Dawn Editorial 19 September 2020

Regional trade

THE decision to establish markets along Pakistan’s borders with Afghanistan and Iran to boost trade underscores our weak economic relationship with our neighbours, apart from China. This is in spite of Pakistan’s strategic location in the region and its links through surface routes with India in the east, and Afghanistan and Iran in the west. Moreover, across Afghanistan are the Central Asian Republics. And we continue to have a significantly large untapped market beyond India. Unfortunately, the share of Pakistan’s intra-regional trade has declined in the last 10 years with exports to neighbouring countries falling from 12.2pc of its total overseas shipments in 2011 to 7.4pc in 2018. Similarly, Pakistan’s regional imports have dropped from 7.4pc of its total global purchases to 4.7pc during the same period.
Numerous historical factors, political disputes, security issues and trade barriers have hampered regional trade integration. In the east, the Kashmir dispute has prevented Islamabad and New Delhi from establishing deeper trade ties. In effect, Pakistan doesn’t enjoy comfortable trade relations with any South Asian nation with the exception of Sri Lanka. In India’s case it is no different. The adversarial relations between India and Pakistan have effectively buried the dream of a free-trade area in South Asia. In the west, Afghanistan has been an important trade partner. Yet bilateral trade remains much below its actual potential because of Afghanistan’s internal security conditions as well as a huge trust gap between the two states. Islamabad’s refusal to extend transit trade rights to India and Afghanistan owing to security and other reasons is reciprocated by Kabul’s refusal to allow us access to Central Asia through its territory, sealing the fate of an east-west trade corridor connecting South Asia with the Central Asian Republics. The only way for Pakistan to trade with Central Asia is through China, a route that remains closed five months of the year because of harsh weather. With Iran under US-sponsored sanctions, it has become impossible to develop strong, formal trade ties with Tehran.
Intra-regional trade plays a key role in the economic development and competitiveness of countries and is directly linked with their GDP growth rates. Take the example of EU and the Southeast Asian and East Asian economies. EU regional trade constitutes 65pc of the bloc’s international trade. In East Asia this ratio is 35pc and in Southeast Asia 25pc, compared to 5pc in South Asia. According to World Bank data, intra-regional trade accounts for about 1pc of South Asia’s GDP compared to almost 11pc for East Asia and the Pacific. It is absurd to expect that Pakistan alone can dismantle the trade barriers that limit regional economic growth. All stakeholders should work towards regional cooperation and learn from the experiences of other trading blocs. The increase in regional economic integration will lead to greater interdependence and faster growth, and ultimately create a strong constituency for peace across the region.



Sealing schools

REOPENING educational institutes during the coronavirus pandemic was never going to be easy. Of late, the challenge for the authorities and school teachers has become even more difficult as some schools and colleges have reported active Covid-19 cases or have been found violating SOPs.
Some schools were sealed in Karachi this week after a surprise visit by the Sindh education minister revealed that pre-primary classes were going on although only students of classes 9 to 12 have been allowed to go back to school. In fact, in view of SOP violations, the minister on Friday announced a week’s delay in the resumption of classes 6 to 8 in the province. In Peshawar, the health department recommended the sealing of some schools and classrooms in the city as well as in other areas of KP after Covid-19 cases were detected among students and staff. Several private schools were also sealed for violating SOPs. In Islamabad, too, some students and staff tested positive.
With research indicating low risk to children, it was important for schools to be reopened after prolonged disruption. Students have suffered tremendously during the lockdown and the government’s decision to reopen educational institutes as the national tally of overall cases lowered was a pragmatic step towards normalcy.
But the threat from Covid-19 at these institutes is ever-present. Schools can be super-spreading venues, and, although the risk to young people is comparatively low, students can transmit Covid-19 to vulnerable people in their communities and households.
If the government wishes to control the spread of the virus with the success it demonstrated in recent months, it must tackle the presence of Covid-19 cases in schools proactively. This can only be possible if testing is increased.
At present, we have just about crossed a daily testing total of 33,000 — a figure which is far too low when we consider that around the same number of tests were carried out during the peak of the pandemic when the country was in lockdown. For the first time in a month, 700 new Covid-19 cases were reported in a single day on Sept 17. To protect vulnerable citizens and healthcare workers who have made tremendous sacrifices in this crisis, testing must be increased and random sampling conducted in schools so that the chances of a second wave can be minimised. Unless that is done, all efforts would have been of no use.



BRT fires

THE news reports about the disruption of the Peshawar BRT are disturbing. The service was suspended on Wednesday after a fourth bus in the system caught fire since the much-awaited launch of the bus rapid transit system a few weeks ago in August. Fortunately, in this instance, too, there were no casualties even though there were passengers on board when the fire erupted. The emergency situation was overcome quickly but the scare itself will take a lot of dousing, and another round of political blame game has been impossible to avoid. The project had been at the centre of a long row between the PTI government in KP and its rivals, and was flaunted as a symbol of the ruling party’s version of urban development as opposed to the PML-N model of public transport on the roads of Lahore and Multan. The project is the source of much bad blood between the political camps and the basis of criticism against Prime Minister Imran Khan’s caretakers in KP because of the time and resources spent on it. The BRT’s launch was seen as a new phase in the journey to vindicate the PTI’s determination to go ahead with a controversial project. However, the fires breaking out in the buses have threatened to prolong negative publicity for a service which needs to be run efficiently.
Over and above political expediency, the BRT is intended to facilitate the hustle and bustle of daily life in an expanding Peshawar. A project such as the BRT that was accomplished after a very visible struggle must not be left exposed to risks that can turn it into an uncontrollable mess. The first spark should have been sufficient for an efficient administration to quickly investigate the matter and put right the flaws in order to ensure the safety of commuters. After all, the BRT does not belong to a political party or a company. It is the property of the public at large, something that the ruling class and the opposition should recognise.


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