Dawn Editorials 31st May 2023

No-Tobacco Day

DESPITE successive governments’ efforts, tobacco use continues to remain a significant public health challenge for Pakistani authorities. Responsible for several fatal diseases — such as cancer, cardiovascular illnesses, diabetes and various lung diseases — tobacco use is an entirely avoidable cause of death. Yet, for indefensible reasons, our authorities have preferred a light touch when it comes to the implementation of measures designed to cut the prevalence of tobacco use and discourage more citizens from taking it up. Regulation of the tobacco industry remains extremely lax — even tobacco-manufacturing companies decry how freely a black market for tobacco products thrives in Pakistan. The sale of tobacco products continues without being subjected to any responsible supervision, allowing even children to access cigarettes from their neighbourhood paan kiosk. Recent years have seen an increase in taxes on tobacco products, especially cigarettes, but is that really enough to discourage a particularly vulnerable population from taking up a bad and potentially deadly habit? Health officials worry it’s not enough.

Earlier this year, speakers at a conference in Islamabad highlighted that the number of smokers had reached 31m in the country and that an alarming 466 citizens were dying daily due to tobacco-induced diseases. The most disquieting finding shared at the conference was that around 1,200 children between the ages of six and 15 years are taking up smoking every day across the country. Each year, the deadly habit lops off about 1.6pc of the national GDP, or more than Rs600bn, according to the country head of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, Malik Imran Ahmed. Tobacco taxes account for only 20pc of that number, according to Mr Ahmed. The proliferation of new tobacco-derived products is also giving Pakistan’s public health experts cause for serious concern. Nicotine pouches, for example, can quickly get non-smokers addicted to their use, opening a doorway to other tobacco products. The question is, are the authorities paying any attention?

Published in Dawn, May 31st, 2023

Hunger pangs

A RECENTLY released report by two UN agencies should serve as a wake-up call to the ruling elite — that is, if they can spare some time from their Machiavellian bickering to think about the welfare of millions of ordinary Pakistanis. According to the Hunger Hotspots: FAO-WFP Early Warnings on Acute Food Insecurity report, Pakistan has been designated a country of ‘very high concern’ where food insecurity is concerned. It is grouped with states such as Ethiopia, Kenya and Syria. The study lists the three main factors fuelling food insecurity as the economic and political crises, along with the aftermath of last year’s massive floods. It notes that Pakistan has to pay around $77.5bn in external debt over the next few years, even though its coffers are nearly empty, and there is no sign of a quick economic recovery. It predicts that the “political crisis and civil unrest are likely to worsen” as elections draw close. Indeed, high inflation has hammered the budgets of the working and lower-middle classes, while even financially more secure segments of society have had to tighten their belts significantly.

Even before its political and economic woes morphed into a debilitating polycrisis, the country was battling food insecurity. As per WFP figures, millions of people are undernourished, while nearly half of under-five children are stunted. Wasting in youngsters is also a major public health challenge. A State Bank study says that amongst the main factors impacting food security is poor access, which means the poorest cannot afford to buy food, as well as import-dependence of certain food items. When the economy is heading south and the rupee is nosediving, buying expensive commodities from the global market becomes a herculean task. There are no quick or easy answers to how food insecurity can be tackled; the fact is that the crisis has been decades in the making. The elite — uniformed and civilian — are not familiar with hunger, which is why they are least concerned if millions of people in this country cannot afford to eat. Numerous solutions have been mooted: strengthening social safety nets; population control; improving agricultural yields; aiming for food autarky; etc. Ultimately, the rulers can ignore the food security crisis at their own peril, and be ready to explain to the hungry and the desperate why they cannot provide bread for their children.

Published in Dawn, May 31st, 2023

Constitutional courts

THIS government’s legislative interventions will be remembered for making even good things seem bad because of how cynical and self-serving the intentions behind each appear to have been.

According to news reports, lawyer Irfan Qadir, recently reappointed as special assistant to the prime minister on legal reforms and accountability, has reignited a discussion on the possibility of establishing a constitutional court to work alongside the Supreme Court.

The creation of a separate court to deal with the constitutionality of various parliamentary actions and legislations was a proposal jointly agreed to by the PPP and the PML-N under the Charter of Democracy signed in 2006. It was never really pursued with the required seriousness thereafter, but the PDM now feels the need to revisit it. The question is, why?

Mr Qadir has said that the proposed constitutional court would be composed of retired, ‘non-controversial chief justices’, along with judges drawn from the superior judiciary as well as parliamentarians with legal expertise.

He has presented such a court as a solution to the many challenges dogging the Supreme Court, which, he believes, are preventing it from issuing ‘unbiased’ verdicts. While the idea may not be without its merits, the establishment of a constitutional court cannot be done without national consensus or enacted through a parliament that is not truly representative of the people.

This government, which has denied the public their right to participate in the democratic process by refusing to hold due elections to the KP and Punjab assemblies, has lost whatever little moral authority it had to make such decisions on their behalf.

It is also rather unseemly that this proposal has been tabled not because it is a required next step in the evolution of the Pakistani judicial system, but because the government considers it a power play in its confrontation with the Supreme Court. The question will, therefore, be asked: is this good for the country, or just good for the PDM?

The idea of constitutional courts is not unheard of — more than five dozen countries have them in place. It is also not a bad one, considering the massive and continuously increasing backlog of cases pending before Supreme Court justices, who must currently deal with both pressing constitutional matters as well as regular criminal and civil appeals.

Splitting the workload between two courts could greatly help ease this pressure. A separate constitutional court would also utilise the experience and expertise of retired judges, whose accumulated wisdom is dispensed with rather early under the Pakistani system compared to, for example, the US supreme court, which appoints its justices for life.

Clearly, this proposal could have been considerably better received had it not seemed like yet another thinly disguised attempt to encroach upon the Supreme Court’s domain.

Published in Dawn, May 31st, 2023

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