Dawn Editorial 7 January 2021

SBP report

NEXT to the World Bank’s forecast on economic expansion in Pakistan during the present fiscal year, the State Bank’s growth projections in its flagship State of Pakistan’s Economy report for the first quarter of FY2021 will appear far too optimistic. While the World Bank’s Global Economic Prospects 2021 says Pakistan’s economy will grow by a 0.5pc this fiscal, the SBP believes that it could expand by up to 2pc — in line with the target set by the government in its budget. The central bank has tried to tamper its estimate by cautioning that the recovery faces downside risks owing to “intensification of the second wave of the pandemic”. Still, it may appear to many as the SBP’s desire to avoid stepping on the toes of the government, which is trying to sell the recent improvement in short-term economic trends to the people as a success of its policies.
The SBP bases its growth forecast on current economic data. The recovery in economic activities is evident across the agriculture, industry and services sectors, according to the report. To support its argument, the central bank underlines the change in business confidence as reflected by an increasing demand for subsidised long-term loans for new investments. Furthermore, it adds, external and fiscal sector indicators remain favourable, showing that an emerging recovery has been achieved while keeping macroeconomic stability intact. Indeed, when examined in isolation, current trends do exhibit a turnaround in economic activities. The problem with this report, like previous ones, is that it cleverly hides the negative trends.
The SBP, for example, speaks about external account stability and improvements in its reserves, but does not discuss the costs the economy is paying for maintaining a current account surplus. Likewise, the growth in large-scale manufacturing since the inception of the present fiscal is showcased in the report to underscore an economic upturn, but it fails to inform us that industrial output remains far below the level it had achieved in the previous government’s final year. Also, LSM growth remains narrow, restricted mainly to the tobacco, pharmaceuticals and cement industries. The rise in the pharmaceutical industry is attributable to the increased demand for medicines and other products owing to the pandemic, while cement sales owe mainly to the generous construction package and amnesty given on illegal money invested in the real estate sector. Most importantly, the current ‘economic revival’ emphasises the failure of most of the IMF-mandated policies implemented by the government and SBP before the pandemic hit. This ‘turnaround’ owes much to the reversal of the harsh stabilisation policies that had brought the economy grinding to a halt long before the global health crisis forced countrywide lockdowns and business shutdowns. What happens when the suspended IMF programme is restored? Will the central bank still be as overly optimistic on the country’s growth prospects?



Hazara protest

A DESPERATELY sad sequence of events is playing out yet again in Quetta. In the bitter cold of winter, thousands of Shia Hazaras — men, women and children — are staging a sit-in on a highway that runs through the city. Amidst them are the coffins of the 11 coalminers from their community who were brutally slain on Sunday in Balochistan’s Bolan district.
Despite the efforts of the chief minister, several provincial ministers and some federal level government functionaries, the mourners had, until the time of writing, refused to bury their dead and call off their protest unless the prime minister came and met them. Imran Khan in a tweet yesterday vowed he would do so “very soon” to condole with all the victims but requested them to bury their loved ones “so that their souls find peace”.
After each of the two massive suicide bombings in January and February 2013 in Quetta in which over 200 Hazaras perished, the community had also staged similar days-long sit-ins with the victims’ coffins. Each time they were targeted in sectarian attacks, they appealed to the state to protect them. They were given assurances and promises, but these amounted to little more than empty words. In certain situations they were provided security by the government, but by and large, they stepped out of their barricaded ghettoes at their own peril.
In other words, the state took the easy way out. It did not take the more difficult path, which was to weed out and throw behind bars the violent extremists that often roamed free in the province, even holding rallies and openly threatening the community. Among those who have gathered in the frigid temperatures this time around, there is certainly grief, but underlying that is enormous anger.
Anger over the terrible, needless tragedies that have repeatedly befallen the persecuted Hazaras, anger over the sectarian killers who still manage to strike at will in a heavily militarised city such as Quetta and escape detection. And now the anger is spreading among the public, particularly the wider Shia community.
Protests against the massacre have spread in Karachi, with demonstrators taking to the streets for the second day running, burning tyres and wood and disrupting traffic. Having taken place after a lull, Sunday’s massacre reminds us how tenuous is the triumph over militancy. The Hazaras have suffered for too long; like the souls of their dead, the living must also find peace.



Women seeking divorce

ACCORDING to a report recently published in this paper, 722pc more women from all over Sindh moved court seeking separation from their husbands in 2020 compared to the previous year. In 2019, a total of 632 family suits were filed in family courts. However, in 2020 — a year of pandemic-induced lockdowns and layoffs — this number rose to 5,198 cases, out of which 4,050 were from Karachi. The steep increase reflects how the many problems women face on the domestic front in our patriarchal society were compounded by circumstances arising from the pandemic. In fact, 2020 was a particularly difficult year for women around the world, as cases of domestic violence rose sharply in the wake of economic and social adversity triggered by Covid-19 lockdowns in a number of countries, including in the West. In the US, for instance, distress calls by women increased by as much as 30pc during the initial lockdowns.
Given that Pakistan was ranked the sixth most dangerous country in the world for women in a 2018 survey, the indirect effect of lockdowns would undoubtedly be felt far more acutely by Pakistani women, who are already marginalised and prevented from making autonomous choices about their health, safety and personal lives. According to rights groups, women from low-income households who are part of the informal workforce were most affected by domestic violence. It is unfortunate, then, that while the wellbeing of families is discussed in connection with economic hardship and mental health during the pandemic, the emotional, physical and economical plight of women is seldom taken into account. It is imperative that the authorities demonstrate commitment to upholding laws such as the Sindh Domestic Violence Act, 2013, and the Punjab Protection of Women Against Violence Act, 2016, and ensuring that all women have access to shelter and rehabilitative services should they seek support. Several crisis helplines were launched last year; these initiatives can only be effective if the legal aid they provide is synergised with the government’s own criminal justice system.

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