Dawn Editorial 2 February 2021

Cost of living

THE prime minister on Sunday spoke about his government’s focus on price inflation, saying both headline inflation as measured by the Consumer Price Index and core inflation — the change in the costs of goods and services excluding those from the food and energy sectors — had slowed down in January to below the July 2018 level. “More good news on the economic front,” read his Twitter account. “CPI and core inflation are both now lower than when our government was formed.” This development was then attributed to the economic policies of the current administration as the prime minister stated he had instructed his economic team to remain vigilant and ensure that inflation was under control.
Indeed, the pace of increase in the prices of goods and services has been decelerating for the last four months with CPI and core inflation dropping to their lowest at 5.7pc and 5.4pc in January in more than two years. But it does not mean that the prices of goods and services Pakistanis consumed last month have gone down to below their two-year level. It just means that the prices now appear to be stabilising at a much higher point than the one when the PTI came to power. The overall CPI basket and food prices are estimated by analysts to already have spiked by an average 23pc and 31pc during the last two and a half years. That speaks volumes for the helplessness of the current dispensation in protecting consumers from the impact of rising prices, despite repeated claims to the contrary.
In spite of considerable deceleration in the January inflation rate, CPI has risen by a cumulative 8.3pc in the first seven months of the present fiscal. Many analysts agree that the present trend will be short-lived and headline inflation is likely to begin its upward journey in a month or two under the impact of the recent 17pc increase in the electricity tariffs and petrol prices. The weak response to the unchecked rise in food prices, especially of wheat flour, sugar and vegetables, has compounded the misery of the low-middle-income households that were already facing financial hardship and job losses owing to harsh economic policies and the Covid-19 impact. With food prices going through the roof, housing becoming unaffordable and indirect taxes and energy bills ballooning, a vast majority of households are left with little to pay for their education and healthcare bills. From the moment the government began implementing its economic stabilisation policies, the people knew that improvement would come at a substantial cost to them. But few had imagined they would also have to pay a steep price for poor governance and an ineffectual policy response to inflation. For now the rising prices are testing the economic pain threshold of ordinary people. Soon these might be testing the commitment of the rulers’ vote bank.



Myanmar coup

ONCE more, the generals have struck in Myanmar, sending the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy packing. Reports emerging from the country have said that Ms Suu Kyi — the de facto leader of Myanmar — as well as the president are in detention, while the armed forces have declared a year-long state of emergency.
Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, had emerged from decades of military rule in 2011 and was being run under a hybrid system where the generals dominated the state’s affairs, and allowed limited democratic activity. For example, around a quarter of the seats in parliament were reserved for uniformed lawmakers nominated by the military’s top brass, giving them effective ‘check’ over civilian MPs. However, despite controlling the levers of state, it seems the generals were uneasy with growing civilian power, as the NLD performed well in November’s elections. The country’s top general claimed there were “huge irregularities” in the polls, though the Myanmar election commission said it had no evidence of fraud.
Unfortunately, the situation Myanmar faces is a familiar one for many developing states, including Pakistan, where democratic experiments are too often interrupted by unconstitutional interventions, retarding the political growth of states. Ms Suu Kyi was not an ideal leader. For example, while she had struggled for years to establish democracy and fight for human rights in her homeland, upon gaining power she ignored the plight of the Muslim Rohingya, who were systemically butchered in Rakhine state. However, there is no justification for the military coup and power must be handed back to the civilians.
Myanmar suffers from ethnic and religious strife, and the only way to end these various conflicts is through the democratic process, ensuring that people of all religious persuasions and ethnic backgrounds are given equal rights. Things may deteriorate further under the generals’ watch, as the military is known to support a xenophobic extremist Buddhist nationalist narrative. There has been condemnation from all right-thinking governments around the world, and the matter is due to be taken up at the UN. The international community must make it clear that the coup is unacceptable and will have consequences unless power is handed back to the elected government. Myanmar’s democracy was anything but perfect. But allowing an imperfect democracy to grow and evolve is preferable to allowing unelected adventurers to toy with a nation’s future.



Karachi development

AGGRAVATING the turf war between the centre and Sindh over Karachi, Planning Minister Asad Umar recently complained that the provincial government was creating hurdles in the implementation of development projects in the city. Mr Umar went on to criticise the dysfunctional local bodies for violating the spirit of the Constitution, indicating that this was the reason for Karachi’s administrative failures. The minister’s acerbic remarks are in stark contrast to the ones he uttered merely two weeks ago when, together with the province’s top leadership, he stated that the centre and Sindh had decided to put aside their differences and work jointly towards the welfare of Karachi. But, given his markedly different tone now, it appears that the political consensus has proved to be short-lived. This was only reconfirmed when Mr Umar held another press conference on Monday in Shikarpur during which he blasted the PPP government yet again.
If the federal cabinet has reservations over how development projects introduced by the centre are being handled, these should be discussed with the coordination committee set up to oversee schemes under the Rs1.1tr Karachi Transformation Package that was introduced soon after the urban infrastructure was left in ruins after heavy monsoon rains lashed the city last year. There is no doubt that Mr Umar is correct about the political and administrative vacuum that has been created due to the absence of a working local government system. It is also true that the responsibility for the urban dereliction of many years now lies squarely with the Sindh government which has done little to promote the grassroots empowerment needed to solve civic problems. However, political wrangling between the federal and provincial governments over development in the country’s economic hub will only worsen matters for Karachi that is already seen as an ‘orphan city’. The time for blame games is long past. The authorities at all levels need to get their act together and focus on improving Karachi before the public’s patience runs out.

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February 2021
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