Railways in the dock
IT may not be the best venue, but Federal Minister for Railways Sheikh Rashid was delivered the right message by the Supreme Court on Tuesday. He was asked why he did not resign after the horrific Tezgam fire in which 73 passengers perished on his watch.
Ideally the question should come from the prime minister, or the minister’s cabinet colleagues, or his constituents. But as it turns out, the Supreme Court is now the place where federal ministers will have to answer for their performance track record, and especially if the track record should include such heinous lapses as that which resulted in the train accident in Rahim Yar Khan last year. According to some reports, the year 2019 was one of the worst suffered by the railways, with more than 100 fatal/non fatal accidents.
Throughout the year, the railways minister was often seen on television talking about the politics of the day, making predictions about the direction in which the wind will blow in Islamabad, and even proffering theories on why the price of flour began skyrocketing in December.
One thing he seldom commented on was the condition of the railways. Even after the Tezgam fire, all he could do was promise an inquiry, following which a few junior officials were dismissed and there ended the tale. Last June, when another accident involving a collision between a passenger train and a goods train left three people dead and several others injured, the minister asked for forgiveness from the country after accepting responsibility. But the time for empty words, false promises and crocodile tears must end at some point.
Since nobody in the government seems to be watching the performance of the railways minister, despite the accidents and the deaths, it appears the Supreme Court has taken up the job.
The court has asked for a business plan to show what the minister’s plans are for returning the railways to financial viability, and given him two weeks to furnish this. Of course it is understood that there is no such plan, nor has there been any work towards developing one. And the best that can be done in two weeks is a bare sketch of how the enterprise can be returned to financial health.
This is all the court can expect from Sheikh Rashid, though it can continue to demand more detailed follow-up. In the end, the realisation is going to have to sink in that he is not the man for the job. Looking after the railways is a big undertaking and carries enormous responsibility, given the millions of people who travel on it. Somebody serious about the task is needed for it, and the court may have no choice but to soon ask the government to mount a search.
Cost of conflict
DURING the height of the Cold War, a Khmer Rouge general responsible for the death of an estimated two million Cambodians reportedly said: “A landmine is a perfect soldier. Ever courageous, never sleeps, never misses.” Decades later, millions of anti-personnel landmines scattered during the various wars and conflicts of the 20th and 21st centuries continue to haunt soldiers and civilians alike. A particularly sinister tool of psychological warfare created to maim rather than kill, anti-personnel landmines are also used to hurt populations economically by depriving them of land or rendering it uncultivable. Relatively cheap to produce, the human cost of landmines is insurmountable, even decades after a conflict has ended. Additionally, IEDs pose an even greater threat in countries plagued by terrorism, including Pakistan. A detailed report in this paper on Monday illustrated how such unexploded ordnances take a toll on the people of the tribal districts. And it is children — caught in the crosshairs of battles they do not understand and have no part in creating — that pay the heaviest price, as they frequently mistake weapons for toys. Since the passing over two decades ago of the Mine Ban Treaty, which prohibits the use, stockpiling, production and transfer of anti-personnel landmines, the latest Landmine Monitor Report notes there has been a drop in the global use and production of anti-personnel landmines. Significantly, a handful of former war-torn countries have been declared landmine-free since endorsing the treaty. However, a high number of casualties continue to be reported from Afghanistan, Cambodia, China, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Mozambique, Somalia, Bosnia and Croatia.
Pakistan is one of only 33 countries that are not signatories to the Mine Ban Treaty. Other notable exceptions include the US, Russia, China, Israel and Egypt. The official reason given is that India, too, has not done so. As a consequence, the sprinkling of landmines along the Line of Control was once routine. While Pakistan has relatively fewer casualties from landmines as compared to other countries, reports of mostly children and women injured and killed in Balochistan, KP and parts of Punjab close to the border keep resurfacing in newspapers. Along with increasing awareness campaigns and building medical facilities, effective channels of communication during the clearance exercises can go a long way in building confidence with long-marginalised communities. Instead of alienating them further, they must be brought into the fold. But this requires listening instead of reacting.
IT is a fact that for the criminal justice system to deliver, a strong witness protection programme is needed. This is especially so in a country like Pakistan, where there is a huge backlog of cases concerning acts of terrorism and violent crime. Due to the nature of such offences and fearing retaliation by the perpetrators, witnesses are often afraid to testify. There have been instances where people have refused to give testimony in cases where notorious sectarian militants were being tried. As pointed out in a recent report in this paper, trials in terrorism cases in Sindh’s anti-terrorism courts are being held up because the province’s witness protection law, passed in 2017, has not been implemented. The result is a backlog of 1,700 cases in Sindh’s 33 ATCs, and a conviction rate of around 17pc. The conviction rate in other provinces is hardly better in terrorism cases, with the lack of a proper witness protection mechanism contributing to this state of affairs.
When hardened criminals threaten witnesses or their families with dire consequences if they dare to testify, and the state does nothing to protect them, who will be brave enough to appear in the witness box? That is why the provinces need to take serious measures to implement workable witness protection programmes that protect the identities of those who come forward to testify against violent individuals. As quoted in the aforementioned story, an ATC judge trying militants allegedly linked to the self-styled Islamic State group observed that “the public has become too frightened to assist the system fighting against terrorism…” To reduce this sense of fear, witnesses must be offered robust protection by the state, and new identities and relocation if need be. The methodology of advanced legal systems can be studied and their best practices replicated here. Unless the witness protection laws are implemented, many militants and violent actors will either walk free, or be gunned down in shadowy encounters due to the faulty criminal justice system.