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DAWN Editorials – 25th March 2016

Holi holiday

THE ineptitude of some elements within the Sindh government was reflected in the fact that an unnecessary controversy was created over observing a public holiday on Holi in the province on Thursday.

Last week, the Sindh government had declared a public holiday in the province to observe the occasion celebrated by members of the Hindu community — indeed a progressive and welcome step.

However, the provincial labour and human resources department on Wednesday said the holiday was ‘only’ for Hindu workers, until the chief secretary stepped in and cleared the air by withdrawing the notification, while the Sindh administration reiterated that the holiday was for everyone. This clearly reflects a lack of coordination within the provincial government.

The back and forth between government departments resulted in plenty of confusion about whether or not schools and workplaces would be open on Thursday. This inattention needs to be investigated to ensure such incidents do not happen again.

Beyond the controversy, the Sindh government should be commended for announcing a public holiday on Holi. While it is true that too many holidays should not be encouraged — and the country already has plenty, along with unannounced shutdowns — when it comes to major occasions of religious minorities, exceptions can be made.

Celebrating Holi, Diwali or Easter on a provincial or national scale sends the right message — that minorities are equal citizens of Pakistan and that the state respects and celebrates their traditions.

Considering the high levels of intolerance and polarisation in society, such inclusive messages are essential, especially when they emanate from official quarters, and when the whole nation observes the occasion along with members of the respective religious communities.

There was reportedly some resistance from certain officials representing private schools, but by and large there appeared to be little opposition to the Sindh government’s announcement of a public holiday.

Recognising the minorities’ culture and traditions and celebrating them on a national scale are important symbolic steps that can help create a more tolerant and inclusive society.

Trade policy

THE three-year Strategic Trade Policy Framework for 2015-2018 announced by the Nawaz Sharif government has everything but a strategy and a framework.

It makes many wonder as to why the announcement was held up for nine months if it was just going to be a rehash of incoherent and random proposals, mostly borrowed from previous policies.

When the government began to formulate the new policy framework to make it easier for businessmen to import and export, stakeholders believed that it would be different from the last one and address the bigger issues affecting Pakistan’s foreign trade and its export competitiveness.

Some even thought that the new trade policy might provide the stakeholders an umbrella structure required to integrate the country’s economy into the global supply chain. Instead, we have got a hodgepodge of raw ideas in the name of a strategic framework.

Perhaps the stakeholders were wrong in their assessment of our policymakers’ commitment and ability to produce a document offering innovative ideas that could help this country become a reliable link in the global trade regime and realise its true economic potential

Apart from its excessive focus on setting an ambitious target, the framework doesn’t explain how the government plans to increase exports by almost half — from $24bn to $35bn by 2018.

The very idea that giving annual cash handouts of Rs6bn (on new investment and technological upgradation) to industries like pharmaceuticals, leather, sports goods, surgical instruments, etc and rice farmers will push exports even a little bit in such a small period of time is preposterous.

The commerce minister who had claimed so at the time of the launch of the framework appears to be cut off from reality. Nor does anyone actually believe that the government will deliver on its promises.

Pakistan’s share in the global markets is declining by a little less than 2pc every year, and the trend will continue to hold without the government addressing the real issues: high cost of doing business, market access and competitiveness.

Indeed, the framework pledges to resolve these issues, but it doesn’t elaborate on what route the government plans to take to achieve its goals. The previous policy failed to achieve its targets.

The fate of the new one will not be any different unless an independent umbrella authority is created to facilitate international trade, coordinate with the relevant ministries and put the country on the path of export-led growth and integrate its economy into the global supply chain.

Pakistan Day speech

THE Pakistan Day parade may have followed a Cold War template — showcase military might and defence prowess first and later throw in some cultural imagery — but it was the president’s speech that drew the attention.

Mamnoon Hussain is not and will likely never be a great orator or even a memorable president. His value to the PML-N, and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in particular, appears to lie largely in his willingness to remain in the background and only take centre stage to deliver whatever message has been approved for him.

And so, on Pakistan Day, Mr Hussain delivered a speech that appeared to be an amalgam of the political and military leaderships’ vision for the country.

Perhaps most interesting was the fact that the president did not simply cling to the old trope of a militarily strong Pakistan that will defeat its enemies. Instead, Mr Hussain offered a more nuanced view and a balanced appraisal.

On the external front, the president’s speech offered two sensible clarifications: Pakistan is not interested in an arms race and the country’s nuclear programme is also informed by a need to devote the maximum resources to development and the well-being of the population.

While India was not mentioned by name, it did appear that Mr Hussain was signalling a change in attitude, if not in substance yet, to the neighbour to the East.

Where once the impulse was to boast of Pakistan’s military strength and equality with India, now a more humble and sensible approach focused on the needs of Pakistan’s own citizens is evident.

Consider also the president’s articulation of the “new enemy” that is terrorism and extremism inside Pakistan.

Taken together — the threat from the old enemy, India, being put in context while the threat from the new enemy, terrorism and extremism, being taken seriously — suggests that the Pakistani state may at long last have begun to adjust its approach to national security by focusing on the real needs of its people rather than the perceived threat from India.

Yet, welcome as the change in at least rhetoric is, there is still a long way to go for state policy to truly reflect the realities of Pakistan in the 21st century.

Consider that the emerging confidence — or perhaps more accurately, equanimity — on India has come after what is believed to be years of aggressive expansion of the nuclear programme.

Moreover, as internal security needs have vastly escalated, there has been little attempt to rationalise overall security expenditures and create more space for development needs.

While the recognition of new realities is an important first step, it does not automatically follow that institution choices will reflect those changes.

Pakistan Day is a reminder of a vision for this country that once was. If Pakistan is ever to live up to those ideals, all institutions must focus on the needs of the people first.

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