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The Express Tribune Editorial 21 December 2019

Manufacturing output

 

Economic concerns remain around the state of large-scale manufacturing, with output shrinking for almost the entire calendar year. While problems in early months could be blamed on existing economic instability, government planners had predicted that FY2019-20 would bring renewed growth. Instead, output shrank 6.5% in the first four months of the fiscal year. The decrease actually got worse as the months progressed — 8% in October — according to the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics. Experts are citing higher production costs as a significant factor in the decline. This is also worrying because the increased costs are being attributed to the rising cost of energy and working capital after interest rates doubled. Both of these were supposed to be measures to stabilise the economy when they were announced by the government.
The government’s policies are not helping. It plans to hike gas prices by 214% next month after its previous increases totalling 161%. And despite the economic slowdown, growing poverty and unemployment, the central bank kept its key policy rate unchanged at 13.25 per cent in its most recent monetary policy announcement in November. The government has tried to highlight some sectors that are still doing well, including construction. But that is directly a result of government spending on development projects, rather than any stimulus policies. Consumer goods manufacturing, however, is down or flat in most significant categories.
Also, the Monetary Policy Committee may have been attempting to make a false claim about rising domestic demand, according to a report in this paper. The Committee took the increase in sales tax revenue in the first two months of FY2019-20 as a sign of recovery of domestic demand. But the ‘growth’ was actually due to the delayed release of tax refunds. The ‘increase’ in sales tax collection was almost equal to the amount that the exporters were claiming in refunds for the current fiscal year — meaning that the Committee was using exports to inflate domestic consumption figures.
The central bank had estimated that the economy would grow by 3.5% in the current fiscal year. Even this modest goal is now looking ambitious.

 
 

Women farm workers

 

The Sindh Assembly has recently enacted a legislation named the Sindh Women Agriculture Workers law providing rights hitherto denied to women labourers in the farm, livestock and fisheries sectors. It concerns their remuneration and ensures measures for protection of their rights. The new law says women workers shall get the same remuneration for the same work as their male counterparts. The working day of a woman worker shall not exceed eight working hours, and shall not commence until one hour after daybreak, or continue beyond one hour prior to sunset; women workers shall take time off work due to sickness or for antenatal and postnatal care and routine check-ups; they are entitled to 120 days of maternity leave and Iddat leave; they shall have the right to breastfeed their children of up to two years in hygienic conditons; “they should have the right to access government agricultural, livestock, fisheries and other services, credit, social security, subsidies, and asset transfers in their own individual rights, or in association with other women agriculture workers.” Each of these workers shall perform work free from all forms of harassment. A woman agriculture worker shall have the right to receive a written contract of employment. The law allows these workers the right to form unions or associations. The law shall ensure that women workers are not discriminated against on the basis of gender, religion, caste and residential basis. It makes it mandatory for the government to maintain a register of women agriculture workers at every union council. The registered workers would be issued a Benazir Woman Agriculture Workers Card entitling them to receive certain benefits.
We have many laws but their implementation is weak. As for remuneration and paid leaves farmers might start calculating their financial implications and try to circumvent the law. A jurist has famously or notoriously said, “Laws are like cobwebs: too weak for the strong, and too strong for the weak.

 
 

Winter perils

 

Winters have well and truly gripped the country. The northern areas are adorning blankets of snow and temperatures are hovering around the freezing mark. As a result, it has become impossible for people to spend the night without any sort of heating. But the very crutch of existence in the extreme cold is also proving to be the cause of their demise. Several incidents of people dying from gas asphyxiation or fires have been reported ever since the temperatures started plummeting. People either burn firewood to create heat or use heating appliances — whether gas-powered or electric-powered. In areas where there are sub-zero temperatures, often a single heating appliance proves insufficient. Where appliances are used, the cost of running them on electricity can prove to be prohibitive. The only alternative is to run them on natural gas.
Owing to the cold, the gas pressure often falls to the point that these heaters stop working and people are unaware of when the gas supply resumes. As a result, gas floods the room, suffocating its occupants if there is insufficient ventilation. Or, if unnoticed and the heaters are ignited the next morning, it can cause an explosion. The use of firewood or coal is also fraught with peril. Apart from being quite expensive and with the additional burden of affecting the ecology, burning wood in a domestic environment comes with a massive risk of fires spreading. Even burning embers of firewood, if carelessly handled, can start a fire.
Freezing winters and the need for warmth is not a problem exclusive to Pakistan or one that has emerged in recent years. Other countries have found solutions to this issue by creating homes which are better insulated, have efficient and safe heating solutions. Perhaps the government should urge homeowners and builders to focus on these areas when building houses in areas which experience extreme winters. It should also create greater awareness about safety measures and measures that warn of gas build-up.
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