IMF and China’s support
THE public endorsement is likely a result of a great deal of behind-the-scenes lobbying.
It is welcome that China, via its foreign ministry spokesperson, has announced its support for the IMF “making an objective evaluation of Pakistan based on professionalism and earnestly helping it properly address the current difficulty”.
For Pakistan, walking a familiar IMF tightrope has been significantly complicated by the increasing competition and hostility between China and the US on the global stage and in this region. The US, which at least until the Trump administration touted its adherence to a so-called rules-based world order, had initially come out in an almost ugly American fashion against CPEC, virtually demanding that Pakistan limit the scope of the project if the IMF is to be allowed to deliver a bailout package to Pakistan.
Take a look: US arrogance
At least publicly, the hostile and threatening US rhetoric has been toned down in recent days and it is, instead, the IMF leadership that has underlined the need for greater Pakistani transparency on its CPEC-related financial commitments.
What is not known is the extent to which China is resisting Pakistan sharing CPEC data with the IMF or, indeed, if there are binding covenants that prevent Pakistan from making public such data.
Worryingly, the PTI federal government may not have the expertise or the clarity necessary for navigating such fraught international political and financial challenges — though arguably no other Pakistani government would be considered well placed to deal with such complex challenges either.
Read: Rearranging CPEC
At a minimum, however, the federal government ought to use the imminent IMF bailout as an opportunity to draw some new lines in this country’s fiscal dealings with the outside world and transparency at home. The US hostility towards and seemingly the IMF’s scepticism of CPEC aside, there is no plausible reason for the PTI to continue with the excessive secrecy that characterised the PML-N’s approach to CPEC.
If binding commitments have been made regarding the secrecy of certain contracts and they can be justified in light of international best practices, the PTI government should publicly say so. If not, why is the PTI seemingly reluctant to place before parliament and other appropriate forums the full scale of Pakistan’s debt and financial exposure to China?
If new best practices are to be instituted and financial transparency promoted, the shackling and blindfolding of the State Bank of Pakistan under the previous PML-N government in particular will need to be reversed.
An autonomous and empowered State Bank that has access to the full range of financial data is not only necessary for a well-managed economy, it could also help protect the public’s interest when IFIs and global powers squabble among themselves and heap pressure on Pakistan.
Whatever Washington’s motives, the IMF’s incentives and China’s fears may be, surely the Pakistani public deserves to know the full picture of the state’s financial liabilities, external and domestic.
THE pilot project for e-voting by overseas Pakistanis in the by-elections on Sunday has gone smoothly and, as it turns out, the most distinctive feature of the experiment was the tepid response by potential voters. Out of 632,000 overseas Pakistanis eligible to vote in the constituencies where the by-polls were being held, only 7,419 — a little over 1pc — registered to cast their ballot. And from among these, on polling day itself, 15pc did not exercise their right of franchise. While Section 94 of the Elections Act 2017 empowers the ECP to explore the feasibility of e-voting by expats, the electoral body had expressed reservations about handling such a mammoth task — involving an estimated 6m-plus eligible voters — within the short span of time available. A report by a task force set up by the ECP listed a number of challenges — the risk of software failure, including security concerns such as the possibility of foreign intelligence agencies hacking into the system, and the fact that secrecy of the ballot and exercise of free will could not be ensured.
For these reasons then, it was sensible to settle for a pilot project which would entail smaller numbers; perhaps it would have been even more prudent to initially test for vulnerabilities in non-political elections, as suggested by the task force, and scale up gradually. Fortunately though, the exercise went off without a hitch. However, there are several points to note in the aftermath of this experiment. The most obvious is the miniscule number of overseas Pakistanis who registered for e-voting — in fact, for a particular constituency in Balochistan, only one voter signed up. Granted, low turnout is a feature of by-elections in general, but given this was the first time that overseas Pakistanis had access to e-voting, courtesy a landmark decision by the Supreme Court, one would have expected a more enthusiastic response. One could even argue that their eagerness to participate in the electoral process had been overestimated. However that may be, the right of expats to cast their ballot must be supported and furthered through improved outreach, particularly to those who do not have the requisite literacy and computer skills to navigate the process of e-voting. There are now five years before the next general election is due: the ECP must take this opportunity to build on what it has learnt from its pioneering attempt at e-voting.
Brick kiln workers
EACH winter, Lahore is enveloped by a thick blanket of smog. Fearing yet another public health disaster this year, Punjab Chief Minister Usman Buzdar has reportedly approved Rs250m to aid the introduction of ‘zigzag technology’ in brick kilns. Under this model, which has been implemented in some other Saarc countries with success, bricks are arranged in a ‘zigzag manner’ and a ‘single-man-coal-feeding system’ is applied. This ensures greater air flow inside chimneys, which then reduces the levels of black carbon emissions. If the new technology is implemented across the board, it could help decrease carbon emissions by around 60pc. The move is welcomed by members of the brick kiln owners association, though confusion about the exact details remains. However, the government’s second proposal — about shutting down brick kilns that are not implementing this new model from Oct 20 till Dec 31 — has been met with sharp resistance. Owners argue it would make redundant the large workforce that is directly or indirectly linked with the brick kiln industry. The smog lasts for approximately seven days, they say, so it makes little sense to shut down the kilns for 70 days. For their part, officials admit they have no way of ensuring that brick kilns remain closed; they have also not announced any plans for compensating owners for their losses or providing an alternative means of livelihood to the labourers. In its attempt to mitigate a health crisis, the government might create an employment crisis.
Absent from this entire conversation are the voices of the workers themselves. It is no secret that workers in the brick kiln industry are some of the most exploited, sentenced to work on the land until they pay off their debts to the owners. In order to come up with a comprehensive, realistic and, most importantly, humane plan, the government has to take all stakeholders into the fold — and that includes the workforce. Because the workers are the ones who have everything to lose.