Dawn Editorial 1 February 2021

Kashmir challenge

IT is hard to disagree with UN Secretary General António Guterres’s assertion that Pakistan and India must discuss the Kashmir issue and that any military confrontation between the two South Asian states will result in “a disaster of unmitigated proportions”.
Replying to a question during a press conference in New York, the UN chief added that “our good offices are always available” in case the parties wanted to avail the option to discuss the problem. However, the issue here is that Mr Guterres’s offer can only bring results when both parties are interested in a negotiated settlement to the dispute. When one side — India — keeps harping on the same tune, insisting Kashmir is an ‘internal’ matter, there is little that third parties can do.
Without doubt the lack of progress on the Kashmir dispute has poisoned the atmosphere in South Asia since independence. Tensions in the disputed region have resulted in several wars and numerous skirmishes. Pakistan, for its part, has always offered to negotiate a solution that is acceptable to the Kashmiris, but has mostly been rebuffed. The present federal government has also offered to take steps towards peace if India reciprocates, while Islamabad has tried to improve relations through people-to-people contacts.
The opening of the Kartarpur Corridor is a case in point. However, the Indian response, particularly under the BJP’s watch, to these overtures has been less than enthusiastic. There have been consistent attacks along the LoC, leading to a high number of civilian casualties, while the Indian misadventure of 2019 in which New Delhi’s jets (one of which was shot down) violated Pakistani airspace, is a prime example of the brinkmanship this country’s eastern neighbour has indulged in ever since the BJP took the reins of power. And of course, matters in India-held Kashmir have been further complicated after India annulled the occupied region’s special constitutional status in August 2019, in effect to crush the Kashmiris’ aspirations for freedom and dignity. In such a situation, India has clearly shown that it is not ready for peace.
However, Pakistan should continue its efforts to resolve the issue peacefully because a military confrontation in this region would be devastating, as the UN chief has observed. But for peace to succeed, the UN as well as global powers must realise that India needs to change its belligerent posture.
It is not only Pakistan that has been having trouble along its border with India; the recent clashes on the India-Chinese frontier show that New Delhi is in an aggressive mood and keeps provoking its neighbours. There is still a chance to bring peace to South Asia if India responds positively to Pakistan’s desire for dialogue. However, if the politicians and generals in India keep making warlike noises and threatening this country, they should understand that Pakistan can and will defend itself.



Decision on gas

THE matter seems to have been settled once and for all. The government has rejected the demand of owners of captive power plants (small off-grid generation facilities) to withdraw its decision to discontinue the supply of gas for self-generation to non-export industry from February and export-oriented units from March. The decision has firmly been conveyed to the businessmen in spite of a gloomy scenario painted by them. The industry has been told to fully shift to the national grid before the end of 2021. Nonetheless, according to the government plan, the industrial units using gas for producing steam will continue to receive the fuel for their processes. Besides, the units that cannot immediately shift to the national grid for one reason or the other, or whose sanctioned load is less than their requirement, will also continue to get gas supplies till they are fully connected to the grid.
The decision to disconnect gas supplies for the captive power plants is made with a view to encouraging the consumption of excess power generation developed in the country during the last five years. This is a step in the right direction. The increase in electricity consumption by industry is expected to significantly lessen the pace of growth in the circular debt by reducing the capacity charges paid to power producers without using their capacity. Moreover, it is a fact that most captive power plants are highly inefficient and the diversion of the ever-depleting gas resource to them for self-generation is a big national loss, especially when excess electricity is available in the system. The government had encouraged industry to set up generation for their own use a decade ago after massive power shortages hit the country, damaging industrial output. The situation has reversed in the last few years and it does not make any sense to keep feeding captive power any longer. The argument that the disconnection of gas to captive power will hit exports doesn’t have a leg to stand on. However, it may somewhat reduce the profit margins of exporters and others. It is time for industry to stop seeking rent. But it is also time for the government to reduce electricity costs for the exporters — and other consumers as well. That will not be possible without the authorities concerned making concerted efforts to reduce the distribution losses of electricity distribution companies, check power theft and improve bill recovery from all consumers.



Education emergency

RECENTLY, on the International Day of Education, UN Secretary General António Guterres commended students and teachers for their resilience during the Covid-19 pandemic, which has disrupted education and learning for countless students around the world. However, an estimated 44pc of all Pakistani children between the ages of five and 16 were not even going to school in the first place, and the figure is noticeably higher for girls than boys. On Wednesday, the Aga Khan University’s Institute for Educational Development conducted an online discussion on out-of-school children in Pakistan, looking into some of the reasons why such a large percentage of the population has never stepped foot inside a classroom, or has dropped out before completing their studies. Even though Article 25-A of the Constitution directs that the state provide free and compulsory education to all children between the ages of five and 16, an estimated 22.8m children are not in school — the second highest figure in the world for that age bracket, according to Unicef. Furthermore, as noted in the IED discussion, Pakistan’s population rate is rising at an alarming rate, and the number of out-of-school children will only grow in the near future, as the distance between demand and supply increases.
The reasons behind low attendance and high dropout rates is manifold, but primarily connected to poverty and accessibility issues. There are simply not enough schools in the country — particularly for secondary and higher studies, and especially in rural areas — and transport expenses remain a major concern for parents, along with all the other expenses. Children have to walk long distances, often with heavy schoolbags, and if there is no one to accompany them, parents may opt to take them out and put them to work — inside the home or outside. Additionally, if there is a gap in their studies, as there will be with the pandemic, children or their families are often reluctant to return to class. The state must wake up to this aspect of the challenge.

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