Bridging the gap
THE National Coordination Committee, led by Prime Minister Imran Khan, has taken the correct decision to extend by two weeks the countrywide restrictions that were put in place to slow down the spread of the coronavirus. The meeting also decided that PIA would operate special flights to bring back nearly 2,000 Pakistanis from different countries. These decisions reflect the federal government’s acknowledgement that the spread of the virus can only be slowed by aggressively pursuing social distancing and enforcing all actions that promote the latter. However, there is still much that requires greater clarity.
Certain policy pronouncements by the federal government, for instance, are sending signals that run counter to the umbrella policy of keeping people away from each other and confined to their homes as much as possible. The formation of the volunteer force named Corona Relief Tigers is one such step. At a time when speed is of the essence and when protecting people from getting infected or infecting others is a priority, one may question the wisdom of sending a large number of people out in the field to contact those in their homes. Such action — however well-intentioned — could expose the volunteers to the virus. In addition, there is the issue of how much time, effort and resources would be required to get this ‘force’ ready to go out and deliver the services, rations and information to people who need it most. The state already has in place various mechanisms through which such service delivery can be provided. The federal government has yet to provide satisfactory answers to these concerns. In the same vein, providing a financial package to boost the construction industry is a good step but will it not dilute the larger policy of keeping people away from each other during the pandemic? Construction employs dozens of industries which will all need to open up in order to kick-start the sector thereby bringing people out in the open. Here too the government has to come up with a convincing explanation.
These schemes may be diverting the government’s attention from where it really needs to be focused. There still exists a worrying gap between the centre and the provinces in terms of initiating policies that complement, and not contradict, each other. The federal government has to respect the provinces’ autonomy provided by the 18th Amendment but it cannot abdicate its role of giving national direction and providing leadership through cohesion and coordination. The federal government must act as the cement that binds the provinces in a national goal through a common outlook buttressed by vision, motivation and resources. The federal government should not be competing with the provinces but complementing their efforts and lending a hand wherever needed. It might be better for Islamabad to focus on such areas instead of policies that raise more questions than answers.
Bailing out industry
QUITE rapidly, pressure is mounting on the government to do more for trade and industry through the lockdowns since the losses are mounting with each passing day. Some of those who have to run their payrolls for the month of March are not sure if they will be able to do the same for the month of April. So if the lockdowns continue, the ranks of those in severe hardship will only increase. With this in mind, as well as other concerns such as export orders that are ready or nearly ready for shipment but cannot move to the port due to the lockdown, the industrial leaders of this country gathered together and met the finance team on Wednesday. The traders are separately announcing their own gatherings to mount pressure for a relaxation on the lockdowns. This pressure will increase rapidly from here on for the government to either announce a relief package for trade and industry or ease the lockdowns as each day brings more losses.
The problem for the government is that lockdowns cannot be eased while the rate of the Covid-19 infection is still rising. Doing so would be catastrophic since the infection would return with a vengeance, forcing even more stringent lockdowns in the immediate aftermath. The best way forward would be to build a mechanism that allows government assistance to flow directly to the workers of the enterprises, thus relieving the traders and owners from the burden of payroll expenses. This way the government could partner with business to help develop a database of beneficiaries for the targeted assistance they are preparing to release. Building this mechanism has its own set of challenges, but the government should not put public resources at the disposal of trade and industry owners in the name of helping the workers. Keeping the payrolls running through the lockdowns is the collective responsibility of the government and private sector, and they can partner with each other in the effort. But government funds must not be used to bail out private capital, at least not at this stage. The priority must remain targeted assistance for the poor and unemployed, and building the database as well as the mechanism with which to target the assistance directly to them. The time has come for business leaders to realise that the more data they can share with the government about their payrolls, the greater the support they become eligible for.
IHK domicile law
WHILE the world is preoccupied with battling the Covid-19 contagion, elements within the Indian establishment, unfortunately, are still busy stirring up mischief in India-held Kashmir.
As reported in this paper on Thursday, India has passed new domicile rules for IHK which, in effect, guarantee a massive demographic shift in the region, and are a grim follow-up to last year’s scrapping of the disputed region’s autonomous status. As per available details, anyone who has resided in IHK for 15 years or has studied there for a specific period of time is eligible to call occupied Kashmir his or her place of domicile.
Kashmiri activists have rightly called the move a sinister attempt to change the demographic profile of the disputed area. They say the new law will allow those from outside the region to snap up jobs and benefits that should be primarily available to Kashmiris. Even Omar Abdullah, a loyalist former chief minister of IHK, who was recently released from detention by New Delhi, has heaped criticism on India for making the move at this time. “Talk about suspect timing… the government slips in a new domicile law for J&K,” he has said.
It is highly condemnable that during a raging global health crisis the Indian state has sought to ignite a new controversy in IHK. While the held region has been under lockdown for over a year, now India itself — along with large swathes of the world — is also under a lengthy self-imposed closure to keep the coronavirus at bay.
These times call for humanitarian measures and firm policy to protect people’s lives and health. This is no time for sly political games, but it appears those who matter in New Delhi are unmoved by such facts. India should not add to the Kashmiri peoples’ miseries and, instead of this bureaucratic subterfuge, it should adopt a conciliatory policy towards the disputed region that aims to settle this decades-old dispute peacefully, and as per the wishes of the Kashmiri people.