Dawn Editorial 21st May 2024

Reproductive health

IT is naïve to imagine that reproductive healthcare counts in Pakistan, where women from low-income groups and rural areas in particular fare poorly as they have limited access to medical facilities and information. The annual report on the State of the World Population 2024, on the theme ‘Interwoven Lives, Threads of Hope: Ending inequalities in sexual and reproductive health and rights’, released by UNFPA recently, throws up shocking truths about Pakistan. Less than one in three women was able to take decisions about her sexual and reproductive health; physically challenged females were up to 10 times more vulnerable to gender-based abuse and “every 50 minutes a woman died due to pregnancy complications”. The forecast is that it will take 93 years to fulfil family planning needs, while the target of zero maternal deaths will be unachievable for 122 years.

These appalling numbers outline the drastic impact patriarchy and prejudice have had on women’s progress by hindering the right to contraceptives, safe birth facilities, maternity care and necessary sexual and reproductive health services. Experts believe that girls and women will be a wasted opportunity for Pakistan’s fiscal health and social framework. The exclusion of sexual and reproductive health from political agendas and educational curricula is seen as a primary reason for this, alongside censorship of sexual health knowledge in a conservative culture. For matters to improve, the media should play a constructive part in birth control programmes and disseminate information regarding family planning and choice. The population authorities must engage female health personnel so that contraceptive use increases in remote communities. The question is: why has the state failed to recognise preventative practices as an integral facet of economic well-being? Family planning is a fundamental human right; its absence erodes resources, adds to healthcare expenditure and results in high infant mortality rates.

Published in Dawn, May 21st, 2024

Circular debt woes

THE alleged corruption and ineptitude of the country’s power bureaucracy is proving very costly. New official data shows that the government has failed to keep the power sector’s circular debt under Rs2.31tr as agreed with the IMF, with the debt stock soaring by Rs325bn to Rs2.64tr in the first seven months of the current fiscal. The circular debt’s unceasing surge, in spite of multiple rounds of electricity price hikes and fuel adjustments, shows that the authorities are yet to begin fixing the actual problems — poor recoveries, widespread theft, high system losses, generation costs, etc — that are dragging down the power sector. The situation belies the power ministry secretary’s claims of a ‘successful’ drive against power theft and defaulters that commenced last September. The growth in the debt stock has forced the government to commit to the IMF an increase of Rs5-7 per unit in the base tariff from July to restrict the circular debt growth in the next fiscal.

Residential customers, especially middle-income households, are the major victims of the power sector’s inefficiencies as they are forced to pay for theft, system losses, subsidies for powerful business lobbies and the like, on each unit they consume over and above the higher tariffs. According to a media report, the effective per unit electricity price for domestic consumers is Rs62, which is already double the existing base tariff thanks to various kinds of price increases and taxes built into the electricity rates over and above the base tariff, making power unaffordable for the vast majority. Now the government wants the citizens not only to pay a higher base tariff from July but also bear the costs that would result from significant reductions in industry tariffs. This cannot go on forever. Recently, we have seen violent protests over power prices in Azad Kashmir. Any further increase in electricity prices may ignite unrest in various parts of the country, as the income of ordinary people is no longer sufficient for their needs, because of elevated inflation and erosion in real wages. Power theft is also expected to increase with the rise in the cost of electricity. Price hikes are counterproductive as past experience and circular debt growth have shown. The solution to our power woes lies in implementing real reforms to fix the drivers of power price and debt growth.

Published in Dawn, May 21st, 2024

Iranian tragedy

THE tragic helicopter crash on Sunday, in which Iranian president Ebrahim Raisi, foreign minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian and several other officials lost their lives, comes at a critical time for the Islamic Republic. While internally, Iran is faced with significant economic challenges, externally,

Tehran is in the midst of an undeclared war against Israel, with the Zionist state’s savagery in Gaza the key trigger of this conflict. However, a power vacuum within Iran is unlikely, as an interim president has been named, and elections are due within 50 days. Raisi and his delegation were returning from Azerbaijan when his copter went down in a mountainous terrain, apparently in bad weather. The deaths of all on board were confirmed early on Monday.

Raisi oversaw a truncated but eventful term. He took the reins in 2021. One of the most formidable internal challenges to his administration came in the form of the 2022 Mahsa Amini protests, after a young woman died in controversial circumstances, reportedly while in the custody of the ‘morality police’. Anti-government protests shook Iran, and the state responded by cracking down on demonstrators.

On the foreign front, Raisi had reopened channels with Saudi Arabia, thanks to Chinese mediation last year, a process in which Amir-Abdollahian also played a crucial role. But perhaps the late president’s most difficult foreign policy moment came in the aftermath of the Israeli attack on Iran’s diplomatic facility in Damascus last month, killing a number of high-ranking Iranian military men. Tehran responded with an unprecedented drone-and-missile strike on Israel some two weeks later.

With regard to Pakistan, under Raisi’s watch, efforts were made to improve bilateral ties. While there was an ugly exchange of missiles in January over alleged militant hideouts, the late leader’s state visit to Pakistan last month indicated that Tehran wanted to deepen ties with this country. It is hoped the incoming Iranian president continues on this trajectory.

Due to Iran’s regional and geopolitical influence, the world will be watching the power transition carefully. While some Western observers dismiss the Iranian system as a totalitarian dictatorship run by the supreme leader, the reality is more complex. While the supreme leader does exercise a key veto over state policies, the president and other centres of power are not without agency.

Iran’s new leader will have to confront economic woes and political polarisation internally. On the other hand, the Middle East presently resembles a powder keg, principally due to Israeli atrocities in Gaza.

Iran has a major role in regional dynamics, as it is a vocal supporter of Hamas, Hezbollah and other armed groups fighting Israel. Therefore, much will depend on how the incoming Iranian president and the Islamic Republic’s establishment choose to respond to continuous Israeli provocations.

Published in Dawn, May 21st, 2024

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