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Dawn Editorial 8 February 2020

Mini budget anxiety

AS the talks with the IMF enter their decisive phase when benchmarks for the next quarter will be set, anxiety in the business community is mounting that the government will end up agreeing to fresh measures in order to plug the growing shortfalls in revenue collection. By January, the shortfall had risen to Rs387bn, and is projected to continue rising. FBR officials, speaking off the record, estimate that the best they can do is to collect Rs4.8tr by the end of the fiscal year, which would still be almost Rs500bn short of the target revised downward. A lot now depends on how the government presents its position to the Fund during the policy phase of the talks that are set to begin on Monday. The FBR has made it clear that further revenue measures in this slowing economy is not the way forward, while the finance adviser to the prime minister, Dr Hafeez Sheikh, is being evasive in his public remarks on the matter even as he tries to point towards non-tax measures as the way to help plug the shortfall.
The Fund programme contains the most ambitious targets that we have seen in a long time. At the moment, the government is swimming upstream to even come close to those targets. At the heart of those targets are revenues, because failure to meet the targeted amount would mean more borrowing, less spending, and more constriction in growth. It is enough to make one wonder what the prime minister means when he goes around the country promising that 2020 will be the ‘year of growth’. The only growth that his finance team is focused on at the moment pertains to revenue.
The temptation will now be before Dr Sheikh to brush aside the FBR’s reservations about new revenue measures and seek to plug the gap by resorting to quick-yielding measures such as a hike in the sales tax rate or further taxes on fuels. That temptation must be resisted because it will further fuel inflation and burden an already exhausted population. Instead, he is right to talk about non-tax revenues as the driver for the remaining months of the fiscal year. We await the revenue plan on that side once the talks conclude, but chances are high that we will see the government make a strong push on privatisation in the weeks ahead and try to conduct at least one large transaction before the fiscal year ends. The problem with that approach is that it cannot be counted as involving revenue. Privatisation is and always has been a financing item. Selling state assets to plug the fiscal deficit is also wrong. Eventually, there is little to do but concede that the target agreed on with the IMF was more ambitious than it should have been.


The great escape?

THE claim of former TTP spokesman Ehsanullah Ehsan in an audio on social media that he had escaped from the custody of Pakistani authorities some three years after surrendering to them has been greeted by an ominous official silence.
Ehsan was one of the most high-profile members of the banned TTP, having claimed responsibility for the assassination attempt on Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai and rigging a bomb (luckily detected and defused) to journalist Hamid Mir’s vehicle, besides being involved in other attempted or actual attacks.
He engaged journalists and critics on Twitter in English, sometimes mocking them, sometimes issuing threats.
In April 2017, the then DG ISPR described his surrender as symptomatic of the low morale of terrorist organisations because of the military operations.
In a short video statement then, Ehsan distanced himself from the TTP, accusing it of misguiding the youth in the name of Islam and carrying out terrorist acts at the behest of the Afghan NDS and India’s RAW security services.
After an interview on Geo TV, which was widely criticised because it provided the former terrorist an effective platform, Ehsan receded into the shadows.
Even when he surrendered no details were released. Nor was it made clear if his surrender was part of a deal.
What was apparent was that his name was not among those terrorists who were tried and sentenced by military courts.
Then on Jan 18, an India-based news website that some security experts here describe as a platform for RAW propaganda reported his escape.
Now his audio has surfaced where he claims he escaped on Jan 11. Talking to The News, he claimed he had reached Turkey with his family.
A report suggests his wife and two children were lodged in the same safe house as him in Peshawar but were able to leave a few days prior to his escape on the pretext of visiting his in-laws.
BBC Urdu asked the ISPR for comment but there was reluctance to confirm or deny the news.
Surely, this official silence will create misgivings and is unacceptable. It is time for a full disclosure.
First is the news true? If so, how did he escape? Have those responsible been held to account? Equally, the people have a right to know if his ‘escape’ was a massive security failure or part of an immunity deal negotiated before his surrender.
In his audio he has threatened to tell all. The authorities should make their version public first.


Anti-women customs

WHEN it comes to changing patriarchal mindsets that perpetuate practices targeting girls and women, Pakistani society is still stuck in the dark ages. Practices such as vani, swara and karo kari are rampant across the country, and in fact, are ‘legitimised’ by jirgas and panchayats. These parallel forms of justice, despite being illegal, wield considerable influence over rural populations and are often patronised by political bigwigs. Yet another disturbing case of vani surfaced in Mansehra recently where the local police lodged cases against 13 members of a jirga that had ordered the marriage of a seven-year-old girl to a man whose aunt is said to have been photographed by the child’s uncle. The police took action when they received information from residents of the area, but it remains to be seen if those arrested will actually be punished for taking part in an illegal jirga that bartered a little girl in order to settle a dispute.
Over the years, similar arrests of jirga participants have been reported in the country, but, unfortunately, rarely have these detentions translated into severe punishment for the offenders or led to a change in societal attitudes that continue to condone such abhorrent customs. The question remains whether the passage of laws by the assemblies is enough to curb such practices. The fact that almost 80 people, mostly women, were killed in Sindh in different incidents of karo kari in only the first six months of 2019, shows that declaring something illegal is not enough to deter crime. Moreover, in societies where the law is at best only partially implemented, will attitudes change, especially if anti-women practices receive political patronage? Without taking legal and criminal action against the religious and political heavyweights who commit or condone such deeds, this menace cannot be curbed. The roots of this poisonous mindset run far and wide in our society and it will take a lot more action on the part of the government to address this problem than simply arresting those who violate the law.


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