Dawn Editorial 11th August 2023

Transplant tourism

AFTER a period of relative quiet, ‘transplant tourism’ is again making a comeback. The term refers to the practice of foreigners visiting another country specifically to be transplanted with organs purchased from local donors. The Organised Crime Unit of Lahore recently busted what seemed to be a massive illegal organ transplant racket in that city being run from Dubai by three senior Pakistani doctors. Initial investigations show they were minting money by charging overseas patients exorbitant sums in foreign currency for kidney transplants at a farmhouse in Lahore’s upscale Defence Housing Authority. The cops claimed that while the ring leader of the gang, who was already notorious for carrying out illegal transplants, was safely in Dubai, the other two doctors present managed to elude arrest.

Until the practice was criminalised in 2007 through an ordinance — followed by an Act of parliament in 2010 — Pakistan had become infamous globally as a market for vended organs. After the legislation, transplant tourism — and, by all accounts, illegal transplants domestically — sharply declined. Over time, lax implementation once again breathed new life into the racket, which includes doctors, police and middlemen/agents. Makeshift ‘transplant centres’ sprang up in urban residential areas. Then, international pressure and media spotlight led to another crackdown on organ trafficking rings, this time for a more sustained period. Even during these years though, some criminal-minded doctors employed cloak-and-dagger methods to evade detection. Several were caught and charged, but the criminal justice system has never been able to effectively put even habitual offenders, at least the medical professionals, out of business completely. Why not, is a question worth asking. Conditions in Pakistan on the governance and economic fronts are extremely conducive to the reemergence of the racket, particularly in these economically straitened times when more and more people have fallen into poverty. Continued vigilance and strict application of the law are critical to prevent the country from reverting into a black market for organs.

Published in Dawn, August 11th, 2023

Pipeline confusion

THE lack of a coherent official narrative on the status of the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline has caused some embarrassment for the outgoing administration, while adding to the risks of a diplomatic misunderstanding with our western neighbour. A statement attributed to Minister of State for Petroleum Musadik Malik placed before the National Assembly, had said that Pakistan had invoked the ‘force majeure and excusing event’ clause in the agreement, effectively meaning that the project had been shelved for fear of attracting American sanctions. However, as Mr Malik clarified on Wednesday, the statement was the result of a bureaucratic faux pas within his ministry, and Pakistan was still interested in the gas scheme. Speaking to the media, Mr Malik said he had not seen the policy statement submitted to the house on his behalf, while dubbing it “complete disinformation” as the force majeure notice had been given about a decade ago. He added that Pakistan was trying to secure a waiver for the project from both the US and UN and progress on this front was “positive”. Moreover, outgoing Foreign Minister Bilawal-Bhutto Zardari also told the media that Pakistan was “absolutely still committed” to the project.

Firstly, an internal probe is needed to determine how such outdated and incorrect information was submitted to parliament on behalf of a minister. As Mr Malik noted, the issue concerns a “delicate geopolitical matter”, and in fact risks souring relations with a friendly neighbour. Information on such sensitive matters needs to be thoroughly vetted before it is put in the public domain. Coming to the actual matter, it is welcome that the state is still interested in the project, and is trying to convince the US to grant it a waiver in order to complete the scheme. Pakistan’s primary objective here should be a secure supply of hydrocarbons at a competitive price while avoiding sanctions. If the state plays its cards right, achieving this goal is entirely possible. After all, Turkiye and Iraq continue to buy Iranian gas, while China and India also lift massive amounts of Russian crude despite American displeasure. If the state feels this project is in the national interest, then it should employ all legal and diplomatic tools to help complete the pipeline, while at the same time convincing our friends in Washington that the scheme is important for Pakistan’s energy security.

Published in Dawn, August 11th, 2023

A fresh start

IT ended in circumstances as controversial as the ones that gave birth to it. The 15th National Assembly — formed following the chaotic general elections of 2018 — stood dissolved on Thursday on Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s advice, merely two days before it was to complete its constitutional, five-year tenure.

Over its term, it saw two prime ministers sworn into office. One was constitutionally removed for his mismanagement of the economy; the other is about to leave Pakistani democracy considerably compromised. In roughly the same period, two former prime ministers were handed disqualification and jail terms for “corrupt practices”.

And, over the entirety of this period, Pakistan was run less like the democratic parliamentary republic envisaged in the Constitution and more like a hybrid system in which elected representatives took most of the blame while their ‘handlers’ took most of the decisions.

Former prime minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi is perhaps not wrong in regretting that the outgoing Assembly may have been “the worst in Pakistan’s history”. It not only failed in its fiduciary duty under two separate governments, but it also actively undermined Parliament by ceding unprecedented power to unelected quarters.

Former prime minister Imran Khan set the tone by outsourcing his government’s control to the intelligence apparatus. The latter whipped up votes and coddled or coerced the PTI’s coalition partners when the prime minister himself was not in the mood to play nice.

The then opposition, too, did not help matters by creating what was sometimes an overly hostile environment, pushing the thin-skinned PTI leadership to opt for ordinances to execute its legislative goals. The PDM tenure saw a continuation of the same once the new government realised that it, too, had little patience or will to play by the rules when ‘easier’ solutions existed.

The transference of power from elected to unelected decision-makers intensified following the May 9 violence this year, as extensive control over internal affairs was handed over to the security establishment. Its influence has now crept into economic decision-making, industry, and, lately, legislative business.

But the 15th Assembly is no more, and the upcoming elections offer an opportunity to undo its mistakes. The aspirants to the 16th National Assembly must demand that the polls follow the constitutionally defined schedule and be conducted in a free and fair environment. They owe this to their constituents.

The next setup must avoid the controversies that dogged the last one if it is to return any stability to the country. Any attempts to extend the tenure of the caretaker government or influence election results through pre-poll engineering should be resisted across the board. If the last five years have taught us anything, it is that tinkering with the democratic process is a recipe for disaster.

Published in Dawn, August 11th, 2023

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