Dawn Editorials 9th June 2023

Early closure

ON the face of it, closing shops early is a sound idea. Not only would the move help save energy during the stifling summer heat, it can also bring down the import bill as less foreign exchange is spent on procuring fossil fuels to run our power plants. However, while the government is quick to announce such cost-cutting measures, implementing them is not its strong point. The administration on Tuesday announced, after a meeting of the National Economic Council, that markets would be shut by 8pm from July 1 to conserve energy and save up to $1bn per year. The government had made a similar announcement in January, but the directives were widely flouted. This time around too, the reaction from traders has been swift and non-compromising: businessmen from Lahore, Islamabad/Rawalpindi, KP and elsewhere have rejected the government’s move to down the shutters early. They say people prefer to shop in the evening to avoid the daytime heat, and that implementing early closures would be bad for business. Moreover, traders have called for discussing the measures in parliament before implementation.

Ideally, in order to save both energy and foreign exchange, we as a nation need to alter our lifestyles. Starting the day early and taking advantage of daylight can help save on energy costs. But changing lifestyles is a long-term project, for in major cities like Karachi most markets only open after midday. Moreover, the state prefers to buckle under pressure rather than sticking to its decisions, as has been witnessed during previous calls for early market closures. The government also backtracked from collecting taxes from retailers through electricity bills. Unfortunately, the PML-N-led administration is powerless before its own key constituency — the business community. However, traders need to rethink their opposition in the national interest. If they want to stay open late and consume more power, perhaps they should be ready to pay higher bills for this ‘privilege’.

Published in Dawn, June 9th, 2023

Unequivocal message

AN unmistakably forceful message has been sent out that puts to rest any notion of a house divided. The military top brass appears to be of one mind: that the time has come to tighten the noose around the “planners and masterminds” of the violent protests that broke out across the country after PTI chairman Imran Khan was arrested. The ISPR statement issued on the occasion of the Formation Commanders’ Conference presided over by COAS Gen Asim Munir on Wednesday, was dismissive of complaints about alleged rights abuses, maintaining that those arrested in connection with the rioting were proceeded against on the basis of “irrefutable evidence”. The press release read that the “desecrators … and attackers … would certainly be brought to justice speedily under the Pakistan Army Act and Official Secrets Act…”. Some trials under these laws were already underway, it said, and attempts “by any quarter to create obstructions and stymie” the legal process that has been set in motion will be dealt with an “iron hand”. The PDM government is clearly not expected to assert its authority in the current landscape.

Certainly, if Mr Khan and others are suspected of involvement in the May 9 riots and other crimes, they must be held accountable. But that does not mean the civilians should pour fuel on the fire and discard the basic legal principles that underpin any criminal justice system. Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah during a TV talk show later on Wednesday accused Mr Khan of “masterminding” the events of May 9 and described him as the “architect” of the mayhem, claiming there were audio clips directly implicating the PTI chairman in the violent protests that took place. Mr Sanaullah, who was law minister in the PML-N’s previous government, may want to consider that unless he is convicted, Mr Khan remains a suspect. To pronounce his ‘guilt’ in the matter is premature, not to mention unseemly for a government functionary sworn to uphold the Constitution. Underscoring the importance of due process, the Pakistan Bar Council has passed a resolution that, where applicable, civilians should be tried in Anti Terrorism Courts — considered competent enough to try even violent extremists. The Sindh Bar Council, too, recently also expressed valid concerns at Pakistan violating its international human rights obligations that guarantees the right to trial by a “competent, independent and impartial court”.

Published in Dawn, June 9th, 2023

Stuck in the past

FINANCE Minister Ishaq Dar could have kept the Pakistan Economic Survey 2022-23 unveiling ceremony quite short. ‘We blame everyone and everything but ourselves’, would have neatly summarised the gist of most of what he had to say about his government’s report card for the outgoing fiscal year.

It wasn’t difficult to see why he felt a need to be so defensive. The numbers he had to share told a harrowing tale: most key targets were missed, the economy barely kept afloat, inflation had wrecked citizens’ purchasing power, and everything pointed to the prospect of a continuing slowdown in the absence of any unforeseen stimuli.

Perhaps it would have been easier to sympathise had some self-appraisal and reflexivity been on display. After all, even in periods of severe crisis, one can find hope in knowing their future is in the hands of someone who is honest and forthright about the challenges that are being faced.

Instead, Mr Dar’s speech remained politically angled. He mostly kept referring to the good days of his last stint in government, apparently seeking to persuade critics that his ability to manage the economy ought not to be judged on his recent performance but from his ‘achievements’ in his 2013-2017 tenure.

It was a rather facile line of argument, considering he had pushed out Miftah Ismail in the middle of the fiscal year knowing full well that the economy faced conditions vastly different from the last time he was in power.

Interestingly, Mr Dar refused to acknowledge Mr Ismail at all. When he referred to the stalled IMF programme — which, incidentally, he described as the “IMF drama” — Mr Dar conveniently ‘forgot’ that it had been successfully revived by his predecessor.

Instead, he blamed his failure to negotiate with the IMF on the PTI’s decision last year to freeze fuel prices, which he claimed had ‘irrevocably’ damaged the lender’s trust.

By failing to take any responsibility for the economy’s sorry state, Mr Dar insulted the intelligence of those who were anticipating an appraisal of the government’s economic performance in a crisis period.

There is no denying that this was a terrible year, with global crises triggered by the Russia-Ukraine conflict and the catastrophic floods that followed last year’s monsoon ravaging our economy in unforeseen ways.

Mr Dar should have at least detailed the finance ministry’s efforts to address the many challenges faced by the country in this period.

By avoiding that discussion, he only reinforced the perception that he has simply been bumbling from one crisis to another. His enduring fixation with the exchange rate — which made a cameo in his speech yesterday — also suggested that he has learned nothing from past mistakes. Is he the right man for the job? Today’s budget may hold a definitive answer.

Published in Dawn, June 9th, 2023

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