Dawn Editorial 17th October 2023

Slain workers

IT was murder most foul, when six construction workers were gunned down in Balochistan’s Turbat city in the early hours of Saturday. What gives one pause is that they were murdered as they lay in slumber. According to the police, the killings were targeted. All victims belonged to different areas of southern Punjab, suggesting they had been chosen for their ethnic background. The incident brings to mind the deaths in 2015 of 20 labourers as they slept in their camp near Turbat. Those victims belonged to Sindh and Punjab and the attack was claimed by the Baloch Liberation Front. At the time of writing, no group had claimed Saturday’s shooting.

The incident once more puts the spotlight on Balochistan’s persistent security challenges. It also highlights the precarious position of those who, in search of livelihoods, become unsuspecting targets in larger power dynamics. How unfortunate that the province, which by now should have been well on its way to becoming the cornerstone of Pakistan’s development due to CPEC, remains mired in instability. For too long, Balochistan’s challenges — from ethnic tensions to separatist movements — have overshadowed the daily lives of its people. These workers, many of whom are non-Baloch, deserve protection, and most importantly, justice for the violence inflicted on them. The onus falls on the federal and provincial governments to ensure that the perpetrators are swiftly caught. And beyond the immediate security needs, it is crucial that the state engage with all stakeholders to find a lasting solution to the unrest in Balochistan. Economic projects alone will not suffice. An inclusive approach is required that addresses the genuine grievances of the Baloch people and integrates them into the national fabric. The lives of these slain workers must not go in vain. Let us ensure such tragedies are not repeated. Let us build a Balochistan where every labourer can sleep and work without fear.

Published in Dawn, October 17th, 2023

Decrease in oil prices

THE latest 12.3pc and 4.7pc decrease in the retail prices of petrol and diesel for the second half of this month must mitigate the pain of the inflation-stricken low- to middle-income people at the pump. But it is unlikely to significantly reduce rapid inflation, or bring down the elevated cost of living, even if it helps to somewhat decelerate the current pace of price increases. The government has twice cut fuel prices since the beginning of the month to pass on the benefit of falling global crude rates and appreciating home currency to consumers. A look at the last two weekly Sensitive Price Index readings, however, shows that the previous reduction in fuel rates for the first fortnight of October did not prevent even short-term inflation from surging. This underlines the fact that manufacturers, producers, transporters and service providers in countries such as Pakistan do not respond immediately to downward adjustments in fuel prices for the public — although they are ready to quickly incorporate the impact of increased petrol and diesel costs in their prices to protect their own profits.

However, price rigidity stems primarily from the uncertain outlook of the global oil market and the exchange rate. The existing mechanism of determining retail fuel prices twice a month also adds to the uncertainty as domestically, upward and downward adjustments can be significant, and it isn’t feasible for manufacturers, producers and service providers to adjust their prices with each change in petrol and diesel rates. Many argue that the complete deregulation of retail fuel prices would help bring greater market stability and slow down price inflation to some extent. Fuel prices and the exchange rate are indeed two major contributors to inflation in Pakistan. Inflation can largely be kept under control if these factors remain stable. Nonetheless, there are several other aspects, ranging from low industrial and agricultural productivity and high taxation on basic goods and services used by the majority of those in the low-middle-income bracket to flat economic growth and the failure of price control mechanisms that create room for traders to fleece their customers, contributing to rapid increase in inflation and price rigidity. Without tackling these factors, only the naive will expect two uncertain variables — global oil prices and the exchange rate — to help tame inflation and reduce the cost of living.

Published in Dawn, October 17th, 2023

Two rules

HAVING accepted unquestioningly political objectives dictated by unelected quarters, the entire apparatus of our state has been acting with all the subtlety of a bulldozer.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in the federal and provincial capitals, whose respective interim administrations have remained unapologetic about the duplicity apparent in their decisions as they go about enforcing a stricter set of rules for the PTI while allowing other parties freer rein.

Just last week, a dozen PTI supporters were arrested outside the National Press Club in Islamabad, where they had gathered to express support for the Palestinian cause.

The party and its supporters had a right to react angrily: no other religious or political entity seems to have faced similar treatment in recent days as they have gone about conducting political outreach activities or organising rallies for the people of Gaza. To deny one party the privileges being enjoyed by others seems petty and smacks of victimisation.

More recently, the enthusiasm that the Lahore administration has shown for the PML-N’s plans for a grand rally at the Minar-i-Pakistan even as it simultaneously denied the PTI a similar gathering at Liberty Chowk has made it abundantly clear why the PML-N’s political rivals fear there will be no ‘level playing field’ before the upcoming general election.

Both the PTI and the PPP have been questioning the circumstances in which Nawaz Sharif has ‘agreed’ to return to the country from his self-imposed exile. Both parties believe that the elder Sharif’s homecoming is happening thanks to an alleged covert deal with the ‘concerned quarters’, ie, the security establishment.

Both parties are also right in asking why an individual who is a proclaimed offender, who has been on the run from the Pakistani justice system, is being ‘welcomed’ by the state upon his long-delayed return with pomp and pageantry rather than a solemn reckoning with the law.

Unless the state immediately backs down from its manipulation of the political domain, there is a good chance that the upcoming elections will be preceded and followed by the kind of intense controversies that will never allow a civilian-led set-up to stand on its own feet.

The 2018 elections are a case in point. If the country is to be run by a political leadership that lacks a democratically acquired mandate, and is partnering with an unaccountable elite that has no tangible, lasting solutions for the country’s problems, we should stop thinking about progress.

The only way forward is to let the people choose the leaders they think can best lead them and for non-political forces to stop interfering in this process.

Finally, the ECP and the caretaker governments should take stock of their mistakes. They have constitutional duties to fulfil, which they seem to be failing in quite spectacularly.

Published in Dawn, October 17th, 2023

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