Dawn Editorial 10th November 2023

Lifesaving robots

IN Sindh, a tiff within the caretaker government over the procurement of advanced medical equipment seems to have imperilled the upgradation plans of several major hospitals. According to a recent news report, caretaker Health Minister Saad Khalid Niaz has developed differences with interim Chief Minister Maqbool Baqar over the fate of a multibillion-rupee tender for the purchase of four robotic units meant for three major hospitals in the province. Dr Niaz has opposed the decision on the grounds that the cost to the public exchequer of surgeries being conducted with these robots does not seem justified given the present state of the province’s finances. However, the chief minister, who has made some personal inquiries to determine the utility of the machinery, remains unsatisfied with the health minister’s reasoning. Some observers have also pointed out that the decision to purchase the machines was taken by the elected PPP government, and the caretaker health minister should not interfere. That said, there are also concerns that some influential parties were involved in the purchase and there are reports they are pressuring Dr Niaz to change his mind.

It is commendable that both the chief minister and health minister are of one mind regarding the need to optimise the use of Sindh’s health budget, even if they differ strongly over the right way to do so. Dr Niaz has raised a very valid point regarding the burning of public funds on expensive surgeries when much cheaper alternatives are available, but he must still consider whether it is appropriate for him to make a decision on this matter. If there have been any misdoings in the process of purchasing the robots, they must definitely be looked into; but if it’s simply a question of whether or not they are needed, perhaps it is best to leave it to the judgement of a government elected by and answerable to the people.

Published in Dawn, November 10th, 2023

Gas tariff increase

THE recent sharp increase in the price of natural gas for different consumers has sparked a debate over its adverse impact on lower- to moderate-income households grappling with the soaring cost of living and shrinking incomes for over two years. The increase is going to especially hurt 57pc of household consumers categorised as ‘protected residential consumers’, whose fixed charges have been jacked up by a whopping 3,900pc from Rs10 to Rs400 a month, as well as small industry owners. The justification for gas price ‘rationalisation’ to slow down further expansion in the gas sector debt of over Rs2.5tr notwithstanding, the new tariffs threaten to push up the winter bills of financially weaker segments manifold, exacerbate the near-term spike in consumer inflation, and lead to job losses as small business owners cut costs to protect their profits. How households will cope with their high heating costs in an inflationary environment is anyone’s guess.

While it is hard to not feel sorry for the weaker segments of society, criticism of wealthy exporters against the hike in gas price holds little merit. The decision to raise the price for the exporting industry by 86.5pc and apply the new tariffs uniformly across the country is a welcome step. Indeed, the rationalisation and application of new uniform but increased gas tariffs will eat into the profits of the exporters and industries based in Karachi and other parts of Sindh who were getting the fuel at much cheaper rates than their counterparts in Punjab who had to use significantly more expensive imported gas during winters due to ever-rising domestic supply gaps. Hence, the opposition to the new prices emanating mostly from Karachi is not surprising. That said their argument that the decision to supply gas to fertiliser manufacturers and the extremely inefficient captive power plants of rich yarn exporters from Punjab and elsewhere does have merit. The country’s fast-depleting domestic gas reserves and our increasing dependence on expensive gas imports demands a revision in this policy. It is advisable for the government to hike the rate of gas being supplied to fertiliser companies in order to bring them at par with the rest of industry. Simultaneously, it must rethink its policy of subsidising fuel for the wasteful and inefficient captive power in clear breach of a previous policy decision made in 2021.

Published in Dawn, November 10th, 2023

Afghan failures

CARETAKER PM Anwaar-ul-Haq Kakar’s no-holds-barred criticism of the Afghan Taliban during a presser on Wednesday reflects the state’s disappointment with Kabul’s current rulers.

The PM basically held the Afghan Taliban responsible for the banned TTP’s murderous assaults inside Pakistan, as according to him the former had failed to stop the latter’s terrorist attacks — originating in Afghanistan — directed at this country.

What makes this realisation even more agonising is that there was a time when those who call the shots in Pakistan considered the Taliban ‘our boys’ in Kabul. Mr Kakar laid out a damning charge sheet, pointing out that after the Taliban took Kabul in 2021, there was a “60pc” increase in terrorism and a “500pc” spike in suicide attacks, resulting in 2,867 fatalities.

This, Mr Kakar observed, was so despite the fact that “we” had high hopes that anti-Pakistan groups would be handled by the Taliban after their victory. But that was not to be.

The Afghan conundrum in fact represents the repeated failures of Pakistan’s security and foreign policies, specifically of seeking ‘strategic depth’ in our western neighbour.

Pakistan helped the US and the Saudis bring down Kabul’s communist regime during the Afghan jihad, while ties with the US-backed regimes post-9/11 were lukewarm, if not outright hostile.

True, Pakistan alone is not to blame, but the state should realise the mistakes made by previous administrations, and not repeat them. When the Taliban took over, Pakistan was supposed to have reliable friends in Kabul. But perhaps the state has failed to properly understand the Taliban psyche.

After all, during the US occupation, much of the Afghan Taliban leadership took refuge in Pakistan, as ‘guests’ of the forces that would later coalesce into the TTP. Bound by Pakhtunwali and religious codes, did our planners really expect the Taliban to expel their former comrades-in-arms once they took Kabul?

It should be remembered that the previous Taliban regime let their administration fall rather than give up Osama bin Laden to the West. Moreover, aside from the differing perspectives on militancy, the hasty decision to expel Afghan nationals has also rubbed the Taliban the wrong way.

The Afghan Taliban may be difficult customers to work with, but Pakistan has little choice as there is no one else to call in Kabul. Instead of ratcheting up the rhetoric, Pakistan should keep the channels of communication open.

The message mustn’t be antagonistic but should be firm: stop the TTP and other anti-Pakistan terrorists from attacking this country. There can be no compromise on this.

Pakistan should also continue to work with other regional states so that this anti-militancy messaging is clearly communicated to Kabul. If relations worsen with Afghanistan, only the TTP, IS-K and other bloodthirsty outfits will benefit.

Published in Dawn, November 10th, 2023

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