Dawn Editorial 29 January 2021

Basant ban

THE Punjab government has again renewed its ban on Basant, after a set of recommendations prepared by the police was sent to the chief minister. The former have proposed enhancing punishments for making, selling and flying kites, citing ongoing injuries or deaths related to kite-flying activities. Yet, the fact that scores of casualties are still reported annually despite the festival being banned for over a decade shows how attempting to solve a public safety issue solely through criminalisation is not only inappropriate but also ineffective. Surely, those involved in the production, distribution and sale of glass-coated wire used in kite fighting must be prosecuted, but does it merit a blanket ban on a centuries-old festival that many consider a part of our cultural DNA?
For each safety concern, more targeted interventions instead of relying on an overburdened criminal justice system can be considered. The sale of nylon and metal wire can be regulated. Local authorities in urban areas can designate spaces for kite flying, and hold awareness-raising campaigns to promote responsible activities and ensure the safety of participants and the public. While this itself can reduce the amount of loose string that ends up tangled on our streets, simply enforcing speed limits, and seatbelt and helmet use can prevent even more traffic casualties. Building codes can be amended and enforced to ensure guardrails are installed on rooftops. Accidents caused by stray bullets are a perennial issue that require stricter arms and ammunition control. Sadly, contrary to the heady, early-days promise of ‘safely’ reviving this vibrant tradition, the PTI-led provincial government has resorted to upholding the decidedly drab convention of banning outright what merely requires better regulation and governance. And though this benefits the religious right, it is worth asking at what cost Punjab’s citizens are being made to relinquish Basant — where once the advent of spring was celebrated with colourful skies, now the passage of time is marked by the gloomy, grey horizon of smog season further down the calendar.



Where’s the proof?

FORMER spymaster retired Lt-Gen Asad Durrani finds himself in hot water again. In a reply submitted to the Islamabad High Court opposing a petition filed by Gen Durrani against his name being placed on the Exit Control List, the defence ministry has stated that he has been interacting with Indian intelligence agency RAW and was likely to be involved in future publications against the interest of Pakistan.
Military Intelligence had asked the interior ministry to put his name on the ECL after the publication of a book based on his discussions with a former head of RAW and he was accordingly put on the ECL in 2018. The defence ministry in its reply submitted to the IHC opposed his name being taken off the list saying that he was put on the list for “his involvement in anti-state activities”.
The book that landed the former general in trouble may have raised some eyebrows for its central theme — two former heads of ISI and RAW speaking about the Pakistan-India relationship and related topics. However, there is hardly anything in the book that may be categorised as a state secret. There are opinions and analyses of the two former spy chiefs based on their experiences in these highly sensitive positions but it is fairly clear that Gen Durrani has leaked no national secrets.
Subsequently, he also authored a book of fiction that too does not ‘spill any beans’ so to speak. It is therefore surprising that the state has reacted so harshly to the two books and initiated punitive action against the retired general. The document submitted by the defence ministry, and the language it contains, is even more surprising. Accusing a former chief of the ISI for being involved in anti-state activities is unfortunate. More thought should have been given to the matter before documenting it in such a way. It sheds a bad light on everyone. Of course, this is not to say that the state should look the other way if anyone, irrespective of his position, is found involved in activities that are detrimental to the national interest.
In this case however, such a serious accusation should be backed by solid evidence. The books do not appear to contain any such evidence that may prove that the former general was involved in anti-state activities. If the state has any other evidence that substantiates the allegations, then it would be advisable for it to bring forward such proof so that its case is strengthened.
A better way to deal with this grave matter would be to try the former general in an open court. This would fulfil all requirements of transparency and also show that if solid proof is available then everyone, including a senior general, can be held accountable for his actions.



Development funds

IN another time and place, the decision by Prime Minister Imran Khan to hand out half a billion rupees in development funds to each federal and provincial lawmaker of his party for carrying out schemes in their respective constituencies may not have attracted much public attention. However, considering the PTI’s previous stance on the issue, the move was bound to raise many an eyebrow. It was but natural that this ‘development incentive’ would be widely viewed as an attempt by the ruling PTI to keep intact its ‘vote bank’ in the face of growing complaints within the party, especially in Punjab, against the government for ignoring the needs of the legislators to ‘serve their constituents’. There is also a view that the decision was made because the ruling party was not very confident it could get the secret ballot replaced with a show of hands as the mode of voting in the Senate elections scheduled for March either through a constitutional amendment or a Supreme Court injunction.
It is common knowledge that successive governments in Pakistan have used development funds to keep members of the national and provincial assemblies happy and buy the allegiance of opposition lawmakers when needed. Also, strong evidence exists that rulers frequently distribute taxpayers’ money among their legislators ahead of the elections to win over voters. Such funds are allocated without any formal rules governing their utilisation and, hence, we have seen a significant increase in the throw-forward of development schemes previously. Many such initiatives are either left incomplete or scrapped after a change in government. This hardly benefits the people of a constituency. And so it is hardly surprising that Mr Khan has in the past vociferously criticised the policy of distribution of development funds among lawmakers. When in opposition, he repeatedly pledged to do away with this controversial practice on coming to power, saying the job of the members of the assemblies was to make laws and not get involved in the implementation of development schemes. Until now, he had resisted the pressure put on him by his party’s legislators. So what has made him change his mind halfway through his term in office? With the opposition moving ahead with its planned protests in an attempt to force the government to resign and pro-government lawmakers demanding their ‘share’ in development schemes, the turnaround in his views on the issue could be interpreted as his weakening grip on his legislators.

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