Dawn Editorial 14th May 2024

Guns and guards

THERE are some flawed aspects to our society that we must start to fix at the grassroots level. One of these is the psychological impulse ingrained in certain segments to make themselves known in public through vulgar displays of force. Recently, local police arrested five private security guards from Karachi’s Defence Housing Authority for violating a ban on the public display of arms. These men, dressed in civilian clothes, were carrying three rifles, one Kalashnikov and one pistol between them, which were seized during the arrest. A case was subsequently registered against them. This development may seem inconsequential in the larger scheme of things, but it should be appreciated. The sight of heavily armed men, often in civvies, zooming around in pickup trucks and pushing ordinary citizens out of the way to make space for the rich and powerful has unfortunately become quite common in our cities. It is a shameful practice that has no space in the civilised world.

While some citizens and their families understandably face greater risks than others owing to their work or personal background, acquiring a posse of intimidating-looking private guards has also become a status symbol for the nouveau-riche. This has to be strongly discouraged, and Karachi’s DHA is right in attempting to disincentivise it by banning public displays of arms within its jurisdiction. It is unseemly for private guards openly wielding weapons to be lounging outside restaurants, shopping malls and educational institutes, where their presence can cause various inconveniences and also make people feel unsafe, especially as there have been many incidents involving private security acting irresponsibly with their weapons, thereby jeopardising the lives of others. The provincial governments also have an important role to play in this regard. They must strengthen the police and focus on eradicating violent elements from society so that everyone can feel safe without being surrounded by guns.

Published in Dawn, May 14th, 2024

AJK protests

SINCE last week, Azad Jammu & Kashmir has been roiled by protests, fuelled principally by a disconnect between locals and their administration, as well as the government of Pakistan. Strikes and marches have been held in different parts of the territory, led by the Jammu Kashmir Joint Awami Action Committee, with the situation turning ugly on Saturday when a police officer lost his life during the protests. On Monday, Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif attempted to quell the discontent by announcing the transfer of Rs23bn to AJK on Monday, along with meeting many of the protesters’ demands, such as increasing the wheat flour subsidy and revising power rates. AJK’s people had taken to the streets mainly due to inflation, as well as wheat flour and power rate issues. Moreover, many protesters feel that the AJK government is oversized, and that the small territory does not require an army of ministers and bureaucrats to run its affairs. They are of the view that very few funds are left for development after costs of running the AJK government are subtracted. Meanwhile, there is also criticism of local lawmakers, many of whom, observers say, rarely visit their constituencies after being elected. It remains to be seen whether the government’s steps satisfy the people in the long term.

At the heart of the protests appears to be lack of service delivery on the part of the AJK administration, as well as Islamabad’s apparent indifference to the local people’s plaints. The centre and the government in Muzaffarabad should have addressed these long-festering issues before the people’s anger led them to the streets. Sadly, it is the norm across the country to address issues only when they have ballooned into a full-blown crisis. In Gilgit-Baltistan, only a few months ago, the local population had staged protests along similar lines. The AJK prime minister said the changes made on Monday regarding wheat flour and power rates are “permanent” arrangements. Similarly, the AJK administration should trim its expenditures and focus only on essentials, while allocating enough funds for the people’s welfare. Lawmakers and ministers also need to make themselves available to constituents to resolve outstanding problems. Good governance demands that the administrations in both Islamabad and Muzaffarabad keep an ear to the ground and address AJK’s legitimate issues in a democratic manner.

Published in Dawn, May 14th, 2024

Privatisation divide

WITH Deputy Prime Minister Ishaq Dar having clawed his way back to the centre of economic policymaking, a tussle between two competing viewpoints — one represented by him, the other by Finance Minister Muhammad Aurangzeb — was inevitable.

Mr Aurangzeb believes that Pakistan’s economy can no longer bear the burden of state-owned enterprises, which need to be privatised as early as possible. On the other hand, Mr Dar, who is foreign minister and a confidant of Nawaz Sharif, fears that all-out privatisation could deplete his party’s already dwindling political capital. Hobbled by high inflation, recent blunders in wheat procurement and rising energy costs, the party can ill-afford any agitation against privatisation.

Hence, no matter what the finance minister says, the two are not on the same page as evident in his outright rejection of Mr Dar’s concept of “strategic and essential SOEs”. “There is no such thing as strategic SOEs,” Mr Aurangzeb told a pre-budget conference. All SOEs, regardless of their categorisation, he asserted, would be handed over to the private sector. His stance on the ‘strategic’ SOEs is the opposite of what Mr Dar, who was previously finance minister and heads the important Cabinet Committee on Privatisation, had stated recently. Removing seven profitable public companies at the disposal of the Pakistan Sovereign Wealth Fund from the privatisation list, Mr Dar reportedly said that the government would restrict its concerns to “strategic and essential SOEs”, whose number — 40 — would be decreased after scrutiny.

The final decision on which the entities are to be categorised as strategic or essential is to be made by the Cabinet Committee on SOEs headed by Mr Aurangzeb. It might not be easy for him to have his way on their privatisation, despite support from the powerful circles that signed him up for implementing taxation, energy, and SOE reforms along with privatisation under the IMF’s tutelage. Mr Dar’s economic ideas are acceptable neither to the IMF nor to these circles. Under these circumstances, his transfer to the foreign ministry and later his elevation as deputy prime minister were perceived as major concessions from PM Shehbaz Sharif, although under pressure from Nawaz Sharif.

Put simply, the differences between Mr Aurangzeb and Mr Dar reflect the tensions within the ruling party as well as the compulsions of an economy that cannot pick up momentum until it has undergone drastic and politically unpopular changes. The disagreement between the current and former finance minister on privatisation has emerged at a time when the government is all set to start talks for another IMF bailout facility in order to revive the economy. How this disagreement within the government will sit with the lender, which is already wary of the risks attached to the execution of the economic stabilisation policies, is anybody’s guess.

Published in Dawn, May 14th, 2024

May 18, 2024

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