Blaming the victim
THE horrifying assault and gang rape of a woman driving on the Lahore-Sialkot motorway has shaken the citizens of this country to the core. The woman and her two children were on the M-11 Wednesday night when her car ran out of fuel and stalled. As she made frantic phone calls to get help, two men approached the family and forcibly took them to a nearby field at gunpoint.
The men raped the woman in the presence of her children, then proceeded to steal her cash and jewellery before making a getaway. As news of the heinous crime went viral, Lahore CCPO Umar Sheikh appeared before the media to offer nothing in the way of sympathy for the victim. Instead, he shared a list of ways on how she and other women could avoid being assaulted in the future. Shockingly, Mr Sheikh repeated his asinine remarks, which included telling women that they should be more responsible as assault is the ultimate fate of a woman travelling alone in our society.
It is appalling that Mr Sheikh’s callous and prejudiced remarks should find support among senior members of the government. Accountability tsar Shahzad Akbar dismissed the criticism against Mr Sheikh as “unnecessary”, while Planning Minister Asad Umar said his remarks though unsavoury did not amount to criminal conduct.
The episode has left women infuriated, and feeling let down and even more unsafe. It has also demonstrated that, despite a swelling women’s rights movement in Pakistan, there are miles to go before women are treated as equals and human beings. Over the last couple of days, scores of women on social media have highlighted exactly how dangerous this victim-blaming mentality is. Many have shared their own stories of rape, assault and harassment and admitted that it is the fear of judgement and shame that keeps them from speaking out or approaching the authorities.
The list of reasons why women in the country do not feel safe is distressingly long. Yet, senior officials and public office holders such as Mr Sheikh continue to perpetuate this vile notion that the victim is somehow responsible for the assault or that a woman should not venture out of her home without the protection of a man.
This attitude is unacceptable. It is not enough for individual members of the government to condemn the act and ignore the heartless and unprofessional conduct of the top official overseeing security in Lahore.
Furthermore, authorities should take note of the fact that the Pakistan National Highway and Motorway Police is unaware of who is responsible for policing the route where the assault took place, a fact which meant that the woman’s call for assistance on the official helpline was denied. The government must remove Mr Sheikh if it wants to demonstrate to the women of this country that there is hope for their security.
Old power plants
THE government has rightly decided to discontinue 2,900 MW of generation from old, inefficient state-owned power companies. The plan will see the 1,400 MW capacity of four plants being phased out immediately followed by the shutdown of another 1,500 MW by 2022. The government has also decided to end the must-run status of the three RLNG-based plants in Punjab with a combined capacity of 3,900 MW. The existing agreements with these plants force the government to use them even though the induction of cheaper coal- and hydro-based generation and the reduction in electricity demand have pushed them to a lower position in the economic dispatch merit order. The addition of nuclear-, hydro-, renewable- and coal-based capacity going forward is expected to further drive these plants down the merit order.
The decision has apparently been made to slash the overall generation cost, which has driven up power tariffs to one of the highest in the region and made electricity unaffordable for industrial, commercial and domestic consumers over time. Further, the inability of the authorities to cut distribution losses, recover bills and check theft has posed a new quasi-fiscal challenge in the form of circular debt of more than Rs2.1tr in the power sector. The government is striving to find a solution to the issues though. Recently, it struck a deal with private power producers to reduce their profits. But not many believe that these piecemeal, short-term measures will help liquidate the power-sector debt or address the issue of affordability without deeper reforms in the power sector. Sadly, the country’s energy policymakers haven’t proved equal to the task. Take the example of the NTDC’s electricity-generation expansion plan for the next 27 years. A review of the project by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis shows that the authors of the plan are completely unaware of ongoing developments in renewables and how these are expected to change the global electricity-generation scene by the time Pakistan turns 100. Instead, it proposes, even if innocently, to lock Pakistan into dirty and expensive generation capacity and saddle the government and consumers with a greater financial burden. What we need is a long-term capacity expansion plan that takes into account ongoing technological advancements in cheaper renewable energy sources to make electricity affordable for consumers. Equally important is the development of a competitive electricity market in the country with the government only playing the role of effective regulator.
Another building collapse
IN the third such incident of the year, Karachi witnessed another multistorey building collapse, this time in Korangi. Four people died while at least six were treated in hospital. Earlier in June, a five-storey building collapsed in the Lyari area claiming at least 22 lives. Similarly, at least 27 people died in March when another incident occurred in the city’s Gulbahar area. According to the Sindh Building Control Authority, the multistorey residential building was illegal and had been constructed on a plot carved out of an amenity plot, a practice known as china cutting. Though the building was built only four years ago, the recent rains had apparently weakened its foundations when water accumulated in the basement. However, when no lessons are learned, it becomes pointless to ask why the building authorities allowed the illegal allotment and selling of the land and the construction of a building on it in the first place. Numerous such structures exist and a large number of neighbourhoods in the city have been built on amenity plots. With poor-quality construction and frequent violation of building regulations, it is no surprise when such tragedies befall residents living in these death traps.
It is not enough to merely state that such construction is illegal and order an inquiry when buildings collapse. Earlier this year, the Supreme Court too took notice of the poor performance of the SBCA and ordered the Sindh government to overhaul the agency. But it is not the SBCA alone which can tackle the mammoth task of tidying up the numerous unregulated housing societies and structures in a city of 20m. Successive governments have neglected the city’s needs and failed to pay any attention to the grave housing crisis that is now imploding with the mushrooming of illegal structures. To prevent further tragedies of this kind, the authorities must set up an independent oversight body, as per the SBCA Ordinance, that monitors illegal structures and the quality of construction in buildings across the city.