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Dawn Editorial 26 February 2020

Economic anxiety

THE government is now showing visible signs of aggravated anxiety at the economic situation, with daily meetings between the prime minister and his cabinet and demands for freezing power and gas tariffs for the remaining months of the fiscal year.
Read: Pakistan has come out of economic crisis: Imran
In addition, strenuous attention is also being paid to food price hikes, with law-enforcement action ordered against alleged ‘hoarders’.
It is good to see this government finally stepping up to the responsibilities of rule, but it is crucial to acknowledge what the finance ministry itself said a few days ago.
The path of macroeconomic adjustment is rarely easy, but it must be walked in the absence of credible alternatives. The ministry warned that “it is imperative to continue with the adjustment” in its Mid Year Budget Review report released on Feb 20, and pointed to “lingering vulnerabilities in the economy and the chronic nature of structural challenges” that remain.
The words are strong and they point in the opposite direction from the one the government seems to be taking these days.
There should be no doubt that the adjustment has to continue.
The economy has shown some encouraging signs, or perhaps more specifically it should be pointed out that government finances and the foreign exchange reserves situation have shown improvement.
But the wider economy continues to groan under the burden of rising inflation and high interest rates, with the populace weighed down by greater unemployment as well.
The impact on the poor, as well as the lower middle classes, is undoubtedly stupendous, and elected governments cannot withstand the pressures that usually accompany such developments.
Finding ways to mitigate this impact, to target the mitigation efforts where they are most needed, is indeed a crucial priority. But abandoning the adjustment at this stage, when the first fruits of the sacrifices made along the way in the form of rising reserves and a meagre but undeniable surplus in the primary balance have begun to emerge, would be near suicidal.
With the buffers built thus far, the government may be able to bring about a fleeting moment of respite. But it will pass very soon and an even more painful adjustment will need to be undertaken afterwards to compensate for the folly.
Besides the mitigation efforts, the prime minister would be well advised to focus on the second part of the two warnings sounded by the finance ministry: the structural reforms.
This is key.
The moment opened up by the return of macroeconomic stability would be best utilised if the foundations of future growth were to be laid during this time.
Simply revving the engines of growth at this point, without any reform to address the underlying dysfunctions of the economy, will cause the deficits that necessitated the whole exercise to re-emerge.


Justice for Assange

JULIAN Assange, the controversial founder of WikiLeaks, is back in the spotlight this week with the commencement of his extradition case in London — a landmark hearing which is
being viewed as a test case for press freedom and the public’s right to know. The US wants Mr Assange extradited to face 17 charges under the American Espionage Act as well as one hacking charge. The charges broadly relate to WikiLeaks’ publication 10 years ago of thousands of US diplomatic cables and data, including information on alleged American war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the use of drones and other military strikes in Pakistan. The Australian is also accused of working with former US military intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning to leak classified documents and could face a 175-year prison sentence if found guilty. During the first hearing, his lawyers told the London court that the Trump administration was targeting Mr Assange as “an enemy of America who must be brought down” and that his life could be at risk were he to face trial in the US.
There is no doubt that Mr Assange is a contentious figure whose publication of classified documents laid bare America’s abuse of power and human rights violations as well as the corrupt behaviour of other countries. While media and rights groups hailed him as a hero at first, his decision to publish unredacted documents later was strongly opposed even by those who championed his earlier publications. The subsequent controversy in which Mr Assange was at the centre of a sexual assault investigation — as eventually dropped — added to his notoriety and made him even more unpopular. However, the extradition case today has nothing to do with who Mr Assange is and how well liked or otherwise he is. Instead, it is connected to the idea of a free press which enables the accountability of those in the highest echelons of power, at a time when authoritarian figures are relentlessly muzzling and undermining the media. The case against his extradition is strong. His indictment is an effort to criminalise activity which journalists and whistleblowers engage in around the world: the publishing of important information given by people who are not authorised to share it — information which is true and which the public has a right to know. The Trump administration’s disdain for the media is no secret. Extraditing Mr Assange would be a major blow to media freedom, which is an essential component of a healthy democracy, across the world.


Tree plantation

ON Sunday, Prime Minister Imran Khan kicked off his spring tree plantation drive from the place he launched his political career many years ago: Mianwali. Planting new trees is part of the ruling party’s manifesto; it has promised a ‘10-billion tree tsunami’ to be carried out in its five-year term, and the prime minister has repeatedly brought up the priority he attaches to protecting the environment at a time when climate change, pollution and poor air quality are disrupting life and livelihoods. During his most recent trip, Mr Khan spoke about his desire to see tree plantation drives introduced in school curricula to ensure a better future. Unfortunately, destructive forces move at a far quicker pace than good intentions, and Pakistan continues to have one of the highest deforestation rates in the world — estimated to be between 0.2 pc and 0.5pc annually — due to expanding urbanisation, industrialisation, a growing population, and the continued threat from a powerful timber mafia that is often politically connected. The mafia has also been accused of using violence against environmental activists that stood in its path in the past, while authorities turned a blind eye to or abetted its ruthless ambition. For short-term gains, the long-term well-being of the environment, the many ecosystems these forests host and the livelihoods attached to them are put at stake in an exercise that can only be described as criminal, and which is rarely, if ever, prosecuted.
The prime minister has now directed his government in Punjab to come up with a strategy to counter the timber mafia in the province. His heart may be in the right place, and he may think that the arrest of those who cut down trees will be a deterrent, but unless he successfully tackles the real criminal forces head-on, his desire for creating long-lasting change will remain only that. It takes many years for a sapling to grow into a tree, and only a few minutes for a fully grown tree to be chopped down. This trend needs to be reversed.


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