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Dawn Editorial 12 March 2020

Wheat, sugar crisis

THE government has sort of ‘upgraded’ the inquiry committee created early last month to investigate the severe wheat flour and sugar shortages that surfaced across the country in January and fix responsibility. The committee has been converted into a larger commission with an expanded mandate and more powers to probe the shortages that saw the prices of two essential food items shoot through the roof. The federal cabinet has apparently taken the decision in view of the failure of the committee to satisfactorily complete its assignment even after the passage of more than a month of its constitution. The committee was given two weeks to conclude its investigations and submit its findings to the cabinet for action against those responsible for creating the shortages. According to the interior secretary’s briefing at the cabinet meeting on Tuesday, the investigators have yet to conduct a “forensic audit” of the information and accounts so far gathered to move forward and draw their conclusions and make recommendations.
It is, however, not clear how the conversion of the committee into a commission will help the government determine the real causes of the crises, leading to a spike in overall inflation that has taken a toll especially on the poor and low-income segments of the population and significantly eroded the political capital of the ruling PTI. Nor is it clear as to what factors prevented the committee from successfully wrapping up its inquiry. The commission has been given one week to finish its job by building upon the work already done by the now defunct committee. Many observers believe that the commission, which consists of senior officials from the anti-corruption agencies and corporate regulators, may not be able to finish its work within the stipulated time frame. The sceptics also feel that the government is looking for the cause of the crises in the wrong places because the roots of the issue actually lie in the country’s policies governing these two sectors, and which allow market players to periodically create artificial shortages to rig profits as well as raise their prices.
A number of studies have held the excessive regulatory and financial state interventions in the sugar and wheat markets, in the name of protecting the interests of small-holder farmers and consumers, responsible for the eruption of periodic shortages. These studies have clearly established that government interventions through price-fixing and allocation of massive subsidies across the supply chains every year have distorted the domestic wheat and sugar markets. Government interference in the market has also made these two commodities internationally uncompetitive and created opportunities for large farmers, millers and others involved in the trade to wrench economic rent at the expense of small producers and poor consumers. It is doubtful that the commission will look into faulty government policies and propose meaningful solutions for addressing the market failures.


Blood begets blood

A RECENT police study on tribal warfare in Sindh highlights the dangers of parallel justice ‘systems’ that continue to haunt law-enforcement authorities in this day and age. According to the Sindh Police report, approximately 104 people have lost their lives in such quarrels, while another 84 have been injured, due to disputes over water, land, ‘honour’ etc. Such acts of revenge and thoughtless killing pepper the daily newspapers, and they are certainly not restricted to Sindh, but plague all four provinces of the country. In other words, tribal blood feuds are a national shame, yet they seem to be so commonplace that they barely raise alarm anymore. Such crimes slowly but effectively weaken and erode the writ of the state, especially if they are not confronted and tried under the formal laws of the land. And they are usually justified over the most trivial of grounds — bruised egos, petty crime, misunderstandings — that can easily be resolved, if there was genuine interest in resolution by those in power. In Thatta, for instance, a young man was killed during clashes between two groups over the cutting down of a tree. But blood begets blood, and many disputes spill over generations.
In its report, the police noted that the majority of tribal killings took place in upper Sindh, where locals have complained of growing lawlessness that has deeply impaired the fabric of society and negatively impacted the region’s socioeconomic progress. Additionally, some researchers have noted tribal leaders using sectarian speech to add fuel to the fire, while growing extremism and the proliferation of weapons in these areas has made matters worse. Murderers then get away with their crime due to the protection and patronage they receive from powerful feudal lords and tribal chieftains. While a ‘tit-for-tat’ mentality is ingrained in many local customs, more often than not, it is those who have nothing to do with the ‘original sin’ that are made to pay the heaviest price. Unfortunately, the practice of customs such as vani continues to hurt the women and children of this country, despite being a direct violation of the Constitution and the Sindh Child Marriages Restraint Act. It is nothing short of a tragedy that we still hear about women and girls being ‘sacrificed’ to secure ‘peace’ between two rival groups — bartered like property between men, the collateral damage of tribal warfare.


Hospitals in limbo

IT seems that the federal government’s indecision about taking administrative control of the three largest public-sector hospitals in Karachi has had a debilitating effect on the operations of these health facilities. In a letter written to the chief justice of Pakistan, the employees of the Jinnah Postgraduate Medical Centre have expressed their concern that the uncertain status of the institution was affecting the day-to-day running of the hospital and the future of the workers. The JPMC faculty and staff want the implementation of the Supreme Court’s 2019 verdict in which the administrative control of the JPMC, the National Institute of Cardiovascular Diseases and the National Institute of Child Health was handed over to the federal government. However, the latter first refused to take on the responsibility for running these institutions, and then in December last year, the government acquiesced in the decision, requesting some time to take stock of the situation. In its latest U-turn, however, the federal cabinet has again refused to assume administrative control of these institutions.
This lack of clarity has impacted promotions as well as the hiring and professional growth of several faculty members and students. Though the daily budgetary requirements — salaries, cost of medicines and other operational expenses — of these hospitals is currently being met by the Sindh government, it is not the statutory authority for hiring competent faculty members and doctors to meet the expanding needs of these institutions. The extent of the prevailing uncertainty can be gauged from the fact that the faculty and doctors are uncertain whether they are employees of the federal or the Sindh government. Moreover, the uncertain status of the JPMC also affects the future of the Jinnah Sindh Medical University that is affiliated with the former. In case of a federal takeover, the JSMU stands to lose its affiliate teaching hospital and thus its status as a full-fledged medical university. The centre must stop dithering and provide a workable solution, advisably in consultation with the Sindh government, to stave off further damage.


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