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Dawn Editorial 10 August 2020

Ravi city project

THE launch of the multibillion-dollar, Dubai-style city project on the Ravi riverfront does not sit well with the PTI government’s election manifesto which had promised to reshape the country’s development strategy by moving away from the mega brick-and-mortar schemes and invest in citizens for inclusive, sustainable growth. In spite of appeals from experts to cancel the River Ravi Urban Development Project owing to environmental and other reasons, Prime Minister Imran Khan chose to move ahead with the planned launch on Friday. With the government struggling hard to kick-start growth and push the contracting economy out of recession, Mr Khan is apparently pinning his hopes on the revival of stalled construction activities for an early turnaround. Hence, his government has in recent months announced significant fiscal and monetary incentives for builders and developers to boost housing, especially for the low-income segment, in the country. The intervention is showing some positive results with the increase in domestic consumption of cement and other building materials in July.
The expected private investment of Rs5tr on the development of the new city, which would be spread over an area of 100,000 acres and straddle the river north of Lahore, may boost construction-related industries and create thousands of jobs over the next several years. But can the project, which is being undertaken without an independent, comprehensive socioeconomic impact assessment, help Lahore tackle its numerous civic problems: shortage of safe drinking water for a majority of its population, inadequate drainage, overpopulation, degradation of the living environment, shortage of schools for children etc? The answer is in the negative. Instead, it is feared that the scheme will further weaken the delicate ecological balance as floodplains are being used to build high-rises, and the poor and their livelihoods will be upstaged to pave the way for luxury living of the wealthy and powerful.
In the past, the prime minister has repeatedly spoken of the urban sprawl and its impact on the environment and citizens. However, the construction of a new city is not the answer to these problems. Nor can it be a substitute for better urban planning. Instead of new cities/urban settlements, we need to invest heavily in improving the deteriorating infrastructure — water supply, drainage, education, health, environment etc — in the existing ones. Also, the government needs to bring these public services to smaller towns in order to control unchecked growth in labour migration from less developed areas to major urban centres for jobs and better services. Just ‘development’ or short-term economic prosperity through mega brick-and-mortar projects may not work out without assessing their benefits for the majority of the people. Instead, we need ‘responsible development’ that ensures the prudent use of public money and requires the government to invest heavily in human development and improvement in the quality and extension of essential public services to all for sustainable economic growth.


Beirut shattered

IT is difficult to describe in words the devastating blast that rocked the Lebanese capital Beirut last week. Watching the footage of the massive explosion at a port warehouse was disturbing enough; Beirutis must have gone through hell as the blast ripped through their city. While the explosion was caused by over 2,700 kg of ammonium nitrate stored at the warehouse, the jury is still out on what exactly triggered the blast. Various theories are doing the rounds — an Israeli attack targeting Hezbollah’s weapons, sabotage etc — though no clear explanation has emerged. The Lebanese president has mentioned two possible causes: “negligence or foreign interference through a missile or bomb”. While only a thorough investigation can uncover the truth, thousands of Lebanese took to the streets of Beirut on Saturday to denounce their government; the country had already been simmering, caught in the middle of an economic meltdown with people railing against the Lebanese political class. The blast at the port was, as it were, the straw that broke the camel’s back.
Lebanon has had a chequered history following independence from France in 1943. Under the so-called National Pact, power has been divided amongst the country’s religions and sects. Rather than creating harmony, this has aided instability, with the country going through a vicious civil war from 1975 till 1990. Moreover, Lebanon is located in a rough neighbourhood, with regional conflicts spilling over into its territory. Israel has violated Lebanese sovereignty with particular impunity, invading the country in 1982. Tel Aviv’s occupation of south Lebanon lasted till 2000, when the Zionist state was driven out by Hezbollah. In more recent events, the effects of the Syrian civil war have also had a destabilising effect, adding over a million Syrian refugees to the number of Palestinians Lebanon hosts after they were driven out of their homeland by Israel. To add to these troubles, Lebanon’s political class has been unable to steer the country out of troubled waters due to a mix of corruption and incompetence. In the immediate future, the international community needs to stand with Lebanon and help it get back on its feet. Many countries, including Pakistan, have stepped forward by sending relief supplies. In the long run, the Lebanese must themselves reform their political system to create a democratic state where fundamental rights are assured for all, instead of waiting for foreign saviours to pull them out of the quagmire.


Collateral damage

THE Covid-19 outbreak has thus far claimed 700,000 lives across the world but the true magnitude of its impact will be felt in the months to come. As governments — including Pakistan’s — divert their financial and health resources towards fighting the pandemic, severe collateral damage from these endeavours is being incurred by the primary healthcare infrastructure that plays a key role in the diagnosis and treatment of prevalent infectious diseases. According to a story in The New York Times, around 80pc of the programmes intended for the treatment of tuberculosis, malaria and HIV have reported disruptions worldwide, giving rise to the possibility of increased deaths and development of drug resistance in patients. Tuberculosis claims around 1.5m lives every year across the world (more than any other infectious disease) but the three-month lockdown and gradual return to normalcy over subsequent months will result in 1.4m additional deaths worldwide. Similarly, experts have also predicted that the death toll from malaria could double while 500,000 additional deaths would be caused by HIV/AIDS due to interruptions in treatment cycles.
The burden of the resurgence of these diseases will fall disproportionately on poorer and developing countries such as Pakistan. In fact, the issue is doubly concerning because of our already shambolic health infrastructure. Even before the pandemic, Pakistan was reporting the fifth highest number of tuberculosis cases worldwide and the fourth highest of multidrug-resistant TB. The Global AIDS Update 2020 has already warned of a sharp increase in HIV/AIDS cases in Pakistan, and the current monsoon spell will be followed by the yearly surge in malaria and dengue. Similarly, in 2019 polio cases in Pakistan were up by more than1000pc; this year, immunisation campaigns have remained suspended for the past three months. The worst of Covid-19 may be over but our existing health problems appear to have increased manifold. With the lockdown lifted, the authorities must immediately focus on tackling existing infectious diseases to contain the damage the pandemic has caused in their eradication efforts.
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