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DAWN Editorials 6th March 2020

Power dysfunctions
THREE separate issues are now doggedly evading resolution in the power sector, and if left to fester, they can potentially lead the way to a crisis. The first is the question of an impending tariff hike which the government has now grown wary of passing through, given the enormous pressures that the inflationary spiral of the previous year has placed upon the people. The second is the promise Prime Minister Imran Khan made last year to exporters that they would receive electricity at the rate of Rs7.5 per unit, which is heavily subsidised with the average rate being Rs15 or so in the rest of the system. His government is uncertain about how this is to be delivered considering that neither the power nor finance division is ready to foot the resultant bill, which could be as large as Rs60bn. At the moment, the Economic Coordination Committee is dithering over ways and means to deliver on this pledge, while Mr Khan himself is said to be demanding a decision. The third issue involves a power tariff hike of almost Rs5 per unit on the average tariff for residents of Karachi, whose electricity the government has been subsidising for a number of years now in the interest of maintaining uniform rates across the country. There is visible fatigue with the subsidies involved, but nobody in government can muster up the will to pass this through in one go.
The government is now struggling with itself over how to crack these three issues. On Wednesday, the ECC threw a few spanners into its own policymaking machinery, perhaps in an effort to obfuscate the decision on the tariff subsidy for exporters. First, it made up its mind to debate who exactly was an exporter, and second, it decided to hammer out the financial impact of the subsidy since the power and finance divisions had differing estimates of the rupee cost involved. This angered Mr Khan, who ordered that an immediate decision be made. The case is the same with the power tariff hikes that were supposed to have been passed through late last year but were postponed under political pressure. Mr Khan has ordered a freeze on all gas and power tariff hikes, but his financial adviser has committed to the IMF that the mounting circular debt will be arrested without placing any further burden on public finances. The only way to do this is to improve recoveries or raise tariffs.
We can debate what is at the root of these problems, but what is beyond doubt is that without deeper reforms, the difficulties will simply continue to resurface. Thus far, this government has brought forward no big ideas whatsoever for reform of the power sector. Continued muddling will simply keep bringing us back to these old debates over and over again.
Published in Dawn, March 6th, 2020
Vicious propaganda
THE vitriol against the Aurat Azadi March is rising to a crescendo. A peaceful rally is being brazenly threatened. Now the Jamia Hafsa, a women’s madressah affiliated with Islamabad’s Lal Masjid, whose allegiance to extremist ideologies is on the record, has added its voice to the growing climate of intimidation. A statement apparently signed by its students was issued on Wednesday claiming responsibility for defacing a mural in the city designed in connection with the rally. They also urged citizens to forcibly prevent the marchers from proceeding through their localities. Earlier, a senior Lal Masjid cleric said that the defacement was the work of members of the banned Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat, carried out with the blessing of the institution’s chief cleric Maulana Abdul Aziz. The latter’s wife Umme Hasaan, in a video circulating on social media, announced that the Jamia Hafsa women would launch a “counter protest” at the same venue on the same day. The JUI-F has openly exhorted its supporters to take the law into their own hands to stop the march. Two applications have been filed with the ICT administration against the rally going ahead on the grounds it could lead to a clash between the participants and opponents of the march. The Jamaat-i-Islami has also announced its own Aurat March at the same venue on March 8.
The democratic right to protest is contingent upon doing so in a peaceful manner. In this case, regressive elements, using specious faith-based arguments to obfuscate the demand for women’s rights, are laying the groundwork for an ugly and possibly dangerous confrontation. Law-enforcement agencies have a critical role to play if the self-professed ‘morality brigade’ is not to create mayhem on March 8 — and then perversely claim it was ‘provoked’. The open threats, such as those levelled by Jamia Hafsa and JUI-F, are complemented and reinforced by the venom being spewed on mainstream and social media against women speaking about what the feminist movement stands for. In one egregious instance, a playwright who may have the dubious honour of setting the benchmark for misogyny in a deeply misogynistic society, rained down a barrage of filthy abuse on women’s rights activist Marvi Sirmed. Some talk show hosts have with conviction and clarity expressed a nuanced understanding of why the march is so important. Given the weight their opinions carry, many more such personalities must also nail their colours to the mast.
Published in Dawn, March 6th, 2020
Accessibility audit
FOR many structural and societal reasons, navigating public spaces in Pakistan is difficult and stressful — sometimes virtually impossible — for anyone who isn’t an able-bodied adult man. For people with disabilities in particular, environmental and policy barriers create an entire infrastructure of exclusion which obstructs their active participation in society. On Wednesday, while deliberating on implementation of the ICT Rights of Persons with Disability Act, 2020, the Senate Committee on Human Rights heard from a number of PWDs on just some of the ways in which their daily lived experiences are fraught with discrimination and even danger. This need not be so, but it requires a fundamental shift in how policies are made, ensuring that public development and services are truly inclusive. To this end, the committee discussed issues of access in two key service sectors: banking and aviation.
Here too, despite the State Bank working for years to ensure bank branches are wheelchair accessible and their ATMs usable for people with sensory disabilities, it is clear that the work lags far behind. In aviation, PIA has resorted to offering passengers with disabilities discounts without considering the many other barriers to access — a classic case of ad hoc, charitable approaches failing to address what is essentially a systemic issue in need of systemic reforms. While it is encouraging that the committee directed the stakeholders present to work to improve these conditions, this does not solve the fundamental problem that PWDs face: how to access a disability-friendly bank, or any other service, if the public infrastructure they must move through to access it is itself inaccessible? The ICT law may have been passed only this January, but the Accessibility Code regulating public infrastructure standards across Pakistan has been in place since 2006. As a start, federal and provincial authorities can begin the long process of making public infrastructure accessible for PWDs — and thereby safer for the general public, including women and children, the elderly and chronically ill — by ensuring that all PC-1s are compliant with this code.
Published in Dawn, March 6th, 2020

March 7, 2020
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