Dawn Editorial 31st May 2024

Up in smoke

ON World No Tobacco Day, it is imperative that Pakistan confront the creeping threat of tobacco use. This year’s theme, “protecting children from tobacco industry interference”, underscores the need to shield our youth from the often insidious tactics employed by the tobacco industry. With 37m 13- to 15-year-olds using tobacco globally, the gravity of the situation cannot be overstated. In Pakistan, tobacco use leads to over 160,000 deaths annually. The surging popularity of e-cigarettes among the youth, with companies exploiting child-friendly flavours and digital platforms to hook the next generation, further exacerbates this crisis. Despite all this, tobacco companies argue against taxation, claiming it would spur illicit trade. However, there is evidence taxes reduce tobacco consumption while increasing government revenue. With the budget around the corner, health experts in Pakistan have proposed a 26.6pc increase in FED on tobacco products to deter smoking, particularly among youth and low-income groups. This approach, they say, offers a “triple win”: reducing the number of smokers by 517,000, increasing tax revenue by 12.1pc, and recovering 19.8pc of healthcare costs associated with tobacco use. They have also made a case for the introduction of a single-tier taxation system, replacing the current multi-tier one, to streamline collection and combat industry manipulation.

It is equally essential to crack down on cigarette smuggling, which leads to the circulation of non-compliant cigarette packs without health warnings. The FBR has taken steps by seizing illegal cigarettes worth Rs96m, but more comprehensive steps are needed. These include stringent enforcement of anti-tobacco laws and implementation of the track and trace system to ensure all cigarette packs bear legitimate tax stamps. Enhanced public awareness initiatives about the dangers of tobacco use are also crucial. We must act decisively to protect future generations from the deadly grip of tobacco or risk having their health go up in smoke.

Published in Dawn, May 31st, 2024

‘Mob justice’ courts

IN order to tackle the plague of ‘mob justice’ that has spread across the country, the Council of Islamic Ideology on Wednesday once again proposed setting up special courts to try such cases. The CII had earlier made this suggestion both after last year’s episode of communal violence in Jaranwala, as well as the Priyantha Kumara lynching in 2021. The latest suggestion comes after violence in Sargodha last week linked to an alleged act of desecration. Two specific strands are visible in the brutal trend of mob justice in Pakistan. The first involves the highly sensitive issue of blasphemy. Often trivial matters or personal disputes are exploited and given a religious colour, and mobs are worked up by extremist elements to take ‘revenge’ against those involved in alleged desecration. Victims of this sort of violence include both Muslims and members of other faiths, and often investigations reveal that the allegations of sacrilege are completely fabricated. Yet the mob waits for no proof, and several innocent people have paid with their lives due to this zealotry. The second strand involves lynching of those accused of committing crime. Because the state has failed to control crime, agitated citizens often take it upon themselves to deliver punishment to suspected offenders. There has been a string of such lynchings in Karachi over the past few months, while the 2010 murder of two brothers by a mob in Sialkot was also the result of spurious robbery allegations.

Ideally, the criminal justice system and the existing courts should have the capabilities to investigate and try cases of mob violence. But because this alarming trend appears to be growing, special courts could be used to deal with the problem. If the state does establish ‘mob justice’ courts, they need to be staffed with regular judicial officials, and not members of the clergy. Moreover, they should deal with cases of alleged desecration, as well as mob violence committed in the name of punishing ‘criminals’. These institutions should not go the way of antiterrorism courts, which were set up to deliver ‘speedy’ justice, yet have failed to live up to their mandate. Legal remedies are just one aspect of the issue. To prevent mob violence from becoming the norm, and stop Pakistan’s descent into anarchy, society needs a long-term deradicalisation programme.

Published in Dawn, May 31st, 2024

Uncertain budget plans

WITH the Shehbaz Sharif-led government still fine-tuning the next budget, it might be too early to speculate upon the contents of the document. We will have to wait for a few more days before the budget proposals are firmed up and their contents finalised.

But what is certain is that in trying to achieve a balance between its political compulsions — providing succour to households no longer able to hold up against backbreaking inflation — and the necessity of plugging a deep fiscal hole in the economy, the government is faced with one of its most difficult challenges.

The confusion in the minds of the party leadership on how to deal with this paradox became even more evident on Wednesday when a PML-N meeting chaired by party leader Nawaz Sharif and attended by the prime minister decided to prepare a ‘people-friendly’ budget while adhering to IMF dictates. Not surprisingly, there was no official word either from the PML-N or the federal government on the outcome of the discussions. However, it is abundantly clear that the prime minister, caught between public expectations and harsh IMF demands, is in a fix.

The confusion in the PML-N over what shape the budget should take is reflective of the country’s volatile political situation. On the one hand, the ruling party is not ready to lose more political capital by taking harsh measures, and on the other, it must swallow the bitter pill of stern IMF demands, if it wants to access international funding, which is crucial for reviving the economy.

At the same time, PML-N president Nawaz Sharif, who resumed his position some days ago after a long hiatus of six years following his disqualification, needs something tangible on the economic front to not just defeat the narrative of his popular arch-rival Imran Khan in Punjab but also maintain his existing public support. His party has already suffered in the February elections due to the extremely poor economic performance of the previous Shehbaz Sharif administration, which saw monthly inflation skyrocket to 38pc and interest rates jump to a record high of 22pc, besides industrial closures and job losses.

It is, therefore, safe to assume that the PML-N will do its best to meet the IMF’s macroeconomic targets at the federal level, whilst taking populist measures in the Punjab budget to revive its party network in the province.

The PTI government in KP, which announced its next budget last week — much before the federal budget in a break from convention — has already shown other provinces how they can use their respective budget resources to execute the party programmes to keep their electorate happy without diverging from the IMF’s conditions. There is little likelihood of other parties not giving in to this temptation.

Published in Dawn, May 31st, 2024

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