaries. In point of fact, despite being the third largest producer of milk globally – at 46 million tons annually – Pakistan is still a net importer of milk.
Even so, there is huge potential for Pakistan’s milk production to grow to a point where it not only meets domestic demand, but allows for us to become net exporters. Indeed, the potential for Pakistan to become a major player in the global dairy industry is something that has been recognised by the government and legislators. Over the past decade, various concrete steps have been taken to help bolster Pakistan’s dairy sector. This ‘White Revolution’ has aimed at improving research facilities, training and capacity building of farmers, training veterinarians, improving the cold chain through milk chillers, promoting healthy pasteurised milk, developing model commercial dairy farms, focusing on breed improvement, facilitation of credit financing to dairy farmers, and linking rural based farmers to market mechanisms.
All these measures are expected to vastly improve Pakistan’s dairy sector. In fact, according to most estimates, the White Revolution is expected to target an annual production of 40 billion litres by the year 2015. As direct consequence of these efforts, and a positive business environment conducive to growth, existing milk producers have been encouraged to increase their production capacity, while several new brands – including some international players – have either entered the Pakistani dairy sector or have expressed their interest in doing so.
Having said so, the Pakistani dairy industry still has a long way to go before the country can see itself becoming a leading exporter of milk. In addition to continued support from the government and an atmosphere conducive to business and investment, Pakistan’s dairy sector requires a formal integrated roadmap to achieve the ambitious expectations of the White Revolution. Within the existing framework, many local dairy farmers remain unaware of how they can increase productivity – or in other cases are unable to implement the necessary methodologies. This is why on-the-ground training and workshops are essential. For centuries, our local farmers have used non-scientific methods to produce milk. For Pakistan to become competitive on a global scale, it is imperative that the dairy sector evolves along modern lines.
The continued development of Pakistan’s dairy sector can only take place, however, if the business environment remains one that encourages further investment and works towards incubating existing progress. Given the existing challenges – not to mention constant and increasing competition from international players – the imposition of sales tax on milk would discount the years of progress made by Pakistan’s dairy sector, eliminating much of the development made by the White Revolution. Another important factor to note is the effect of such taxation upon the affordability of milk by Pakistan’s lower income populations. Pakistan currently possesses one of the highest malnutrition rates in the world – and milk has traditionally been one of the few nutritious food items that the poor can buy.
Milk contains key minerals such as calcium, vitamins and iron, and is a source of various essential vitamins. In fact, in most developed countries, milk is zero-rated for tax as it is considered an essential food item for the family, especially children. In the average Pakistani household, milk is given even more importance than flour. The nutritional value of milk, combined with the need to make it affordable for the masses, is in fact one major reason why almost 80 per cent of packaged milk in Pakistan is sold in smaller packs, making it easier to purchase. Imposition of sales tax on milk would lead not only lead to an increase in the price of packaged milk, it would have a trickle-down effect on the cost of unprocessed milk. According to most experts, this will not only make milk less affordable for the vast majority of Pakistanis, it will also lead to an overall loss in revenue for the national exchequer due to a considerable decrease in sales volume for the dairy industry.
With all the progress that has been made over the decade, it is incumbent upon the new government to continue to encourage the growth and development of Pakistan’s dairy sector. Pakistan has always been a predominantly agrarian economy and the dairy sector is one area where we possess the potential to become global players to contend with. Given the domestic demand for milk – for both cultural and nutritional reasons – and the potential to become a major global player, it is therefore only logical that the government do all it can to continue to support the dairy sector and not take any myopic measures that may end up doing more harm than good.
The writer is director of the Pakistan Dairy Association, and an expert commentator on the dairy and FMCG industries with over 20 years of multinational experience
In the next 100 days, where we are headed shall be evident
The new government of Nawaz Sharif, creating history by being prime minister for the third time, has finally been sworn in. As has the first twenty-five member cabinet. The stage thus being set for delivery of the numerous promises made, some understandably just rhetoric therefore undoable, and establishing modalities to make the right beginning.
Nawaz’s cabinet has no surprises. It is mainly the inner core that has sat before him each day for the last five years on gilded furniture in the ample salons of the Raiwind residence. Unlike other parliamentary dispensations, Pakistan does not have a shadow cabinet and therefore no pre-disclosed policy. We shall discover anew apart from the tidbits collected and past history. The prime minister has stuck to his guns, by and large selecting a clean team barring perhaps shadows lurking over a couple. Time will tell.
The speech in parliament, post election as leader of the house, set forth the major priorities and sought to seek consensus on national issues. The onus having a simple majority is on the ruling party to strive for adequate representation to the provinces where other parties head governments. The formation of the NEC and its first intended session on Monday is the first step in this direction. With the budget this week quick decisions are required especially the PSDP – which figures strongly on the agenda.
No doubt the economy must be on the top slot of challenges facing the government. There are no quick fixes and the new finance minister will embark on the same road as those preceding him. Historically there is far too much government in Pakistan and non-development expenditure is colossal. The political configuration demands this and unless sacrifices begin at home it is unlikely that others will follow. The recent constitutional amendment does bring restrictions on numbers but there are ways to easily overcome this.
Perhaps the time is ripe to follow the norms and make the sacrifices as the new finance minister suggests. This may in the short term alienate support even from within government but is essential for the nation in the longer term. Ishaq Dar talked of the need for investment and revenue mobilization and the alarming figures of reserves and circular debt. The easiest way out is for government to ensure that big business pays its due taxes and does not hide behind accelerated depreciation and business “losses”. This would be step one in revenue growth to be followed by the seamless integration of the citizen into the tax net, relieving the burden on the salaried class. NADRA has a very developed database, one of the successes of the PPP government, and provides the basis for a creative integration.
It also needs to ensure that power in country is not subsidized and that industry and the privileged pay their actual power bills. Pakistanis want both, not to pay their bills and also to get power at subsidized prices. Circular debt can only be addressed if the energy sector is run on purely commercial terms. The fallacy that there isn’t sufficient installed capacity needs to be corrected. But yes, operational capacity due to large-scale mismanagement is below the required quantum. Investment is required in plant and machinery, in terms of balancing and modernization but more importantly in proper maintenance and optimum performance in the generation and transmission. The PM’s decision for conversion to coal is good but it carries a longer gestation period due to technical and logistic issues. Human resource is perhaps the single most important factor in recovery and restoration of the energy sector. The appointment of the right manager with the required mandate will be the first step in achieving targets.
The murmurings that government is considering change in shop timings are, for me at least, a very welcome step. I’ve spent a majority of the last four years in Bangladesh and there is nothing open after 8pm. Restaurants take last orders at 10pm. Sure there is a shortage of power but then they have adequately compensated with generators. Unlike us the majority live in apartments and therefore communal generators are installed. In the more prosperous areas blackouts are hardly felt. Changing habits is not hard; all it requires is commitment. Whether this is accepted across the entire country is the big debate. But the PML-N did change the Friday holiday, a courageous decision, and very successfully. We expect the same now.
As foreign minister the PM will set the agenda for diplomatic cooperation. He has suggested vide a communiqué to the FO that a policy based on economic diplomacy is the vision of this government. Much is required to actually bring investment to the country. Law and order is of prime importance. Retired government officials, civil and military, tend to live in antiquated bliss, especially after years in the wilderness. Every statement is punctuated by “When I was…” I doubt the value of such contribution. There could have been a significantly better choice as advisor.
Having done this, government could perhaps consider appointing a larger foreign policy think tank to assist Nawaz on current intricacies. The world has undergone a drastic change in the first thirteen years of the 21st century; it is this very duration that Nawaz has been out of the loop. The relations with the US and its allies will need handling with cotton wool, while maintaining dignity. The protests again drone attacks fall on deaf ears and it must be weighed how much effort and focus should be directed towards this. It is natural that the US will concentrate on securing its exit next year and will leave no stone unturned to ensure significant success. If it means drones then there will be drones and there is precious little that Pakistan can do to stop it. Relying on actions in 1998 and the consequences will be of no bearing. The world has definitely changed.
Focus and concentration on national progress and development is of essence. The Sharif brothers are builders. Pakistan can benefit greatly. Nawaz built the first real motorway, a great boon, and this has led to many kilometers being made available in the North. Shahbaz’ juggernaut starts at dawn. He has built a delivery network in the Punjab and things happen fast and furious. Now other provinces have to be cajoled and inspired into following suit. The PTI government in KP is likely to make a significant mark if difficult circumstances permit. It is their first chance and they will want to establish a record of good governance to strengthen their significant vote bank in the Punjab. Sindh and Balochistan have dismal development records. There is nothing on ground to show things will be any different.
Change is here and will evolve given space. History has been created in multiple terms. Parliament completed a full term. Elections were held successfully with a record voter turnout. A new party has won majority in a province. Power has been democratically and seamlessly transferred. Nawaz has become PM for the third time. By the time this appears in print, President Asif Zardari would have addressed the parliament for the sixth time. This is of great importance in a country befuddled by political intrigue and conspiracy.
Within the next few days, actually the first 100, of this government the emerging goalpost will be seen with more clarity. The moves to take effective control of the challenges and where it intends to lead us would by then be evident. There is hope, being the eternal optimist, but to secure a prosperous future for Pakistan and its people, sagacity, wisdom and a total closure on autocracy is required. That must define this government.
The writer can be contacted at: email@example.com
I love rhetoric. And why shouldn’t I? Rhetoric has always served me well. Those who have known me since the heydays of my public speaking career will vouch for the fact that my speeches, especially the ones in Urdu, were laced with rhetoric and I took pride in my ability to milk each and every speech to the fullest, often rehashing the same piece over and over again, a common practice in the public speaking circuit of Pakistan. A good orator finds the most effective and emotional rhetoric in the most unfortunate of circumstances. This may sound insensitive but had there been no Kashmir, Bosnia, Rwanda, Palestine or poverty, the declamation competitions all over Pakistan would have been a massive bore.
It’s not just me. We, Pakistanis, on the whole, love our rhetoric. In fact, there are very few things we love more than rhetoric; our insatiable desire to hog the limelight might be one; our ability to indulge ourselves in a bit of conspiracy theory, be it as a principal instigator or as a Chinese whisperer, is another. You throw these three in the mix and you have a potentially explosive and/or embarrassing scenario at hand. While most of us often get away with this proverbial foot-in-mouth disease, the 24/7 media outlets and the wonder that is the internet ensures that those who enjoy even the most insignificant of prominence on our national airwaves are made to relive their gaffes over and over again.
Ever since the boom of the private news channels in this country, we have had enough sound bites on our national airwaves to last us a lifetime.
Be it a former law minister who sometimes fails to control an itch on nation television or lashes out at a reporter after inexplicably misinterpreting the term ‘long arm of the law’ (ah Wasi Zafar, how I miss thee); or one female parliamentarian explaining the origins of the political career of another; or a former prime minister, while giving an interview to an international news outlet, asking the interviewer in what has to be the best example of when not to use rhetorical questions or how not to phrase them, as to why don’t all those who claim unhappiness at the state of Pakistan just leave the country; or this nation’s favourite multi-coloured tie enthusiast former interior minister appearing before dozens of journalists and cameras and stating with a straight face that the reason for the high number of killings in the largest city of the country was due to angry and vengeful girlfriends and wives (a whole new piece should be written as an ode to Mr Malik, the mothership of all quotable quotes); or a former world cup winning captain trying to explain to us how he plans on dismissing two batsman with one delivery; or the former chief minister of Balochistan equating a fake degree to a genuine one; or the chief minister of the most populated province wildly shaking the microphones a la Zulfikar Bhutto and abruptly walking off the stage at a function for no rhyme or reason, or choosing to sing a poem to prove a rhetorical point over and over again to the extent that the poet’s family issues a request to all politicians to completely stop using the poet’s pieces (at least Altaf Bhai provides us with a wider range of songs), or clips of the passionate CM promising to end the energy crises within six months, nine months, two years or three (I have lost count to be honest) only for his brother to come in to power and dispel the CM’s promises as statements made under josh-e-khitabat – formal Urdu for rhetoric; and the list goes on. Is it really a wonder why we get most of our entertainment from news channels?
What seems to be even more fascinating is how our politicians fail to learn from their mistakes. In collaboration with some of my friends who have a wealth of experience in devising political strategies, I pitched our services to a number of organisations including some of the mainstream political parties as political strategists and crisis management consultants. One aspect of our services was speech writing and preparing party members for their appearances on various television channels as guests or for other such interviews. What should be a necessary service in this day and age of electronic media was met with extreme reservation. We were advised in no uncertain terms that we had no business to coach elected representatives as to what they should say before the cameras. The main theme seemed to hinge around the question ‘how dare you?’.
While someone may still be excused for being outwitted by an interviewer on live television, one can simply not overlook statements made by anyone in writing. You may be caught off-guard by a tricky question or may fail to clearly express your point due to a lack of proper grasp of a particular language, mostly English as is the case with our politicians, on TV but you should be prudent enough not to state something in writing without giving it due thought. This is where the micro-blogging site Twitter exposes the ignorance and/or absurd views of some of our politicians.
In theory, the concept of interacting directly with your fans and followers is wonderful and keeps you in the loop as to their opinions about you. Hence, it is very tempting for our leaders to take up this forum. They often forget that all those who follow them may not be their fans or admirers and may just avail this opportunity to vent out their frustrations or just have fun at the politician’s expense and it is the reaction of our politicians to such a crowd that leads to further entertainment. An MNA from Faisalabad, for example, runs one of the most entertaining accounts on Twitter because his replies to such provocations are often laced with niceties that one cannot repeat in public. The fact that some of his relatives and party leaders are on Twitter as well and have yet to reprimand him openly lets one to believe that maybe they enjoy the show as well.
More often than not, the followers hang on to every single tweet or statement as testament to the writer’s own views on a subject. Take Mr Imran Khan’s latest tweeting sensation on the killing of the TTP leader, Wali-ur-Rehman, for example, and how the drone attack killing this ‘pro-peace’ leader of TTP let to the killings of our soldiers in retaliation. This naturally raises a number of questions. First and foremost, TTP has job opportunities for peace-loving leaders as well? Secondly, is the leader of the PTI justifying the attack on our own soldiers? Yes we know you dislike the drones and we ourselves believe that drones are wrong, but do you really need to elevate the status of a leader of an extremist militant organisation, which are in the business of killing people and do not acknowledge the constitution of your country, to prove your point? Why not just label him a shaheed and get done with it?
Till our politicians start being more responsible and prudent with their statements, they are a PR disaster waiting to happen. But maybe they enjoy it themselves. Maybe the spotlight, no matter how unflattering, is what they crave. Maybe the red light of the camera is too much of a temptation to turn down. Who knows? In the meanwhile, let the rhetoric flow. Let the entertainment go on.
The writer is an advocate of the high courts, a guidance and career counselor and a public-speaking coach. The views expressed here are his own. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
The new government’s energy policy
fter taking oath as Prime Minister of Pakistan for a record third time, the major policy initiative taken by Mian Nawaz Sharif is the decision to convert all thermal power plants into coal-powered power units to contain the burgeoning energy crisis that has put the industrial development in reverse gear besides adversely affecting the lives of the masses. He made this decision at a high level meeting called at Lahore to discuss the energy situation in the country, and which was attended by industrialists, CEOs of distribution companies, technocrats related to energy sector, officials of the Ministry of Water and Power and senior leadership of the PML-N. It was also decided to form a commission to look into the phenomenon of power theft and to suggest measures to eliminate the menace. Another decision made at the meeting was to remove the heads of WAPDA, PEPCO, managing directors and heads of distribution companies and to replace them with competent officers to get things moving in the right direction.
Ostensibly, the decisions taken at the meeting are very pragmatic, as tiding over the crisis requires a comprehensive strategy that adequately deals with issues pertaining to enhancement of electricity production, optimum utilisation of the already installed power generating capacity which is operating much below its potential, fixing financial variables hampering generation of electricity, managerial inadequacies and shortcomings, theft of electricity and above all rampant corruption in the power sector.
All these factors have contributed to the energy crisis in varying degrees and therefore a well-knit approach to grapple with all of them was needed simultaneously. Only the technical experts can tell how long it will take to switch-over to the coal generated electricity and at what additional cost but one thing is certain that the immediate benefit of this move would be that billions of dollars that are spent on the import of fuel for generating thermal power in the country will be saved besides reducing our vulnerability to the fluctuating oil prices at the international level. The money thus saved can be utilised to tiding over the problem of circular debt for now and forever. Notwithstanding the environmental concerns, the initiative is the best possible indigenous solution to our energy needs under the prevailing circumstances.
Thar, Sindh, has estimated coal deposits of 175 billion tones, sufficient enough to cater to our energy needs. According to the feasibility studies prepared on the coal deposits at Thar by Dr Samar Mubarak, Member Science and Technology, Planning Commission, these reserves can last well over 500 years and can be utilised to produce electricity, diesel and fertilisers. A 50 MW gasified unit is already in the process of being installed and likely to be operational very soon. Dr Samar believes that the success of this project will open the floodgates of foreign investment in Pakistan which is needed in the vicinity of US$ 175 billion. We also have coal in Balochistan.
Pakistan not only needs to overcome the present energy crisis but also needs to take care of its future needs to avert a similar situation in the future. According to IAEA, the demand for electricity in Pakistan is increasing by eight percent annually and by 2025, the country will require 49,078 MWs to meet its energy needs. That indeed is a very worrying situation. Apart from overcoming the power crisis in the short term by eliminating the circular debt and enhancing power generation through revitalisation of the existing installed capacity, we have to more than double the power generating capacity in the next 12 years to be able to conceive a sustainable development process in the country.
There is also an imperative need to take rational decisions on the energy-mix keeping in view the likely impact on our financial resources, reliability of supply and other relevant considerations. That element unfortunately has been missing in the past policy planning which has also contributed to the current energy situation. Some of the possible solutions to dealing with the problem of power outages that can possibly be employed are: the establishment of coal-based electricity units in every town and city catering to the local needs which can tackle the problem of line losses through the national grid and also increase the reliability factor of the electric supply. The government can ask and encourage the big industrial units to generate electricity for their own needs as is currently being done by a number of them. In most of the European countries, the big industries produce their own electricity for their plants and household consumption of their employees. This measure can reduce the burden on the national grid and spare sufficient electricity for smaller industrial units and households. Successfully dealing with power theft and corruption in the power sector and improvement in the management techniques and changing the prevalent culture of lack of initiative can also immensely contribute to improving the situation.
There is, however, an unqualified consensus at the global level that the energy security – without which no sustainable economic progress can be conceived – can best be secured by switching over to renewable energy resources which include wind energy, solar energy and hydel power. Pakistan has a potential of generating 150,000 MW wind energy, out of which nearly 40,000 MW can be produced from the Sindh coastal corridor, according to a report of the USAID. Similarly, there is an infinite potential for generating solar energy.
In view of the controversy over construction of Kalabagh Dam and a pall of uncertainty hanging over the Basha-Diamir Dam in regards to its financing and international reservations on its location, we have no choice but to tap the wind and solar energy resources besides utilising our indigenous coal reserves for generating electricity. How well we can capitalise on the availability of these resources and how we manage to raise the finances required to tap them, only time will tell. Nevertheless, it will require a well-thought out strategy with broad-based support and Nawaz Sharif probably seems fully mindful of this fact when he talks about keeping all the stakeholders on board.
Sharif keeps foreign, defence portfolios but stern tests lie ahead
Apparently, the decision by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to retain the portfolios of foreign affairs and defence is, politically speaking, an astute one. It puts him at rest about the two most sensitive jobs falling into ‘vulnerable’ hands.
Islamabad’s foreign policy has long been outsourced to the military with the foreign minister merely a figurehead, enacting the script as given. The gorgeous Hina Khar did a decent job of profiling the same, and with distinction. But no-one ever accused her of minding the store independently!
Shah Mehmood Qureshi, whom Khar succeeded, didn’t quite cover himself in glory as the PPP’s chosen one. The media widely reported him as going along with the security establishment in the Raymond Davis affair, for instance, where contrary to President Zardari’s keenness to see the CIA contractor released on account of ‘diplomatic immunity’, Qureshi resisted the move with a nod and a wink from Aabpara. He stuck his neck out for ‘national honour’, thereby annoying his party boss, who was eventually forced to lump it till such time the khakis wheedled out a deal with the Americans.
An aggravated Zardari merely pretended to swallow the insult, but soon forced a cabinet reshuffle in which Qureshi was demoted. But the MNA from Multan refused to have anything to do with the ‘unattractive’ agriculture ministry and before long quit the PPP altogether.
It is therefore, understandable for Sharif to have sweaty palms over it, and to keep the job with him. Obviously, the prime minister wants to be the master of his destiny by driving the relationship with important capitals like Washington, New Delhi, Kabul, Riyadh and Beijing – capitals with which, save for the last two, the military has a mind not necessarily in sync with Sharif.
The third-time PM wants to pursue an independent policy with India that banks heavily on trade. He understands that the surest way to divest Pakistan’s fragile democratic system of its military overreach is to turn the economy around, and for which, it is perhaps, crucial that Pakistan realizes the full potential of trade with India.
The spin-off would be that the two neighbours would per force have to normalize relationship in other spheres – even the revival of a bilateral cricket series in the true sense with India touring Pakistan has great potential to restore normal and peaceful ties. India has long been favourably disposed towards Sharif, who wants to capitalise on this as a great CBM.
Potentially, such a relationship will free up the eastern borders thus providing room to focus our energies elsewhere, purely in military terms. However, it is easier said than done with the security establishment ever so wary of New Delhi, and unsurprisingly, the military leadership has already reportedly ‘advised’ Sharif twice in the space of a fortnight or so to go slow.
Hina Khar wooed India with her gloss quotient, and even though it led to the clamour for a sustained composite dialogue no-one was fooled by where the honed script was coming from, and how much of a chance the PPP government had of breathing life into the process given its gingerly approach to issues it felt were not in its domain.
With Sharif, an industrialist-businessman to boot, there’s a fair chance there will be movement on this crucial area of Pakistan’s limited foreign options to kick start the economy by easing trade barriers.
The PML-N supremo also wants to have a handle on defence. Again, it is understandable both in terms of his past aborted stints in power and the immediate past where PPP’s Ahmed Mukhtar’s unimpressive record as defence minister thanks to near-total lack of control kept the civilian government majorly out of the loop.
Ideally, the defence minister should be the PM’s point man on military matters, but the PM himself taking charge of the Ministry of Defence is a stellar statement from Sharif.
Even though in practice, the military has tended to stamp its feet on the line, hopefully, in Pakistan’s changed environment of today, it might not be all that easy to do so with a powerful PM.
Such a move also has an inherent damage-control benefit when you consider how, in late 2011, civil-military relations took a nosedive over the infamous Memo Gate, leading the-then Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani to openly accuse the military establishment of running a parallel government. In a battle of attrition that ensued, the prime minister ended up sacking the defence secretary in a derring-do that led to much chaos and immediate speculation of even a possible coup.
Having been bitten twice at the hands of the military, Sharif would be extremely wary of such an unintended implosion, and by keeping the defence portfolio appears to give the impression he wants to keep the lid tight.
As a prime minister with a heavy mandate and both the foreign and defence portfolios under his belt, he believes, will keep him from having to take a chance with ‘vulnerable’ helmsmen as well as drive his own ambitious policies – even if these somehow find favour with the security establishment. As they say, you can take out the army from Pakistan but not Pakistan from the army!
Having said that, such moves are not the perfect recipe for decent governance. As it is, Sharif will have his hands full with Pakistan facing existential crises. The energy riddle alone is going to take a lot out of him – and for considerable lengths of time.
Perhaps, in due course, he will have a change of heart. The need for full-time ministers may soon be felt for strategic geo-political reasons where, at least the foreign minister will have a hectic calendar, hosting and traveling to present Islamabad’s case. Some countries may not be in awe of second-tier handlers.
It may be that Prime Minister Sharif wants to test the security establishment’s sincerity in cooperating with him before he feels comfortable enough to let his aides do business.
The continuing drone strikes and the military’s reluctance in pursuing the India gambit will have done nothing for his confidence.
The writer is Editor Pique Magazine based in Islamabad. He can be reached email@example.com
Naxalites cannot shoot their way through the opposition
My liberal friends tell me to understand the Naxalites, not to condemn them. I wish I could follow their advice. But how do I reconcile the difference between the Naxalites, who killed this week some 25 Congress leaders at Chhattisgarh, and the two Nigerians who beheaded a British soldier a few days ago at London in public. For me, both are terrorists, fundamentalists, the first from the left and the other from the right. And does the ideology mean anything when the brutalities of one are no different than those of the other?
Probably, it happens when ideologies lose their content and purpose. The followers do not know the way as happened at Chhattisgarh, the Naxalite Bastar belt. But what right do they have to call themselves pro people, the protector of the oppressed when they kill the innocent in the same way as any criminal does. What I have not understood, after following the Naxalites’ activities for several decades, is the point they are trying to make. True, they do not have faith in democracy, although they cry hoarse in its name.
But when they kill at will, they convey the mentality of dictatorship and do not in any way help the egalitarian thesis they expound. Their massacres and acts of oppression suggest only terrorism. A set of committed people have come together and want to dictate the nation’s fate according to their belief. They do not care for the people’s wishes and have taken upon themselves the task of leading the nation using the gun. The ballot box has no meaning in their life.
Whether some families at Chhattisgarh were dictatorial in their dealings or whether tribals were killed by the non-tribals are important considerations to reach the conclusion that they contributed to the deterioration of the atmosphere. But the point at issue is to find a solution to the wrongs committed. Violence cannot find it. A democratic way is far better and more lasting. It is strange that some people still believe in the archaic philosophy of violence. The world is moving towards conciliation and is trying to rule out the use of weapons altogether. The Naxalites, whatever their commitments to a welfare state, have first to win people to their point of view. They cannot shoot their way through the opposition. The defence which they have offered for their carnage does not in any way mitigate their crime.
The Naxalites will continue to proliferate when disparities are latent and the state oppression unrelenting. But violence cannot act as magic wand. It aggravates the problem as has taken place over the years. The menace has to be eliminated. All political parties and right thinking people have to come together to end violence as a method to rectify the wrongs.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has rightly said that Naxalism is a challenge to democratic way, India’s ethos. Violence will weaken faith in democracy and the rule of law. The Chhattisgarh incident has renewed the debate on the futility of violence. The subject is so important that the nation, absorbed in scandals and scams, has diverted its attention and has started talking about Naxalism apart from corruption. The sacking of two federal ministers, Pawan Kumar Bansal (Railways) and Ashwani Kumar (Law) has eclipsed other things and brought integrity to the fore.
Congress President Sonia Gandhi wanted a concrete, convincing action. After winning the state election in Karnataka, where the Bellary mines scandal became an issue, she has adopted honesty as the plank for the Congress in future. She does not want to do anything which would lessen the image of being an honest party. Rahul Gandhi too has announced that the Congress will not put such candidates who are tainted in any manner. It is comical that the two federal ministers wanted to resign when they heard about their dismissal. But Sonia Gandhi wanted the message to spread that the party would not compromise on corruption and would even go to the extent of sacking its ministers. And she did.
Both ministers were reportedly close to the Prime Minister who is said to have assured them that he would let them quit if the alternative was dismissal. Apparently, the Prime Minister who is known for his personal integrity, failed to prevail upon Sonia Gandhi. She was right in her thinking that the dismissals gave a sterner message than the resignations would have. And there is no doubt that it is having a chilling effect on the party. There is the realization that whatever have been the acts of omission or commission in the past, the party has generally turned a new leaf and would not tolerate any more of the scams which have been tumbling out of government’s cupboard at regular intervals.
In fact, many Congressmen, who are out of office, are now putting pressure on Sonia Gandhi to “clean up” the stables in the states. In such a scenario, some allegations are bound to be exaggerated but on the whole the development is healthy. The problem she faces is whether she can open the Pandora’s Box and keep the fallout within limits so as not to allow further smearing on the face of the Congress.
That the matter ultimately rests with the Congress high command (the same is the case with other political parties) has a reassuring effect. Personal animosity will not count. Yet the fact remains that it is ultimately Sonia Gandhi, the all powerful, will decide. This may not turn out to be a bad idea. She has kept away herself from the government’s scandals. However, the morale of Congress leaders may be low; they may not have the kind of self-confidence which they had before the dismissals of Pawan and Ashwani Kumar. A proposal whispered around is that some type of standing committee should be constituted so that Sonia Gandhi is armed with all the information available to her, and could embark upon a fight against corruption.
The writer is a senior Indian journalist.
The winds of change
As the date for US withdrawal from Afghanistan approaches rather quickly, there is little news to show progress towards the goal of reconciliation. Ironically, none of the stakeholders are panicking about the relative stagnant state of affairs. Going by the international mood, a lot still depends on the role of Pakistan. While most of the attention was focused on the elections, the challenges confronted by the nation have not changed with the transfer of power.
From early indications, Nawaz Sharif’s foreign policy outlook does not represent any dramatic shift from the past. This, obviously as was expected. Actions on the ground suggest a policy to eliminate the irreconcilable Taliban elements, before approaching a negotiated solution.
Keeping the defense and foreign ministries close to his heart, shows the importance of Afghan reconciliation for the new prime minister, especially when NATO equipment is likely to be retracted via routes through Pakistan. Then there is the complex task of managing public perceptions as the drone strikes continue. Furthermore, he has to address the shortage of energy, and, at the same time, convince the public why Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline is good or bad. The above undertaking would be accompanied by a case for better ties with India and Afghanistan based on trade. Most of all, this would have to be accomplished while striving for better ties with the US and West.
However, this postulation misses the other overarching phenomenon that has completed its incubation period in the Middle East. And, this would involve adapting to the tensions between Shia Iran and the Sunni Middle East. In this context, the recent meetings between Afghan Taliban and Iranian officials have taken on added significance. Three questions surround this engagement; what was the motivation behind it, who benefits from it, and the potential future of this track.
Media reports indicate a delegation of Afghan Taliban headed by Syed Tayyeb Agha had travelled to Iran recently. Reportedly, other members of the delegation included Maulvi Shahab-ud-Din Dilawar, Sher Muhammad Abbas Stanakzai, and Qari Din Muhammad. The Taliban representatives from the political office in Doha took the three-day trip at the request of Iran.
While Taliban have confirmed the meetings, Iran has so far stayed away from officially confirming such contacts took place. On the other hand, the Afghan government has sought information from Iran on what transpired during these gatherings. Meanwhile, according to unnamed sources in Pakistan, such meetings have taken place in the past as well, and thus suggesting there was nothing unusual about Iran’s engagement with Afghan Taliban.
The timing of the connection between Afghan Taliban and Iran is peculiar. Afghan Taliban have travelled to Iran in the backdrop of President Karzai’s recent visit to India, where he requested its arms and military training. Moreover, the border tensions between Pakistan and Afghanistan are also on the rise, and so is Karzai’s vitriol against its neighbor. At the same time, the status of forces agreement between Afghanistan and the US is still in negotiation, and the number of American bases and troops, continue to swing between one extreme to the other.
There is always a possibility that the Doha based Taliban political office took the initiative on its own, perhaps feeling the pressure from the joint behind the scenes US-Pakistan cooperation against the irreconcilables. By accepting the Iranian invitation, Afghan Taliban may have wanted to showcase their independence and leverage, to whom it may concern.
As various sides push for talks, at least publicly Afghan Taliban have persisted in their refusal to deal directly with the Karzai government, claiming it to be a puppet of the West. On the other hand, Karzai had previously wanted all reconciliation talks to be held under his purview, and in Afghanistan. Moreover, yet to be finalized status of forces agreement with the US runs against Taliban’s key demand; withdrawal of all foreign forces as a prerequisite to talks. This Taliban position also matches with Iran’s interests in Afghanistan.
If Afghan Taliban are to be included in the future political dispensation of Afghanistan, reasonable ties between Taliban and Iran can be a harbinger of long-term Afghan stability. It’s a good omen for India and China that are investing heavily in the mineral resources of Afghanistan. Additionally, stable Afghanistan can also help to jump-start the TAPI project, which in addition to the IP pipeline, could be a tremendous boost for the energy outlook of Pakistan. Closer cooperation between Iran and Pakistan in stabilizing Afghanistan can make the NATO withdrawal smoother. However, American and western efforts to isolate Iran because of its nuclear program have come in the way of these efforts.
Irrespective of who may be behind the initiative for the meeting of Taliban and Iranian officials, the timing is completely off. The sectarian tensions are on the rise in the Middle East, as presently being witnessed in the Syria and Iraq. With the involvement of Iranian supported Hezbollah militants in the Syrian conflict, the situation has aggravated considerably.
The matters have worsen to such an extent that the influential president of the International Union of Muslim Scholars, Sheikh Qardawi commented last weekend in Doha, “every Muslim trained to fight and capable of doing that [must] make himself available” to conduct Jihad against the Assad regime and Hezbollah. “Iran is pushing forward arms and men, so why do we stand idle?” Qardawi went on to add. On the other hand, Qardawi’s statement was praised by Saudi Arabia’s Grand Mufti Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh.
In this evolving environment, it would be impossible for the Sunni Afghan Taliban to continue their engagement with Iran. Furthermore, this atmosphere of the Middle East demonstrates the approaching pressures for the Nawaz government, Afghan Taliban, and the reconciliation. The lines that are being drawn are stretched from the Levant to Afghanistan. The Taliban weather guy may not have the updated conditions about the change in the direction of the winds, but as soon as they do, the consequences could be dangerous.
The writer is chief analyst at PoliTact, a Washington based futurist advisory firm (www.PoliTact.com and http:twitter.com/politact) and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org