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DAWN Editorials – 3rd May 2016

WOW Festival

IT had an air of celebration, with the grounds of Karachi’s Beach Luxury Hotel filled with men, women and children milling about on Sunday as music played in the background. And that is exactly as it should have been — that is the mood for an event conceived as a cultural platform to acknowledge the achievements and contributions of women around the world and in the country. This was Pakistan’s first iteration of the Women of the World, or WOW, Festival, jointly organised by the British Council and London’s Southbank Centre. But beyond the relaxed environment, there was that vital backbone of seriousness underscored through a series of panel discussions on topics of contestation. The truth is, after all, that despite the push for gender equality and female emancipation being made in various countries over the past several decades, the world remains an unequal place and the treatment experienced by far too many of its women and girls who constitute half the global population continues to be criticism-worthy. The obstacles to gender equality in developing countries are obvious, but even in highly developed countries, progress has been less than could have been hoped for on, for example, equal pay at workplaces, or the erasure of the so-called glass ceiling.

Pakistan, of course, has its own unique set of challenges where women’s empowerment is concerned. In recent years, there have been some legislative successes, such as the laws framed against sexual harassment in the workplace and domestic violence. But society remains deeply patriarchal, with large numbers of women denied their rights. The presence of Mukhtaran Mai at the WOW Festival, for example, or Dr Fatima Haider who, after losing her husband and son in a drive-by shooting, started a voluntary service where people can find some measure of catharsis in sharing stories of tragedy, came as sobering reminders that a great deal needs to be achieved by both state and society before Pakistani women can expect to live their lives with dignity.

Uzair Baloch’s trial

UZAIR Baloch, the alleged mafia kingpin from Lyari in Karachi, has been accused of many things. Killing security personnel and rival gang members, drug trafficking, land grabbing, extortion — the list of serious crimes Baloch is accused of is a serious and lengthy one. Now, to that already lengthy list has been added the accusation of spying for Iran. The Joint Investigation Team tasked with interrogating Lyari’s most infamous resident appears to have elicited a confession from Baloch that has rendered it necessary, in the view of the JIT, to have him tried in a military court. That rather extraordinary recommendation has come despite the Karachi operation being the catalyst for legal changes that have made it easier for the state to prosecute individuals in anti-terrorism courts. Given the range of crimes Mr Baloch is accused of, he should be tried by the criminal justice system instead of the military — it is both the right and fair thing to do. Right because the victims and survivors of his alleged crimes deserve to see justice done. Fair because military courts simply cannot guarantee the due process and transparency that every accused must receive.

Clearly, espionage is a serious crime and evidence presented in a trial must be handled sensitively where necessary. But to despatch Uzair Baloch to his fate in a military court would be to send a signal that military courts are increasingly being seen as the default option when it comes to the most high-profile criminals in the country — a further unwelcome encroachment on and militarisation of the criminal justice system. Baloch is accused of being a politically connected gangster, not someone who has waged an ideological war against the state. The red lines that were promised at the time of the creation of a new system of military courts under the 21st Amendment in January 2014 appear to be deliberately being blurred by vested interests. Instead of looking to wind down the use of military courts as the two-year sunset clause in the 21st Amendment approaches, sections of the state seem to be trying to normalise their existence. If creating the exception was an egregious violation of the Constitution, normalising the use of military courts would effectively dismantle the criminal justice system. The Supreme Court still has an opportunity to correct a mistake by giving a thoughtful decision on the appeals by individuals convicted by military courts so far.

IMF programme

WITH budget preparations in full swing, the IMF has issued an assessment that Pakistan will not require a new programme once the present one ends. In the Fund’s view, the present government has “completed to a large measure the stabilisation agenda” of the present programme. The remarks underline the very narrow objectives of the Fund programme in Pakistan, and are doubtless going to be seized upon by the government as a vindication of its economic legacy as budget time approaches. But it would be a mistake to hang too heavy a hat on the words of the IMF given the manner in which the stabilisation agenda has been implemented, as well as the large gaps in the implementation of structural reforms.

The way the picture is shaping up, it appears that the government’s paralysis on the policy front and its increasing embrace of populist measures in the midst of the growing political crisis that has emerged from the saga of the Panama Papers pose some challenges to the continuation of the reform agenda. Moreover, the failure to actually broaden the tax base or undertake any meaningful structural reforms means that achievements on stabilisation achieved thus far can reverse themselves quickly. Couple this with exports continuing to decline, and any gain on the external account earned largely through the fall in oil prices means vulnerabilities in the external sector remain strong. So far, stability has been earned for the most part by steep cuts in the development budget — reportedly as high as 24pc for the current fiscal year alone. For next year, the cuts are likely to be even larger, given that this is going to be the last full-year budget that the government is about to announce. Meanwhile, defence, debt servicing and current expenditures remain stubbornly stuck to their existing levels.

The macroeconomic picture indeed appears stable at the moment, if we look at nothing beyond the reserves and the fiscal deficit and ignore totally how these have been achieved. But stability is standing on a very narrow pedestal. Given the political uncertainties arising from the Panama Papers crisis, followed by a looming election and debt service outflows set to increase by then, such a pedestal is hardly a sound perch. The Fund itself is taking a limited view because its objectives in the country are quite narrow but the government must avoid this trap. In all likelihood, Pakistan will not be entering a new IMF programme after the current one ends, preferring to leave that decision to the next government after 2018. But this cycle of temporary stabilisations followed by a new IMF programme with every change of government that Pakistan has been a part of for almost a quarter of a century has to be broken if the government wants to claim any economic legacy for itself.

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