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DAWN Editorials – 23rd May 2016

A hospital in crisis

KARACHI’S Abbasi Shaheed hospital offers a stark example of how politics at its most unscrupulous and self-serving can play havoc with the lives of people. A report in this paper last week painted a disturbing picture of the conditions prevailing at the third largest public-sector hospital in the city where every day over 2,000 patients seek treatment. The Karachi Metropolitan Corporation that runs this 950-bed hospital finds itself unable to provide even 10pc of the budgetary allocation set aside for it, and with philanthropic donations insufficient to meet expenses, all units at the health facility are facing a dire shortage of life-saving medicines and other essential supplies. Half the machines are out of order and the laboratory only has the capacity to conduct the most basic tests.

The Abbasi Shaheed hospital is one of the casualties of the power struggle between the PPP and the MQM over Karachi. One of the measures taken by the PPP provincial government to neutralise the MQM was to cripple KMC, the central body responsible for providing municipal services to Karachi — and where most of the employees were from the MQM — by creating district municipal corporations reporting directly to the provincial government. The subsequent devolution of education, health and local taxes departments to the DMCs last year has been nothing short of a financial catastrophe for KMC. To put things in perspective, prior to the creation of DMCs, the local taxes department alone generated over a billion rupees in revenue. Now the KMC faces a shortfall of Rs93m even in paying the salaries of employees at KMC and Karachi Development Authority, as well as at the health facilities that it runs, including the Karachi Medical and Dental Clinic, Spencer Eye Hospital, Sobhraj Maternity Hospital, etc. While there was undoubtedly much to criticise in the way KMC functioned, and the blatant nepotism and corruption in its ranks, it is shameful that the price of political gamesmanship in the metropolis is being borne by the ordinary citizen.

Monetary policy

IT might seem odd that the State Bank would say “inflation is likely to attain a higher plateau” in the future on the one hand, and yet cut the policy discount rate, even if by a meagre quarter of a percentage point. Nevertheless, the cut is too meagre to count as a meaningful step, and even if inflation is on the rise, this is still a healthy sign given the lows to which it had fallen in 2015. An increase in inflation can be considered healthy when the economy is struggling to recover from years of moribund growth, because it can be a sign of a revival in demand. But the uptick could also come from new revenue measures that a severely cash-strapped government could resort to in the forthcoming budget, or the upward movement of oil prices.

The least convincing part about the monetary policy statement, though, is where it dwells on the state of the economy. Celebrating a revival of growth, led by construction and consumption, ought to be beneath the dignity of an institution entrusted to look out for the medium term, as well as the underlying fundamentals. The ongoing collapse in the farm sector should not be papered over the way the State Bank did, by simply arguing that growth in industry can “salvage some of the lost momentum” from agriculture. Important reforms are needed to make agriculture more productive and less vulnerable to exogenous shocks, and the government should not be allowed to use industrial growth as an excuse for failures in this sector. Likewise in industry, “buoyant growth in construction and improved demand for consumer durables” is hardly something to cheer about, especially in the context of falling exports. But going on to say that these developments are “expected to provide the needed sustainability in growth trajectory and the basis for further improvement in FY17” simply stretches the argument to breaking point. The reserves do paint a positive picture, and the arrival of CPEC projects will surely boost the economy, as the statement points out. But one can only hope that too many eggs are not being put in that basket, given that the reserves growth owes to “favourable developments” and not any reforms, and the benefits of CPEC may or may not be as large or shared as widely as is being anticipated. The State Bank owes us a better description of the economy than this.

New twist in Afghan peace

Akhtar Mansour, leader of the Afghan Taliban, has reportedly been killed in Balochistan in a US drone strike. While confusion still persists over the news made known to the world initially by US officials, and subsequently corroborated by Afghan officials and the Afghan Taliban, the security equation in the Pak-Afghan region has changed once again.

Pakistan, the country that is alleged to have hosted Mullah Mansour, and said to have helped him ascend to the top of the Taliban leadership and nudged the group to the negotiating table with Kabul, is left with unanswered questions and is at the receiving end of considerable international finger-pointing.

Yet again the morass that has been Afghan policy — for many states, but perhaps most consistently for Pakistan over the past three decades — looks set to lead a number of countries into an uncertain future with few good options.

Five years since Osama bin Laden was killed in Abbottabad, and less than a year since it was revealed, though never conclusively proved, that Mullah Omar too had died on Pakistani soil, Mullah Mansour’s reported death in Pakistan is not altogether surprising.

Pakistani officials have acknowledged that the so-called influence, though not control, that the state here has over the Taliban is partly a result of providing sanctuary to Afghan Taliban leaders. If there were no sanctuary, there would be no influence — and certainly none of the control that the outside world accuses Pakistan of having over the Taliban.

Yet, it is troubling that Mullah Mansour was apparently allowed to move freely on Pakistani soil even as it became clear that the Taliban he controlled were neither lowering the intensity of the war they are waging against the Afghan state nor really looking for a way to start dialogue.

While Pakistan has rightly insisted that it cannot realistically be expected to take military action on Pakistani soil against the Afghan Taliban, surely the freedom of movement that friendly Taliban leaders are believed to still enjoy is not in Pakistan’s interests.

What is indisputably in the interest of Afghanistan, Pakistan and other regional and international powers is for the Afghan question to be settled through dialogue. However, given that the US has now bluntly stated that the Taliban leader was an impediment to negotiations and reportedly eliminated him, it is not clear who dialogue can be conducted with among the group or even if the Taliban will be able to stay united.

Whatever the case, Pakistan should be wary of repeating the process that led to Mullah Mansour’s accession and the determined attempt to unify the Taliban behind him.

With new strains in relations with Afghanistan and the US, Pakistan must be clear about what it believes it can deliver and set realistic expectations. Otherwise, the regional security situation may deteriorate further.

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