Dawn Editorial 14 September 2019

Trade deficit narrows

ONE of the two big deficits at the heart of the government’s problems — as well as the main target of its economic policy — is the trade deficit that in the past few years has devoured the country’s foreign exchange reserves, to the point where an emergency appeal had to be made to the IMF.
Read: Trade deficit falls sharply by 38pc in July-August
Last year, the trade deficit came in at $31bn, showing some decline from preceding years, but still far higher than what the country could afford. The latest provisional data now shows that the declines are gathering pace as the first two months of the fiscal year — July and August — have seen a rapid contraction of up to 38pc in the size of the trade deficit, compared to the same months last year.
The numbers will no doubt be received with relief by the country’s economic managers who have a tough target to meet to bring down the full year’s trade deficit to $27.5bn. This means on average the economy can afford to run a deficit of just above $2.2bn per month.
The provisional data shows that the first two months of the fiscal year have managed to stay within that monthly average.
The trade deficit for July and August, on a provisional basis, appears to be less than $4bn.But now comes the hard part of keeping it there.
What is not known at the moment are the factors driving this decline.
Oil prices have fallen slightly since July, and imports of industrial raw material could also be seeing declines. As per indications being put out by those invested in the data, the declines owe themselves to reductions in non-essential luxury items. This claim needs to be scrutinised because the size of the reduction at $2.4bn is too large to be driven solely by luxury items.
A closer look yields other important caveats.
The biggest of these is that the decline in the deficit number has been achieved entirely on the basis of a contraction in imports. Compared to the same months last year, exports have been stagnant, which is a very worrisome sign because it comes after a massive depreciation of the exchange rate of almost 30pc since last July.
If despite this, the dollar value of our exports has not changed, it means the decline in the trade deficit may help meet a target, but is otherwise an unhealthy development.
The trade deficit must be narrowed to restore health to the economy, but how this is done is also a critical ingredient in the mix of the economic policies being followed.
The provisional data suggests that the target is being met for the moment, but other than that it points towards signs of growing ill health in the economy. Celebrations must be muted once the final data is released.


Wages of acrimony

THERE was little that was surprising in the reception the opposition accorded to President Arif Alvi as he addressed a joint session of parliament on Thursday. There had been signs of an impending ruckus, and fortunate were those in the house who were able to understand something of what the president said. Some of Mr Alvi’s predecessors in earlier times had not been that lucky while addressing legislators, and could hardly make themselves heard. The current opposition says that the Imran Khan government has more than earned this confrontation thanks to its hostile attitude, and believes that the treasury’s stance on many points has betrayed a desire to deny the opposition — and parliament at large — its due role. Whereas such statements are expected from those in the opposition, who often take refuge in criticism to conceal their own lack of effort, many independent voices will corroborate that the Khan setup has indeed made no secret of its utter dislike for its rivals in parliament. It is an acrimonious relationship, and while the opposition would do well to sometimes lend an ear to what top officials of the state have to say without constantly interrupting them and disrupting proceedings, most of the blame must lie with the government.
There is much evidence of the holy status the government has arrogated to itself. Take the selective accountability drive in the country. Much of the protest in the house on Thursday circled around the treasury’s reluctance to allow relief to some legislators, who are currently in custody on corruption-related charges, and to let them take part in parliamentary proceedings. The grant of such relief has been a sore point, and the ruling party has been dealing with it with a lot of unnecessary anger. Another bone of contention is the lack of a firm commitment by the government to retain the 18th Amendment — the most important law protecting provincial rights. Additionally, there is the matter of the nomination of two members to the ECP without consultation with the opposition. And if that were not problematic enough, a statement by the federal law minister citing a constitutional clause to uphold the centre’s dominance is being cited as an example of arrogance by the Sindh government. Hence, the parliamentary blockade of the president’s speech, reinforced by a culture of disruptions in the legislature, was not unexpected. Many more vociferous episodes could well be in store.


Prisoners of injustice

ACCORDING to Justice Project Pakistan, there are approximately 11,000 Pakistani citizens imprisoned in foreign countries. Out of these, the vast majority are in the Middle East, with 3,400 trapped in Saudi Arabian prisons. Many do not see freedom again, as they languish in such prisons for the remainder of their lives, never to see or hear from their loved ones again. The most unfortunate ones have their lives brutally snatched through the harshest forms of execution, as Saudi Arabia continues to practise public beheadings for certain transgressions on its soil. The JPP reports that 26 Pakistanis were executed in the kingdom this year alone. The latest victim of the Saudi state’s criminal ‘justice’ system was a labourer named Muhammad Imran, who was held in Jeddah’s Shumaisi Prison for nearly eight years until he met his tragic end. Like many before him, Imran was detained for allegedly carrying drugs with him at the Jeddah airport. Earlier, a Pakistani married couple were also executed by Saudi authorities for allegedly trying to smuggle drugs into the country.
While it may be the right of the Saudi authorities to formulate their own laws to govern their country, there is evidence that the majority of foreign prisoners do not receive a fair trial or get the right to adequate legal representation; and often judicial proceedings are carried on in a language they don’t understand. Additionally, most Pakistanis travelling to the Middle East are simply poor working-class people looking for employment in the oil-rich nations, while others are just trying to perform their religious obligations, before getting swindled by intermediaries into drug trafficking, through deception or force. During his official visit to Pakistan in February, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman promised to release 2,107 Pakistani prisoners from Saudi jails. So far, only a handful of them have returned. The remaining inmates are still waiting to see that promise fulfilled — a matter of life and death for them.

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