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DAWN Editorials – 27th April 2016

Bangladesh killings

EVENTS in Bangladesh do not augur well. The recent past has seen a number of horrifying killings in the country. The latest incident occurred on Monday when two people, one of them a leading gay rights campaigner, were hacked to death in an apartment in Dhaka, while a third was injured.

These murders came soon after the killing of a professor of English at the Rajshahi University, who was similarly set upon by men wielding machetes as he left home to go to work. And while affiliates of the militant Islamic State group claimed the killing which they said they carried out for the murdered man’s ‘call to atheism’, the professor’s colleagues say that he was neither an atheist, nor had he written anything controversial. That said, the role of religious extremism in this string of murders seems to have hardened into a pattern.

Over the last year, as many as four prominent bloggers who professed a secular ethos were hacked to death. Taken together, these attacks betray a deadly push against tolerance, plurality, and the freedoms of expression and religion in Bangladeshi society.

Unfortunately, matters are not helped by the political climate in the country, where the government is heading in the direction of intolerance and authoritarianism as it apprehends and executes political opponents after farcical trials.

Caught between the two sides — religiously motivated elements that have no qualms about killing for their beliefs and a government that is increasingly turning to repressive tactics in order to stifle dissent — is the public and its fast-vanishing hopes of tolerance and democracy.

The task before Sheikh Hasina’s government is clear: encourage freedom of thought and expression in the country while protecting the right to life of all its citizens, and refrain from contributing to the culture of intolerance by cracking down on political opponents.

Much like Pakistan — which has also experienced militancy and repressive tactics by rulers — Bangladesh stands at a crossroads. Only wise decisions by its political leadership can propel the country in the right direction.

Taking on the timber mafia

OF all the battles that Imran Khan has waged, the campaign against KP’s timber mafia is the most crucial.

Given the tense political clime, the PTI chief could have indulged in one of his frequent verbal assaults against Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and the Panama Papers at the Pakistan Forest Institute in Peshawar on Monday.

After all, the relentless spotlight on the offshore accounts of Mr Sharif’s family has put the prime minister on the back foot, leading him to deliver two national addresses on state TV.

Thankfully, Mr Khan only marginally touched on the controversy engulfing Mr Sharif, preferring to use the occasion to draw attention to a critical ecological issue: the depletion of the country’s forest cover and his party’s efforts against the timber mafia in the PTI-ruled province.

To its credit, the PTI is, so far, the only major party to have raised environmental issues at the national level.

The matter does not only concern trees and general greenery. In a period where climate-related disasters are striking the country harder and faster than ever before, it is strange that minimal attention is paid to the country’s ecology. There is simply no interest in conserving the natural environment, and certainly no debate on the subject.

Trees and forest cover are not just about beautifying the landscape. The absence of tree cover in Karachi, for instance, contributed significantly to the large number of fatalities caused by last year’s heatwave.

Trees play a vital role in safeguarding biodiversity, protecting hills from landslides and preventing water logging of irrigated land, and are considered ‘lungs of the planet’.

Pakistan’s forest cover is depleting fast, and the Ministry of Climate Change, which is supposed to oversee the annual tree plantation drives planned by the federal government around the monsoon season, cuts a very sorry figure before this reality.

Nor is the timber mafia just a collection of ragtag lumberjacks. They were known to be important financiers supporting the Swat Taliban, and remain a vast and totally unaccountable group devouring the country’s natural resource heritage like termites.

In KP, their strength is comparable to that of land grabbers. Mr Khan was right to flag this issue as a critical one for future generations and to try and inspire the fresh crop of future forestry officers, whose graduation ceremony he was addressing, to rise to the challenge before them.

Replacing the lost forest cover and fighting against those who demolish it is not an easy task.

It is a long battle that demands courage from the group of young officers if they are to stand up to the rapaciousness of the timber mafia.

It is about time that all our politicians recognised the grave implications of deforestation and took concerted action to stop practices that destroy the natural environment.

Doctors’ strike

THERE are few uglier reflections of our collective failure to resolve an issue than the simmering row that has divided doctors and the government of Punjab for the past many years.

The long-running dispute continues to manifest itself in various situations. The latest incident resulted from a physical assault on doctors inside a government-run hospital in Sargodha. This led to the closing of outpatient departments in public hospitals all over the province.

In addition, emergency treatment was suspended in the Sargodha hospital where the attack took place as also at the General Hospital in Lahore which had been the site of a similar incident recently.

The strike exacerbated the woes of thousands of patients who now had no one to turn to in their moment of need. For the strikers, this would have meant successful action.

The goal of such an extreme protest is obviously to deliver a crippling blow to the system.

The striking doctors, no doubt agitating against a sinister trend that has seen medical staff assaulted by the patients’ attendants, knew how vulnerable the system is. With them off duty, everything had to come tumbling down.

The major recipient of blame and criticism has once again been the government. However, it will be a gross exaggeration to say that the young doctors’ closure of operations had widespread sympathy.

Gone are the days when these doctors could draw support from the people and media. They have allowed their feud with the health authorities in Punjab to go on for too long for anyone’s comfort.

There have been far too many crippling protests heaping misery on the suffering people.

Just as the provincial government stands exposed, and has been criticised for its inability to emerge from the unending meetings with a solution, tough questions are being asked of the forever angry young medics about how long they can stay away from their work.

They are accused of frequently allowing vested interests to hijack a movement which was originally aimed at securing a just service structure.

As the point-scoring math goes, this might please some government negotiators. In terms of healthcare at public hospitals the ongoing war spells disaster. It is once again at a stage that requires firefighters who could emerge from the ranks of the senior doctors; the latter — hopefully — enjoy the respect of both the young doctors and the government.

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