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Dawn Editorial 5 March 2020

Seeking Nawaz’s return

THE government’s decision to approach the British authorities to seek the ‘extradition’ of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, who is in London these days for the treatment of a reportedly complicated ailment, cannot be defended on any grounds.
However, the move has not come as a surprise.
Many political observers were expecting the government to take such action, especially over the last few days since the Punjab cabinet turned down a request from the Sharif family to extend the ‘medical bail’ that had been granted to the ailing PML-N leader.
The provincial government tried to justify its decision, saying that the Sharif family had neither shared the “necessary medical reports and updates” with it, nor admitted the former prime minister to a UK hospital for treatment for his illness.
It has been triumphantly brandishing a picture showing Mr Sharif and his family members in a restaurant, in order to convince the public that the Sharif family had taken advantage of his illness to flee the country.
But none of the doubts being raised by the government about Mr Sharif’s health justifies its letter asking for his ‘deportation’ by the British authorities.
For starters, while Mr Sharif may had been convicted and sentenced to a seven-year jail term, he had not escaped from prison to flee the country.
He left the country only when the courts suspended his sentence and granted him bail, permitting him to proceed abroad for treatment in view of his deteriorating health on the recommendation of a government-appointed board of senior doctors.
The court had also allowed him to seek from the Punjab government an extension in his bail if his treatment required him to stay abroad for a longer period.
Thus, the government has embarrassed only itself by effectively asking the British authorities to treat the former Pakistan leader as a fugitive from justice and to deport him to Pakistan.
The best strategy for the government would have been to approach the courts to instruct the family to provide whatever updates or reports it needed to extend his stay abroad.
The government, which actually facilitated his release on bail and his departure for treatment abroad as his condition deteriorated in prison here, is now using his extended stay in Britain for politicking purposes to discredit him in the eyes of the voters. Such tactics seldom work.
Having said that, it must be pointed out that there is no logic to the former prime minister’s brother Shahbaz Sharif’s prolonged stay outside the country. Being the leader of the opposition in the National Assembly, he has certain duties to attend to in parliament. If he is unable to return home soon, he should relinquish that job and let someone else lead the opposition in the Assembly. His position is crucial to parliamentary traditions and democratic norms. He must fulfil his responsibilities.


SBP chief in PAC

THE governor of the State Bank of Pakistan made an appearance in front of the Public Accounts Committee on Tuesday to field questions from the members and to reassure them that whatever risks the inflows of short-term foreign investors to the government’s local currency debt auctions may pose, they are manageable. He has a bit of a task ahead of him when it comes to convincing the public on this point for a variety of reasons. One is that this phenomenon is relatively new in Pakistan, at least on this scale. Close to $3bn have flowed into local currency government debt instruments from foreign investors, most of whom are ‘carry traders’. The latter is a class of investors that borrows from one country where interest rates are low and invests in another where the same rates are high, earning a nice and easy margin in between. The biggest risk these ‘carry traders’ run when investing in a country like Pakistan is the exchange rate, since their investment is in local currency. If the currency is devalued before they decide to pull out, then whatever profit they would have made through the interest rate would be wiped out because of devaluation. State Bank governor Reza Baqir is right to play down the risks that this money may pose to the external stability of the economy. But the market is betting, whether right or wrong, that the inflows have tied his hands regarding the interest rates, and, keeping this mind, all eyes are on the forthcoming monetary policy decision due this month.
This has been a big challenge for Mr Baqir. The market has made up its mind that with inflation on the downswing, which it now seems to be, the conditions for a rate reduction do exist. The State Bank governor also told the PAC that the monthly average inflation is expected to stay between 11pc and 12pc by the close of this fiscal, whereas it stands midway in that range at the moment. If one month’s inflation release shows that the spiral has peaked, it may still not be sufficient grounds for a rate cut since the yearly outlook remains the same. At that point the governor is sure to face a fresh round of questioning, and the pressure that would be put on him to start unwinding the high interest rates would definitely become more intense. The question is whether he is ready for that moment.


Discouraging cigarettes

MOST readers know about the hazards of cigarette smoking, which is linked to a host of illnesses, including acute myeloid leukaemia, lung cancer, throat cancer, oral cavity and heart disease. But despite increasing awareness, the sale and production of tobacco products have risen in large parts of the world. According to the World Health Organisation, tobacco kills more than 8m people each year, including 1.2m non-smokers who are unfortunately exposed to second-hand smoke. Even more worryingly, WHO estimates that over 80pc of all smokers reside in low- and middle-income countries, which already suffer from overburdened healthcare systems. In Pakistan, the use of cigarettes, gutka and sheesha are still largely culturally acceptable habits and fairly inexpensive and easy to acquire. To counter this damaging trend, the Ministry of National Health Services has now imposed a ban on the display of cigarettes at sale points, hoping it will lead to a reduction in the number of smokers in the country. There is reason to believe that such policies work, but only if they are implemented on the ground through sustained efforts by lawmakers and the law-enforcement authorities. Otherwise, policy on paper alone cannot lead to change. For instance, despite a ban on the sale of loose cigarettes, shopkeepers continue the practice, without fear of facing repercussions.
Pakistan is signatory to the Convention on Tobacco Control, which calls on governments to impose taxes on tobacco products, increase awareness on the harms of cigarette smoking, and restrict indoor venues for public smoking. It also calls for “a limitation in the interactions between lawmakers and the tobacco industry” to prevent lobbying by Big Tobacco companies, which happen to be major taxpayers in the country. Last year, however, the prime minister was photographed receiving a cheque from the representative of an international tobacco company to construct dams in the country — in spite of his own record of building free-of-charge cancer facilities. Change must begin at the top.


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