THE people of Gilgit-Baltistan have for long been denied full rights as citizens of Pakistan thanks largely to the power games being played in South Asia, particularly the Kashmir dispute. In an effort not to damage Pakistan’s case where the Kashmir question is concerned — GB was part of the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir while its people fought to free themselves from Dogra rule following Partition — the region’s status has continued in limbo and the question of a complete merger with Pakistan has not been satisfactorily addressed. However, with a young, educated population clamouring for constitutional rights and representative rule, the status quo is faltering, and the state needs to come up with a workable solution that appeals to GB’s people, while at the same time not compromising Pakistan’s position on Kashmir.
Elections in GB were announced for August, but polls have now been pushed forward to October. Considering the political atmosphere in the region, the question of full constitutional representation for GB is likely to be a key election issue. Various governments over the decades have come up with ‘packages’ to bring GB closer to the Pakistani mainstream, and while progress has been made, the people of this geographically stunning and geostrategic region yearn for more — namely full integration with Pakistan. Those who control GB’s destiny in Islamabad must listen to these voices and resolve the region’s issues through democratic means, instead of cracking down and imposing orders in colonial fashion. As it is, nationalist parties are gaining ground in the region and unless GB is given genuine reforms instead of lollipops, the sense of alienation amongst local people may grow. We have witnessed the follies of a rigid approach in Balochistan as well as erstwhile Fata. The region has immense potential economically where its tourism sector is concerned, as well as abundant natural resources, while it is the gateway for CPEC. With a fully representative government, the region can stand on its own with an educated population keen to develop their area. The PTI-led federal government, as well as other parties in parliament, need to come up with a bold, democratic solution for the region. For example, locals resent the fact that the unelected GB Council has more powers than the elected legislative assembly. This anomaly must be rectified while the recommendations of the Sartaj Aziz-led commission, which called for giving GB provisional provincial status, should be implemented.
THE government’s decision to form a commission of inquiry to identify factors that had caused severe fuel shortages around the country in June and fix the responsibility for the crisis is a good idea. The commission is being established because the prime minister isn’t satisfied with the findings of the previous inquiries into the crisis that saw transport fuels disappear from the market for almost a month. Most petrol pumps across the country dried up because of supply chain disruptions while others were forced to ration fuel as motorists queued up to fill their tanks. It is being constituted on the lines of the one set up earlier this year to investigate the winter wheat and sugar shortages and will comprise officials from anti-corruption, intelligence and regulatory bodies. It will have powers to conduct forensic audits of the record, stock position, supply and sale of petroleum products of the entire supply chain.
The crisis began with the reduction in pump prices in May as global oil markets slumped, intensified in early June as petroleum stocks depleted, continued for one month and ended only when the single largest price increase ever was announced. In between, consumers suffered as the petroleum ministry first blamed the oil marketing companies, calling them a mafia, and later Ogra for not regulating the sector effectively, which led to a sudden eruption of the crisis and the pain experienced by motorists at the pump. Ogra was asked to investigate the shortage; it found OMCs involved in hoarding supplies and lightly penalised six firms for discontinuation and insufficient supplies at pumps. Yet the companies disregarded the directions to import new cargo to increase supplies, arguing that arranging fresh supplies at reduced domestic prices was not financially viable for them.
Unlike Pakistan, many oil-importing nations availed the opportunity arising from the crashing oil markets resulting from the pandemic-related global recession by increasing their oil reserves. But in Pakistan, domestic shortages resulted from poor governance and the petroleum ministry’s indecision on imports. The government is yet to determine ToRs for the proposed commission. However, the first task for it should be to examine the ministry’s capacity to predict the global oil market and domestic requirements. This is important because the ministry for unexplained reasons had ordered an embargo on oil imports in March and delayed approvals for imports when restrictions were eventually lifted in April. With the supply chain of petroleum products ranging between 45 and 60 days and sales rising by 82pc in June compared to April, the crisis was certain to surface even if domestic prices were not reduced. The ministry has also failed to ensure that OMCs maintain the mandatory oil reserves of 21 days. Pricing mechanism is another area for the commission to analyse. Unless governance issues at the petroleum ministry are resolved, such crises are likely to recur every few years.
Arrests in Egypt
IN a recent verdict, an Egyptian court sentenced five female social media influencers to two years imprisonment for, according to a state-owned website, “violating the values and principles of Egyptian society and posting indecent photos and videos disturbing to public morals”. It is clearly part of a long, ongoing clampdown against a growing number of individuals, from bloggers to artists, journalists and even doctors, under President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi’s regime — which has only escalated further since the outbreak of the pandemic. At a time when access to information and the ability to speak the truth is absolutely vital in order to save lives, doctors and pharmacists have been arrested for bringing attention to issues plaguing the country’s healthcare system, and journalists for questioning official Covid-19 figures. Last month, the Supreme Council for Media Regulation imposed far-reaching restrictions on news and social media on a range of subjects, under the guise of cracking down on ‘fake news’.
The fundamental insecurity at the heart of all authoritarian regimes is exposed through these actions — painting with a broad brush all forms of expression and speech that may undermine the state’s absolute control over its citizens as ‘harmful’, and by that very fact illegal. And all this comes at the expense of eroding, sometimes irrevocably, social harmony and cohesion. When state-sponsored abuse of freedom of expression is normalised, it emboldens all manner of social vigilantism, from moral policing of women and minority groups, to marking dissidents as ‘enemies of the state’ — often with deadly consequences. The threat to human security only increases in an environment of stifling censorship, as the lack of scrutiny provides governments cover to act with impunity. Unfortunately, there seems to be no end in sight to this era of illiberalism and draconian rule. There are parallels that can be drawn between what is taking place in Egypt and similar intolerance towards civil liberties in other states, none of which are flattering.