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The Express Tribune Editorial 4 February 2020

Student unions


January 30, 1984 continues to be remembered by Pakistan’s student activists as a dark day in the country’s history for it was on that day that former president Ziaul Haq’s military regime had banned student unions on the country’s educational institutions. Since then, students have actually had to take an oath not to participate in political activity while pursuing their studies. Sadly, the Higher Education Commission (HEC) has also recently endorsed the ban, saying that the restoration of student unions would adversely affect education and lead to partisan polarisation and even violence on campuses.
First and foremost, we must remember that our Constitution’s Article 17 (i) clearly states that “Every citizen shall have the right to form associations or unions, subject to any reasonable restrictions imposed by law in the interest of sovereignty or integrity of Pakistan, public order or morality.” The ban on student unions certainly violates this Article and is therefore unconstitutional. It simply cannot be said that student unions have ever posed a threat of any kind to the country. What is, however, needed is a comprehensive and enforceable code of conduct which aims to achieve strident political and social activism through civilised and non-violent discourse and debate.
Secondly, we must keep in mind that student unions play a very important role in grooming a country’s future political leaders by providing students opportunities to debate issues and recommend solutions to problems the country faces. To continue the ban on them would, therefore, be to stifle students’ intellectual growth and deprive the nation of fresh leadership. Thirdly, student unions are important in the context of resolving issues being faced by students. This, in case of a university, is done by reserving a seat for a students’ representative in the university’s syndicate — the highest platform to discuss and address students’ issues. The key, however, is the strict enforcement of a code of conduct that also allows for proper punishment for violators.


Killing for ‘honour’


According a police report, 108 women were killed for honour in Sindh over the past one year, from Jan 31, 2019 to Jan 30, 2020. The report is full of statistics about sexual and non-sexual violence against women, girls and boys, but it does not mention even a single case where the culprit has been convicted. It only says cases are being pursued in courts or some of them have been thrown out for want of evidence. Even admitting the need to engage in the debate ‘Justice delayed is justice denied’ vs ‘Justice hurried is justice buried,’ the slow process of dispensation of justice is in no way acting as a deterrent in crimes against women. In recent years, it was only in the rape and murder case of six-year-old Zainab Ansari that the law acted swiftly. The perpetrator was executed in less than a year between the crime and meting out the punishment that it deserved.
A Reuters Thompson survey conducted in 2018 found Pakistan the sixth-most unsafe country for women in the world. Sexual violence, trafficking and discrimination top the list of violence against women in Pakistan. Over the years, conditions for women have only been deteriorating in the country. According to statistics compiled by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, in the 12-year period (2004-16), 4,737 women were subjected to sexual violence; 15,122 women and men were killed for honour; 1,535 women were burnt; 1,843 women were subjected to severe domestic violence; 35, 935 women committed suicide; and 5,508 women were kidnapped.
Between Jan 31, 2019 and Jan 30, 2020, 132 women were murdered in Sindh for various reasons. In six cases, the police have been unable to find any evidence. In the same period, 1,158 cases of kidnapping of girls were registered with the police. Of these, 249 cases were closed after it was found the girls had married of their own free will. Around 95 cases of women’s rape were recorded. Forty are being investigated.


Ballooning debt


The incumbent government has admitted allowing Pakistan’s public debt and liabilities to increase by over 40% since taking power 15 months ago. The debt policy statement provided to parliament by the finance ministry notes that total debt and liabilities had risen to Rs41.489 trillion by September 2019 — an increase of Rs11.6 trillion since the end of the previous fiscal year. That alone accounted for a 39% increase, and the debt has continued to grow since then. Given the degree of austerity being forced upon the general public, the increase is frightening.
The increase, meanwhile, also violates the Fiscal Responsibility and Debt Limitation Act (FRDLA). The law, under a 2016 amendment, requires the federal government to limit the federal fiscal deficit, excluding foreign grants, to 4% of GDP during the three years beginning from FY 2017-18, and maintaining it at under 3.5% in subsequent years. The government also had to reduce total public debt to 60% of GDP by FY 2017-18. Another condition was to ensure, within five years beginning from FY 2018-19, that total public debt is reduced by 0.5% annually. From FY 2023-24 to FY 2032-33, an annual reduction of 0.75% would be required to reduce total public debt to 50% of GDP, which would then become the new ceiling.
The previous government, which had passed the amendment, abjectly failed to meet the conditions which applied to it. Public debt was around 72% when the PML-N made way for the caretakers in June 2018. The PTI government has, however, blown its predecessor’s record out of the water. The debt was 94% of GDP by September 2019. The federal fiscal deficit, excluding grants, was Rs3.6 trillion, or 9.4% of GDP in FY 2018-19. The finance ministry says that a series of one-time issues contributed to the increase. But the total value it has placed on these one-offs was around 5% of GDP. That would mean the government has still violated the FRDLA. Never mind that many of these ‘one-offs’, such as privatisation delays and tax recovery, seem to happen every year to every government. Sans solutions, we would at least expect better excuses.


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