Acts of desperation
ON Wednesday, Mir Hasan set himself on fire inside his home in Karachi. A few days before, his son had asked him for warm clothes to wear to school since an unusually cold winter spell has gripped the city. Unable to fulfil his son’s simple request, and fed up of his poverty, the father of four took his own life in one of the most horrific ways imaginable. Incurring burns all over his body, he passed away on a hospital bed the following day. According to his family, the scrap dealer had been struggling to find employment for some time now. His tragic death once again highlights the psychological toll that desperate poverty takes on so many citizens of this country — around a third of the country’s total population is estimated to live below the poverty line — but will it jolt our leaders to action? After all, this is not the first incident of its kind in the country. In 2018, a rickshaw driver named Muhammad Khalid set himself on fire near a police station in Karachi to protest against traffic police extorting money from him on a near daily basis. A few months earlier, Shafi Muhammad set himself alight after being handed an electricity bill of over Rs150,000. And, in Islamabad in 2011, 35-year-old Raja Khan immolated himself in front of parliament. Sustaining 90pc burns on his body, the unemployed labourer from Sindh died inside a hospital, having left behind a letter beseeching the government to provide for his children. A similar letter addressed to Prime Minister Imran Khan is said to have been sent by Mir Hasan, requesting housing and employment.
Nine years ago, horror over a street vendor’s self-immolation sparked an uprising that led to the ouster of a 24-year-long dictatorship in Tunisia, and ignited revolutionary fervour throughout North Africa and the Middle East. Despite so many similar examples in Pakistan, it is disturbing how deep the apathy and indifference to the pain of others runs in our society.
Traders vs FBR
THE on-and-off talks between the traders and tax authorities have entered a crucial round, with the government having done its part to accommodate the former’s wishes through a presidential ordinance issued in the last week of 2019. Now comes the moment when traders have to deliver on their commitment to bring more of their peers into the tax net, and to comply with the requirement to maintain identity records of all parties they buy from and sell to. The government has met their demands to adjust the ceiling on the turnover tax below which traders will not be required to pay, but those whose operations are above the required threshold must now step forward voluntarily. It must be noted, however, that the community has a notorious history of making commitments only to renege on them — and the manner in which they do so can be clever enough to leave the government with little to no option but to surrender in exasperation.
Such a situation was witnessed when the previous government tried to use a carrot-and-stick approach to win the traders over. The community had been offered an amnesty scheme specifically designed for them to bring undeclared assets into the tax net, coupled with punitive measures in the form a withholding tax on their banking transactions if they remain noncompliant with tax-filing requirements. At the time, their leadership agreed to work with the government to persuade members of their own community to avail of the benefits of the offer but, despite numerous deadline extensions, only a negligible number of traders came forward. The government lost patience and slapped punitive withholding taxes on their bank transactions — and there ended the thrust for documentation of traders’ incomes and transactions. Now, once again, the traders’ leadership has promised to work with the government to bring members of their community into the net. This time, however, the mechanics of the operation are different. Large traders will be identified by the size of their shop floor, and committees with the representation of trader leaders will be formed in every city and town to help identify new declarants. This time round, there is hope that the government will be able to effect a breakthrough, because nobody can doubt the importance of documentation efforts. But it must remain vigilant, and be prepared if it appears that the community is simply playing for time yet again.
Time to declare a polio emergency
IN a mere matter of months, years’ worth of progress towards eradicating poliovirus in Pakistan has been reversed. With six new confirmations, the total tally of polio cases in 2019 now stands at 134 — a staggering increase of over 1,000pc compared to 12 cases the year before. Sheer negligence has resulted in the wild poliovirus type 1 — contained to just a few locations as recently as early 2018 — now spreading to a number of areas across the country. Meanwhile, the resurgence of the dangerous vaccine-derived poliovirus type 2, which had previously been eradicated, has been attributed to the accidental use of years-old vaccines which ought to have been destroyed. Pakistan featured heavily in a recent statement on the international spread of poliovirus by the Emergence Committee of the WHO’s International Health Regulations, in which it recommended extending travel recommendations for another three months, given its assessment that the risk of international spread of the disease was the highest it has been since 2014. In its statement, the WHO also expressed an “urgent need to overhaul the leadership and strategy of the [polio eradication] programme in Pakistan”.
Indeed, for some time now, global bodies have been raising the alarm on Pakistan’s pathetic polio response. The recent International Monitoring Board report categorically termed the country’s polio-eradication efforts a “political football” and attributed their failure to a “lack of political unity”. It described the re-emergence of the virus in areas declared polio-free at the outset of 2018 as “a massive reversal of the trajectory to global polio eradication”. This scathing indictment came despite Prime Minister Imran Khan’s frequent expressions of concern over the rise in polio cases and numerous pledges to eliminate the disease for good. It was also no less dissonant when, in December, public health and polio officials described anti-polio efforts to be “back on track” at the conclusion of what they claimed was a successful national immunisation drive. However, the five-day drive saw some grave managerial issues — including administering expired oral vaccines to scores of children in Rawalpindi, and failing to reach nearly 300,000 children in Sindh despite official claims of 100pc coverage in the province.
Clearly, Pakistan must learn from these catastrophic mistakes. To have come so close to eradicating eradication polio — in the face of terrorist attacks, disinformation campaigns and public mistrust — only to enable its horrific resurgence through little more than gross ineptitude is despicable. The government must arouse from its complacent slumber and declare a polio emergency, with the prime minister himself leading the campaign in order to stress how crucial this public health issue is. The future of countless children rests on how he tackles this national crisis.