Dawn Editorials 5th June 2023

On schadenfreude

THE shock abduction of a prominent rights activist and lawyer this past week seems to have jolted even the most jaded into waking up to the rapid erosion of civil liberties under this regime’s quest to impose ‘order’. Jibran Nasir has often championed causes and fought cases few wish to touch. He had recently been rather outspoken while defending the rights of PTI’s leaders and workers.

Mr Nasir has no affiliation with the PTI; in fact, PTI supporters routinely ridiculed and abused him in the past. He has also not been accused of participating in the violence that broke out on May 9.

Nevertheless, he was forcefully picked up late Thursday while driving home with his wife. Was it a ‘crime’ that he spoke out against the abuses being suffered by PTI workers at the hands of the state? The message sent by his abduction appears to suggest so.

Thousands of ordinary Pakistani citizens are languishing in state custody today, many simply for the offence of being at the wrong place at the wrong time. Others have been targeted solely for their political sympathies.

The detached commentariat has so far been dismissive of the treatment they have received, arguing — perhaps not too wrongly — that it is comeuppance for their party’s past follies and transgressions.

However, the present government and its supporters have pushed a far more malicious line: they have been pumping the airwaves with apologia for mass arrests, illegal detentions and even unlawful sentencing of people who are, ultimately, Pakistani citizens.

While there is no question that the May 9 violence needs to be investigated and lawbreakers punished, all suspects are still entitled to due process and a fair trial. Voices like Mr Nasir’s should not be silenced for merely demanding that the state treat its citizens lawfully. As his illegal detention has made clear, the state’s wrath needs to be checked diligently by the citizenry lest it grows beyond control.

Published in Dawn, June 5th, 2023

Spending for votes

THE cash-strapped government’s plans to boost its annual development spending by as much as 31pc in the next financial year is meant to create good optics ahead of elections. It was expected, considering the enormous pressure the government finds itself under, owing to an economic slowdown and high inflation. In fact, some ministers had recently hinted at taking steps to provide ‘relief’ to the public through an expansionary budget. However, success of the coalition government’s strategy to spend its way out of the economic slump to increase the growth rate to 3.5pc from the current year’s 0.3pc is uncertain at the moment. This is not the first time that a government is trying to increase growth to please voters by boosting development spending — and hitting the wall a few months later. But the space for the current rulers is even more limited, with its inability to manage the economy because of the cash crunch and uncertainties related to the IMF programme and external account. Yet driven by its need to appease disillusioned and angry voters, it is setting a rather unrealistic development spending target in the budget that would have to be revised down later in the year due to potential fiscal constraints.

Given our tight financial situation and successive governments’ inability to raise the tax-to-GDP ratio of less than 10pc, one of the lowest in the world, any excessive spending or the pursuit of a loose fiscal policy is ill advised without implementing substantial tax collection measures. So far, the government has given no indication of its intentions to broaden the tax base to increase revenues, except the imposition of wealth tax on agricultural and other assets. Other tax measures so far proposed by the Tola committee will only burden corporate taxpayers. With the tax revenue collection target for the next fiscal year likely to be set at Rs9-9.2tr or equal to 8.6pc of GDP, few expect the government to be able to achieve it amid the unprecedented economic slowdown. Indeed, the coalition partners, especially the PML-N, have lost a lot of political capital over the last one year and their leadership must be feeling a compulsion to foster productivity and put some money into the pockets of lower-middle-income voters to woo them back. But it would be disastrous if it is done at the cost of fiscal discipline.

Published in Dawn, June 5th, 2023

Environment Day

OUR world is not reusable nor can it be made perishable. As the plastic tide spins out of control, World Environment Day, being observed this year with a focus on plastic pollution, is a requisite to stem it. An alarming level of plastic — 8m to 10m tonnes — spills into the oceans each year, becoming a devastating rogue wave for the ecosystem. Take the North Pacific Ocean where a mass of litter comprising common trash, belongings and fishing equipment is known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. There isn’t much comfort for life above water either: UNEP sounded the alarm last month when it stated that, considering the invisible “microplastic fragments” plaguing the highest peaks and the ocean floors, single-use plastics and disposable consumption must drop to half as the next few years are precarious. These were identified in “blood, breast milk and placentae” — foreboding signs of a noxious marine and animal feed and food chain. The report also pronounced plastic as the source of 19pc of global greenhouse emissions by 2040; it presented a ‘reuse, recycle and diversify’ approach for used materials to meet the diminution target.

The same month, climate ministers at the G7 summit vowed to halt surplus plastic pollution in their nations by 2040. However, the most significant development that can set the path to recovery was in Paris — some 200 countries came together and assented to negotiate an international treaty which plugs the plastic crunch, similar to the Paris Agreement on climate change. The charge of mapping an agenda to lessen global plastic excess fell squarely on the shoulders of UN affiliates. Likely to be settled by the end of 2024, the accord should translate into a powerful, stringent plastic policy with legal teeth, resolute on restoring the globe. Closer to home, Bangladesh and Afghanistan have banned single-use plastic fare. But Pakistan and India’s undertaking to phase out expendable plastic has sunk.

Pakistan’s pollution laws — Section 11 of PEPA forbids the discharge of effluents, waste and air pollutants — are met with oblivion. And resistance from retailers and consumers defeated the government’s SRO to ban plastic bags in 2020. In April, the climate change ministry disclosed that the production level of plastic waste was 3m tonnes and, according to UNEP, only 3pc is recycled. If unaddressed, this will stand at 12m tonnes by 2040. A World Bank survey in 2022 claimed 10,000 tonnes of macro-plastics flow through the Indus into the sea annually. Meanwhile, untreated sewage and solid refuse continue to ravage Karachi’s marine ecology. The fatal threat of toxic plastic, which makes flora, fauna and humans sick, must emerge as a rebel yell for environmentalists and media. Also, without a habit revolution, a plastic ban is just the tip of a rapidly dissolving iceberg.

Published in Dawn, June 5th, 2023

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