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The Express Tribune Editorial 14 May 2020

The enemy of my enemy

A gristly attack at a maternity hospital in Kabul on Tuesday left 16 people dead, including two newborn babies. Gunmen wearing police uniforms attacked Dasht-e-Barchi Hospital, where the Nobel Prize-winning international charity Doctors Without Borders runs a maternity clinic. The savages responsible murdered babies, pregnant women, and children, while injuring at least a dozen other people. While no group has taken responsibility, the evidence would suggest that the attack came from Daesh, the only group that has not treated hospitals as off-limits for attacks. After a bombing outside a hospital last year, the Taliban were apologetic, trying to explain that their target was actually the intelligence building next door. Daesh, meanwhile, showed no remorse while taking credit for the 2017 attack on a Kabul hospital which killed at least 49 people. Further evidence is provided by the fact that the night before the attack, Afghan intelligence claimed to have arrested a local Daesh leader.
Worryingly, the attack in Kabul was not even the deadliest attack of the day. A suicide bomber also attacked the funeral of a police commander in Nangahar, killing at least 24 people. Daesh is also known to be active in Nangahar. But even though the Taliban have denied responsibility, the Afghan government wasted no time in blaming them by name. Afghan national security adviser blamed the Taliban and “their proxies”, while President Ashraf Ghani said the government would go on the offensive against the Taliban and others. The Taliban actually made a much stronger argument, noting that the “heinous assaults” came when the Taliban are trying to negotiate for peace in the country, and that the biggest beneficiary of the continuing war in Afghanistan is in Kabul. They also accused the government of sheltering Daesh to use them as a tool against them. This points at a harsh reality. The Taliban see Daesh as the last legitimate enemy in their quest to retake the country. How does the government see them?


Despite falling demand

Contrary to expectations, prices of chicken have increased in Karachi even in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, in a strange defiance of the law of demand. Over the past few days, the wholesale price of live birds has increased to Rs210 a kg from Rs140 and that of chicken meat to Rs367 a kg from Rs245. The price of boneless chicken is higher. Veal is selling for Rs600-700 a kg and mutton for Rs1,200 a kg. Quality fish is available for Rs700 a kg. Even if we make an allowance for the usual rise in prices of food items in Ramazan, the increase in prices of chicken and chicken meat leaves us perplexed considering the decline in demand for chicken following the prolonged shutdown put in place to control the spread of the deadly coronavirus.
Hotels, restaurants and wedding halls have been staying closed in Sindh since the third week of March, and other social gatherings too are not taking place. These are places of meat consumption. Logically, such a situation should have brought down the prices of chicken, but ironically things are going in the opposite direction. One apparent reason for the price hike is that sensing a decrease in consumption and bottlenecks in transportation of chickenfeed and birds, poultry farmers had decided to cut down on production of broiler chickens, especially in view of the hot weather when heat threatens the survival of chicks.
However, profiteering too could account for the price rise both at the wholesale and retail levels. Since most of the government machinery is engaged in dealing with the coronavirus pandemic, traders are taking undue advantage of the situation. Usually, during Ramazan, traders rip off consumers through price gouging. Seldom do they sell things at prices prominently displayed at their shops. Economists hold that traders don’t need government permission to lower prices. But more often than not they don’t need the administration’s permission to increase prices.


NFC Award

The President of Pakistan has finalised the 10th National Finance Commission (NFC) meant to deduce a new formula for distribution of resources among the federation and the federating units. Since the federal budget for fiscal year 2020-21 is possibly only a month away, it is not going to be an easy job for the new commission to reach a consensus in time and come up with what would be called the 8th NFC Award — more so because the 18th Amendment has become a point of conflict between the government and the opposition parties. Even though the Award has to be renewed every five years under Article 160(1) of the Constitution, we have had just seven since 1973, with the last one coming in 2010, leading to an 11% increase in the shares of provinces in federal taxes. Since then, however, consensus has defied the stakeholders on this key issue.
So a new NFC Award will be negotiated 10 years after the last consensus-based award had been announced. Under the existing arrangement, funds from the Federal Divisible Pool are distributed under the ratio of 57.5% to 42.5% for provinces and the Centre, respectively. Eighty-two per cent share is determined on the basis of population, 10.3% on the basis of poverty and backwardness, 5% on revenue collection and 2.7% on inverse population density.
It will, indeed, be a test of the skills of the PM’s Adviser on Finance and Revenue Dr Hafeez Shaikh — who is appointed (though unconstitutionally, according to some experts) to serve as chairman of the 10-member commission in the absence of a federal finance minister — and his team at managing a delicate balance between the Centre that has been complaining of a contracting fiscal space, especially in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, and the provinces that are understood to press for further financial devolution. The main challenge to the Centre is, however, expected to come from Sindh, the only province not being ruled by the PTI.
The commission is supposed to operate on the principle of consensus, and a departure from the very principle is unlikely to result in a new resource distribution formula — like in the case of the last two commissions, one each constituted by the PML-N and the PTI.
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