Dawn Editorial 6 February 2021

KP health coverage

Recently, KP became the first province to offer universal health coverage to its 40m residents. Going by the disaster that the healthcare system in this country is, this can be seen as a revolutionary move. The Sehat Sahulat Programme was first piloted by the KP government in four districts in 2015 but covered only 3pc of the population. In 2016, it was extended to cover 51pc of the population, 69pc by 2017 and finally the entire province in 2020. Under the programme, around 6.7m families in the province can avail hospitalised treatment worth Rs1m every year at 400 public-sector and private hospitals across the province. If all goes as planned, this scheme could prove to be a game changer for public healthcare. A large percentage of the population lives below the poverty line in the country where access to adequate healthcare is difficult. Government spending in the sector remains below 3pc of GDP, resulting in understaffed, underfunded and overcrowded public-sector hospitals where the poor run from pillar to post to seek treatment for themselves or their loved ones. In such circumstances, access to healthcare for women becomes doubly difficult due to patriarchal mores that hinder movement and prevent women from making health-related choices. Free access to proper medical care will lower the levels of neonatal and maternal deaths in the country. Indeed, hospital admission for women needing treatment might also change social taboos, allowing women greater mobility in the long run.
So far the response to free healthcare in the province has been positive, although with hospital admissions tripling, efforts may be needed to expand health facilities and services. A rickety healthcare infrastructure of decades will surely be subjected to even greater pressure as more people avail of the benefits of the health coverage plan and free up their income to spend on other essentials of life. If the months ahead prove that the scheme is implemented successfully, other provinces too can learn from KP’s example.



Chaos in parliament

THE scenes of chaos in the National Assembly this week have been a pitiful yet pertinent symbol of the reality of politics in the country today. An enraged opposition and a bullish ruling party locked horns during Thursday’s session, escalating already simmering tensions and confirming once again that civility and dialogue are unthinkable for both sides.
Sloganeering, desk-thumping and shouting are hardly uncommon occurrences during Assembly sessions and have been resorted to by MNAs since the 1990s. This particular session, however, also featured lawmakers abusing each other to a point where a scuffle broke out. At one point, the speaker of the Assembly had to be protected by a ring of sergeants-at-arms as opposition lawmakers gathered before him. Perhaps for the first time in our parliamentary history, treasury members staged a walkout from the house after pointing out lack of quorum to prevent opposition lawmakers from making speeches. As a result, despite a three-hour session, the debate on the bill seeking an open Senate vote remained inconclusive.
The divisions between the PTI and opposition parties are clear as day, but both sides, though cheerleaders of democracy by their own proclamations, indulge in behaviour that hurts the democratic process.
Here, the opposition must reflect on what it will achieve by turning up the political temperature in the Assembly to the extent that no constructive debate is possible. Its announcement of a date for its long march notwithstanding, the PDM needs to be clear on its position. While it has announced that caravans will march to Islamabad on March 26, no details have been shared about the alliance’s strategy.
The PPP’s desire to move a no-confidence motion against the prime minister is clearly not popular with the other party leaders and remains an unresolved sticking point. Yet the alliance is sticking together and ostensibly forging ahead with its plans. What is their end goal, and what will the march realistically achieve is anyone’s guess.
The government is as much to blame for the hysteria not only in the Assembly but also in talk shows and on social media. It has constantly goaded the opposition and shown high-handedness and aggression towards it at every forum. Its failure to reach out to the opposition for its key responsibility of legislative business is also hurting the system.
Unfortunately, it appears as though this behaviour is encouraged in the party and opposition-bashing is the ready response to every situation. Sanity must prevail, for this bitterness is giving no relief to the public.
There are a few seasoned politicians in government ranks who have the experience of dealing with such situations, and, for the sake of pragmatism, they need to come forward to help bring down the temperature. Sadly, going by the tone of Shah Mehmood Qureshi’s speech in the Assembly this week, such engagement is a distant dream.



Grassroots power

THE rollback of local democracy is not a new phenomenon in Pakistan. All political parties have an unenviable record when it comes to the execution of the constitutional provision concerning local governments and the sharing of power with local representatives. The PTI administration is no exception. It is unfortunate to see a party that promised to strengthen local democracy dragging its feet on its commitment since coming into power and delaying the holding of elections. Its reticence has also been criticised by the ECP. On Thursday, two Supreme Court judges hearing the LG poll case made similarly pertinent observations concerning the premature dissolution of local governments in Punjab by the PTI government and the inordinate delay in holding new polls as required by the Constitution. According to Justice Qazi Faez Isa, such an act is tantamount to “killing democracy”. “This is unconstitutional and worse than dictatorship,” he remarked, wondering “Would you throw away entire local government system if you don’t get favourable results tomorrow and an opposition party sweeps the elections?” Giving his observations on the issue, Justice Maqbool Baqar pointed out that the government was “at war with its people”.
The remarks of the learned judges underscore the gross violation of Article 140-A of the Constitution that binds provinces to establish LG systems and devolve political, administrative and financial responsibility and authority to the elected representatives of the local bodies. The judges through their observations also gave voice to the frustration of the people with the excuses of the ruling party and its allies for the last two years for delaying local elections in Punjab, KP and Balochistan. When the PTI dissolved the PML-N-dominated local governments in Punjab in 2019, for example, it introduced a new local body law, which, its authors claimed, aimed at ensuring meaningful devolution of political, administrative and financial authority down to the grassroots level. Unfortunately, the new law was used only to roll back local democracy in the province instead of transferring the promised powers to people elected at the lowest tier of government. This disregard for grassroots democracy must be censured. With the popularity of the PTI having suffered significantly because of poor governance and its bad performance on the economic front, its reluctance to hold local body polls is understandable. This observation also holds true for the PPP provincial authorities in Sindh that are averse to devolving power. But the question is: how long can they avoid the voters?

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