Dawn Editorial 10th October 2023

Silent epidemic

AS nations around the globe unite to mark World Mental Health Day today, Pakistan confronts a series of challenges regarding the issue. Mental health has remained an area of neglect, mired in misconception within our borders. With the world discussing advancements in the field, we must acknowledge the existence of a real crisis on our hands and engage in comprehensive dialogue rather than tiptoe around the matter. A study found that an estimated 10-16pc of the population suffers from mild to severe mental illnesses. This must surely be the tip of the iceberg, considering reporting mental illnesses is so taboo. Nevertheless, even these figures are alarming — more so because of the dearth of resources dedicated to mental healthcare in Pakistan. For a nation of more than 240m, there are fewer than 500 psychiatrists. This vast chasm between the availability and the actual need for mental healthcare professionals has left countless individuals in the lurch. Further illuminating the country’s mental health predicament is the haunting suicide rate. An estimated 20,000 people die by suicide each year, making evident a silent epidemic.

Exacerbating the grim situation is the entrenched societal stigma surrounding mental health and suicide. Mental illnesses are mistaken for superstitious beliefs such as black magic, the evil eye, ‘divine’ punishment and demonic possessions, and help is often sought from traditional faith healers, instead of medical professionals. Suicide has also suffered from stigmatisation and was, until recently, considered a crime. An amendment to the Criminal Laws Act which decriminalised suicide was a noteworthy stride, signalling a shift towards the viewing of mental health concerns through a more compassionate lens. The momentum, however, stands halted with the Federal Shariat Court hearing an appeal to the amendment. Citing possible inconsistencies with Sharia law, the decision has reignited the complex debate surrounding legal, cultural, and religious frameworks in Pakistan. While the importance of maintaining our religious and cultural integrity cannot be understated, it is essential to juxtapose this with the moral duty of aiding those in dire psychological distress.

As Pakistan observes World Mental Health Day, some reflection is vital. We must rally to substantially increase funding for the mental health infrastructure, cultivate a new generation of trained professionals, and ardently work towards eradicating stigmas associated with mental health. The journey may be arduous, but the promise of a nation where every individual’s mental well-being is valued and catered to is a vision worth striving for. Our call to action is clear. Policymakers, community leaders, educators, families, and indeed all citizens, must unite in recognition of the mental health crisis and collaboratively pave the way forward. A resilient, understanding, and supportive Pakistan must be the goal. Prioritising mental health today ensures a brighter and healthier future for all.

Published in Dawn, October 10th, 2023

Simmering tensions

THE political bonhomie that held the PDM-led government together is disappearing rapidly. Coalition partners who were once united in their opposition to the PTI now appear increasingly at odds, with each party finding faults in its erstwhile allies as the elections draw nearer. Even though it broke ranks with the PDM on the matter, the PPP has appeared in two minds about its demand for the constitutional timeline to be followed. Initially, the party had even contemplated legal recourse to ensure that the Constitution was obeyed, but then dithered on following through. It eventually seemed it had come to terms with elections at the end of January, but with Maulana Fazlur Rehman now publicly opposed to elections in January or February — on the premise that snowfall in different areas will affect turnout — the PPP again seems to be having second thoughts. The maulana’s remarks have triggered quite a reaction, and both parties have recently taken to accusing each other of running from the polls.

Meanwhile, the JUI-F, MQM-P and GDA are accusing the interim government in Sindh of acting partially towards the PPP, while the PPP is accusing the caretaker set-ups in Punjab and at the centre of favouring the PML-N. The PML-N, which seems to be the only party without any qualms about the conduct of the caretaker governments, endorses the PPP’s demand for a level playing field, but rubbishes the allegation that it is benefiting from having ‘pro-Sharif men’ in key positions ahead of the general election. Perhaps such finger-pointing is to be expected as the elections draw near, but the ECP should take note. It has a duty to safeguard the election from allegations of misconduct and unfair conditions, and it must comprehensively review the complaints being made by political parties and take prompt action where necessary. More troubling is this last-minute concern floated by the JUI-F regarding the weather in January. The ECP should be clear that this should not be entertained as an excuse for yet another delay in the election timeline. It must bear in mind that an election that falls short of the ‘free and fair’ principle will greatly complicate any effort to restore political, social and economic stability to Pakistan. It is crucial, therefore, to nip all controversies in the bud and announce an election date at the earliest.

Published in Dawn, October 10th, 2023

Smuggled goods

THAT the 39pc surge in Afghan transit cargoes through Pakistani ports and territory in one year coincides with Islamabad’s import restrictions to curb dollar outflows underlines both the extent of and the ease with which this facility is being abused to smuggle goods into this country.

It also shows how the Afghan transit trade has always been misused by traders of the two countries for smuggling. Reports suggest that transit cargoes are often diverted from ports directly to Pakistani markets before crossing the border.

New Customs data showing the number of containers in the Afghan trade soaring to 102,886 in FY23 from 74,316 the previous year is alarming. The dollar value of the trade, too, is assessed to have spiked to a staggering $6.7bn from $4bn a year earlier.

Cargo value for the first two months of the present fiscal stood at $1.14bn and the full-year projection is $6.8bn. The value of items prone to being smuggled under transit cargo is also up by 63pc to $3.7bn.

Smuggling is the bane of the Pakistani economy. It especially has a debilitating impact on the manufacturing industry, discouraging fresh investment, and resulting in large job and tax revenue losses.

In cases like Pakistan, the settlement of payments for illicit cross-border trade through the illegitimate hawala/ hundi network also impinges on much-needed remittance flows and often leads to capital flight.

It is heartening to note that the authorities have woken up to the challenge, launched an anti-smuggling drive, and tightened the Afghan transit trade regime, besides banning the import of goods prone to being smuggled under it.

But this campaign should not be confined to simply reinforcing border controls; it must be expanded to take action against those who stock and sell smuggled or illegally imported goods in their shops without fear of the law, or who under-invoice their imports.

It may bring the government under pressure, but it is the only way forward.

Published in Dawn, October 10th, 2023

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