Dawn Editorial 8 November 2019

Climate challenge

PRIME MINISTER Imran Khan’s consistent efforts to highlight climate change at national and international forums show that he realises the scope of the grave environmental dangers that Pakistan faces.
In his speech to the UN General Assembly in September, climate change topped the list of our four biggest challenges. More recently, Mr Khan, while speaking at the inaugural ceremony of the seventh IUCN Asia Regional Conservation Forum, pointed out the close link between climate-related challenges and socioeconomic goals. He stressed the need to pursue development policies geared towards environmental conservation, and said that mitigating the impact of climate change was crucial to achieving poverty- and development-related SDGs.
Mr Khan also referred — once again — to the billion trees that the PTI-led provincial government in KP claims it planted between 2014 and 2018.
There is no disagreement that the initiative was commendable, but it must be asked if the endeavour was enough to counter the overall effect of rapid deforestation, which at between 0.2pc and 0.5pc is said to be the highest in the world.
So, for all his earnestness to bring a subject close to his heart into the national discourse, how much has actually been achieved on the ground since the PTI came to power?
Unfortunately, the plans, though ambitious, are hardly well-thought-out. For instance, while a mass transit system is expected to reduce traffic congestion, and thus carbon emissions, the as yet incomplete Rs70bn BRT project in Peshawar has been roundly condemned for its poor execution.
Similarly, the cabinet’s nod to another ambitious plan to convert at least 30pc of four- and three-wheelers into electric vehicles and 3,000 defunct CNG stations into charging stations — ostensibly to reduce air pollution and the fuel bill — is impractical in these days of a depressed economy.
How would these projects change the life of the millions of farmers, fishermen and villagers who bear the brunt of the devastation wrought by climate change when they lose their homes and livelihoods to extreme weather events?
The truth is that unless greater awareness is created among the majority of the people, even measures such as the ban on the manufacturing and sale of single-use plastic will receive a poor response.
Remedial steps by the government are required, and perhaps updating the country’s National Climate Change Policy to include comprehensive short- and long-term targets, especially with regard to deforestation and environmental pollution, would be a sensible place to start. Such a step would require relentless campaigning by not just the top tier of the political leadership, but all levels of government.
Keeping in mind that Pakistan is among the top 10 countries most vulnerable to climate change, the prime minister will have to put his words into action and tirelessly work on sustainable environmental and development reforms.

 
 

FBR reforms

PERHAPS one can understand why the officers of the FBR have been so taken aback by the news that the government is planning deep-rooted reform at the institution, but it is difficult to empathise with their reaction. The prime minister had announced in his first public address that FBR reform was on top of his list of priorities, and the appointment of Shabbar Zaidi from the private sector was the second indication that tax policy and administration were both in the spotlight for the PTI government. It should not come as such a big surprise that sweeping reform of the sort that changes the very architecture of the institution is now being discussed at the highest levels of policymaking. Besides, it is the right of the government to undertake such reform, and whether or not it is obligated to consult the staffers of the organisation concerned while deliberating on the planned changes is open to question.
The FBR officers are demanding a say in drafting the plan. This is a way of communicating that only the reforms they agree to would be acceptable to them, which, in turn, is tantamount to denying the government its mandate to make and implement policy decisions. FBR officers are notorious for resisting change. They thwarted the reforms envisioned in the Shahid Hussain report of the early 2000s, as well as those associated with the sales tax act of 2010. Left to their own devices, nothing will ever change, and revenue leakages and inefficiencies will continue to plague the country. Perhaps it can be argued that the government can manage the process of reforms better to obtain buy-in from those most impacted by them, but this does not mean that the officers’ association can be allowed to wield a veto over reform decisions. The FBR is by now notorious for alleged corruption and racketeering, and ending these, along with the attendant revenue leakages, is a top priority for the government. If the officers are so concerned about playing a role for the betterment of the country, as their public pronouncements seem to suggest, perhaps they should be more vigilant and discourage the culture of corruption that has taken root among their subordinates. They should provide wholehearted support to automating the board’s functions and minimising contact between the taxpayer and tax collector. That will add credibility to their grievances.

 
 
 

College teachers’ protest

IN a society where everyone is not equal before the law, or equally significant in terms of political considerations, certain people get to exercise their right to protest while others are summarily deprived of it. Wednesday saw yet another instance of the authorities’ high-handedness towards the latter segment of the populace. A large crowd of some 250 college professors and lecturers from across Sindh was roughed up by the police outside the Chief Minister House in Karachi while they were staging a sit-in to demand what they claim are long promised time-scale-based promotions. Around 50 teachers, including women, were bundled into police vans and carted off to various police stations. The Sindh Professors and Lecturers Association representing the protesters announced a province-wide suspension of academic activities the following day to denounce the police action.
Heavy-handed tactics such as those displayed on Wednesday show a lack of maturity on the part of officialdom. Peaceful protests are part and parcel of a democracy, and a state must be able to handle them without resorting to unnecessary force or any action calculated to humiliate citizens agitating for their rights. That is also why timely negotiations with an aggrieved party are so critical to defuse a potentially combustible situation. One would expect the Sindh government to know this well, led as it is by a party with a long history of struggling against oppression. It is reasonable to assume that coming out on the streets is not the preferred option for most people, and by all accounts college teachers have been driven to this point by government apathy towards resolving their legitimate demands. Such official indifference has been the impetus for a number of protests, not only in Sindh but also elsewhere in the country — Lady Health Workers demanding their services be regularised, the visually impaired asking that the employment quota for the handicapped be implemented, and so on. Very often, protests have been met with police brutality, which only reinforces the people’s alienation from the state.

 
 
 

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