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DAWN Editorials – 30th January 2016

Chaudhry Nisar’s outburst

INTERIOR Minister Nisar Ali Khan appears to have a notoriously thin skin. It was recently on display when Leader of the Opposition in the National Assembly Khursheed Shah did what he seems to do best — provoke the interior minister.

Earlier in the week, Mr Shah castigated the interior minister for his alleged unavailability in parliament and inaction over many parts of the National Action Plan.

As soon as the interior minister rediscovered his health — his indisposition was perhaps the reason why he kept away from the public gaze after criticism of his ministry — he has seen it fit to assail Mr Shah.

It has been a thoroughly dubious attack. The recent carnage at Bacha Khan University in Charsadda was not an isolated incident as the interior minister has suggested, nor is there an obvious reason to deny an independent investigation into the circumstances that allowed the attack to take place.

Sadly, the interior minister’s belligerence is not new. At the height of the PTI protest on Constitution Avenue, Chaudhry Nisar turned his guns on veteran PPP senator Aitzaz Ahsan.

At that particular moment, the PML-N needed every bit of democratic support that it could muster in parliament. Instead, bizarrely, the interior minister turned the special joint session of parliament called to reinforce support for democracy into a slanging match with Mr Ahsan.

For some reason — blame it on Nawaz Sharif who even now seems unwilling to rein in his interior minister or the latter politician himself who came across as de facto deputy prime minister, unwilling to accept a role equal to the rest of the cabinet — Chaudhry Nisar was allowed to undermine the entire joint session of parliament.

It was a ghastly performance in September 2014 but unfortunately, he does not appear to have learned any lessons.

Undeniably, there have been many faults in Chaudhry Nisar’s parliamentary career. However, the role of Khursheed Shah as leader of the opposition is not altogether commendable either.

Mr Shah has proved himself in parliament as an orator and a combatant, but what of the timing of each of his speeches? Ultimately, it appears that whatever the legitimacy of his complaints, there is a link to the pressure on the PPP — or elements close to the PPP leadership — in Sindh.

The ongoing incarceration of Dr Asim Hussain appears to have inordinately drawn the attention of the PPP. In fact, be it Dr Hussain or others accused of crimes connected to the very apex of the PPP leadership in parliament, the party only appears to become active when it finds itself under attack, either in Sindh or at the centre.

The interior minister was wrong to respond in the manner he did and Mr Shah was wrong to attack.

Regrettably, it appears that the only thing the parliamentary leadership is interested in is scoring political points.


Hidden costs of LNG

IT looks like a host of hidden costs associated with imported LNG are about to be offloaded onto gas consumers.

In the ECC meeting held on Thursday, the finance minister had a tense exchange with a member from Ogra, the oil and gas sector regulator, about levying an additional charge on gas consumers to help pay for the laying of gas infrastructure, particularly for transporting LNG upcountry.

The regulator believes that consumers have already been charged for this under the Gas Infrastructure Development Cess, and the finance minister believes that more funds will be needed and should therefore be included in gas tariffs. This is pure double taxation and needs to be opposed.

The finance minister has shown a troublesome willingness to resort to expedient measures of this sort over the years, taking the easy route to raising revenues rather than walking the hard road of reform — and consumers and the paying public are worse off for it.

In the matter of revenues for gas infrastructure, the finance minister is right that the funding required for the various pipeline projects is large and will need extraordinary measures to meet. But first there should be a proper accounting of what happened to the funds collected under the GIDC thus far.

Next there should be proper reform of gas pricing, since the continuation of a rigid administrative pricing regime in the gas sector is at the root of its financial constraints.

If there were greater market pricing of domestic gas, perhaps it wouldn’t be necessary to resort to extraordinary revenue measures to pay for future infrastructure requirements.

It also needs to be asked what additional costs arising from LNG imports will now be bundled into the gas tariffs as imported gas begins to play a bigger role in our economy in the future.

At this rate, consumers are entitled to feel that they have been misled into thinking that imported LNG brings massive savings, if we are to now believe that the infrastructure requirements to handle this also need to be factored into the tariff.

The best way to avoid landing up in such a situation is to advance reforms in the gas sector — with particular focus on pricing — where private markets and players can assume a larger role in mobilising the investment to meet future needs. Sadly enough, on that front the government has very little to show.


Passport delivery

THE past few years have seen a number of changes where the issuance of passports is concerned.

The biggest change, of course, has been the introduction of machine-readable passports and the digitisation of data, that has made the passport application process far less cumbersome, though bugs in the system remain.

Two recent innovations introduced by the interior ministry include the launch of a voice helpline service and a passport home delivery service.

Now people will be able to track their passports, check for passport office locations and get other information related to the travel document in Urdu, English, Pashto, Seraiki and Sindhi. As for the home delivery service, for a small fee passports can be delivered to the applicant’s doorstep by a private courier company in Pakistan’s major cities.

These innovations are welcome, and it is hoped they will further make the process of applying for or renewing a passport easier for citizens.

The home delivery service has initially drawn a lukewarm response. This may well be due to the lack of trust and confidence that citizens have in the state.

Many people are only comfortable with the thought of picking up the document from the passport office themselves. But the state should encourage citizens to opt for the service, and assure them that their documents will safely reach them.

This service can especially be useful for people living in far-flung areas. In fact, the authorities could also consider the services of Pakistan Post in this venture. Meanwhile, the interior ministry needs to maintain greater vigilance at the passport offices.

Despite the positive changes in the method of data collection, most passport offices could do with better organisation and efficiency. For example, despite the simplification of the process, touts and the ‘agent’ mafia are still active and on the prowl, no doubt with encouragement from elements within.

It would also help if more passport offices are opened to process applications in areas with high demand but not enough supply, such as Sindh.

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