DAWN Editorials – 23rd Dec 2022

Banned from learning

THE Afghan Taliban’s assault on women’s freedoms continues, as the hard-line movement that rules Afghanistan has recently announced that female students will not be able to attend classes at public and private universities. Ever since they took Kabul last year, the movement has increasingly cracked down on women’s freedoms, despite hopes that ‘Taliban 2.0’ would have shed the rigid outlook of their earlier avatar. This has clearly not been the case, as shocked female university students were turned away from their institutes on Wednesday morning. The obscurantist group had already disallowed secondary education for girls, and the university ban comes in force despite the fact that women students were segregated from their male counterparts, and adhered to the strict dress code the Taliban have enforced. But even these restrictions did not seem to be enough as the future of countless female students hangs in the balance, thanks to the warped worldview of Afghanistan’s rulers.

The religious argument against female education that the Taliban may employ holds no water, as other states governed by Islamic law, such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, have no qualms about educating women and girls. Perhaps it is mediaeval tribal and cultural codes that inspire the Taliban leadership to take these regressive steps. Whatever the motivation, the group needs to reconsider these harmful moves. The UN has criticised the university ban, as have Muslim states such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Türkiye and Pakistan, with Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari urging the “Afghan authorities to revisit this decision”. Though Western states are considering sanctions to punish the Taliban, these may prove counterproductive, making the group harden its already inflexible positions, and adding to the Afghan people’s miseries. Therefore, engagement is the best option to help secure Afghan women’s rights. Some elements within the Afghan administration have favoured women’s education, but these voices have been ignored by the ultraconservative Kandahar-based leadership. It is these relatively ‘liberal’ elements that need to press upon the Taliban high command the importance of women’s education.

Published in Dawn, December 23rd, 2022

Growth forecast

THE State Bank has slashed its GDP growth projection for the current fiscal year to below its previous estimates of 3pc to 4pc, citing huge flood-induced devastation and the stabilisation policy being implemented to fix macroeconomic imbalances as the major factors. In its annual report for FY22, published on Wednesday, the State Bank, however, refrained from giving any new projection in view of an uncertain economic outlook for the rest of the fiscal. This is so in spite of the fact that the State Bank had revised down its growth estimates to 2pc in its monetary policy statement last month. Many expect growth to decelerate to below 1pc at the end of the year, owing to multiple macroeconomic challenges intensified by the floods and the ongoing political instability. The slowing GDP growth should be cause for concern, considering the rapid increase in Pakistan’s dependent population — those under 14 and over 60 — that, the central bank says, is highest in the world after Nigeria, and which may contribute to the country’s economic woes as we already have a large inefficient, burgeoning labour force in search of jobs. But should low GDP growth be our top worry at the moment, with the cash-starved government struggling to secure foreign financing of $32bn to $34bn to meet its debt payment obligations?

That the economy was poised to lose its growth momentum was clear long before the destructive summer floods hit a third of the country, washing away crops, cattle and infrastructure, as well as displacing millions of people in their wake. The coalition government had started to put brakes on growth shortly after it came to power in April to avert an imminent threat of a sovereign default on the back of balance-of-payments and currency crises. The erosion in the State Bank’s foreign exchange reserves on maturing debt payments and drying foreign inflows has seen the rupee lose over 27pc of its value and triggered a sustained bout of headline consumer inflation, with food prices increasing by a monthly average of above 31pc between July and November. This underlines that strengthening of the external sector to ward off risk of default in the medium to long term and a reduction in inflation should be the top priorities of our policymakers at the moment, even if it requires further suppression of economic growth. Any attempt to grow the economy under political pressure will only deepen the crisis.

Published in Dawn, December 23rd, 2022

Trouble in Punjab

THE crisis in Punjab shows no signs of abating. With the centre and the province at loggerheads over the future of the Punjab Assembly, it seems that the stand-off over Chaudhry Parvez Elahi’s vote of confidence will ultimately land before the judiciary for arbitration.

Thus, for the umpteenth time this year, decisions regarding our collective future will be taken in places where the public’s voice has no currency. This seems to have become the new normal as both the PDM and the PTI gradually lose sight of the fact that they both exist to represent the public will, not massage the egos of their self-centred leaders.

Their tiresome tussle has kept the country’s largest and most populous province in a state of near-perpetual crisis since April. More than eight months of political wrangling later, there is still no sign of normalcy.

At the start of this week, the PDM launched a two-pronged bid to foil the dissolution of the Punjab Assembly. While its strategy was technically within the lines, it is worth asking why the coalition suddenly changed tack, especially after earlier statements about ‘wholeheartedly’ welcoming dissolution and even daring PTI chairman Imran Khan to announce it as soon as possible.

The federal government had vowed to contest by-elections vigorously if the Punjab Assembly was packed up — what made it decide it should now go to any lengths to prevent it from happening?

Importantly, why did it escalate matters to the point of creating the conditions for a technical knock-out of the chief minister and the possibility of governor rule in the province — a scenario that should never have been considered given the precedent it would set?

The PDM parties never had the numbers in the Punjab Assembly; their time would therefore have been better spent preparing for dissolution and its aftermath, instead of finding new ways to bend the law.

This brings us to the PTI’s role in this present crisis. Since the Punjab Assembly’s fate went up in the air, the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Assembly’s dissolution has officially been put on hold. This shows that the party was, as anticipated by some, just using the threat of dissolution as leverage to prod various stakeholders into action.

Mr Khan’s Thursday speech made this clearer: the only thing he demanded was a free and fair early election. However, he once again seemed to be indirectly asking non-political forces to weigh in, which is probably a key reason why the PDM has been so intent on thwarting him.

This silliness has to stop. Mr Khan cannot refuse to take the pitch and expect to be awarded the match too, while the PDM should realise it cannot put off elections forever. Talks between the two must resume with a recognition of political realities and focused on the single agenda of negotiating a mutually acceptable date for elections.

Published in Dawn, December 23rd, 2022

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