Thursday, June 7, 2012

Pakistan: Are we prepared for floods this year?

As the facts and figures of the recently released Economic Survey and the Federal Budget are examined closely, the size of economic distortions is highlighted. One of these is the fact that by March 2012, current expenditure of the federal government exceeded its target by a hefty Rs 317 billion. By end-June, this figure could only go up - a tradition that has been sustained since 2008. For 2012-13, the federal budget has projected a fiscal deficit of Rs 1,105 billion (assuming that the provinces will generate a surplus of Rs 80 billion). Doubts already exist about this target not being exceeded. One reason thereof is that the budget doesn't provide for repairs to the infrastructure damage arising out of the floods expected in 2012. On May 17, Chairman National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) had warned that as in 2010 and 2011, in 2012 too Pakistan will experience a "terrible" flood because of the ongoing unfavourable climate changes, heavy rains and consequent overflowing of the Swat and Kabul rivers and floods that could affect 29 million people in Charsadda, Peshawar, Nowshera, Muzzafargarh, Rajanpur, Laiyyah, Khushab, Muzzafarabad, Sargodha, and lower Sindh. Besides, massive land sliding was also expected in Gilgit-Baltistan. Floods are expected because of the heavy snowfall in the north of the country, and the strong possibility that this would cause both rains, and flooding of the rivers when snow starts melting on account of the climate-change. This trend is likely to continue for years in the Rajasthan, Sindh, Punjab and Balochistan belt. As per latest research-based assessment by the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change, Pakistan is now among the world's most climate-vulnerable countries including Nepal, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, and lower China. This was reason enough to create a regular expense head for flood relief and repair work in the budget. According to the Economic Survey, floods in 2010 and 2011 caused losses to the agriculture, transport and communication, energy, environment, forestry, water supply and sewerage sectors to the tune of Rs 324.5 billion but repair outlay amounted to Rs 239 billion, clearly indicating that the job wasn't done fully. The losses caused by floods in 2010 and 2011 are blamed for excessive borrowing by the federation. True; the losses did occur and had a huge impact since they also forced import of essential food items and drained Pakistan's foreign exchange reserves. But gross waste of resources on repair work was unfortunate. There were repeated disclosures about river banks not being raised adequately keeping in view the past experience of their overflowing, and repair work, especially lining of the banks exposed to river water with stones, was often ignored raising the fear that they could be eroded quickly by the expected powerful tidal flows. This scenario does not build high hopes about containing the losses expected from the flood. There are still places in Sindh where floodwater is stagnating over vast tracts of land even in villages and small towns. Parliamentarians elected by people from these areas don't visit these areas anymore. NDMA's warning called for long-term planning ie dredging of riverbeds, raising of the river banks, their strengthening on lasting bases, and building small dams to store rain and floodwater to assure its year-round availability for the agriculture sector. These steps could increase crop output and employment opportunities in the agriculture sector. It calls for selecting contractors based not merely on the lowest bid but on a satisfactory track record of finishing work on a timely basis as evidenced by their experience-based expertise and resources (requisite manpower and hardware). Advance planning of repair work and emergency strategies could spare millions the miseries they experienced in 2010 and 2011. But what appears more likely is a repeat of those tragedies because damages caused to canal networks haven't been repaired completely. City dwellers must prepare not just for sending relief supplies to the flood-affected areas but also for sheltering the flood-affected people in a manner that doesn't push them into committing petty crimes. Let us not forget that UN estimates of the 2010 floods losses highlighted the fact that that disaster was more devastating than the tsunami that hit South Asia in 2004, the 2005 earthquake in Pakistan, and the earthquake that hit Haiti in 2010.

Facing the music: Performers’ haven threatened in Banr

The Express Tribune
After dancing rituals became the centre of controversy in Kohistan, the performers’ community of Banr seems to be taking a share of the spotlight. The community, which depends solely on singing and dancing for a living, has been banned by the police from performing the cultural activities in the district. Ironically, the news comes as efforts are underway by the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (K-P) government to give Banr the status of a “cultural industry”. The ban has upset the locals who would perform in houses and hujras to entertain people, said Javed Iqbal, a local singer. “We get Rs200 to Rs400 for a single music and dance performance, which is our sole source of income. If these things are stopped we will have no other option but to beg or commit suicide,” he lamented. Another artist, Gul Wadood, who lay sick in his bed, was perturbed over the matter. “The police have besieged us in our homes,” he said. Wadood added that as a single concert earns for up to 10 families, banning such performances will render his community homeless. The artist said that under the government of the last ruler of Swat, locals had the freedom to perform their crafts. He said that a high court legalised the activities in 1977 by giving a verdict in their favour. “However, the Taliban came and not only banned the practice but also punished those involved in it; and now the police are doing the same,” he added. “We had guests over when the police raided our place. They disgraced our families and took us to the police station where they beat us and warned of dire consequences if we continue performing music and dance, said a wounded Mushtaq. “They tell us to sell tomato in the Grain Square instead,” he added. The community members claim that the police have threatened to shave their women’s heads if they violate the ban. “This is exactly what the Taliban did during their regime,” added another artist, requesting anonymity. “We are starving and have nothing to eat; if the government wants to ban our profession, it should provide us an alternate means of earning livelihood,” said Dilawar. “Unfortunately, the police are only harassing the poor community and letting the rich get away,” he added. A performing artist, holding her medical reports and medicines, said she has to buy medicines worth Rs300 and pay Rs6,000 house rent every month. “How should I make ends meet with a ban on our profession?” she questioned. She said the government should present a solution before banning us from singing and dancing. With similar woes, an old Rahat said that as four of her sons have died of a “mysterious” disease, her daughter supported the family through singing. She appealed to the prime minister, K-P chief minister and the Supreme Court to allow them to practice their profession. Svastu Arts and Cultural Association Chairman Usman Ulas Yar said, “instead of banishing cultural activities, the police should improve their performance. Music and dance is part of the Pakhtun culture and peace can never prevail without them,” he said. When contacted, Deputy Superintendant of Police Mingora Amjad Ali Khan said that they have implemented restrictions on logical grounds over cultural activities which lead towards criminal lines. Then he got furious and hung up.

Pakistan probes 'honour killings' of four women
Officials in Pakistan are travelling to a remote north-western region to find out if four women, who apparently sang and watched as two men danced, have been murdered in an honour killing. Video footage of the men and women, who gathered as part of a wedding celebration, has been widely seen. Villagers say the women were later killed. Local officials deny this. The men in the video appeared in court on Wednesday charged with creating conditions for tribal violence. Local officials not only failed to produce the women in the court on Wednesday but were also unable to produce any proof they were still alive, as directed by the court earlier. Tribal elders' decree? The video, first circulated about two months ago, shows four women sitting on the floor of a room, chatting and singing wedding songs while clapping their hands. A fifth woman is said have been an accomplice. A decree was allegedly issued by tribal elders for them to be killed because it was thought their actions brought dishonour to their community which frowns on men and women fraternising or dancing together. Also seen in the video are two young brothers, one of whom dances to the sound of the women's song. The other films the video, at one point turning the camera to himself. The BBC's M Ilyas Khan in Islamabad says that there is no shot of the men and women together, and it is unclear if they were in the same place at the same time.On Wednesday, the Chief Secretary of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province - where the incident in Kohistan district is alleged to have happened - argued that local custom did not allow women to travel in male company or face questions from male members of a judicial bench. He said this could lead to local legal complications. He suggested that a commission be constituted, including officials and human rights activists, to conduct an inquiry in Kohistan and submit its report to the court. But the court ordered that the women, if they were alive, should be brought to Islamabad. It suggested that the authorities should take some women activists with them who could provide the Kohistani women with female company during their journey.The village is at least two days' journey on foot from the nearest highway, and only helicopters can reach the area quickly.

U.S. losing patience with Pakistan

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said on Thursday the United States was reaching the limits of its patience with Pakistan because of the safe havens the country offered to insurgents in neighboring Afghanistan. It was some of the strongest language used by a U.S. official to describe the strained ties between Washington and Islamabad. "It is difficult to achieve peace in Afghanistan as long as there is safe haven for terrorists in Pakistan," said Panetta, speaking in the Afghan capital Kabul where he arrived for talks with military leaders amid rising violence in the war against the Taliban and a spate of deadly attacks, including a NATO air strike said to have killed 18 villagers. "It is very important for Pakistan to take steps. It is an increasing concern, the issue of safe haven, and we are reaching the limits of our patience," he told reporters. The United States has long pushed Pakistan to do more to help in the war against militancy, but the relationship has received a series of blows, not least by a unilateral U.S. raid into Pakistan to kill Osama bin Laden last year that humiliated Islamabad. Panetta also urged Pakistan to go after the Haqqani militant network, one of the United States' most feared enemies in Afghanistan, and said Washington would exert diplomatic pressure and take any other steps needed to protect its forces. "It is an increasing concern that safe havens exist and those like the Haqqanis make use of that to attack our forces," he said. "We are reaching the limits of our patience for that reason. It is extremely important for Pakistan to take action to prevent (giving) the Haqqanis safe havens, and for terrorists to use their country as a safety net to conduct attacks on our forces." The comments came as Washington appears to be looking to other allies in the region for help in the face of Pakistan's foot-dragging. Panetta arrived in Kabul after a visit to India, Pakistan's old enemy, where he urged New Delhi to take a more active role in Afghanistan. NATO has signed an agreement with three countries to the north of Afghanistan for land routes as the U.S.-led alliance begins a withdrawal of its forces from the country next year. NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen said earlier this week the "reverse transit" deal was signed with Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Pakistan closed the shorter and cheaper routes through its territory last year to protest a cross-border NATO air attack that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers. Discussions to reopen the Pakistan routes have stalled. Other irritants in U.S.-Pakistan ties include drone attacks in the lawless areas of Pakistan near the Afghan border where several militant groups operate but seen by many Pakistanis as a violation of sovereignty. Washington says the attacks are crucial to attack militants and four days ago, a U.S. drone strike in northwest Pakistan killed al Qaeda's second-ranking leader, Abu Yahya al-Libi. It was the biggest blow to the militant group since the killing of bin Laden. Tensions between Washington and Islamabad have also flared because a Pakistani doctor accused of helping the CIA find bin Laden was jailed for 33 years for treason last month. FULL-SCALE The United States wants Pakistan to launch a full-scale offensive in the North Waziristan border region to go after the Haqqani group, which is close to the Afghan Taliban and al Qaeda. "We have made that clear time and time again, and will continue to make clear that it is an intolerable situation to have those people attacking our people, our forces and to have the convenience of being able to return to safe havens in Pakistan," Panetta said. "We intend obviously to take whatever steps necessary to protect our forces. That's a principle we always stand by. For that to happen, we have to have Pakistan cooperation to take steps to control the Haqqani threat from their side of border." Pakistan has strong traditional links with the Afghan Taliban and other militant groups. Islamabad denies allegations it uses them as proxies to gain leverage in Afghanistan ahead of any settlement to the war, or in case a civil war breaks out after most foreign combat troops leave in 2014. The South Asian nation has said its military is too stretched fighting homegrown Taliban militants to take on the Haqqanis, and it alone would decide when to take action. Islamabad's cooperation is considered critical to U.S. efforts to stabilize Afghanistan before most foreign combat troops withdraw. But Washington will find it difficult to persuade Pakistan to both go after the Haqqani network and re-open the supply routes. Anti-American feelings runs deep over issues like drones, and with a general election expected in early 2013, no politician will want to be seen as soft on the Americans. U.S. President Barack Obama, for his part, will have to look tough against militancy during an election year in the United States, where many people may ask why the United States backs a country where bin Laden was said to have lived for years.

Punjab govt sidelined Rs 10b energy projects

Rehman Malik has lambasted Mian Shahbaz Sharif for sidelining Rs10 billion of energy projects. Advisor to the Prime Minister on Interior, Rehman Malik has lambasted Mian Shahbaz Sharif for sidelining Rs10 billion of energy projects for the Province. Replying to a question, while talking to media in NADRA Headquarters on Wednesday, he termed Punjab chief minister as a major con artist and dacoit who had committed a massive fraud worth Rs.1.7 billion in his Province. “Had he spent Rs.10 billion for electricity needs of Province, instead of defrauding nation, he would not have indulged in meaningless and futile dramatizations”, he retorted, while also accusing Nawaz Sharif of dramatizing issues while sitting in tents. He said that history of PPP was replete with ‘sacrifices’, while Nawaz Sharif had rather joined hands with “A-team” of former President Pervez Musharraf. Declaring former PM, (late) Z A Bhutto as a great leader who still ruled the minds and hearts of leaders of today, he said that Gaddafi Stadium was a part of nation’s heritage and history, which should not be broken. He also strongly condemned continuous drone attacks by America, demanding their forthwith cessation; and also declared FATA as a place of the brave and honorable, who had proudly joined hands with Army and FC against the negative elements of militancy and terrorism.