The Express Tribune Editorial 1 November 2019

The big train tragedy


Several train accidents have occurred after Sheikh Rashid took over the reins of the Pakistan Railways. The entire nation has sympathy for the victims of the tragedy in Rahim Yar Khan district and indignation at the sad state of affairs prevailing in the railways. Around 75 passengers have died and 40 others injured after three coaches of Tezgam Express caught fire near Liaquatpur at 1am yesterday. The apparent cause of the inferno is said to be a gas cylinder blast. The railway minister said in these coaches members of the Tableeghi Jamaat were travelling to Raiwind to attend the Jamaat’s annual congregation. The cylinder exploded when some of the passengers were cooking meals on stoves. He said the guard and the driver stopped them from cooking food inside the train. They stopped but resumed soon after they had left the scene. Carrying inflammable materials in trains is prohibited.
The whole thing, as of now, points to mismanagement and incompetence. There are instances of serious accidents from different parts of the world following trains catching fire due to the presence of inflammable material inside them. It has happened in a neighbouring country when passengers were cooking meals on stoves. Yet Tezgam passengers were allowed to carry gas cylinder(s) inside the train. Not long ago TV channels had shown footage of an engine driver and his assistant handing over the control of a passenger train to a young woman. The driver of another train was captured on camera getting down to buy Naan-chholay at a place which was not even a halt station.
The minister lamented over the railways’ failure to earn from its freight service. A cursory glance at the increasing number of container trailers and tankers on the road is enough to show why the railways is not earning sufficient revenue from its freight services. Furthermore, when the minister in charge talks about everything under the sun except his own department, then things can only deteriorate. Eleventh-century scholar Albiruni says what he likes most about Indians is their extraordinary ability to talk on things about which they know nothing.


Good news for economy?


With the economy in a shambles and the Maulana Fazlur Rahman-led caravan comprising thousands of protesters closing in on the federal capital, there could have been no worse time for the government to enter into negotiations with the striking traders who had locked down their shops to press for their demands concerning taxes. The negotiations thus ended in major takeaways for the traders after two days of lockdown. Except for the deferral of the CNIC condition till January 31, 2020 on purchases worth Rs50,000 — which turned out to be a bit of face-saving for the government — it was all a win-win for the retailers class.
Let’s look at some of the sweeping concessions granted to traders by the government under the 11-point agreement reached between them on October 30. Traders with annual turnover of Rs100 million will now pay 0.5% income tax instead of the earlier 1.5% — something that would translate into a 66% fall in income tax revenue. Then, the traders consuming up to Rs1.2 million worth of electricity annually (as against Rs0.6 million previously) as well as those having shops spread over 1,000 square feet or less will be exempt from sales tax registration, and thus the CNIC condition. How many of the total four million traders will be excluded from the sales tax net due to these concessions is not known for sure at the moment, but according to the FBR chief, it is likely to cut the sales tax collection by some 10%. The government has also agreed to review the rate of turnover tax for sectors with low profit ratio.
While the October 31 agreement is going to result in a fall in income tax revenue and shrinking sales tax net, the government claims it to be “good news for the economy” that will increase tax revenues by generating economic activity. Isn’t it time to remind the government if its claims to never ever compromise on steps to document the economy and broaden the tax net?


Redefining terrorism

The Supreme Court has recommended that Parliament narrow the definition of ‘terrorism’ in existing laws. Such a move would significantly reduce the number of cases that wind up in anti-terrorism courts despite the offences having done little in the way of terrorising people. The court explains that many of the offences do not qualify to be included in the definition of terrorism under the Anti-Terrorism Act and put an extra burden on anti-terrorism courts, which delays trials of actual terrorism cases.
The judgment, authored by Chief Justice Asif Saeed Khosa, recommends that Parliament consider substituting the present definition of ‘terrorism’ with a more succinct one, in line with the international perspectives of the offence and focusing on violent activities aimed at achieving political, ideological or religious objectives. The judgement also notes that there is an international consensus on the point that the violence having no political, ideological or religious aims is “just an act of criminal delinquency, a felony, or simply an act of insanity unrelated to terrorism”.
This is perhaps best illustrated by the high number of murder and kidnapping cases that have found their way into anti-terrorism courts. Even parental kidnapping cases among divorced or separated couples have moved into the system, even though the complainants and the police officials registering FIRs are usually at a loss to explain their reasoning when asked about the insertion of the ATA clauses. On the flip side, some people believe that the insertion of the said clauses guarantees swift justice and fewer delays as compared to the ‘regular’ courts, which are also perceived as more corruptible.
The fact of the matter is that placing regular cases before anti-terrorism courts has actually corrupted the courts. Evidence of this comes from the number of cases where severe penalties based on the terrorism charges were handed down, only for them to be overturned by higher courts.

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