IT looks like the recent round of talks with the IMF have gone quite well, perhaps better than expected.
It is true that they ended without a staff-level agreement, in which the targets and benchmarks for the forthcoming period are finalised, but all indications suggest that this is now a mere formality.
Read: IMF mission gives sunny outlook of Pakistan’s economic situation as review ends
With such a ringing endorsement of the government’s performance in the first six months of the programme, there can be little doubt now that an agreement for the next quarter is just around the corner.
The statement released by the Fund on Friday must come as a relief for the government, especially its economic managers, who have been taking a serious battering in recent months with the relentless march of inflation and the lingering slowdown in the economy. The Fund clearly says the economy has stabilised, inflation is now set to trend downwards, and the fiscal and external sectors have performed admirably, in some cases surpassing expectations.
But the moment of relief must be short.
It should be remembered, for one, that the IMF routinely gives positive reviews to Pakistan during programme implementation, especially when ties with the United States are strong or on the mend.
Second, it should also be remembered that the programme is a long one, and the first six months may have brought hard-won gains in the fiscal and external balances, but the road ahead is treacherous and the economy and populace are exhausted under the burden of the sacrifices they have been called upon to make in the name of this adjustment.
The other thing that the same statement makes clear is that much more is yet to come, and the government is soon likely to be reminded that ultimately it is the people of this country who will decide whether or not its performance has been good, and not the IMF.
Against this background, some sobering facts came to light on the same day that the glowing IMF statement was released.
The country’s circular debt has risen to a staggering Rs1.78tr, up by 34pc since September 2018. Over that time period, it has risen by an average of Rs38bn per month, or more than a billion rupees per day. At some point, the growth of this circular debt will need to be arrested, and then reversed.
There is also the question of maintaining the fiscal balance going forward, which will require further taxes or expenditure cuts.
These are some of the loose ends left to be tied up before an agreement can be signed by both parties. But the costs of these measures will be borne by the people of the country, in the form of higher power tariffs, more taxes, and fewer jobs. The IMF’s words of praise will not help as this journey continues. Dedicated focus on running things will.
Torture in custody
THE broken bodies that surface now and then from the opaque recesses of the law-enforcement system in Pakistan are, one can be sure, only some of the most extreme cases of custodial torture. The vast majority of such instances, especially those that involve sexual violence, seldom come into the public eye. The result is numerous convictions every year based on false confessions extracted under torture, some of which send innocent people behind bars for years, if not to the death row. Last week, PPP leader Sherry Rehman presented a bill titled the Torture, Custodial Death and Custodial Sexual Violence (Prevention and Punishment) Act, 2019, in the Senate. The proposed legislation, as explained by Ms Rehman, seeks to define the various permutations of this crime and bring domestic law in conformity with the UN convention against torture, which Pakistan ratified in 2010.
Despite this country having become party to several such international treaties, custodial torture is yet to be criminalised in Pakistan and remains ingrained in our policing culture. A number of horrific incidents that have come to light recently are yet another reminder of the scale of the problem. Last October for instance, a private torture cell operated by some Punjab police personnel was unearthed in Gujranwala; one of several victims rescued from captivity later succumbed to his injuries. A few months before that, a mentally challenged man died as a result of the savage beating he had been subjected to by cops during his detention for alleged theft. Inflicting pain and suffering is a discredited method of interrogation; information gleaned through such means is highly unreliable. But lack of accountability mechanisms and resources means that torture is seen as a convenient alternative to undertaking substantive investigation; it is also used by law-enforcement personnel to settle personal scores. Moreover, political interference in police appointments and postings results in ‘favoured’ law-enforcement personnel brutalising citizens with impunity in the course of serving their benefactors. There are a number of steps that must be taken to eradicate the practice of custodial torture. Firstly, those who perpetrate it must be severely punished; secondly, police should be trained in modern investigative methods and equipped with the forensic tools that can help them solve crime without recourse to sadistic, yet ineffectual methods. If passed, the legislation will only be applicable to the Islamabad Capital Territory, but it may offer a template that the provinces can, and should, replicate.
Canary in the coalmine
DEEP inside the caves of KP and Balochistan, thousands of coal miners toil in search of ‘black gold’ day in and day out. Often wearing only helmets with torchlights, the poorly trained miners have little safety equipment and are at risk of contracting various illnesses from constant exposure to coal dust, heat, noise and chemicals. While some lose their eyesight, develop musculoskeletal disorders or cannot work because of injuries from accidents, others die from inhaling toxic fumes or from suffocation or burns when the mines collapse on them after an explosion. They receive little to no compensation by their employers, many of whom are connected to power and who exploit the miners’ poverty and lack of voice in society for a meagre wage. On Friday, members of the Pakistan Central Mines Labour Federation gathered outside the Quetta Press Club to demand better working conditions and safety equipment. Just a few days earlier, four miners had been killed when a landslide struck a mine in Dukki. According to the union, there have been around 16 deaths of miners in the past two months alone. In 2018, over 160 coal miners were killed, while approximately 300 others suffered serious injuries.
Unfortunately, the death of a coal miner — or even hundreds of deaths — rarely makes headlines or leads to any concern amongst the vast majority of people or their elected representatives. Instead, it is passively accepted as being the nature of the work. The tragedy of coal miners simply illustrates how greed triumphs over human life and dignity. At a time when much of the world is moving away from coal due to its disastrous implications for the environment, successive Pakistani governments have been showing greater interest in this sector. As a result, coal is one of the largest industries in the country. It is a good time as any to remember this is only made possible on the backs of the miners.