Monday, 26 May 2014

President’s China visit, milestone in Pak-China ties

Courtesy:- S Rahman

President Mamnoon Hussain’s recent visit to China during the CICA Summit can be aptly described as a milestone in the cordial Pak-China ties since it has provided yet another opportunity to both the countries not only to expand their ties but also diversify them.

Although the occasion was used with diplomatic sagacity to hold sideline meetings with the Sri Lankan President and UN Secretary General, as well, Pakistan’s ‘Look China’ policy reverberated quite vigorously during President Hussain’s visit. The fact is that when it comes to China, Pakistani head of state or Pakistani head of government enjoys special status over there because of which even meetings on the sidelines assume greater significance.

In the instant case too, President Mamnoon Hussain’s activities on the sidelines of the summit were multifaceted and a clear endorsement of the fact that both the countries enjoy intertwined, mutually dependable relations.

Sunday, 18 May 2014

A public empowerment initiative

Courtesy:- S Rahman

Prime Minister’s Interest Free Loans Scheme should not be evaluated only in the financial perspective; it has a broader dimension: PM Nawaz Sharif’s commitment to fulfill all the mandatory state obligations.

Those who have had opportunities to interact with the Prime Minister as well as study his way of working are convinced that PM Sharif is of the firm belief that the government is duty bound to protect and promote its citizenry in all respects.

Even the concept of state authority in the eyes of Prime Minister is not that of assuming greater powers but that of rendering public service. This idea is rooted in the belief that the masses have every right to demand from the state protection against insecurity, poverty and other sufferings and inadequacies.

And this is what is meant by democracy, which means rule of the people, for the people and by the people. It is with this belief and commitment towards serving the masses that the PML-N government is announcing multiple initiatives to alleviate the suffering of the people. A number of schemes have already been launched while others are in the pipeline.

The underlying theme is that as achieving bigger targets including provision of jobs to all the unemployed might consume some more time, short-term relief measures must be undertaken without any delay to resolve miseries of the poor and unemployed people with limited resources. Hence, the schemes like Metro Bus offering affordable fare and speedy travel, enhancement of Income Support Programme fund up to 100 billion figure, Skills Development Scheme for 40,000 plus persons, Prime Minister’s Youth Loan Scheme and of late, the Prime Minister’s Interest-Free Loan Scheme.

The idea behind all these schemes is to help the citizens in attaining self-reliance in the foreseeable future, and becoming economically empowered. Of course, it is empowerment of those classes, which don’t have sufficient means at their disposal to enter into practical life with ease and dignity. It is the prime obligation of the state to take care of these people and the government is endeavoring to fulfill this obligation through this interest-free loan scheme.

The prime minister’s latest welfare initiative, interest-free loan scheme, is yet another public-empowering endeavour and three aspects of it are remarkable; one is its interest-free status that is going to prove an effective incentive for the potential borrowers to avail the loan on the easiest terms. In Islamic terminology, it is called Qarz-e-Hasna and it is deemed to be the most ideal and enabling type of loan for the disadvantaged persons.

The second most important and positive aspect of this scheme is allocation of half (50%) of the loans for women. Through this decision the Sharif government has, in fact, reposed its confidence in the women working force. In a way, it is like building up a strong women work force. Ultimately, it will end up in the replication of national work force. Avoiding the hackneyed word ‘revolution’, this decision of the government spells a massive change in the direction of growth.

The third important and beneficial aspect is that preference will be given to the vulnerable rural and urban poor with a poverty score of up to 40 and although the outreach of the programme is for the whole of Pakistan, greater attention will be given to the un-served areas. The focus of the programme will be in the category of the poor scoring between 18.5 and 40, which in common parlance means the really downtrodden and hapless lot awaiting benevolent state intervention.

Other details of this programme reveal that the focus will be on districts with no or low micro-finance network facilities. Those districts will be given priority in which micro-finance beneficiaries are 12 per cent or below, as per the Micro Finance Network (MFN) data.

Now let us have a brief look at the other benefits that would accrue from this scheme. According to experts, the micro-finance facility aims at helping the industry raise current access level of 2.5 million people to five million in the next five years.

The good news for the public is that a reasonably large number of loans are available. As many as 0.25 million (250,000) loans of Rs25,000 average will be granted. This is indeed an impressive start towards poverty alleviation. The well-informed ones say that this first phase will be followed by more such phases of public empowerment package since the scheme stands 100 per cent chances of success. The government has already allocated Rs3.5 billion in the fiscal year 2013-14 for this programme in the form of government grant for 2013-14.

And, as is evident from the programme’s title the loan will not carry any mark-up. And Prime Minister’s special instructions about maintaining transparency have been translated into reality by putting in place a proper mechanism of surveillance. The list of recipients would be made available on website as beneficiaries will be registered through an appropriate web portal. Additionally, an effective complaint centre to process and resolve complaints will be set up. Equal attention is being given to developing Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) for each scheme’s monitoring on a regular footing with the support of the E-government Directorate of ministry of information technology.

And while IT Ministry will provide support in the area of transparency and monitoring, the executing agency of the interest-free loan programme is Pakistan Poverty Alleviation Fund (PPAF) but the latter won’t handle it alone because it is Sharif government’s policy to carry out its schemes with the collaboration and input of enlisted partner organisations and community organisations having necessary expertise and experience.

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Pak-Iran relations

Courtesy:- Malik Muhammad Ashraf

In the backdrop of the growing chill in relations between Pakistan and Iran, stoked by the recent abduction of Iranian border guards and the apparent foot-dragging by Pakistan in regards to fulfillment of its commitment on IP gas pipeline project, a summit level contact was absolutely necessary to smooth out differences between the two brotherly countries and recalibrate their ties in conformity with the demands of history and the emerging geo-political realities in the region. Viewed from this perspective, the recent visit of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to Iran was quite significant and timely. Indications are that both sides have agreed to better border management and improve security measures to ensure that incidents like the abduction of Iranian guards do not recur and enhanced security at the borders leads to increased bilateral trade, which both sides resolved to boost to $5 billion.
The two leaders also agreed to resurrect the IP gas project, which has remained in doldrums ever since it was conceived in 1995 — due to a variety of reasons including financial constraints and unrelenting US pressure on Pakistan to dissuade itself from the venture. It is indeed a very encouraging development in the backdrop of some discouraging signals in the recent past about the project ever taking off.
It is pertinent to mention that the US has been trying to persuade the present government to withdraw from the project by promising help in the energy sector as an alternate to the venture and also supporting the trans-regional projects like CASA-1000 and TAPI. It even used threats of sanctions against Pakistan but the government exhibited rare guts and vision to spurn the combination of lures and threats by the sole super power in the world. The government, by sticking to the project, has also made a healthy break from the unenviable past practice by the new governments to discard and disown the projects initiated by previous regimes. The stance of the government is also in line with the vision and paradigm shift in the conduct of our foreign policy, with greater focus on building regional linkages. Pakistan belongs to South Asian region and its economic prosperity and security is inextricably linked to this region. Any policy divorced from these realities would not be in our long term national interests. Giving due consideration to the geographical realities and historic bonds with the countries of the region reflects pragmatic and realistic thinking. The P5+1 agreement with Iran on its nuclear program and subsequent developments have also contributed to creating a congenial atmosphere for the implementation of the project and both Pakistan and Iran must capitalise on these changed realities for fast-track the implementation of the IP Gas Project.
From amongst the conceived trans-regional projects, only IP gas pipeline is relevant to Pakistan’s situation at the moment. It is not only important for energy-starved Pakistan but also for Iran in terms of showing the world that it was not isolated, more so in its own region. The Pak-Iran gas pipeline is almost indispensable in view of the energy crisis gripping the country at the moment and its future needs. The completion of the project would be instrumental to the addition of 4000 MW of electricity into the system. The Pak-Iran gas pipeline will serve our economic interests for a long time to come besides other benefits that will come through economic integration with the region. It is hoped that in view of the importance of the pipeline for both the countries and their determination to make it a reality, issues such as pricing and availability of the finances for construction of the 781 km section of the pipeline on Pakistani side and extension in the deadline for its completion, would be amicably resolved.
India, which initially was also part of the project known as IPI, withdrew from the venture in view of US opposition to it. However it has been adequately compensated through the signing of the agreement for transfer of civilian nuclear technology to her by US and its allies like UK and France. The US is not prepared to treat Pakistan at par with India with regard to transfer of civilian nuclear technology. Pakistan perforce has to find other avenues and sources for generating power to meet its current and future needs.
China, our time-tested friend, has come to our rescue in this area. It is helping us in building Chashma III and IV and is also engaged in the construction of nine power units in Gilgit-Baltistan and Azad Kashmir, including the Neelum Jhelum Project. Under the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, China would undertake 16 energy projects with a cumulative production capacity of 20,000 MW. Chinese companies would be making an investment of $6 billion in the power projects in Pakistan over the next five years, especially in the coal-based electricity generating units in which China has exceptional expertise. In addition to this, a nuclear power plant at Karachi with a potential to generate 2200 MW would also be constructed with Chinese help which would be completed by 2017.

At present Pakistan has an installed power generating capacity of nearly 23,000 MW from all sources and according to an IAEA assessment report, power demand in Pakistan will increase to more than 49,000 MW by the year 2025. The PML (N) government therefore is moving in the right direction by giving top priority to tackling the energy crisis and adding new power generating capacity to the system. IP gas pipeline project is surely of immense value with regard to attaining energy-security and kick-starting the process of rehabilitation of the economy.

Monday, 12 May 2014

Nawaz Sharif’s visit to Iran


Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s visit to Iran from 11-12 May took place after an interval of more than 16 years. His last visit to Tehran as the Prime Minister of Pakistan came about in December, 1997 to attend the OIC Summit. (Regrettably, according to newspaper reports, the Prime Minister was made to say in Tehran that his first visit to Iran as Prime Minister took place in 1999!) I had the honour of serving as the Pakistan ambassador to Iran at the time. I still remember that most of the conversation between Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and former President Khatami at that time related to the possibilities of coordination of the Afghanistan policies of the two countries. Unfortunately, the desire of the two leaders to achieve the required coordination was not fulfilled because of their inability to control the policies of their security agencies. Both Pakistan and Iran, therefore, continued their support to the Taliban and the Northern Alliance respectively till 9/11 when Pakistan was forced to bring about a U-turn under the threat of the American ultimatum.

Punjab’s Right to Information law

Courtesy:-  M Shafiq Anjum

Sunday, May 11, 2014 - Internationally, Right to Information (RTI) is considered as a fundamental right of citizens. It is the best tool to enhance the level of good governance, transparency and accountability in a country. Under Article-19-A of Constitution of Pakistan, RTI is a constitutional right available to all citizens. Accordingly, Punjab Assembly enacted a landmark legislation “The Punjab Transparency and Right to Information Act, 2013”on December 16, 2013 to ensure RTI across the Province. Its preamble clearly defines aim to promote transparency and freedom of information so as to facilitate citizens’ access to government-held records and information. The step is popularly hailed because the enactment of this law is the result of long struggle of civil society including Consumer Rights Commission of Pakistan (CRCP).

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Future trends in Pakistan-US relations

Courtesy:- Talat Masood

Pakistan-US relations have been on the mend and set on a steady course for several months now. Military to military cooperation is running smoothly and Coalition Support Funds are flowing with relatively less hiccups. Economic assistance and support in the energy sector is substantive, especially when we look at the Diamer-Bhasha and Dasu Dam projects. America remains Pakistan’s largest trading partner. Due to Washington’s backing, the World Bank, the IMF and other multilateral agencies are extending support for major projects and extending loans to boost the overall liquidity position. Intelligence cooperation, too, is somewhat improving, although mutual suspicions remain. More importantly, strategic dialogue has been revived that places the relationship in a structured framework providing continuity. Adversarial reporting about Pakistan’s nuclear assets in the US and Western press is also on the decline. Both countries now desist from airing their grievances in public, a practice which was vitiating the atmosphere. Differences in policy or divergence in approach is discussed in meetings and not under the glare of the media.
Public perception, however, of each other remains poor and mirrors the hostility built-up in the past. Hopefully, this will change, reflecting the new ambiance, provided the two countries are able to sustain this trend.
These are welcome developments, coming as they do in the backdrop of a very turbulent period when everything seems to be going awry, whether it was the shooting of two Pakistanis by CIA operative Raymond Davis, the Salala massacre or the humiliation suffered by Pakistan from the unilateral hunt for OBL that led to his assassination.
Despite the optimistic side of recent developments, this by no means is a transformative change and much would depend on how Islamabad and Washington view each other’s policies vis-a-vis their dealings with Afghanistan, Iran and India in the post-US withdrawal phase. Because, as of now, it is a very open question how Pakistan will manage its relations with the new leadership in the region. Equally significant in this equation would be how Pakistan handles its internal security problems. These factors will determine the future course and tone of the relationship.
This leads to the question as to what are the mutual expectations that are critical for building trust and continuity in the relationship. Pakistan expects the US will not abandon the region as it did during the 1990s. An assured commitment to stay engaged will depend on signing of the Bilateral Security Agreement by the Afghan government, chances of which appear to be fairly bright, as the two top contenders for the presidential election — Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani — have expressed their willingness to sign the treaty. Better management of the western border should be a priority for Washington and Islamabad. A US perennial demand from Pakistan has been to deny sanctuary to the Haqqani network in North Waziristan. As US forces are withdrawing, this group that has already overstayed our hospitality should leave for Afghanistan. Pakistan and Afghanistan have to clear safe havens that are under the control of militants and are being used for launching attacks on each other’s territory. As long as the governments do not establish the writ of the state in their respective areas and continue patronising each other’s enemies, mutual trust will remain elusive and a major source of friction between the two countries and will also affect our relations with the US.
Ensuring an unhindered operation of Isaf Ground Lines of Communication in Afghanistan during the coming months will be essential for Pakistan. This is an international obligation and crucial for maintaining the confidence of US and Nato countries.
Since the last few months, the US has wisely suspended the use of drones in Pakistan. Its political damage far exceeded the tactical gains that it was supposed to bring. Moreover, it has deprived the rightist political parties of exploiting this major irritant to spew anti-American propaganda.
Another major hurdle is Washington’s opposition to the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline project at a time when Pakistan is experiencing a severe energy crisis. American objection to this project sends a negative message and harms its image. The hard reality, however, is that until Iran and the P5+1 are able to reach a final agreement on Iran’s nuclear programme international sanctions will remain in force and Pakistan will have to grudgingly manage it.
Islamabad, like the rest of the world, would be closely watching the results of the forthcoming Indian and Afghan elections. If Modi was to win in India and Abdullah Abdullah elected president in Afghanistan, this would probably be the most desirable outcome from Washington and New Delhi’s point of view. Although Mr Sartaj Aziz and the Foreign Office spokesperson have reiterated that we will deal with whosoever comes to power, this development will require considerable finesse and skill in handling as this has implications on Pakistan-US relations and on regional and internal stability.
The Indo-US strategic partnership and their close ties are now a reality that Pakistan and the world are reconciled to. Washington’s insistence that India and Pakistan settle their differences on Kashmir at the bilateral level and that it will not play any facilitation role in resolving it is not new. New Delhi is not willing to accept any involvement of a third party in resolving disputes nor does it have the desire to resolve these at the bilateral level. Moreover, India feels it is a major regional and global player that cannot subject itself to mediation. For the US, India is a major destination of its investments and exports including military hardware. Besides, a close strategic partnership has developed between them in the last 10 years.
This, however, does not imply that it is a zero-sum game. Pakistan has its own importance due to its geostrategic position linking South with Central and West Asia, as a nuclear power and a state that can play a key role in the stability of Afghanistan. Finally, Pakistan’s importance to the US and the world in future will largely depend on its internal stability and contribution towards regional harmony and peace.

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Defamation of national institutions

Courtesy:-  Osman Khan

How do you define defamation? It is defined as an intentional false communication, either written or spoken, that harms a person’s reputation; decreases the respect, regard, or confidence in which a person is held; or induces disparaging, hostile, or disagreeable opinions or feelings against a person. 

Monday, 5 May 2014

Dealing with the IMF


The third review of the IMF program is currently taking place in Dubai. This time the Ministry of Finance (MoF) will be talking from a position of strength. Foreign exchange reserves have jumped to $7 billion, a doubling since the last review. This improvement started with the receipt of a large 'gift' from a friendly country of $1.5 billion, preceded by the announcement that the Chinese EXIM bank is willing to invest a massive amount of $32 billion in the energy sector and other infrastructure projects in Pakistan. The recent success of Pakistan in selling Eurobonds of $2 billion is the last factor contributing to the big jump in reserves.