PRIME MINISTER Imran Khan’s wish to remodel the Senate election process has clearly hit a raw nerve with the opposition parties. Mr Khan, whose party currently doesn’t have a majority in parliament, has proposed that the tradition of secret ballot should end and that the upcoming Senate polls scheduled for March 2021 should, instead, be held a month earlier in February. The government’s legal advisers are now mulling over how to turn this desire into reality, with the option of putting the question to the Supreme Court or bringing an amendment through an ordinance that can bypass parliament — both moves that could further jeopardise the parliamentary system in this country.
As this happens, all eyes are on the opposition parties that have reacted strongly to this development. Unfortunately, this very response has exposed the chaos within the ranks of the Pakistan Democratic Movement. The PPP has opposed any change to the secret balloting, whereas the PML-N has criticised the possibility of early elections altogether. Some opposition party members have scoffed at the idea of by-polls, whereas the PPP is eager to have them.
In the last few weeks, the PDM’s three major parties have offered several scenarios as the potential ‘next move’ of their protest. Their two key options are mass resignations and a long march to pressure the incumbent government to resign and call for fresh elections. If this is indeed their strategy, their response to the government’s Senate election plan dilutes it. Why are they even engaging in a debate about a show of hands, by-polls and election schedules if they are going to resign? Clearly, the PDM’s initial hope that mass resignations on their part would somehow throw a spanner in the works of the Senate polls has been dashed. It is now desperately hoping that something somehow works in their favour — a remote possibility given how confident the PTI is about the Senate polls, after which it will have no hurdles passing legislation.
This moment is a reminder for the opposition that confrontational politics can only take them so far. No doubt, their call to the public has successfully brought thousands out to protest against the current set-up. But our country’s history shows that rarely do such gatherings bring down governments. In the PTI’s case, despite the numerous economic and administrative challenges the government is facing, it is not likely to be dislodged. For this reason, both sides should consider dialogue to end the political deadlock. Taking extreme positions is politically damaging and is not in the interest of those who voted. The PTI should acknowledge the role of the opposition, and engage with them without hostility. The PDM, too, should seriously consider talks with the government in order to negotiate a way out of the crisis. After the Senate polls, it might be too late.
Covid in prisons
PAKISTAN’S overcrowded prisons are a Petri dish for disease even during ‘normal’ times. During a pandemic, however, the inmates are at an even more grave risk. In the confined space, social distancing and other public health precautions become next to impossible to implement. The individuals detained become, in effect, sitting ducks for exposure to the virus. Prisoners of the Pandemic, a joint report by Amnesty International and Justice Project Pakistan, examines the impact of decisions by the authorities pertaining to the well-being and safety of those behind bars in the country during this global contagion. The fact that between April and August 2020, the prison population actually grew from 73,242 to 79,603, an 8.7pc increase, says much about their lackadaisical approach. It was hardly surprising, therefore, that by August at least 2,313 inmates had tested positive for Covid-19. To continue with matters as before violates international law and WHO guidelines about managing Covid-19 in places of detention.
Without proactive measures and some creative thinking, our criminal justice system can fuel an uncontrolled spread of Covid-19. The glacial speed at which trials proceed means that at least 67pc of those behind bars have not yet been convicted by any court. Inmates are crammed together in conditions where in some prisons six to 15 prisoners may occupy a cell meant to house no more than three. According to the above-mentioned report, the problem “is compounded by the courts’ reluctance to order alternative measures to detention at the sentencing stage such as fines, community service or probation, although these are available for a number of petty offences”. A judicial inquiry commission led by the human rights ministry in early 2020 found that almost 2,400 prisoners suffer from chronic, contagious diseases such as tuberculosis, hepatitis and HIV, which makes them doubly vulnerable if they contract Covid-19. It is a terrible pity that efforts by activists and some government authorities to reduce the prison population in these exceptional circumstances came to naught. The IHC had ordered that those awaiting trial for non-prohibitory offences be granted bail. The Sindh government prepared lists of several thousand prisoners to be temporarily released on furnishing guarantees. The human rights minister too acknowledged the need to set free at-risk inmates. Unfortunately, the apex court’s stance may have stymied any further progress. No prisoners were released as a concession to the prevailing situation. Surely, we can and we must do better.
THE PTI government’s flagship health insurance project — Sehat Sahulat Programme — aimed at ensuring universal health coverage in the country is a tremendous initiative. Currently, the programme is in the process of implementation in more than 90 districts of the country, mainly in KP and Punjab, where over 9m families enrolled under it are being provided free-of-cost healthcare services by both public and private hospitals. On Friday, Prime Minister Imran Khan launched the project in Azad Kashmir where 1.2m families will get health cards for free treatment of up to Rs1m at about 350 public and private hospitals. The successful implementation of the Sehat Sahulat Programme will not only ensure universal health coverage but also help lift the pressure on overcrowded public-sector hospitals and enable them to improve the quality of their services.
The idea of universal health insurance was originally floated by former Punjab chief minister Shehbaz Sharif. However, his administration could not or did not move as rapidly on this project as it did on mega brick-and-mortar infrastructure schemes. But the PTI government in KP took the lead and launched the health card scheme during its previous tenure in the province. In the last two years, the provincial government has moved rather vigorously on it and expanded its scope significantly. Punjab has recently begun to implement the programme, promising to ensure universal health coverage across the province by the end of next year. At present, some 6m people are covered under this initiative in the largest province. The complete implementation of the health card scheme will not only facilitate the common people, who have to stand in long queues at public hospitals for even minor treatment, but is also expected to improve the insurance industry. Additionally, it will also help the government operate its hospitals on a commercial basis once every deserving person is insured under the scheme, plugging massive leakages in the use of health funds and significantly reducing health expenditure.