Dawn Editorial 24 December 2020

Performance record

ON Tuesday, Prime Minister Imran Khan dropped some truth bombs that will no doubt be remembered by both his voters and political rivals for days to come. Mr Khan spoke at an event where he invited his cabinet to sign a ‘performance agreement’ for the coming year, with the aim that his ministers must deliver in the period before the next election.
Mr Khan urged his ministers to deliver on key promises, as “the time for performance has arrived”. He also admitted that, before he assumed office, he had had no time to prepare and that his first three months were spent on understanding the state of affairs in the country. “We no longer have an excuse that we’re new and are learning because most of us came into power for the first time,” he added. Though no doubt well intentioned, this admission by a sitting prime minister halfway through his term is quite disturbing.
For the past two years, the country has faced multiple crises. From an economy in a downward spiral and a near war with India to the Covid-19 pandemic and the wheat, sugar and power crises, the challenges have had real consequences for millions of people. For the prime minister to admit that his administration was getting acquainted with governing — against the backdrop of at least four cabinet reshuffles with one as recent as this month — is an indictment of the leadership’s grip on the country’s affairs.
When lives and livelihoods are at stake, should a government be allowed more than a few weeks of adjustment before taking on the challenges? The time for the current government to start performing should have been very soon after taking power in August 2018. Successive governments blame past dispensations for the mess they have inherited. This administration is no exception, with the prime minister heaping blame on the 18th Amendment. Again, the reality is that the scope of the powers of the centre are not new concepts and should not catch an incoming head of government or his team by surprise. In fact, it could be asked why no performance record was signed in the year the government was elected to power.
Also, government leaders would do well to go into the new year reflecting on their relationship with the opposition. There is no doubt that the latter have made governing more difficult for the current rulers but the challenge might have been less intimidating had the government built less acrimonious connections with the opposition. It is also high time that disputes within the PTI, which have so often spilled into the public domain, were addressed by the prime minister. Public admission of the government’s teething problems are not going to inspire confidence, but stepping up to the challenge and turning in a good performance might do the trick.



Census results

THAT the results of the National Census 2017 were approved by the federal cabinet on Tuesday, three years after the fact, is an indication of how contentious the exercise has been. The MQM, which earlier had emphatically rejected the results but is now an ally of the PTI government, submitted a dissent note. It was decided at the meeting, presided over by Prime Minister Imran Khan, to send the census report to the Council of Common Interests for the provinces to sign off on. Further, the cabinet proposed that the exercise be conducted every three years instead of decennially as mandated by the Constitution.
A periodic census is essential for running the country, at least if it is to be run with the help of reliable statistical data. Providing a detailed socioeconomic picture, it guides governments in framing policies and allocating funds for them. The population distribution mapped by the census factors into the NFC Award, the delimitation of constituencies and the allocation of seats in parliament. Its results are thus not only critical for the country’s future but they also go to the heart of political power that is dependent on changing population dynamics. With various distortions having crept into the political arena due to periods of unelected rule and disputed elections, the holding of the census itself has become a fraught undertaking. Consider how the intervals of national census taking have become longer. After independence the exercise has been held in 1951, 1961, 1972 (a year later because of the 1971 war), 1981, 1998, and the most recent, 19 years later, in 2017. Even so, the 2017 census was held only after the Supreme Court ordered it. The conduct of the exercise by the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics and the constitution of the PBS governing council raised a number of misgivings especially among the smaller provinces and the results were widely disputed. Aside from other procedural anomalies, the census was conducted without a pilot survey and not followed up by a post-enumeration survey. These mechanisms assess the quality of the data and as a widely accepted practice are included as components of the overall operation. A flawed census, in a country already riven with ethnic and religious fault lines, stokes further dissent and alienation. The census-taking process itself must be revisited and amended to ensure a transparent and credible exercise. Two hundred million-plus people deserve nothing less.



Boiler explosion

INDUSTRIAL accidents in the country occur far too frequently, often resulting in a high number of deaths and injuries. The latest deadly tragedy at an industrial establishment occurred on Tuesday evening, when a boiler reportedly exploded in a New Karachi factory. The unit was located in a thickly populated neighbourhood and resulted in at least 10 deaths, while the factory building was destroyed. Neighbouring structures were also badly damaged. Investigators on Wednesday said they were still trying to probe the nature of the blast. However, this tragedy — like others before it — will also soon fade from memory until the next industrial accident results in loss of life. While this may be a cynical viewpoint, the fact is that officialdom does little to enforce health and safety regulations at industrial concerns, which paves the way for accidents such as these. The 2012 Baldia factory fire tragedy, though a criminal act, was exacerbated by the fact that safety measures at the unit were inadequate.
Laws concerning occupational health and safety are of course on the books. But as with other laws in Pakistan there is little to motivate the state to enforce such regulations, even though lives are at stake. It is not unusual in Pakistan to have industrial units located in densely populated residential areas; at times, accidents have occurred when hazardous materials stored in these factories have exploded. Moreover, Karachi has witnessed a rising trend of using houses in purely residential neighbourhoods as godowns, with no check over the material stored in these buildings. Also, in many industries, workers have to deal with hazardous materials without donning safety gear or taking precautions. All this is a disaster waiting to happen unless the authorities get serious about ensuring that industrial concerns start following health and safety laws. The relevant government departments must ensure that factories and workshops are adhering to safety regulations, and that those units dealing with chemicals or hazardous material are located in industrial zones far from residential areas.

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