Dawn Editorials 6th June 2023

Hockey revival

FOR the last decade, Pakistan hockey has been searching for that turning point where its misfortunes are reversed. Perhaps that point has been reached. Pakistan’s junior team has returned after playing brilliantly at the Junior Asia Cup in Oman, where it lost 2-1 to India in the final. The performances have shown that at the youth level, Pakistan are on a par with other Asian nations. It is at the senior level where the gulf is wide. While the senior team failed to qualify for the World Cup earlier this year, the juniors will be headed to their second straight World Cup appearance in Malaysia at the end of this year. The players have asked for more exposure ahead of the Junior World Cup; naturally those appeals are directed at the government, with the cash-strapped Pakistan Hockey Federation accepting that it doesn’t have the funds to even pay the junior team players’ daily allowances. The PHF secretary admits that had it not been for sponsors, including the Sindh government, there would have been no training camp for the team. It’s a situation that is alarming — and embarrassing. Once the undisputed kings of world hockey, this is what the sport has been reduced to here. It has been only a few weeks since the Dutch head coach of the senior team severed his ties due to the non-payment of his salary for several months. He left because the Pakistan Sports Board stopped payments due to PHF’s strained ties with the government.

However, the juniors have shown that all is not lost. Maximising their talent, though, is what is needed to ensure that the gap between this lot and the teams they played against in Oman doesn’t increase. A crucial juncture in their development has been reached. Becoming the best team in Asia is the first step towards restoring Pakistan’s former status in the game. The young guns have shown they are not far behind.

Published in Dawn, June 6th, 2023

Odisha disaster

THE horrific train crash in India’s eastern state of Odisha should prompt authorities across the subcontinent to review safety precautions, and discuss best practices in order to prevent such tragedies from recurring. Around 280 people have been reported dead, while close to 900 are believed to have been injured in one of India’s worst rail disasters in decades. Tragedy struck on Friday when the Coromandel Express hit a freight train, jumped the tracks and hit another train. As per preliminary investigations, a signal fault is being blamed for the accident. Though India’s safety record has witnessed improvement over the years, more needs to be done to reduce the risk of accidents on the rail network. India maintains a massive railway network, which transports millions of passengers across thousands of kilometres daily.

Pakistan has also witnessed numerous high-casualty railway accidents over the past few years. These include the Ghotki crash in 2021, in which over 60 people perished, while over 70 people died in the 2019 Tezgam train fire when, reportedly, a cooking gas cylinder on board exploded. The fact is that for most people, train travel is the most affordable way to commute between cities, hence it is the state’s responsibility to ensure that people get to their destinations in safety and comfort. Admittedly, Pakistan has failed to invest adequately in the modernisation of its railway network, inherited from the British. There are major issues with track maintenance as well as the signalling system, while unmanned level crossings also pose a threat to public safety. India intends to address the safety loopholes by installing an anti-train collision system across the network, though progress in this regard has been slow. In fact, railways’ safety is one area where Pakistan and India can cooperate, considering that both systems are products of the same colonial stock, though India’s rail network has raced ahead of Pakistan’s. Where Pakistan’s railways are concerned, the system needs an overhaul and investment to ensure passenger safety and comfort. The track needs to be modernised, and in this respect, the upgrade of the ML-1 under CPEC has been discussed. A viable railway network — undergirded by a stringent safety regimen — is essential for affordable passenger and freight transportation, and regional states can share their knowledge and experiences to make train travel safer for all.

Published in Dawn, June 6th, 2023

Populist budget?

THERE couldn’t have been more challenging times than the present ones for preparing the national budget. The uncertainties related to elections and foreign funding required to cover the massive external account financing gap of about $25bn during the next financial year, amid deepening domestic political crises and unfavourable global economic circumstances, mean that our fiscal authorities would be budgeting this year on hope rather than tangibles.

Add to that the strong compulsion the PML-N-led government must be feeling to appease voters as the monthly price inflation hits another record high of 38pc days before Budget 2024, and it becomes obvious that the present rulers really have their work cut out for them before the next general polls.

It will not be surprising if the Shehbaz Sharif dispensation decides to give a ‘populist’ budget, including a large fiscal stimulus in the shape of development allocations to recoup some of its lost political capital. But this will be disastrous for an economy on the brink of default.

The government has already choked the economy to avoid a default as foreign funding dries up thanks to slumping relations with the IMF.

A populist — or what Finance Minister Ishaq Dar has described as a “welfare-oriented, pro-investment and business-friendly” — budget will be fraught with the risk of Pakistan being pushed deeper into economic depression and away from multilateral and bilateral lenders.

With the country confronting stagflation — marked by flattening economic growth, soaring unemployment and spiking inflation — there has never been a more compelling case for a budget that focuses on fiscal, governance and structural reforms for longer-term economic recovery and sustainability.

Pakistan needs foreign financing, including loan rollovers, of more than $77bn to meet its external debt payments over the next three years. That will not be possible without the IMF on board. A fiscally irresponsible budget can make a new deal with the Fund even more difficult.

Domestic revenue resources also remain scarce — they are insufficient to cover debt-servicing costs, let alone finance development, defence, salaries, pensions, etc.

That makes the proposed fiscal stimulus and ‘relief’ to the common man, aimed at wooing back voters, impractical unless the government is prepared to throw all caution to the wind and resort to drastically increasing domestic borrowing and accumulating more debt, bringing greater misery to the public.

The upcoming budget will be more a test of the government’s resolve to stay the course and restructure the economy to steer it through uncertain conditions rather than provide temporary relief to people and businesses for short-term political gains.

Sadly, the indications so far are that the government is more likely to follow the fiscally imprudent path rather than follow through with the reforms it has promised its lenders to ensure longer-term economic stability.

Published in Dawn, June 6th, 2023

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