AFTER a considerable lull, the spectre of urban terrorism returned with full force to Karachi on Monday morning, as Baloch separatist militants stormed the Pakistan Stock Exchange.
According to security forces, four attackers were neutralised while three security guards and a police officer laid down their lives in the line of duty. The proscribed Balochistan Liberation Army has reportedly taken responsibility for the act of terrorism, while security officials in Sindh — as well as the country’s foreign minister — have accused India for activating ‘sleeper cells’ in Pakistan.
The symbolism of the target cannot be missed. The PSX represents the beating heart of economic activity in the country’s commercial capital, and is located in an area where the State Bank of Pakistan, the Central Police Office, and other major public and private institutions are based. Clearly, hostile actors are trying to send the message that the country’s economic nerve centre is vulnerable.
However, the police, as well as private security guards, must be lauded for their bravery and alacrity, which may have prevented a bigger disaster.
Security officials say the attackers came with food and water, indicating that they may have intended to take hostages and prolong the PSX siege. The Sindh Rangers chief says the assault bears a similarity to the November 2018 assault on the Chinese consulate in Karachi, in which BLA attackers were also involved.
Moreover, speaking after Monday’s incident, he said that Indian intelligence was developing a ‘nexus’ between Baloch and other separatists, as well as elements loyal to MQM-London, adding that the violence targeting Rangers personnel in Sindh earlier this month, believed to have been carried out by Sindhi separatists, was part of the same agenda. The city’s police chief also pointed out that law enforcers had received advance intelligence reports of a possible attack on PSX.
Karachi has witnessed a large number of bombings and other acts of terrorism, mostly orchestrated by jihadi and sectarian militants, over the past two decades or so. This is apart from the ethnic, political and sectarian killings that destroyed the city’s peace from the mid-1980s onwards. Too many precious lives — of law enforcers as well as citizens — have been lost, pushing the city towards a vortex of violence. From Monday’s attack, as well as other smaller-scale incidents over the past few days, it is clear that attempts are being made to destabilise the metropolis.
Security forces must remain alert and step up intelligence-gathering activities to thwart the plans of subversive elements. The possibility that hostile states are looking to stir up trouble in Pakistan at a time when the geopolitical temperature in the region is rising cannot be discounted, which is why security organs must be proactive.
Moreover, if the reports that different separatists and political militants have joined forces are true, then the state must adapt its counterterrorism policy accordingly.
THE World Bank will support the Punjab government develop a housing policy to improve access to affordable housing for low-income groups as part of the province’s broader post Covid-19 economic recovery effort. Although provision of low-cost homes has been the cornerstone of the PTI’s election manifesto, housing and infrastructure development have acquired greater importance in the wake of an economic recession as the revival of construction activity, once the pandemic subsides, can help drive growth in 40 or so connected industries. According to some estimates, the construction of 100,000 housing units in the country can increase GDP by around 2pc. Additionally, the construction industry is the largest employer of skilled and unskilled workers after agriculture. Thus, promotion of a sustainable housing supply will help mitigate risks like climate change, public health and inadequate infrastructure investment arising from unplanned urban expansion. The project can help the province find housing solutions to address barriers on the supply and demand side of the housing value chain, and serve as a model for other provinces.
Increasing supply of affordable housing for low- to middle-income groups has been on top of the agenda of almost every political party since the 1970s. Successive governments — both federal and provincial — have not only invested in public housing schemes but also have, from time to time, given policy and fiscal incentives to attract private capital to low-cost housing. Nevertheless, housing shortages in the country have grown and are now estimated to have reached 10m units. The PTI has promised to build 5m housing units in its five-year term but is sure to miss the target with zero houses built so far. However, the government expects the incentives it announced as part of a construction package will kick-start building activity in general and woo private investment in housing for low- to middle-income people in particular. To encourage investment in low-cost housing, the government has also set aside Rs30bn as subsidy in its budget. Additionally, the provinces have given several tax concessions to builders and developers. But these measures are unlikely to work unless a longer-term multipronged strategy, which targets private investments in affordable, low-cost housing solutions for different income groups, is evolved. That will not only require restructuring of the incentive package but also entail federal, provincial and local agencies implementing measures across the entire housing value chain from access to land with basic infrastructure to planning and building regulations, and construction and mortgage finance.
PAKISTAN has been downgraded from ‘Tier 2’ to ‘Tier 2 Watch List’ in the 2020 Trafficking in Persons Report by the US State Department. Despite passing significant laws in 2018 — the Prevention of Trafficking in Persons Act and the Prevention of Smuggling of Migrants Act — there is clearly a long way to go in protecting the rights of victims of human trafficking and smuggling. Law-enforcement officials may have been empowered with the passage of these new laws, but the TIP Report notes that conviction rates remained low when compared to the magnitude of the problem. Moreover, when it came to pervasive issues such as bonded labour, particularly in brick kilns, law enforcement and the government continued to turn a blind eye to the plight of the victims. Last year, 19,954 trafficking victims were identified, showing a slight increase from the previous year, but there was a decrease in victim-protection measures offered by the government. Another significant finding in the report was that undocumented and refugee men, women and children were particularly vulnerable to falling prey to the human traffickers’ web of deceit.
Human trafficking is a transnational issue, involving millions of people, yet Pakistan remains one of only a handful of countries that is not a party to the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children. Those who are sold false promises of employment, marriage, or a chance at a better life in other countries, particularly in Europe and the Middle East, soon wake up to that fact that they fell for a mirage concocted by the traffickers: they often find themselves tricked into a life of debt bondage, forced labour or sexual slavery in their new countries; or they work in exploitative conditions on a contract basis, with little to labour protection, and no means of escape. There have also been instances where boys and men have been tricked or coerced into joining armed movements abroad. The government clearly has a huge issue to tackle.