Dawn Editorial 17th July 2023

Hockey hopes

A HOME boost could well prove the tonic Pakistan need to make it back to the Olympics hockey tournament. Having failed to qualify for the 2016 Rio Games and the 2020 Tokyo Games — held a year later due to Covid-19 — Pakistan have been awarded the hosting of the Paris 2024 qualifying tournament. The tournament’s top three teams will seal their berth at the quadrennial global extravaganza and it effectively means that even if Pakistan fail to win the Asian Games, they will have a qualifying route. The Olympic qualifying tournament is the first tournament that Pakistan, ranked 16th globally, will host in nearly two decades — the last was the 2004 Champions Trophy. Pakistan’s head coach Rehan Butt has stressed the target is the Asian Games even though recent results haven’t been impressive. Pakistan finished seventh in last year’s Commonwealth Games and at the inaugural FIH Nations Cup but have been buoyed by the performance of their junior players who were runners-up at this year’s Under-23 Asia Cup. Next month, Pakistan are due to participate at the Asian Champions Trophy in India, with the Asian Games in China to follow in September. Some players who featured in the Under-23 Asia Cup, where Pakistan narrowly lost to India, have been included in the squad for the Asian Champions Trophy. The tournament is a chance to see where the national team stands ahead of the Asian Games, which offer a spot at the Olympics for the winner.

Having won the Olympic gold thrice, Pakistan were once hockey’s undisputed kings. But the sport has been in turmoil over the last decade, Dutchman Siegfried Aikman leaving his post as head coach only recently due to unpaid wages. Upon Pakistan being awarded the hosting of the Olympic qualifying tournament, the Pakistan Hockey Federation secretary expressed hope that it would boost the sport. Pakistan hockey fans want nothing more than to see the national team return to the Olympics.

Published in Dawn, July 17th, 2023

Rampant abuse

A REPORT compiled by the Punjab home department — details of which were recently published in this paper — takes a hard look at the menace of child sexual abuse that is rampant in Pakistan. The report carries key statistics and recommendations which, if implemented by the state, can play a major role in bringing down the number of cases, and saving more of Pakistan’s children from the horrific trauma of sexual abuse. According to the study, of the total number of perpetrators facing trial for abuse, 55pc were neighbours of the victims, while 32pc were strangers. During the first five and a half months of 2023, some 1,400 children were abused in Punjab; 69pc of them boys. The report admits that many cases may be unreported as “cultural taboos make it difficult to report the crime”. Gujranwala topped the list with 220 cases, followed by Dera Ghazi Khan and Faisalabad.

Though these figures represent Punjab only, the situation in the other provinces is not too different. Perhaps this is only the tip of the iceberg, as the weakest and most disadvantaged segments of society — children, women, the poor — often do not report the trauma they suffer. As the Punjab report notes, there are numerous laws designed to deal with the menace of child abuse, but lack of “implementation, enforcement and coordination” means that victims don’t get justice and the culprits are not punished. When major cases make the headlines — such as the repulsive Kasur child sexual abuse scandal and the horrific murder of Zainab Ansari — the state swings into action, apparently to soothe public anger. But soon enough, the safety of children is once again relegated to the margins, with little action to back the tough talk against abusers. However, this may change as the government intends to develop a database of sex offenders, which can be a useful tool to keep criminals away from places where they can easily prey on children, such as schools, hospitals and madressahs. The Punjab home department’s recommendation for setting up special courts for child abuse cases also has merit, so that these cases do not get lost in the massive judicial backlog. The advice about focusing on victims’ rehabilitation also needs prompt attention, so that scarred young people can rebuild their lives, and get professional support to overcome their unthinkable pain.

Published in Dawn, July 17th, 2023

Power price hike

PAKISTAN’S business community is dismayed over yet another increase of Rs4.94 per unit in electricity prices. The new hike pushes the base unit power tariff from Rs24.82 to Rs29.78. Businesses are worried that the fresh hike will adversely hit their competitiveness by spiking their costs, making them a lot more expensive both for domestic consumers and foreign buyers.

With the economy reeling because of the balance-of-payments crisis, high energy prices and soaring inflation, several industries have shut down or slashed production to reduce costs.

The expected recovery in manufacturing after the IMF-mandated tariff increase may remain elusive at least in the near term. It is a dilemma for the government.

On the one hand, it has to meet the conditions of the new, short-term $3bn IMF programme needed to avert default and improve Pakistan’s debt repayment capacity over the next several months. On the other, it is under tremendous pressure to revive industrial activity for economic growth and job creation.

The Stand-by Arrangement stipulation to produce a primary budget surplus of 0.4pc this financial year has restricted fiscal space as well as the government’s ability to continue financing massive power tariff price losses beyond a specific threshold to prevent power sector debt from increasing more rapidly than it already is.

Indeed, the business community has a point when it holds successive governments’ failure to execute long-standing politically unpopular and tough structural reforms responsible for Pakistan’s economic predicament.

For example, we have increased power tariffs multiple times over the last several years but still cannot contain the growth in circular debt. It is because no government has had the political will to fix the distribution losses, recover bills from powerful defaulters and control theft.

Businesses are spot on when they emphasise that we seem content with managing the symptoms rather than addressing the causes of the ailment. The increase in power tariffs will not only hurt businesses but also every citizen as electricity becomes more unaffordable and the hike unleashes a new round of inflation.

The question is, what other options did the government have? Many. For starters, it could have designed a framework to fix the deep-rooted energy sector to cut losses, taxed undertaxed sectors — real estate, retail and agriculture — to bridge the fiscal gap, and launched a credible privatisation plan to offload lossmaking public sector businesses like PIA to reduce pressure on the budget.

But it didn’t. That shows the weak resolve of our politicians and policymakers to stick to reforms. No wonder the IMF Board has communicated its concerns over Pakistan’s poor track record in fulfilling its commitments to the Fund, and advised the authorities to complete the new programme. As the lender has warned, this is Islamabad’s last chance to improve its poor track record on reforms.

Published in Dawn, July 17th, 2023

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