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Dawn Editorial 6 January 2020

Absentee leadership

IT is becoming an increasingly visible trend now that wherever important decisions are being made the person most conspicuous by his absence is the prime minister himself.
At the moment, entire sectors of the economy are landing up in situations that necessitate public appeals and pose potentially catastrophic threats to the continuity of business.
The oil and gas sector, automobiles and textiles are examples — each is saddled with its own peculiar set of problems. Meanwhile, one after another we are seeing fuel and power tariff hikes, in some cases born of genuine necessity but in others clearly designed to compensate for the lack of governance. The hikes in the power tariff recently notified, as well as the increase in the gas tariff, clearly point to a critical lack of governance in the system.
On Friday, Prime Minister Imran Khan was in Faisalabad to cut a ribbon for a Special Economic Zone project for the Chinese; he followed this up with a meal at a shelter for the poor and homeless. It is laudable indeed that the prime minister continues to place such importance on the plight of the poor and displays a very genuine concern for how the poor are being impacted by his own government’s ongoing economic adjustment under a stringent IMF programme.
But stopping by for a meal or cutting a ribbon is nothing substantive — it is of ceremonial significance only.
Investors in existing SEZs say they almost regret their decision to invest since the government has violated the commitments it has made to them, whether they pertain to a tax-exempt status for enterprises in SEZs or the provision of infrastructure. And shelters for the poor created in a highly publicised blitz are operating without any commitment by the provincial government of fiscal resources to meet the expenditures, thus casting a shadow over their sustainability.
Today, appeals from industry are increasing, whether against the tax authorities for withheld refunds or non-payment of bills in the power sector, or against the absence of gas or refiners on the point of closing down operations due to the pile-up of the furnace oil inventory.
In every area, there is a sense of drift, a derelict state of governance, and the consequences of neglect are getting to be more and more visible.
The polio virus has made a spectacular return, thanks to the juvenile decision of the PTI leadership to place their social media team leader in charge of the polio programme. Industry is sagging and is reduced to issuing public appeals.
Parliament is prostrate and borrowing is on the increase, while the costs of neglect are passed on to the consumers, whether through power or gas tariffs.
The country is now crying out for leadership at the top, somebody to pull it all together. An absentee prime minister is not working to solve problems and set the direction.

 
 

Presidential powers

WHAT is the scope of the president’s powers as defined in the fundamental law of the land? On Friday, the Islamabad High Court raised this important question while hearing a petition challenging the presidential ordinances issued under the PTI government as being illegal, ultra vires the Constitution and “promulgated in a mala fide manner”. Appointing senior lawyers as amicus curiae, IHC Chief Justice Athar Minallah framed several questions to help arrive at a decision. First, does Article 89 of the Constitution allow the head of state to exercise his powers “in a routine manner to bypass the legislative procedure prescribed under Article 70 to 88?” Second, are the ordinances, “passed by the president in exercise of powers under Article 89 of the Constitution … of the nature which meets the prescribed requirements in this regard?” The third query pertains to the fate of the ordinances if they were passed “in violation of the specific conditions” stipulated under the relevant article.
The issue is particularly relevant under the incumbent government. Unfortunately, rather than giving due importance to parliament’s legislative role in a democracy, it has relied excessively on presidential ordinances. Given that the 18th Amendment in 2010 had drastically clipped presidential powers, it becomes all the more ironic that the head of state’s limited and conditional legislative power is being deployed so frequently. Article 89 expressly stipulates two conditions that must be met if an ordinance is to be promulgated: that neither the Senate nor the National Assembly is in session at the time, and that “circumstances exist which render it necessary to take immediate action”. Moreover, the 18th Amendment had laid down that the lifespan of an ordinance cannot exceed two 120-day periods. Such time-bound legislation cannot have any durable effect or address system flaws, making it all the more baffling why the government repeatedly chooses to resort to it. According to the National Assembly website, President Arif Alvi has issued 24 ordinances since Sept 24, 2018, most of which seem to be based on no apparent circumstantial exigency. While previous governments too have at times employed the mechanism, the prevailing pattern seems an extension of the PTI government’s oft-expressed contempt for many fellow legislators that are not part of its coalition. The opposition has frequently decried this legislation-by-ordinance route as a way to bypass parliament and render it irrelevant. It is moreover a short-sighted approach that will stymie the PTI’s own reforms agenda.

 
 

Collapsing standards

A FEW days ago, a three-year-old girl was miraculously pulled out from the rubble of a building that had collapsed in Sukkur some 24 hours before. But another child — a one-year-old boy — tragically succumbed to his injuries in the same period of time. Relief efforts saw a number of people being rescued from what remained of the four-storey residential building, built on top of several shops, but there were some who did not survive. The tragedy came in the wake of another building collapsing in Karachi’s Ranchhore Lines area a week ago. Like a scene from a war zone, cameras captured the six-storey structure as it crumbled into thin air, leaving behind a cloud of smoke and debris, while bystanders could be seen running for cover. Fortunately, the residency had been emptied after the danger it posed became apparent. Residents evacuated with their belongings in the early hours of the morning, and no fatalities were thus recorded. Reportedly, only the first and ground floors of that building had been approved for construction, in accordance with its original architectural design, while the remaining floors were built with shoddy material in later years. These events once again raise questions about illegal construction in the province, the use of substandard material, and the lack of oversight by the Sindh Building Control Authority, which is responsible for supervising and regulating building construction in large parts of Karachi and Sukkur.
Such tragedies are the all-too-common outcome of greed and criminal neglect on the part of property builders and sellers. Last year, in September, a couple died when a portion of their residential building collapsed on them in Kharadar in Karachi. And in February, another three-storey building collapsed in Malir in the early hours of the day. Four people died, and many others suffered injuries, including small children, who could be heard crying from underneath the rubble during the rescue operation. In the quest for profit, public safety cannot be treated as an afterthought.

 
 

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