Dawn Editorial 31st October 2023

Blurred lines

OVER time, the establishment has made so much ingress in the civilian domain that it is becoming more and more difficult to draw a line between the two. Recently, the National Database and Registration Authority and the National Accountability Bureau, which deal mainly with civilians’ affairs, were handed over to a serving and a retired army man, respectively, to control. Now, the caretaker government also wants officers from the Pakistan Army Medical Corps to head two state-run hospitals in Islamabad. The Ministry of National Health Services says the decision is in the “best interest of the patients and health sector”. The two hospitals are reported to be suffering from a truancy problem: doctors, paramedics, and other staff often don’t turn up at work. “Only an army officer will be able to enforce discipline,” one senior health ministry official told this publication. But these are public hospitals, not military ones: why should military officers tell civilian doctors how to do their jobs?

There is a host of well-run institutions in Pakistan that are capably managed by civilians, and there is no reason why PIMS and Polyclinic — or, for that matter, NAB and Nadra — cannot be too. The armed forces’ discipline and organisation are admirable, but the country is going to be better served if other institutions and their people are also given enough space to emulate these qualities on their own. Instead of being handed over to military control, these institutions should be helped to grow. Some bad precedents set a long time ago put us on the trajectory of political evolution that has culminated in the ‘hybrid’ model of governance we see in vogue today. There is a broad consensus that the steady erosion of Pakistan’s civilian institutions is what has rendered the country unable to progress socially or economically. The solution lies not in giving the military the steering wheel, but in building public institutions’ capacity to deal with the challenges they face.

Published in Dawn, October 31st, 2023

Global impotence

AS Israel continues its extermination project in Gaza, the global community — particularly the UN, OIC and Arab League — have displayed a shocking inability to stop the slaughter.

While these multilateral bodies issue statements of outrage, Israel has murdered over 8,000 Palestinians, many of them children, since the outbreak of hostilities on Oct 7.

There appears to be no one on the global stage with the moral courage to take Tel Aviv to task for its barbaric violence targeting Palestinian civilians, especially with the US and other Western states shielding it from all censure.

Within the hallowed halls of the UN, the US, using its veto power, has thwarted calls for a ceasefire in the Security Council, while also voting against a Jordanian resolution in the General Assembly demanding a humanitarian truce. Meanwhile, Israeli leaders and diplomats have openly expressed disdain for the UN.

With regard to the Arab/Islamic world, the paralysis is even more glaring. Apart from a few voices — Iran, Qatar, Turkiye — that have forcefully demanded an end to the slaughter in Gaza, the Arab League and OIC are barely audible.

For many Arab states and Islamic countries, it is business as usual as Israel unleashes hell upon the Palestinians. A similar disinterest has been witnessed for decades as India pummelled the Kashmiris in the occupied territory. The resource-rich Arab states are not without agency.

Recall the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, when Arab petroleum producers deployed the ‘oil weapon’ against all those states that supported Israel. Oil prices went through the roof, as many Western states realised that there were costs to pay for blindly supporting Israel. Can such an economic boycott be considered today in solidarity with Gaza’s defenceless people?

With most Arab rulers supported either economically or militarily by the West, such a proposition would not be endorsed. Moreover, Muslim states that have established diplomatic ties with Tel Aviv have not even considered suspending these until the Gaza massacre stops.

When it comes to the elites in the East and the West, cruel realpolitik trumps human empathy.

However, for many common people across the globe, the tragedy in Gaza is an unmitigated humanitarian disaster, and Israel is clearly the guilty party, responsible for the mass murder of Palestinian innocents.

Hundreds of thousands have marched in Europe and North America demanding an end to Israel’s vicious military campaign. This is despite the fact that many of these ‘democratic’ states have threatened to take legal action against supporters of Palestine, while witch-hunts of pro-Palestine activists have also been reported.

Yet the bravery of the common citizen marching in support of justice for Palestine and demanding an end to the slaughter, needs to be saluted, while the global elite’s shameful inaction on the Gazan massacre deserves nothing but opprobrium.

Published in Dawn, October 31st, 2023

PSM ‘revival’?

WHENEVER retold, the story of the Pakistan Steel Mills always comes back with a new twist. The decision of three out of four Chinese firms to exit the race for the acquisition of the mill has completely altered its old storyline built around privatisation during the last couple of decades. With hopes for PSM’s sale fading since no investor is interested in acquiring it, as revealed by officials during a hearing of a Senate parliamentary panel last week, the caretaker government seems to have given up on its privatisation plan and decided to leave it to the industries ministry to ‘revive’ it. How the ministry will resurrect the scrap of a steel mill is anyone’s guess. The whole idea of reviving the PSM is a non-starter. Its production operations were shut down in June 2015 after the idea of its revival was found to be unfeasible and unviable. Yet the defunct steel company, which is accruing a loss of Rs30bn a year, and has reportedly accumulated financial losses of over Rs206bn, continues to bleed profusely.

This is not the first time privatisation plans for this loss-making public entity have hit a snag. The Supreme Court’s ruling in 2006, scrapping its sale to a Russian investor, was the final nail in the coffin. It has been a steep downhill journey ever since for the country’s largest steelmaker. The Chinese investors are said to have withdrawn their interest due to the global decline in steel demand and poor economic conditions. But that is not the only reason. No foreign investor would want to invest in Pakistan under the present uncertain economic circumstances when the government is doing everything it can to avert default amid drying capital inflows. To sell a public entity is undoubtedly a Herculean task in the given economic situation. It requires the government to stay focused and steadfast, keeping its eye on the ball rather than wavering. In the case of most public businesses, the government has no option but to dispose of them as early as possible to stop further financial losses. Postponing difficult decisions such as the privatisation of loss-making state businesses has already brought the government’s budget under enormous pressure, leaving little in the national kitty to spend on education, healthcare and other public services. We cannot afford this situation any longer.

Published in Dawn, October 31st, 2023

November 1, 2023

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