THE PTI government has become quite adept at cabinet reshuffles. Since it assumed power more than two years ago, it has experimented with its team multiple times. In the most recent such exercise, Sheikh Rashid Ahmed was moved from the railways ministry and inducted as the federal minister for interior. Azam Swati, who is already on his second ministerial assignment, was appointed as the railways minister in Sheikh Rashid’s place.
In another significant move, Dr Hafeez Shaikh was elevated from his position as adviser on finance to a full-fledged federal minister for finance. His elevation, however, was spurred by the judgement of the Islamabad High Court which had removed him from the Cabinet Committee on Privatisation because it stated that unelected advisers and special assistants to the prime minister could not head ministries and divisions and could not be members of, or chair, cabinet committees.
Earlier, the court had also stated that an adviser could not head the all-important National Finance Commission. Faced with this predicament, Prime Minister Imran Khan used his powers to appoint any person as a federal minister for a maximum period of six months. It is expected that Hafeez Shaikh will be inducted into the Senate before the expiry of the six-month deadline.
Sheikh Rashid’s appointment as the interior minister is being seen in the context of the Pakistan Democratic Alliance’s agitation movement and a possible long march to Islamabad. However, the larger issue is the government’s inability to settle down with a team that can produce results. Key ministries like finance, interior, information, petroleum and a few others have witnessed multiple changes in command and this suggests shoddy homework in terms of team selection. It does not inspire much confidence if appointments at such a senior level, with such high stakes, are a byproduct of a process of trial and error.
Ministers are expected to set a policy direction for their ministries and provide the framework for how to meld governance vision with project implementation. This requires clarity of vision and consistency of execution. It cannot happen in fits and starts and it should not be held hostage to the whims of team selection. Unfortunately, this is exactly what continues to happen under the PTI government’s watch.
With almost half of its five-year term consumed with such impetuous portfolio distribution, it may be prudent for Prime Minister Khan to settle down with a team that will see this government through till the next election. A constant flux within cabinet membership is keeping the ministers on tenterhooks and other hopefuls queuing outside with greedy anticipation. Such fluctuations take a toll on the overall performance of the government, and it is showing. It is better to give ministers confidence than to have them constantly looking over their shoulders.
Growing auto sales
AFTER a two-year slump, the rapid across-the-board growth in automobile sales on the back of lower interest rates and recovering economic activities during the first five months of the present financial year to November is a promising sign. Overall, the automobile market has risen by 13.6pc year on year despite the second wave of Covid-19. The combined sales of three Japanese and a Korean brand — Toyota, Honda, Suzuki and Hyundai — have shown a remarkable surge of 48pc last month from a year ago, in spite of escalating prices, as banks are offering attractive financing packages to buyers. If the sales of a second Korean carmaker, Kia, are also taken into account, the total growth in sales would be a whopping 63pc. The current growth trend is in line with the ongoing expansion in manufactured output since the removal of lockdown restrictions. The reversal of harsh fiscal and monetary policies since the suspension of the IMF programme to support a quicker recovery from the Covid-19 impact has also helped.
The automobile industry was reeling from contracting demand even before owing to stabilisation measures such as massive currency depreciation, increased taxes, higher interest rates, and economic slowdown. The virus outbreak plunged it into a deeper crisis as lockdowns forced production shutdowns for around three months. Given the current industry situation and fears of potential supply disruptions on account of the resurgence of the virus at home and abroad, it can be assumed that automobile sales could take another couple of years, and government support, before they recover their peak volumes. Before auto sales started to slump, carmakers were expecting the volume to grow to 500,000 units a year by 2022. This was because new Korean and Chinese brands that offered a greater choice to buyers and forced the Japanese assemblers to invest in new models and variants entered the market to benefit from the incentives in the existing auto development plan. But the plan did nothing to help reduce car prices. Now is the time to use the next five-year industry plan (2021-2025) to make cars affordable for a larger section of the people by cutting taxes and duties, and giving a clear-cut time frame to the assemblers to substantially improve their low level of localisation in order to create jobs, reduce costs and absorb unseen macroeconomic shocks as well as increase the market size.
Afghan journalists at risk
IN yet another blow to Afghan media and civil society, a young woman journalist-cum-activist was brutally gunned down along with her driver by unknown assailants in Nangarhar province this week. Malala Maiwind, a presenter for a local radio and TV channel, was targeted by gunmen — a dark reality that has become far too common for journalists working in the war-torn country — as she made her way to work. Tragically, Maiwind’s mother, who was also an activist, was killed in an attack five years earlier. A campaigner for women’s rights, Maiwind had told local news outlets that she had received threats; she was vocal about the challenges faced by women journalists in her country. The episode is chilling for many reasons, but mostly because it underscores that violence against the media has become normalised in Afghanistan. The last few months alone have been particularly bloody for journalists, activists and political figures. A popular former television presenter was killed last month along with two others when a bomb fixed to his car exploded near his home in Kabul. In a separate attack, a reporter for Radio Liberty was killed in a car bomb attack. Tragically, the recent spate of violence also saw the targeting of Saba Sahar, one of Afghanistan’s first female directors, who was shot at when she was in her car. Luckily, she survived, but there are scores of other men and women who did not.
Hope is a distant dream right now for the Afghan people. As their future is being negotiated by the government, the Afghan Taliban and the US, the spike in violence has crushed the aspirations of citizens, generations of whom have waited for peace. Throughout, journalists have risked their lives and worked under unimaginable circumstances to deliver accurate information, often for low remuneration. The bravery of Afghan journalists is exemplary, but the death toll among the media fraternity is utterly tragic. The Afghan government must protect journalists, particularly women, as the space for their voices is rapidly shrinking.