Dawn Editorial 3rd June 2024

Child-friendly courts

IN a country where the child rights debate has been a belated one, it is heartening to note that a recent Supreme Court judgement calls for the state to establish child-friendly courts with specially trained judges. The apex court recognised that the welfare of minors should be “the foundational principle” in settling custody matters. “It is the duty of the courts to assess and determine a course that would have served the best interest of the minors,” observed Justice Athar Minallah in the order. The verdict came on a family dispute instituted by a petitioner to challenge a Lahore High Court decision, which upheld granting custody to the father. In addition, other aspects — the impact of the court atmosphere, specialised training for judges, provision of childcare and Article 35 of the Constitution, whereby the state is obligated to “protect the marriage, the family, the mother and the child” — were also accentuated, making it a significant ruling for children.

These considerations must be applied on a war footing because effects of trauma become visible in later years, often jeopardising the potential of youngsters. Moreover, empathy and sensitivity should be extended to every “child in conflict with the law”, such as juveniles, witnesses and victims. First, the Juvenile Justice System Ordinance, 2000, an exemplary law, which defines protections with the aim to rehabilitate juveniles in society, has to be enforced so that children are not subjected to handcuffs, corporal punishment, labour and harsh sentences. Instead, their medical and legal aid, special courts, speedy trials and protected identity are ensured by the state. Second, supplementary measures — art therapy to assuage angst and a video link facility for a child’s deposition to avoid contact between the child, offender and witness — are imperative for confident and productive generations. Lastly, every citizen should be familiar with child protection laws so that our most precious resource is never vulnerable.

Published in Dawn, June 3rd, 2024

Local power

A SIGNIFICANT policy paper was recently debated at an HRCP gathering, calling for the constitutional protection of local governments in Pakistan. Legislators, policymakers, and civil society members argued for the need to amend Article 140-A of the Constitution which mandates the establishment of LGs and the devolution of authority to elected local representatives. This follows the PML-N and MQM-P signing an accord earlier in the year to introduce a constitutional amendment, which would not only address the establishment of LGs, but through the addition of Articles 140-B and 140-C, outline their powers and financial responsibilities. LGs are the cornerstone of any thriving democracy. They ensure that the needs and aspirations of the people are addressed at the grassroots level. However, Pakistan has long grappled with a centralised power structure that undermines the effectiveness of local governance. Historically, LGs have been championed by dictatorships, which saw them as tools to bypass provincial powers and consolidate control. Conversely, democratically elected governments have often sidelined local bodies, perceiving them as a threat.

The Supreme Court’s 2022 ruling mandating the devolution of power to LGs was a step in the right direction. Yet, implementation has been tepid, thanks largely to the provinces’ reluctance to relinquish control. The PML-N and MQM-P’s proposed amendments aim to clearly define the roles, functions, and responsibilities of LGs and seek to establish a tiered system of governance — from metropolitan city governments in major cities to union councils in rural areas. This structure, coupled with a guaranteed tenure and direct election of mayors and chairpersons, promises to enhance accountability and responsiveness. The HRCP gathering also led to solid advice. As suggested by a prominent PPP member, incentivising provincial governments by basing their NFC share on the adoption of the UN SDGs and empowerment of LGs, can bolster local governance. Quotas for women, religious minorities, youth, PWDs, and transgender individuals must also be ensured to promote inclusivity and representation. Furthermore, by reducing bureaucratic interference and fostering a culture of democratic participation, local bodies can become more efficient. This, in turn, can restore public trust in government institutions and enhance service delivery. If Pakistani democracy is to advance, parliament must endeavour to introduce these amendments. Such reforms must not wait.

Published in Dawn, June 3rd, 2024

Large projects again?

THE PML-N is back with its signature infrastructure development model, which has been responsible for much of our economic crisis.

While setting an ambitious national development programme target of over Rs3tr for FY25, including a federal PSDP of Rs1.2tr, to pursue a growth rate of 3.6pc, the planning ministry is reported to have opposed the finance ministry’s proposal to cut development spending to meet IMF goals. How the lender — with whom Islamabad is negotiating a larger and longer bailout to shore up its international reserves and unlock international funding — will react to the proposals will soon become apparent.

The next budget will be part of the prior actions required by the IMF and key to a staff-level agreement for a new Fund programme. The planning ministry has also disregarded the fact that the current cash crunch may force the country to slash its PSDP estimates going forward and hold back funds for the proposed projects in order to meet Fund conditions — projects that only add to the existing development throw-forward of above Rs9.8tr.

The PSDP for the outgoing fiscal year has been reduced to Rs717bn from the original estimate of Rs950bn due to fiscal constraints as well as to create space for a primary surplus of 0.4pc of GDP to meet the most important condition of the last IMF programme. The proposed PSDP focuses on energy, transport and water projects, but it is not yet clear whether the government plans to complete the ongoing schemes or start new ones.

Considering our current financial condition, the growth target of 3.6pc appears overly ambitious. The Planning Commission itself has stated that growth prospects are subject to “political stability, exchange rate stability on the back of improvement in external account and external inflows, macroeconomic stabilisation under the IMF’s programme and expected fall in global oil and commodity prices”.

Likewise, an inflation target of 12pc for the next fiscal year may also be missed by a wide margin because of taxation measures, such as a 1pc increase in consumption tax to 19pc and a hike in taxes on petrol — to be included in the budget and the IMF’s exchange rate depreciation projections.

The government’s high indebtedness and its growing expenditure on debt servicing has put pressure on the upcoming budget, especially with the economy and private investment grinding to a halt. Any further fiscal slippages and succumbing to the temptation to showcase “progress and recovery” through large but deferrable infrastructure projects will worsen the situation.

The current state of the economy demands that the government focus on debt sustainability by curtailing its spending and mobilising more resources through the expansion of its tax base. The public has already paid dearly for the rulers’ fiscal profligacy in recent years.

Published in Dawn, June 3rd, 2024

June 13, 2024

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