Oct 312017
 

As cars and motorbikes multiply the nation’s cities, often with arterial infrastructure that has not been much updated since Independence, are a traffic nightmare. Karachi is a polluted and seemingly endless jam, Lahore is currently choking in a smog that is part down to traffic and part down to unregulated industrialisation — and now the police in Quetta are getting to grips with the traffic. There is to be an e-challan system and tighter and timelier action taken against those violating traffic laws. The burgeoning education industry contributes twice a day to the chaos — as it does virtually everywhere — and the ban on heavy vehicles entering the city before is being strictly enforced. Of particular note is the installation of 33 ‘spikes’ on various roads. There are a crude but effective way of ensuring that traffic flows in the desired direction. No figures are available as to how many cars or trucks had their tyres shredded before the message was received and understood. The traffic police have a thankless task. They are usually undermanned and under-resourced, work in the midst of the worst of the carbon-monoxide emissions that go with their duty stations and are rarely thanked for anything. Traffic management systems — defining lanes and creating islands to aid flow — are improving, but items such as traffic lights at busy complex junctions are something of a puzzle to drivers unused to such regulation as motorists in Bahawalpur have recently discovered. This is one of those problems [Read More…]

Oct 312017
 

No matter how hard the leaders of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz argue against fissures within the ruling party, discordant voices are shrill enough to be heard across the divide. Their message is both loud and clear and aimed at convincing the ousted prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, that excessive and undue focus on personal matters was hurting the country’s as well as the party’s interests. This is simple but sound advice and crucial to leading the ruling party out of its state of confusion. Of late in particular party leaders seem to be talking at each other rather than to each other. Even as other political groupings have been revving up their political engines by unveiling their manifestoes and starting modest mass contact campaigns, the ruling PML-N seems quite listless by comparison — weighed down by its own woes. As the next election draws closer — the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) says it could be as soon as July 2018 — the PML-N may dig itself deeper into a hole. Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi ruffled plenty of party feathers when he recently talked of a technocrat government and the remarks were not taken too well by other political outfits. At this juncture, it is important for the PML-N leaders to revisit their harsh, uncompromising stance against the superior judiciary and the establishment. They must understand that the ouster of the prime minister was not triggered by conspiracies and elaborate plots, as acknowledged by the party’s stalwarts. Now is as [Read More…]

Jul 212017
 

The Supreme Court bench hearing the Panama Papers case has adjourned and reserved its judgment. The date for the final hearing is to be announced later. Legal submissions have been given by both sides, anybody who had anything to say did so via adhoc press conferences outside the court or on the nightly TV news programmes, documents were leaked right and left, there were accusations of conspiracy by people who would not know a real conspiracy if it reared in front of them and bit their arm, and a gaggle of lawyers are considerably richer than when the case commenced. Although there is no final judgment there is sufficient evidence that is irrefutable and in the public domain to say with certainty that the prime minister, his sons and his daughter as well as sundry small players is shown to be, at least in this matter, evasive, circumlocutory and dishonest. They and their teams have forged evidential papers, in one case being tripped up by a font that was not in common use at the time the purported ‘genuine’ document’ was generated. Legal teams have been unable to establish to the satisfaction of either the Joint Investigation Team (JIT) or the bench that sat in the last week the money trail that led to the purchase of the flats in London that lie at the heart of the case. The fundamental question remains unanswered — how was the money generated and by who and where — to buy the properties [Read More…]

Jun 212017
 
Fault lines that stoked the Gulf crisis

Is the present Gulf crisis going to blow over soon or does it reflect a deeper fault line? How significant are Pakistan’s stakes and what do we need to consider in adopting a position on this crisis? Confounded by the complexity of the nature of conflicts across the Middle East there’s a tendency for most Pakistanis to turn to conspiracy theories. Instead, the most plausible framework to interpret these events is the prism of religious ideology. And the reason for this is simple: the foremost challenge to incumbent regimes is from competing religious ideologies and not from power politics, oil politics or the Arab-Israeli dispute. The actions of these regimes are driven more by fear than by opportunity. Above all is their need for survival. Viewed from that standpoint, it would appear that the sectarian schism is the primary and more visible fault line, a religious rivalry that extends deep into the vault of Islamic history. The clergies on both sides of the Persian Gulf wield substantial authority and both the Iranian and Saudi political regimes owe their ‘legitimacy’ and survival to their religious establishments. Yet, even as that rivalry plays out in Iraq, in Syria and Lebanon, in Yemen and other theatres, the two have not severed diplomatic links nor imposed a land, sea and air blockade on the other. That rivalry falls almost exclusively in the realm of power politics and is not a huge domestic worry for either regime. On the other hand, there is a less [Read More…]

Jun 162017
 

When it comes to financial jiggery-pokery the incumbent government is in a league of its own. Since coming to power it has borrowed heavily, and is now massively indebted. Inevitably big debts show up in the public reporting of government finances. With debt ballooning and an inquisitive not to say censorial media chewing at the coattails of the finance minister the government decided to move the fiscal goalposts by redefining what public debt actually was. Amendments to the Finance Act 2017 will have the effect of understating the debt by the not insignificant sum of Rs2 trillion. This is the second time there has been a change in definition in the last year and not unreasonably it is being labelled as ‘window dressing’ by sceptical commentators. This may appear to be little more than semantic juggling, but the implications go wide and deep. Loans cost money, there is no such thing as free money and under the original 2005 FRDL law, amended in 2016, public debt should not be more than 60 per cent of GDP. With that figure now being exceeded remedial work was indicated and the finance minister came up with the idea of re-visioning the equation by bringing in the ‘gross versus net’ definition, a consequence of which is to wipe Rs2 trillion off the public debt and take it back down below the constitutionally-required level of 60 per cent — though the actual debt still remains on the government books. Much of this will be lost [Read More…]

Jun 162017
 

Corruption begets corruption. It is infectious, indeed highly contagious, and currently there is no known cure. The Axact case in the last year has probably done as much to tarnish the global image of Pakistan as anything else in that it had international ramifications that hit the headlines — and the courts in the United States. The case came to court in Pakistan as well, and the outcome was an acquittal for the principal accused, Shoaib Ahmed Shaikh, who was the CEO of Bol TV, a subsidiary of Axact. It now emerges that the presiding justice, Additional District and Sessions Judge Pervaizul Qadir Memon has admitted before the Islamabad High Court that he was in receipt of half a million rupees as a bribe to acquit the accused. It appears that the matter came to light when the judge questioned why he had not been promoted and that those junior to him had. Matters went downhill from there. An office order issued by the Islamabad High Court on 9th June 2017 states that the judge admitted receiving the bribe before a Departmental Promotion Committee on the same date, and recommends that he be removed from service and require him to provide within 14 days why a major penalty should not be imposed upon him. Stains on the escutcheon of the judiciary do not come bigger, or more difficult to erase, than this. There are missing details such as how the bribe came to be arranged; what is reasonable to assume [Read More…]

Apr 072017
 

There is little doubt that the first direct US military strike on a Syria airbase — in response to a suspected chemical attack — has unleashed a fury of mixed emotions through the tinderbox that otherwise goes by the name of the Middle East. But even beyond this volatile region feelings of robust support and fierce condemnation are running high. It seems as if the attack has driven a permanent wedge between those who oppose and support the air strike. In the corner that stands resolutely against the strike is Russia, the main ally of Syrian President Bashar al Assad. The Kremlin minced no words, saying the strikes were an ‘aggression against a sovereign state in violation of international norms.’ In the larger dimension the US action has torpedoed whatever possibility there was of Moscow and Washington improving their relations under a friendlier Trump administration. The first casualty of that will be the agreement reached earlier between the two countries on avoiding clashes in Syrian airspace. Already Moscow has begun to bolster Syrian air defences. Russia has vowed to introduce a number of defensive measures in the near future — indicating perhaps it was caught flat-footed. America was certainly not expected to do this. The recriminations go farther afield as well. Another Assad backer, Tehran, cast doubt on the use of the chemical strike as a pretext. But the US action was seen as a resolute response to the barbaric chemical attacks allegedly carried out by Damascus. In making that [Read More…]

Apr 072017
 

The benefits of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor regularly make the headlines. Less often reported is the debt that comes along with this transformative project. Debt has to be repaid as well as the interest; and the debt burden carried by Pakistan is reaching levels which are arousing concern among the institutions that lend to us. The Asian Development Bank (ADB) is one such and in its annual report it states baldly that Pakistan cannot get the best out of the CPEC project without drastic reforms in the fields of energy, regulatory practices and the regime relating to foreign currency. It is true, acknowledges the report, that the reforms that were initiated three years ago are welcome and steps in the right direction, but they are not sufficiently radical or far reaching. The concern of the ADB is that currently the government is not attracting non-debt creating inflows and boosting exports — which have long been in the doldrums. Added to this is the increasingly perverse policy of bolstering foreign exchange reserves by taking ruinously expensive foreign loans — that also have to be paid back with their associated interest. The ADB is not alone in issuing a warning, the IMF is saying virtually the same thing and with both entities singing the same tune from the same songsheet the likelihood is that they are more right than wrong. Whilst this is obvious to external observers there seems to be little beyond tokenism internally. Pakistan cannot borrow its way out of [Read More…]

Apr 072017
 

A mutually agreed nuclear disarmament treaty between India and Pakistan has never been on the cards and is never likely to be. Both maintain a nuclear arsenal and both have the capacity to deliver nuclear weapons anywhere within the territory of the other. Mutually assured destruction (MAD) is indeed assured. Neither state presents a nuclear threat face to any other enemy. Given the oscillating volatility of both states it is unsurprising that the nuclear cards get a periodic shuffle, and India under Modi has moved into an altogether more martial phase with threat levels, nuclear and conventional, rising accordingly. Analysts and observers are of a uniform opinion — the place a nuclear exchange is most likely to happen accidentally, as in a reactive event rather than a first-strike assault — is between India and Pakistan, and India is likely in that event to be the state that pushes the button first. Reports are in circulation that India may consider revising its no first strike policy, allowing its ‘nuclear establishment’ to conduct pre-emptive strikes against Pakistan in the event of a war. The environment of managed instability along the Line of Control and the Working Boundary has heated up in the last year. In addition to cross-border shelling there have been movements of armour and heavy artillery on both sides. India has claimed to have raided into Pakistan — without providing substantive evidence of such — and any shift in the position regarding nuclear doctrines is going to do nothing for [Read More…]

Apr 032017
 

It is rare for the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata) to host a national sporting event. Rarer still is it for the tribal regions to stage the first-ever super league T20 cricket matches. On Monday, the Fata super league opened amid much fanfare in the Jamrud sports complex of Khyber Agency. Organisers say the purpose of the event is to promote a positive and peaceful image of Fata whose people have been stigmatised by years of insurgency and militancy. The young people of the region have been left deeply scarred by the resulting violence and bloodshed. For so long large segments of the Fata population remained confined to their homes instead of participating in healthy sports activities. Their energies in all that time were misspent in inactivity. But one hopes their talents will now be tapped more than ever. Already people in the tribal region have begun to show their sporting prowess. Some of them have earned wide recognition as well in recent years. Their cricketers, for instance, have done enormously well against the teams of other, more mainstream regions. If there is anything lacking, it is exposure. With opportunities brimming, they could at last turn their backs on the wave of militancy that they experienced and endured in the not too distant past. One hopes the Fata Super League will bring a semblance of normality and peace to the area. It is that kind of image that we should all try to portray to the rest of the world. [Read More…]

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