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Dawn Editorial 7 November 2020

Growing debt

THE government’s failure to seriously tackle the menace of circular debt is now threatening to pull down the profitable public-sector oil and gas firms. In a call for help, the Petroleum Division has warned the government of a looming energy crisis unless steps are taken to resolve the cash troubles of companies like PSO, OGDCL, PPL, Pakistan LNG Ltd, SNGPL and SSGC emanating from power-sector debt. These firms are owed Rs1.6tr and face a bleak future unless their financial troubles caused by non-payment of their dues from the power sector, refineries and gas sector are taken care of very quickly.
“Inaction can lead to the collapse of some of the otherwise profitable entities, causing a major disruption in the supply chain. They are at the stage that they might resort to ceasing supply of crude oil, furnace oil, LNG and gas in the foreseeable future,” the Petroleum Division letter to the Economic Coordination Committee warns. Further, it says, the increase in the financial cost arising from delayed recovery from the power sector is adversely affecting the profitability of PSEs with the risk of bad debts resulting in possible bankruptcy. In response, the ECC has set up yet another committee for working out the modalities of tackling the debt issue holistically and averting a possible collapse of the state-owned entities. The panel has been instructed by the ECC to prepare a “well-rounded” proposal to settle the issue in the next one month.
The committee is likely to also consider the Power Division’s proposals for adjustment of the debt. Some of the suggested solutions could ultimately punish consumers for the failure of the government to fix the energy sector. The division has, for example, proposed a new levy on gas prices for settlement of the SSGC and SNGPL debt. It has also sought permission for OGDCL, PPL and GHPL to discharge their obligations of sales tax and royalty payments on the ‘collect-and-pay’ model as temporary relief, and issue large chunks of Sukuk against the entire debt amount. Additionally, it has suggested the settlement of gas development surcharge payable by PPL on gas sales to generation companies through adjustments against its receivables. The Petroleum Division has also sought adjustment of debt with equity in profitable PSEs, power projects and companies in the energy supply chain. These proposals may tackle the financial troubles of the energy suppliers and distributors, but the larger problem of circular debt in the power industry will remain. The liquidation of the existing debt stock of Rs2.3tr is crucial to ensure the industry’s sustainability. But that will be futile unless inefficient power distribution companies are reformed to stop the future flow of debt, electricity demand is increased to help cut capacity payment charges and prices are reduced to encourage industrialisation for growth and employment. The government has taken a few steps in this direction. But it still has a long way to go.

 

 

Imprisoned abroad

BEING incarcerated anywhere is not a pleasant experience. However, if one has the misfortune to end up in jail in a foreign country with little knowledge of the local language and laws, the miseries multiply exponentially. This is often the case with Pakistani workers imprisoned in the Gulf states, where language barriers and opaque legal systems mean that getting home even after completing the sentence is an ordeal. In this regard, the recent return of 41 Pakistanis serving time in Sri Lankan jails is welcome; the convicts will now serve the remainder of their sentences in local facilities. However, many thousands more Pakistanis imprisoned abroad are not as lucky. According to rights group Justice Project Pakistan, over 11,000 Pakistanis are currently in overseas penitentiaries. As the group has highlighted, over 2,000 Pakistanis remain in Saudi jails. And while the prime minister had requested the Saudi crown prince last year to release these inmates, “the promise … is yet to be fulfilled”.
Indeed, those who commit heinous crimes abroad must pay the penalty as per the local laws. However, the fact remains that in many cases, Pakistanis don’t get fair trials in foreign countries, while many are also hauled up for minor offences such as traffic accidents or other misdemeanours. Because they don’t always have access to their counsel of choice, and are barely aware of local regulations, these individuals end up serving long, harsh sentences for minor infractions. And as activists point out, many individuals — often those travelling abroad for the first time — are duped by unscrupulous employment agents and ‘deceived’ into trafficking drugs. In many Gulf states, drug trafficking is punishable by death. While efforts have been made by the state, more needs to be done to bring back Pakistanis serving time abroad, or to convince foreign states to allow convicts to serve the remainder of their terms in this country. That way, at least they will have access to family. Moreover, those Pakistanis travelling abroad for work — especially for the first time — must be educated before they board the plane about the regulations of their host country, so that they steer clear of violating the law. And in case citizens do end up having run-ins with foreign law-enforcement agencies, local Pakistani missions must ensure they have access to counsels well aware of the host country’s legal system. These workers deserve better than to be left to rot in foreign prisons indefinitely.

 

 

The Khushab example

THE killing of a bank manager in the Punjab town of Khushab once again underscores how murder is so easily ‘justified’ on the basis of mere accusations and whipped-up public sentiment. However, this time we also saw a rare example of people coming together to foil an attempt to hastily lend a religious colour to an alleged crime. According to initial reports, the bank manager was shot by an irate security guard after an altercation over alleged blasphemy and the attacker was now celebrating his actions. Then it was said that the attack was sectarian; this was followed by strong rumours suggesting that both the victim and the attacker belonged to the same school of thought. Inevitably, a long session on social media ensued in which everyone was reminded of how difficult it was for anyone to feel safe. It was ruled that there was no escape so long as there was a desire to physically eliminate another person, and that the laws were found wanting when it came to killing in the name of faith.
The example of people not prepared to accept mere allegations of blasphemy could have been uplifting had it not been for the manager’s murder in the background. He was apparently well connected socially, and his uncle dismissed the allegations of blasphemy levelled at him by the security guard who had reportedly been pulled up for his laxity while on the job. In the past, clerics have refused to lead funeral prayers for people who have simply provided legal aid to clients who have denied the charges of blasphemy registered against them. In the Khushab case, the footage shows that a prayer leader stood in front of those who had gathered to offer the funeral prayers and said that the dead man was innocent. Not just that, he discouraged the gathering from indulging in violence on the basis of religious differences. That’s one message worth many editions in today’s charged atmosphere.

 

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