BOTH houses of parliament have returned to work.
Unfortunately, it seems that the long break away from the legislature has done little to diminish the lawmakers’ enthusiasm for blame games which are witnessed as much outside as within the august halls.
On Monday, the National Assembly met after nearly two months for a pre-budget sitting to discuss the government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.
The session will continue till Friday before the Assembly reconvenes for the budget session after Eid.
Unlike the British House of Commons, which recently chose to convene a hybrid session, allowing only 50 MPs out of a total of 650 inside the chamber while accessing the input of others through videoconferencing, our elected representatives had rejected a proposal to organise a virtual session, citing constitutional and technological reasons.
Their insistence on meeting in person at a time when infection rates are rising indicates their aversion to changes that democracies across the world are willing to consider.
True, the Assembly administration had taken social-distancing measures, some routine rules were suspended and political parties allowed their members to use their personal discretion when it came to attendance.
The presence of bureaucrats and journalists was also restricted.
Yet, a number of MNAs ignored social-distancing guidelines, shook hands and hugged each other despite warnings from the chair.
Many did not wear masks or gloves.
It makes no sense then for the opposition, especially the PML-N, to not budge from its position and make room for hybrid or virtual sittings at this time.
Their fear that the government could misuse a hybrid or virtual system to curtail the opposition’s role in future stems from a deep-rooted mistrust between the two sides.
No doubt, it is necessary for parliament to function even in these times.
The opposition in a democracy has a very important role to play by questioning and debating government policies and actions.
However, one expects more flexibility from both sides in the face of new, perilous realities.
With the National Assembly speaker and some others from the parliamentary staff having tested positive for Covid-19, great care should have been exercised before convening the session.
Had the opposition agreed to a virtual or hybrid sitting, its leader Shahbaz Sharif and Prime Minister Imran Khan, as well as some others could have participated in a meaningful debate.
All is not lost.
The treasury and opposition can still use this session to reach an agreement on parliamentary sittings until the threat is over.
We know that many MNAs such as Minister Chaudhry Fawad Hussain who did not attend Monday’s session genuinely feel there is an unnecessary risk involved.
An agreement at the national level will be an incentive for the provinces to also hold virtual/hybrid sessions.
After all, it is as important to discuss provincial Covid-19 policies as the federal response to the crisis.
THE issue of importing medicines and raw material used in the making of drugs from India continues to generate a heated debate in this country. Any import from across the border is frowned upon given the tense relationship between the two countries especially after New Delhi’s brute annexation of India-held Kashmir a few months ago. But while the subjugation of the people of occupied Kashmir is no doubt one of the sorest points in global politics, other realities reflect the extent to which one country must depend on another to keep itself moving. The latest example is the brief spat between the US and India where President Donald Trump put pressure on Prime Minister Narendra Modi to lift the ban on the export of hydroxychloroquine.
Pakistan’s own demand of medicines from India is seen in a context where the recipient is expected to be grateful to the supplier. It should not be impossible to see these imports from India, especially at this time, as trade deals, instead of viewing them as a favour. Indian exporters of drugs have a big market in Pakistan. Pakistani importers place their orders with them since it is a cheap and convenient choice. They don’t purchase other items from India simply because they can afford not to. The day drug manufacturers here find a better alternative they will move away from India. No one is doing anyone a favour even if the exercise saves lives. The prime minister’s aide Mr Shahzad Akhtar must keep this in mind as he probes the unauthorised import of Indian medicines. A report in this paper has put the number of such drugs at more than 450. There is also a strong message from drug manufacturers in the country who have warned against the banning of raw material import from India used in the making of medicines. It is said that 95pc of drugs here are manufactured from imported raw material. Of this almost 50pc is from India and the rest from China and the West. This reflects our dependence on others and points to the need for investment in research by pharma. Until better alternative local or foreign sources are found, we have no option but to buy it from the best market option available, without thinking that there are any compassionate grounds behind this bargain between us and the shopkeeper.
STARTING from the Musharraf era, the state has regularly been proscribing a variety of outfits, including sectarian death squads, jihadi militant groups as well as extreme nationalist organisations advocating separatism. This process of banning has yielded mixed results, with some outfits simply changing their names and carrying on with business as usual under new monikers. In the latest round of proscriptions, three Sindh-based groups have been banned by the state: the Sindhu Desh Revolution Army, the Sindhu Desh Liberation Army as well as the Jeay Sindh Qaumi Mahaz-Arisar group. While the first two are known to be involved in militant activities, JSQM-Arisar has mostly been involved in nationalist politics. With the latest listings, the number of proscribed groups in the country comes to 76.
The business of bans is a tricky one, for while there are clearly violent actors that need to be tackled with the full force of the law, other non-violent outfits have been proscribed because their narrative differs from that of the powers that be. The process of proscription must be transparent and effective. Indeed, all those groups that espouse violence within this country’s borders or beyond them, as well as those involved in spreading sectarian, religious and ethnic hatred, need to be put out of business. However, the bans should not be confined to proscribing groups on paper. Even after the Musharraf administration started banning groups, many of these outfits continued their activities, with the leaderships, central cadres and finances untouched. The present government has taken some solid steps, especially to meet the needs of FATF, but the process of keeping a watch on violent actors must be a continuous, proactive one, for the sake of this country’s security. As for those non-violent organisations that adhere to constitutional limits yet have been proscribed, the state needs to reconsider its decision. The focus of the state must be on violent extremists and those who reject the Constitution, not groups that simply advocate alternative narratives.