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The Express Tribune Editorial 13 May 2020

NA session

What a waste of time, money — and an opportunity. On Monday, the National Assembly went into a three-day session after a gap of a day short of two months to hold a debate on the government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic and come up with the future course of action. Members of the august house were flown to Islamabad from Karachi and Quetta by a special PIA plane as the flight operations remains halted due to the rampaging virus. Wearing face masks and exercising social distancing, the elected representatives, numbering 140, spent more than three hours discussing the government’s coronavirus policy, but nothing meaningful came out of it. The house only reverberated with political rhetoric from the two sides of the aisle. Just like in normal circumstances, the speeches were chockfull of allegations and counter-allegations, laced with gibes and taunts.
It was all a duel of political statements involving senior members like Shah Mahmood Qureshi and Khwaja Mohammed Asif and PPP Chairman Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, besides young guns like Murad Saeed and Hammad Azhar. The opposition targeted the “ineptitude” of the federal government at “handling a serious crisis” and pointed out to the “confusion” within the official ranks. The response from the treasury members was equally scathing, reminding the opposition parties of their “failure” to pay attention towards health infrastructure during their tenures. The type of debate that the house witnessed justified the absence of Prime Minister Imran Khan, who also holds the portfolio of the federal health ministry, from the house. For opposition leader Shehbaz Sharif too, the proceedings were perhaps too unimportant to be spared time for.
The assembly has also provided a platform for elected members and parties not represented in the NCOC and the NCC to get their suggestions accommodated in the national policy. As the assembly session continues, the members must make the most of this opportunity and get involved in a serious debate.


Dangerous defiance

With the coronavirus lockdown easing across the country after around two months on Monday, the public has erupted on roads and streets and in markets, flouting the SOPs needed to keep the contagion at bay. Unfortunately, what is being witnessed over the past two days does not inspire much hope as to the containment of the deadly virus. People have been thronging markets in large numbers and are throwing all cautions to the wind, as if the pandemic has ended and things are back to normal.
There is not much evidence of social distancing, refraining from handshake and even embracing friends and acquaintances and sticking to other precautionary measures. SOPs have been put in place to save both lives and livelihoods. But this fact seems to have been lost on the people. They would do well to remember that the pandemic is very much present among us, and the number of infections and fatalities is still on the rise. Those who are not following precautionary measures while visiting shopping centres are exposing both themselves and others to the deadly virus.
The government should be adopting a watch-and-wait policy, and it could roll back the relaxation if it produces dangerous consequences instead of helping traders and the common people. More than anyone else it will be people themselves to blame if the lockdown is tightened again.
People’s non-serious attitude with regard to taking precautionary measures to protect themselves from the coronavirus notwithstanding, once again we are witnessing the political divide at play after the relaxation was announced. The usual practice under democracy is that the government acts as performer and the opposition as criticiser, with both sides exercising restraint in their dealings with each other. However, the two sides seem to be wanting in this respect. Much of the criticism and counter-criticism is full of sound and fury quite oblivious of the thundering reality of the pandemic and its economic and other consequences. Both sides should refrain from politicising the pandemic. We all should try to see things with optimism. The glass should be seen as half full. After all, the future is not for us to see.


Diamer-Bhasha Dam


It appears that we are finally ready to begin construction work on Diamer-Bhasha Dam. Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on Information and Broadcasting Lt Gen (retd) Asim Saleem Bajwa has tweeted that the dam will produce 4,500MW of power, irrigate 1.2 million acres of agricultural land, and enhance Tarbela Dam’s useful life by 35 years. The PM has directed officials to use local materials and expertise during construction to increase the domestic economic benefits derived from construction. Given that the dam has been in limbo for almost 15 years, and has gone through problems with financing and resettlement issues throughout that time, the news must be taken cautiously. It also doesn’t help that the 10-plus years it will take to build the time could end up being extended because of uncertainty around the availability of funding.
Brighter news came from the smaller Mohmand Dam and the Dasu hydropower projects, where construction work continues at pace, and Naulong dam in Balochistan, work on which should start this year with funding already set aside. The PM has also shown interest in the need to kick off the Sindh barrage project to support agriculture and drinking water supply in the province. Unfortunately, even here, simple damming is not the long-term solution to the country’s water woes. In fact, given how long it takes to build a dam, it isn’t even a short-term solution. Water waste from the aging canal network in Pakistan remains extraordinarily high, and no government has shown anything more than a passing interest in addressing it. That is because repairs don’t involve photo-ops and ribbon cuttings. But it needs to be done. Also, Pakistan has one of the world’s highest rates of water use and one of the lowest of productivity.
Our economy is dependent on a commodity we do not have. To address this, we need to transition to less water-intensive crops, but for that, someone will have to convince the sugar barons to switch to something else.
May 13, 2020
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