Dawn Editorial 7 November 2019

The maulana puzzle

IT is not only JUI-F chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman who should be looking for an early exit from the current difficult situation. Opposition parties, the government, and indeed the country as a whole, must quickly emerge from this cloud of uncertainty that threatens to affect proceedings in many important areas.
Everyone with a stake in the democratic system must help the maulana and his party find an honourable route back home — especially at a time when the JUI-F’s demand for the resignation of Prime Minister Imran Khan is too unrealistic to deserve serious consideration.
Those opposition leaders flanking the maulana in selective moments appear to understand how impossible the demand is. They — the politicians of the PPP and PML-N — have both a sizeable presence in parliament and sufficient interest to keep the current elected assemblies functioning.
Perhaps it would have been to everyone’s benefit had the JUI-F chief, a veteran politician otherwise difficult to dislodge from his Dera Ismail Khan constituency, managed to retain his seat in the National Assembly in the 2018 election. In such an event, it would have been easier for the well-wishers of democracy in Pakistan to advise a debate strictly inside parliament — especially at a time when the PTI government is barely into its second year.
That could not be, because, according to Maulana Fazlur Rehman, there were powers that saw to it that he lost the polls for the two seats he contested in 2018, his defeat serving as the fundamental reason for his protest.
The charged speakers on stage may have discussed a whole range of issues as the JUI-F march culminated in a sit-in threateningly close to the heart of power in Islamabad.
There is nothing that seems to have caused the protesters greater grievance than the perceived insult to their leader’s being ‘left out’ of parliament.
This puts greater responsibility on the maulana’s allies sitting in parliament to prevail over him when any extreme options to target the government come up for discussion at the opposition meetings. Together with the government camp and all other visible and invisible kingmakers, these opposition politicians have to somehow remind the dharna leader about his continued relevance to the system.
The federal religious affairs minister seemed to have briefly attempted this when, in a fleeting moment of common sense, he praised the JUI-F chief’s ability to bring such large numbers to the capital.
Chaudhry Shujaat Husain and Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi are two other senior practitioners of the art of the possible who have tried to build a cordial channel with the leader of the protest — over and above all the nonsensical noise created by the PTI.
The latter party has not come out of its own dharna mode to carry out the basic chores associated with everyday governance, let alone dealing with an opposition sit-in.


Malnutrition alarm

A RECENT flagship report by Unicef looks into patterns of food and nutrition intake by children around the world. The findings are disquieting, particularly when it comes to the state of children’s health in South Asia. The region has been marked ‘red’ on the United Nations map. The organisation warns that nearly half of all children are not receiving a sufficient diet — the highest global figure in this regard. Poor consumption patterns lead to issues with growth, cognitive impairments, and go on to negatively impact the region’s economies. According to the report, titled The State of the World’s Children, approximately 409,000 children under the age of five died last year in Pakistan. Meanwhile, our neighbours India and Afghanistan recorded 882,000 and 74,000 deaths respectively in the same period. The region shows disproportionately high rates of chronic malnutrition, wasting and stunting.
Are policymakers paying attention to these figures? Pakistan hosts the world’s fifth largest population, and the majority is young. Despite malnutrition affecting such a large portion of the total population, the issue rarely features in public discourse or political speeches, taking a back seat to the demands of realpolitik and more ‘glamorous’ topics. When Prime Minister Imran Khan was elected to power last year, many pinned their hopes on him to give such matters their due importance. In his victory speech after last year’s general polls, observers were pleasantly surprised to see him highlight a very neglected public issue — the high rates of stunting among the nation’s children. A year later, we have not seen the topic raised again by him, despite several new studies and reports being published on the extent of the problem. While this government has announced an ambitious social welfare programme, a lot of work is needed on the ground. Many of these issues are interconnected. For instance, the appalling health and growth indicators amongst children are linked to poor water and sanitation supplies, or lesser acknowledged gender disparities within households. Poverty is also endemic in the region, which leads to families under-investing in proper diets. There is also a lack of awareness of what even consists of nutritious food, while access to health facilities remains out of the reach of many families, particularly in far-flung rural areas. With the growing population showing no signs of slowing down, this country’s children and their futures need to be accorded top priority.


Cut in NSS rates

THE latest cut in the rates of National Savings Schemes will hit some of the most vulnerable sections of society the hardest, and for this reason the government should have taken more time to consider the step. The announcement itself came late at night, which might suggest some protracted deliberation, but pensioners, widows and those with meagre savings, with no capacity to bear risk, have been sorely disappointed. The government’s view is that the cut was necessary because of a fall in the rate of the Pakistan Investment Bonds and Treasury Bills, to which these certificates are ultimately pegged. But the fact that the government is in dire need of expenditure cuts at a time of mounting fiscal pressure is also inescapable.
There are a large number of people who rely on savings certificates for a significant share of their monthly income, and for whom there are no other safe investments available in society. It is a little disconcerting to hear the sound of celebrations in the stock market after this rate cut, because these certificates are competitors of the brokers, and once the rates decline, money moves away from them towards the stock market instead. Hopefully, the inclination to use rates to herd people towards the stockbrokers was not factored into the decision, because the reality is that the government is touting the recent upswing in the stock market as a measure of its success. It would be regrettable if the fiscal balance is being stabilised on the backs of pensioners and widows, but it would be even more reprehensible if the government were trying to herd more people towards the trade floor in an effort to further fuel the rise of the index. In any case, it is the responsibility of every government in every age to safeguard the interests of pensioners and widows, regardless of macroeconomic considerations. That responsibility must be lived up to by those who have made this decision.


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