Dawn Editorial 5 August 2019

A plastic world

IN 2017, a team of scientists published their findings on global plastic production, the first such attempt at measuring the scale of the problem since 1950. The study revealed that by 2015, a whopping 8.3bn metric tons of plastic had been produced, out of which 6.3bn tons became waste. Only 9pc of that waste was recycled, while 12pc was destroyed. The remaining 79pc was simply dumped into the environment and landfills. And it can take anywhere from 100 to 1,000 years to disintegrate. Perhaps the most disturbing finding was that approximately half of all the total plastic waste was produced only since the turn of the century. To say that humanity has an addiction to plastic is an understatement. Without large-scale, long-term intervention, the problem will keep escalating.
By 2050, an estimated 12bn metric tons of plastic waste is expected to be deposited in landfills or thrown into the environment, wreaking havoc on natural life, clogging waterways and drainage systems, and spelling disaster for human health. Around 8m tons end up in the oceans, which contain the vast majority of all life forms on the planet. The news of whales and other majestic marine life dying due to their consumption of plastic is becoming more and more frequent. Divers have found plastic in the deepest points of the ocean. A study conducted earlier this year found microplastics inside amphipods in six of the deepest-known parts of the ocean, including the Mariana Trench. Undoubtedly, this human-created material finds its way into our diet as well, and this has been proven in several studies.
Like much of the rest of the world, Pakistan too suffers from its addiction to plastic since it is cheap to manufacture and durable, particularly single-use plastic bags and wrappings that are used and discarded at whim. According to the Pakistan Plastic Manufacturers Association, approximately 55bn plastic bags are used each year in the country. In the most recent effort to cut down on the use of plastic bags, the climate change ministry announced Aug 14 as the cut-off date for using such bags in the capital city. Failure to comply will result in heavy fines for the manufacturers, and the ministry has warned that it will be conducting raids. Whether the authority is successful or not remains to be seen. In the past, there have been several efforts by provincial governments and municipal authorities to outlaw their use, but law enforcement remains weak. There is also an outcry from plastic bag manufacturers that employ thousands in factories. While there are no easy, quick-fix solutions — and even though it may be hard for some to imagine a world without plastic — it is important to remember just how recent a phenomenon plastic is. It is not a necessity, and its long-term damage to the environment and human health far outweighs its temporary convenience.
Revenue challenges
AND so it begins. One of the most vigorous revenue collection drives in the country’s history was launched on July 1 — but the end of the month brought the familiar news of a shortfall in the collections for the first month of the fiscal year. The amount of the shortfall is not alarming — Rs14bn — but if the collections do not pick up pace by the end of this month, the government will undoubtedly be pushed into announcing a so-called mini budget before December. The vigorous exercise to broaden the tax base and to pull traders into the net has also been launched, but there are good reasons to be sceptical of this effort as it is not clear whether it will help plug the revenue shortfalls that are inevitably emerging. It is one thing to get undocumented enterprises to register themselves with the tax authorities, and quite another to actually extract revenue from them in the amounts required to keep pace with the targets set in the IMF programme once they have registered themselves.
Now it is becoming a little clearer why the government has quietly put away the numbers from its latest amnesty scheme. Even though the scheme attracted 137,000 declarants, and close to Rs3tr worth of assets was declared through it, the government has chosen to not tout the scheme as a success. A closer look reveals why this might be the case. The total revenue collection under the scheme was Rs70bn, smaller than what the last such scheme under the previous government achieved, even though the number of declarants is comparable. Clearly, the authorities were expecting a far larger outturn from the exercise, with some reports suggesting that the expected revenue contribution from the scheme was four or five times of what has been collected. This was the first step of the massive revenue plan the government is trying to implement for this year in pursuit of an ambitious Rs5.55tr target. Having failed to collect the expected amount, the effort to meet the target now falls back on the aggressive documentation drive that the FBR is currently pursuing. If this too does not yield revenues in the quantity required, the government will have no option but to squeeze existing taxpayers, perhaps through an increase in the rate of sales tax. Clearly, the challenges on the economic front are mounting. The government must place itself on a more secure footing to meet its commitments.
Hong Kong protests
HONG KONG’S political crisis shows little sign of abating. It has been triggered by a move to introduce an extradition law that critics argue would put anyone in the city at risk of being prosecuted for crimes under China’s arguably flawed legal system. Earlier last month, Chief Executive Carrie Lam announced that the controversial legislation was effectively ‘dead’, but stopped short of pledging a formal and permanent withdrawal. It is indicative of the level of distrust among the protesting public — joined this week by many of the city’s civil servants — that her words failed to put an end to the mass demonstrations, which have continued in scorching heat and heavy rains, and despite police crackdowns and vigilante attacks.
Under the 1997 handover agreement, the former British colony is to be ruled under the ‘one country, two systems’ principle until 2047. Yet, the recent unrest clearly demonstrates an overwhelming anxiety among citizens that Hong Kong’s autonomy and unique freedoms are being hastily and systematically eroded by Ms Lam’s Beijing-backed government. Tensions have been simmering for years, particularly since the 2014 umbrella protests erupted following a proposal for electoral ‘reforms’. Pro-democracy legislators have been disqualified; booksellers critical of China have been allegedly disappeared; and journalists, activists and artists are increasingly complaining of being forced to self-censor dissenting opinions. Beijing’s response to recent events has been disquieting to say the least; on Wednesday, it released a video widely seen as a warning of possible military intervention. This, coupled with remarks by the authorities painting the protests as foreign-backed, runs the risk of escalating matters to a point of no return. No observer can reasonably argue that the highly organised protesters are not motivated in large part by a deep sense of civic responsibility. Thus, any excessive action at this juncture threatens to not only tarnish China’s image as a global leader, but also to expose the limits of Chinese-style governance when applied to a populace that has known greater freedoms. The Hong Kong government must try a different tack.

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