Dawn Editorial 5 September 2020

Circular debt woes

IN November last year, Adviser to the Prime Minister on Finance and Revenue Hafeez Shaikh claimed that the circular debt would be eliminated by the end of 2020. His colleague Special Assistant Nadeem Babar has also made similar predictions on multiple occasions. Mr Babar asserts that the government has arrested the pace of monthly increase in the circular debt, bringing it down to around Rs10bn-12bn from nearly Rs38bn during the last years of the PML-N government.
Unfortunately, there is plenty of evidence to contradict such assertions. A Senate panel was informed by power ministry officials the other day that the power sector’s liability had spiked by a hefty Rs538bn or 33.4pc to more than Rs2.1tr during the last financial year. The average monthly build-up of almost Rs45bn in the overall volume of the debt during the last fiscal is way higher than what the government had projected.
The pace of increase has been even faster than what the PTI ‘inherited’. The total debt stock has almost doubled in two years under the PTI. During the Senate hearing, the government team blamed Covid-19 for the shortfall of Rs240bn in the collection of bills and the sharp rise in debt. Even if their explanation is accepted, the pace of accumulation of arrears has still been substantially more rapid than the claims made by the government.
The origins of the circular debt — the amount of cash shortfall within the Central Power Purchasing Agency that the latter is unable to pay to its power suppliers — go far back in time and successive rulers must share the blame for the huge mess in the country’s power sector.
It is a collective failure which is now threatening the nation’s fiscal stability and penalising consumers through far higher electricity tariffs compared to other countries in the region. The sad part is the PTI government’s inability to come up with anything resembling a reform plan to contain the debt during its two years in power.
It has pursued the same old strategy of raising consumer electricity prices and resorting to revenue-based blackouts — just like its predecessors. In June, it moved a bill to secure the power to impose surcharges on consumer electricity tariffs and special wheeling charges on industrial consumers to control the debt build-up. Recently, it has forced several private power producers to accept a reduction in their returns through changes in their agreements with the CPPA-G to slow down the accumulation of arrears.
Few believe such actions will work. Instead, the expert opinion is that such short-term ‘solutions’ have taken the focus away from the real issues plaguing the sector — high distribution losses, widespread electricity theft, massive unrecovered bills, and so on. It is an untenable situation. What is needed urgently is a plan to liquidate existing stocks and a strategy to stop its further accumulation without burdening the consumers.



Torture bill

ONE hopes that Prime Minister Imran Khan will follow up on his announcement that a bill against torture would be introduced soon in parliament. Thousands of people in the country are subjected to torture — all too often by the law enforcers themselves. Purging the criminal justice system of this sadistic practice is a challenge that needs to be addressed immediately. The prime minister made his announcement on Twitter and stated that torture was “unacceptable in a civilised society”. He instructed the interior ministry to accelerate the process of presenting the anti-torture bill in the National Assembly. He also asserted that torture tactics were against the spirit of Islam and the Constitution and a violation of Pakistan’s international legal obligations.
It has been over a decade since Pakistan signed the Convention against Torture, and it must now take its commitment further. Torture is endemic in the country, whether in the criminal justice system or society in general. Police officials routinely employ it to extract ‘confessions’ from suspects or ‘punish’ them, something that the courts themselves have acknowledged. The case of Salahuddin Ayubi last year is just one of many incidents where victims have died in police custody. It is this mindset that lends ‘legitimacy’ to the extended detention of suspects at internment centres and allows police officials to maintain safe houses that operate under the radar for the very purpose of violating the basic rights of suspects in horrible ways. Meanwhile, as the case of the 10-year-old domestic worker Tayyaba demonstrated, torture is a part of society. Indeed, there are numerous examples that never come to light both in official and private spheres, and justice for the victims is rare. All too often, the perpetrators escape the accountability process — unless a hue and cry is raised. While finalising the draft of the anti-torture bill, the interior ministry should take guidance from the report of the UN Committee against Torture regarding Pakistan’s compliance with the provisions of the convention. Besides completely prohibiting torture, the authorities also need to train police officers in forensic evidence gathering and alternate interrogation techniques. Strict punishment should be ensured for law enforcers irrespective of how well-connected or high-ranking they may be. One hopes that the authorities will act promptly and justly, and not put this issue on the back-burner. The promised bill must see the light of day if Pakistan is to be perceived as a progressive state.



No bail for media mogul

THERE seems to be no end to the ordeal of Mir Shakilur Rehman, editor-in-chief of the Jang group, who has been held by the National Accountability Bureau for six months now. On Thursday, NAB secured a non-bailable arrest warrant for former prime minister Nawaz Sharif in the same 34-year-old case regarding the allotment of more than 50 kanals of land in Lahore. This could signal just how determined the prosecutors are to stretch the proceedings and pain in what has been a trial by investigation only. Bail for Mr Rehman after he was arrested had appeared only a formality. But securing bail which is usually considered the right of a person under probe has proven to be an impossible task in his case. All Mr Rehman’s attempts, including the latest on Thursday, to secure this fundamental relief have been frustrated. The protests, the urgent reminders about health risks and advice on how the government must not allow the case to sully its reputation appear to have made little impact.
The latest development came as Prime Minister Imran Khan’s remarks on the freedom of expression echoed through the air. In an interview with a Gulf channel, the premier denied any breach between him and the modern ideals of a free media. He remarked that his government had come under the severest criticism from the press in Pakistan and implied that he knew what all this was about thanks to the years he had spent in England. It goes without saying that the rulers’ understanding of freedom and rights should extend to other spheres of national life as well — including the justice system. The government must have sensed the growing unease on the streets and thus must try to avoid ‘unnecessary’ confrontations that long delays in prosecution and holding people indefinitely in custody even before their trial has started can lead to. The rulers are only feeding the general perception that a media figure is being punished for reasons other than what he has been accused of.


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