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DAWN Editorials – 26th April 2016

Drug shortage

IT is unfortunate that the government has failed to address even a few of the numerous public health challenges that the country faces.

The sufferers are, of course, the people, in particular those who are financially underprivileged. Consider an issue that has been building up for years: the shortage of drugs on the market because of a stand-off between the government and the pharmaceutical industry.

The former wants to keep prices as low as possible — partly because taking an unpopular step and raising prices could have a negative impact on the electoral fortunes of the rulers.

Meanwhile, the pharmaceuticals maintain that given that prices are artificially being kept low, it is becoming unviable to manufacture and supply certain drugs. As reported by this paper yesterday, some 70 to 80 medicines, 50 of which are categorised as essential, are no longer available because of the federal government’s failure to address the pricing issue.

Alarm has repeatedly been raised by health professionals and forums such as the human rights cell of the Supreme Court, but the response of the authorities including the Drug Regulatory Authority of Pakistan has been to simply deny that the problem exists.

Apart from the immediate suffering of people in need of these medicines, the situation holds grave long-term implications as well.

Amongst the drugs that are no longer available, for example, are those required to treat complicated cases of TB.

This is already a serious public health issue, and the current crisis could exacerbate the problem of multi-drug resistant TB, creating a situation that will be even harder to rectify.

Similarly, the inexpensive folic acid — which is vital for the health of pregnant women and their unborn babies — has also disappeared from the market.

While the well-off can afford imported versions, for the majority of the population this raises the spectre of a generation whose in utero development has been compromised. And yet the authorities refuse to be awakened from their slumber. What will it take for them to take action?

Backlog of cases

MEMBERS of the bench are not often given to displays of emotion, particularly in public, but rather tend towards sober self-restraint.

The absence of justice, however, can sometimes reduce a judge to tears, as evinced on Sunday when India’s chief justice, T.S. Thakur, spoke at a conference in New Delhi attended by Prime Minister Narendra Modi as well as India’s chief ministers and high court chief justices.

Speaking about the ‘avalanche’ of cases clogging up the ultra-lethargic Indian legal system — at the present rate of litigation, the criminal cases alone that are pending today will take 30 years to clear — the judge made an emotional appeal to Mr Modi for reforms to address the gridlock.

A major issue is the inadequate number of judges, resulting in crushing workloads of 2,600 cases per judge annually. Quite correctly, Chief Justice Thakur linked the resolution of the problem to the progress and development of the country.

Doubtless, many members of the bench in Pakistan can identify with the distress expressed by their counterpart on the other side of the border.

The numbers here, adjusting for population, are also fairly dire, although nowhere near the same extent. It is estimated that around two million cases remain pending in various courts across the country, especially at the lower court level.

Also in a similar vein, the judiciary in Pakistan too is considered largely responsible for this backlog whereas the efficiency of the judicial system depends on the entire legal apparatus — investigation, prosecution, etc — working together as a well-oiled machine.

Parliament’s acquiescence in setting up military courts has further compromised public confidence in the legal system and perhaps delayed urgently needed reforms within.

While former chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry did take concerted steps to clear the backlog, which included instituting double shifts daily for judges to preside over cases, the effort mainly remained confined to the higher judiciary, whereas it is the lower courts where much of the legal bottleneck accumulates.

The symbiotic link between progress and a functioning, accessible legal system has been demonstrated time and again.

Sometimes it is highlighted in instances of egregious rights violations committed in ‘verdicts’ given by parallel and informal ‘justice’ mechanisms.

Lest we forget, our recent history has also illustrated that dysfunctional or absent justice systems provide a convenient pretext for extremist elements, promising utopian visions of an equitable society, to expand their influence among angry, discontented populations.

Rallies of little importance

Political rally season is once again upon Pakistan. No one event or grievance appears to have precipitated the season this time, except perhaps for the age-old need of political parties to remain, or become, politically relevant.

The bungled response of the PML-N to the Panama Papers was perhaps the signal for the PTI leadership to return to what it does best: hold elaborate rallies that end with the promise of further rallies elsewhere.

Meanwhile, in Karachi, the party of sorts that Mustafa Kamal is trying to cobble together as a political alternative to the MQM, the party that made Mr Kamal famous, held its inaugural public event at a stone’s throw from the Quaid’s mausoleum.

Read: PTI’s foundation day event a crowd puller

But Mr Kamal and his Pak Sarzameen Party already appear to have entangled themselves in a contradiction: how does a party of the self-professed middle class with no known political footprint arrange the funds for the professional and sophisticated set-up on display at the Karachi rally? But such quaint concerns do not appear to worry Mr Kamal or his backers.

It is the struggle between the PTI and the PML-N, however, that will be the focus nationally in the weeks to come. Signs of the PTI switching to early campaign mode have meant that the PML-N is unwilling to be left behind.

Perhaps better sense will prevail and the federal government will not trigger a round of election-style rallies of its own in various parts of the country; but when it comes to the PML-N responding to the PTI, better sense rarely prevails.

As for the PTI, it is difficult to discern much of a strategy in its latest efforts to mobilise its supporters. While rallies help keep the PTI in the news and may reinforce the party’s image as the leading opposition to the PML-N, the 2013 general election results suggested that what the party needs to do is improve its party structures at the local level to get out the vote on election day.

Organising rallies does the opposite of that, drawing political energy away from party-building and directing it to showy events, which have limited long-term political appeal.

What rally season demonstrates once again is that political parties are more keen to flex their political muscle than work on systemic solutions to the country’s chronic problems.

The PTI has the choice to both organise rallies and press for real financial and transparency reforms inside parliament.

But there is no sign of the latter. Similarly, the PML-N rather than focusing simply on clearing Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s name could also use the Panama Papers disclosures to moot tax and financial reforms that would provide lasting benefits to state and society.

Sadly, political rallies are easier to organise than the hard work of legislative change and political reform. As ever, rally season will likely be high on noise and low on significance.

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