Dawn Editorials 22nd May 2023

Minority reports

TWO recent American reports paint an unflattering picture where the state of religious freedom in Pakistan is concerned. The US State Department’s 2022 Report on International Religious Freedom’s section on Pakistan presents an extensive list of incidents of religious persecution in the country. It observes that in 2022, at least 52 people “were accused of blasphemy or related religious-based criminal charges”. Most of the accused were Ahmadi. It also highlights the issues of forced conversion and targeted killings on religious grounds. Meanwhile, the annual report of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom also has few good things to say about freedom of belief in Pakistan. Highlighting many of the same issues the State Department report mentioned, the USCIRF document recommends re-designating Pakistan as a “country of particular concern”, while advocating targeted sanctions against Pakistan. Reacting to the State Department report, the Foreign Office has termed it “ill-informed … irresponsible and counterproductive”, while claiming that Pakistan’s Constitution offers a “robust framework” for religious freedom.

While the US does tend to use such reports as political tools, there can be little argument with the findings. Even if these reports had not been compiled, the grim fact is that the state of religious freedom in Pakistan is far from ideal. The public lynchings over accusations of blasphemy, misuse of the blasphemy law, and the marginalisation of minority communities are all stark realities in today’s Pakistan. This is so because, whereas the country’s founders had envisaged a pluralistic state where all denominations would be free to profess their beliefs, over the decades, rabid extremists have hijacked the discourse — often encouraged by the establishment — bringing us to where we stand today. Instead of living in denial, the state must work to roll back the tide of extremism that threatens to take Pakistan under. This must be done not to please any external powers, but to make Pakistan a more liveable place for all its citizens.

Published in Dawn, May 22nd, 2023

Laudable laws

AWAY from the bitter divisiveness on the political front, the National Assembly on Monday enacted laws that will have a salutary effect on a large swathe of the population, and could significantly impact society as a whole if the provinces follow suit and revisit their existing laws on the issues concerned.

Take the Maternity and Paternity Leave Bill, 2023, which applies to all public and private establishments under the federal government’s administrative control including companies, factories, autonomous and semi-autonomous organisations, etc, wherever they may be in the country. It allows women up to six months’ leave for the birth of their first child, and four and three months on the birth of the second and third child respectively — all on full pay.

This is a more generous allowance than what was so far available. New fathers will be entitled to a month’s fully paid leave upon the birth of their child, for up to three times during their term of service.

The Day Care Centres Act, 2023, mandates all government and private organisations within the Islamabad Capital Territory with at least 70 employees to set up a day care centre on their premises. Another bill passed by the NA makes educational institutions a more child-friendly space by requiring paramedical staff to be available on the premises of all such institutions in ICT.

Working women here are hampered by stereotyping and bias that imperil their employment, not to mention their aspirations for career advancement. The Global Gender Gap Index Report 2022 ranked Pakistan 145/156 for economic participation and opportunity.

According to the ILO, women account for around 22pc of the labour force, one of the lowest female labour force participation rates in South Asia. Among the many barriers are inadequate maternity leave provisions; while such legislation exists across all provinces, it varies considerably.

At 16 weeks, Sindh offers the longest leave on maternity grounds while the other provinces offer 14 and 12 weeks. Passing a law stipulating paid paternity leave is also a progressive move, which acknowledges that men too have a role to play in this life event.

The lack of day care facilities on the job further facilitates women’s employment, instead of compelling a choice between maternal duties and work. Pakistan cannot afford to lose out on women’s participation in its economic life.

Published in Dawn, May 22nd, 2023

Distribution criteria

SHARING tax resources has always been one of the biggest causes of strife among the centre and provinces. Perhaps the only time we saw this friction subside temporarily was when the seventh NFC Award was signed in 2010 after the centre raised the provinces’ share substantially, and Punjab agreed to the long-standing demand of the other provinces to replace the single-factor population-based formula with multi-factor criteria for sharing resources. The new criteria were seen as more equitable. Though population still has a weightage of 82pc, the inclusion of criteria such as inverse population density, poverty and backwardness is a progressive step towards the resolution of inter-provincial strife. The provinces were handed over collection of sales tax on services too. Yet the ‘harmony’ of the initial years did not last long. Soon centrists started blaming the award for the centre’s financial difficulties and the large deficits it had started to run, without realising that Islamabad had failed to carry out its part of the bargain: raise tax-to-GDP ratio by 5pc to 15pc over the five-year life of the award.

Now the federal government is blaming the award, or more specifically, the heavy weightage in the formula for horizontal distribution. Planning Minister Ahsan Iqbal said recently that the existing NFC formula actually incentivises population growth. His concerns regarding Pakistan’s population growth rate of 2.8pc, the fastest in the world, are valid. It has to be reversed or restrained if we are to make progress. Indeed, the weightage assigned to population must be significantly reduced to make space for other criteria to impose fiscal discipline on the provinces and also to encourage them to boost their own tax revenues. However, the provinces are not responsible if the new award is not being negotiated after the expiry of the existing one eight years ago. It is the centre that has dragged its feet on talks for the new award. Moreover, it has not allowed NFC talks since 2015 to go beyond vertical resource-sharing between itself and the provinces. The provinces would be happy to renegotiate provincial-sharing criteria and reduce the weightage given to population.

That said, it is a mistake to blame the NFC Award for escalation in the population growth rate. If Sindh and Balochistan are complaining that their residents haven’t been counted properly, it is more because of political reasons. The MQM isn’t fighting for more resources for Sindh from the federal divisible pool but for more national and provincial assembly seats from Karachi and other urban centres. Reduced population weightage on its own will not slow down the birth rate; there are several other factors such as poverty, illiteracy and high child mortality that also need to be addressed before population growth can be reduced.

Published in Dawn, May 22nd, 2023

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