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Express Tribune Editorials – 19th May 2016

The big push to kill polio

There really is a sense that the officials, vaccinators and administrators of the polio vaccination drives across the country are holding their breath. The latest in a long line of attempts to get enough children vaccinated to gain herd immunity to polio is in process as these words are written. Significantly, the WHO representative in Pakistan, Dr Michel Thieren has stated that polio could be eliminated in Pakistan within months. The number of new cases this year has dropped significantly in both Pakistan and Afghanistan, the last two countries in the world where polio is endemic. There were 52 cases last year in Pakistan and this year just 11 so far. It is worth noting that there were 300 cases in 2014, the highest number since 1999. The three-day campaign that was launched on May 16 involves 70,000 medical staff who are aiming to immunise around 10 million children in the tribal areas, Balochistan and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa.

For the first time in many years, there is a fighting chance that Pakistan, and hopefully Afghanistan, can eradicate the polio virus. It has been a bitter battle, with many dead and injured, a high proportion of them women vaccinators and the police who were trying to protect them as they go about their business. The teams have gained access this year to places that were formerly denied to them because of poor security but the operation launched in 2014 is bearing fruit in terms of reductions in tension and the polio teams have a window of opportunity. Any celebration would be premature, the last steps are the hardest and Pakistan has been this close to eradication before. Those who oppose the vaccinators and do the killing thereof are under the delusion that the programme is some sort of clandestine effort by the West to sterilise the Muslim population. Their paranoia is also fed by the attempt to use the vaccination programme as a Trojan horse to get hold of Osama bin Laden’s DNA. That caused untold damage to the cause of eradication. We wish the campaign well and look forward to celebrating when Pakistan truly is polio-free.

Women in the judiciary

Pakistan is the only country in the region not to have elevated a woman to the highest level of the judiciary — the Supreme Court. This is perhaps unsurprising given the profoundly patriarchal nature of the dispensation of justice at every level, from the highest to the lowest. Equally unsurprising is the level of government opposition to any attempt to redress the situation, as evidenced by the government resistance to a private member’s bill introduced by the PPP on May 16. The Senate Chairman Raza Rabbani has referred the bill titled the Supreme Court (Number of Judges) (Amendment) Bill 2016 to the relevant committee — and an uncertain fate. The bill was moved by former law minister Babar Awan and it calls for at least one-third of the superior bench to comprise women, one from each of the four provinces plus Islamabad as well as a woman from Fata. The mover insisted on tabling the bill even after Law Minister Zahid Hamid no less, opposed it.

The debate and the proposed bill cut to the heart of one of the systemic ills that afflict the state — the inequality of access to justice, and the failure to promote qualified women as judges at every level of the judiciary nationally from small provincial courts to the highest in the land. The argument as the mover of the bill states has its origins in Article 34 of the Constitution that states “Steps shall be taken to ensure full participation of women in all spheres of national life.” Considering how widely the Constitution is disregarded in this respect, it is normative rather than exceptional that women are excluded from the Supreme Court as judges. That said, there is a constitutional procedure for the appointment of judges as pointed out by the law minister that requires amendment and this cannot be flouted, but amendment there must be if a manifest wrong is ever to be righted and women sit as judges in the Supreme Court.

An unfair proposal

As the federal budget announcement looms closer, a proposal by the FBR has come to light that aims to tax the income of various funds including service, pension and military regimental, while also tapping the business income of non-profit organisations. The FBR has proposed the withdrawal of the tax exemption facility and the imposition of income tax on these institutions at half the standard tax rates. At a time when there is an ongoing public trial of politicians in view of their offshore assets as exposed by the Panama leaks, such measures that aim to tax pensioners and non-profit organisations will not be received well. The proposal only aims to generate Rs5 billion, so it is clearly not a huge revenue-earner. The intent also appears to be to end so-called discriminatory treatment that has been extended to certain segments of society, conveniently ignoring that tax exemptions to these particular segments are there for a reason.

While the FBR is proposing to go after only the business income of non-profit organisations, these proposals also seek to tax pension funds, which is arguably the worst way to widen the tax net. After working for years, paying their taxes and saving their incomes in funds, pensioners are now in danger of being told to pay taxes on their pensions as well. These measures will only agitate a public already filled with disgust at the antics of the rich and powerful who often hold assets abroad in order to avoid taxation. The FBR clearly lacks vision when it comes to reforming the taxation system. Its strategy is simple — increase tax rates for those who already pay taxes or who have little power to demand concessions. It has failed to go after the big fish. Its toothless attitude has already made the informal economy thrive and tax evasion soar. Policymakers need to devise a long-term strategy — the end to discriminatory tax practices that the FBR is harping on can be kick-started by taxing those who have thus far been let off the hook.

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