Dawn Editorial 27th February 2024

New funds

PAKISTAN plans to seek a new loan of $6bn from the IMF under its Extended Fund Facility for a period of three years, Bloomberg reported last week, citing unnamed officials. Discussions with the lender on the new facility are expected to begin in March or April, following the completion of the last review of the ongoing nine-month $3bn Stand-by Arrangement. The latter arrangement with the IMF, which is due to end soon, had helped the country avert default last summer. However, Pakistan’s other creditors — multilateral, bilateral, and commercial included — have thus far been reluctant to help the nation shore up its shrinking foreign exchange reserves and improve its external sector outlook, in spite of the present IMF programme. Their reluctance is evident from the fact that only $6.3bn in foreign loans, or 35.75pc of the annual budgeted target of $17.6bn, in the first seven months of the present fiscal year to January, has materialised. But it was not unexpected as foreign creditors are waiting for a larger and longer arrangement between Islamabad and the Fund for medium- to long-term reform policy clarity under the elected government. Two of the three top global rating agencies, Moody’s and Fitch, recently cautioned that a larger IMF package is crucial to Pakistan’s longer-term economic stability and to unlock other foreign inflows to cover the country’s annual financing gap of $22-25bn for some years.

An IMF spokesperson recently said the Fund was ready, if requested, to support the post-election government through a new arrangement to address Pakistan’s financing challenges. It, nevertheless, remains unclear if the authorities have started doing their homework towards a quicker conclusion of the deal — billed as being tougher than the current one — with the global lender. The government was compelled to agree to a slew of measures to cut public expenditure, impose additional taxes on corporates and salaried individuals, hike borrowing costs, increase energy rates, etc, to meet IMF goals under the ongoing loan. Coupled with the unannounced import control to curb the dollar outflow, these measures have caused the economy to contract and kept price inflation up, making matters even more difficult for struggling low-middle-income households.

It is also not apparent how far the incoming minority set-up will be ready to go to secure the IMF funds. But it is as clear as day that it would not have much room to manoeuvre while dealing with the lender of last resort, given the nation’s vulnerable external position and its need for securing financing from its multilateral and bilateral partners to stabilise and grow the economy and avoid defaulting on its mounting debt. It is also clear that the new government will have no choice but to make difficult and unpopular decisions, no matter what the political costs.

Published in Dawn, February 27th, 2024


Missing link

WITH most of Punjab and KP now accessible via motorways, which have greatly eased road travel for the bulk of the citizenry, it is a shame that the fate of the M-6 Hyderabad-Sukkur Motorway — a major bottleneck in seamless north-south connectivity — still remains uncertain. Progress on this missing link seems to be stuck in a start-stop-rewind loop since 2016, with the latest setback dealt by the recent termination of a contract given to TECMC — a joint venture of local and international companies — to build the 306km motorway. The contract was terminated last month over the contracted parties’ inability to demonstrate they had sufficient funding by an extended deadline. The NHA’s revised estimates place the cost of the project at considerably more than what the tender originally given to TECMC was for. It may be recalled that TECMC had been one of only two bidders for the project in January 2022. It was reported in local media last year that the Italian partner in the joint venture had been greatly disturbed after the surfacing of a multibillion-rupee scam in land acquisition for the project, following which the process had been suspended. It seems it never resumed.

The opportunity cost of the PML-N’s various motorway projects can be debated, but it cannot be denied that they have thrown open myriad opportunities for trade, commerce and tourism that had existed at a much more restricted scale before. Apart from their logistical utility, the motorways have also had a significant sociocultural impact: they have made travel between different parts of the country much quicker, safer, easier and, in some respects, affordable than before. It is unfortunate, however, that the building of these motorways was not pursued under a consistent, long-term policy — if it were, the country’s largest city and economic engine would have been connected to other urban centres via a motorway long ago. Still, we are now at a stage where one last connection is all that is left. The foundation stone of the Sukkur-Hyderabad portion was laid by Shehbaz Sharif during his last stint as prime minister. Now that he is expected to return to that position soon, it is hoped that he will push to have the project resumed at the earliest. There is no justification for stakeholders to continue dragging their feet and delaying it further.

Published in Dawn, February 27th, 2024


Tragedy averted

IN a distressing episode that recently unfolded in Lahore’s Ichra Bazaar, a young woman found herself the focal point of a dangerous accusation.

She was dressed, to her misfortune, in attire featuring Arabic calligraphy. It was gravely misinterpreted by some as religious verses and the incident nearly escalated into deadly violence — an all-too-familiar occurrence in Pakistan. It was only through the timely efforts of the Punjab police and the sanity demonstrated by some traders who debunked the allegations that a tragedy was averted.

The incident, reminiscent of the lynching of Sri Lankan Priyantha Kumara, underscores a perilous mob mentality prevalent in Pakistan, where the merest insinuation of disrespect for religion can ignite violent fervour. For instance, at least 85 people are reported to have been murdered in Pakistan on blasphemy allegations since 1990.

This readiness to believe the worst, without due diligence or a moment’s pause for rational thought, represents societal degradation that calls for much-needed introspection. Pakistan must shed the layers of intolerance that have been allowed to permeate society. For too long the state has allowed such elements to fester.

Although critics often call attention to how laws pertaining to sacrilege are misused to settle personal scores, the problem runs deeper. It is not just about reforming laws, but transforming societal attitudes. Here, mobs rarely wait for the said laws to kick in before they unleash their bloody fury on victims.

To combat such a dangerous mentality, urgent efforts by the ulema are essential. They should denounce such behaviour and actively advocate for tolerance, coexistence, and the sanctity of life.

At the same time, the heroism of the Punjab police and the traders who defended the woman must be celebrated. These instances of courage and rationality demonstrate that there are elements within society ready to stand against the tide of intolerance.

Much blood has been shed to this madness. It must stop now.

Published in Dawn, February 27th, 2024

February 27, 2024

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