Monday, May 27, 2013

Van fire tragedy: ''All are responsible''

REACTING to the tragic van fire near Gujrat town on Saturday, a local official said lives could have been saved if the driver of the vehicle had shown some courage. That statement provides the starting point of a probe to identify all those responsible for the heartbreaking, horrible tragedy. The killing of at least 15 young school-bound children and a teacher in the fire was no accident. This was nothing short of murder or at least manslaughter. The guilty include money-minded transporters who justify the low safety standards they maintain by boastfully stressing on the affordability factor. Never is their greed more obscenely manifested than in the hot summer months. The routine sight of children crammed in rundown vehicles in the suffocating heat is the worst advertisement for our education system. It is a horrifying throwback to those dark times that we would like to pretend we have left far behind. Sadly, the same era of ignorance and negligence continues, frequently throwing up tragedies of this sort. Those responsible also include school administrations and the officials who run the affairs of government. Finally, cruel though it may sound considering the grief of those whose children have perished, parents too must bear part of the blame for not demanding a better deal for their offspring, for being the meek of the earth who accept their fate unquestioningly. In a saner country, the Gujrat fire would be the only news worth pondering over for days and weeks if not months. In Pakistan, it is likely to be quickly overtaken by other, ‘more pressing’ events, as has happened in the aftermath of similar incidents in the past. Such incidents have included the killing of children in gas cylinder blasts, deaths of school-bound students at a railway crossing at one place and a bus overturning during a school excursion at another. After a period of initial mourning, these tragedies are forgotten in the interest of the continuation of the system. A similar pattern appears to be emerging now and the design could succeed once again unless a genuine effort is made to devise and enforce safety measures in transport used by our schoolchildren — and urgently. The blaming of one individual — the driver of the van — and the convenient, standard identification of short-circuiting as the cause of the fire are dire signs of the guilty seeking to take the old escape route. They are no less than murderers. If they are allowed to flee now, they will return to kill again.

On Memorial Day, Obama pays tribute to fallen
President Barack Obama paid tribute on Monday to fallen men and women of the U.S. armed services during a Memorial Day ceremony in which he reminded Americans that the country was still at war. During a solemn visit to Arlington National Ceremony, the resting ground for many military casualties, Obama noted in remarks to visitors that next year would mark the last Memorial Day of the U.S. war in Afghanistan. "But even as we turn the page on a decade of conflict, even as we look forward, let us never forget, as we gather here today, that our nation is still at war," Obama said. Unlike World War Two or the Vietnam War, conflicts that touched nearly every American, today most U.S. citizens were not directly affected by the military conflicts overseas, the president noted. "As we gather here today, at this very moment, more than 60,000 of our fellow Americans still serve far from home in Afghanistan," Obama said. "They're still going out on patrol, still living in Spartan forward operating bases, still risking their lives to carry out their mission. And when they give their lives, they are still being laid to rest in cemeteries in the quiet corners across our country, including here in Arlington." Before his remarks, Obama laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, placing his hand over his heart while taps was played. Joined by his wife, first lady Michelle Obama, the presidential motorcade snaked through the cemetery on a street lined with uniformed military members while the boom of a ceremonial canon sounded off in the background.

Pakistan: Loadshedding has no solution?

It was reported in a Business Recorder exclusive that the Ministry of Finance has decided to release 5 billion rupees instead of the 22.5 billion rupees that the caretaker Federal Minister for Water and Power Dr Musaddaq Malik claimed had been agreed with the Ministry of Finance. Dr Malik in a press conference further revealed that the decision to release 15 billion rupees to be utilised by Pakistan State Oil to procure fuel and the remaining 7.5 billion rupees to generate additional power was approved by the country's chief executive namely caretaker Prime Minister Khoso. An amount of 42 billion rupees, Dr Mailk added, had also been sanctioned by Khoso for June, a period when the caretakers would no longer be in power. It is extremely disheartening that four days later, Dr Musaddaq Malik in another press conference stated that until and unless the Ministry of Finance releases 17.5 billion rupees immediately, as agreed, loadshedding will continue at the same level which, with temperatures soaring, has begun to claim lives throughout the country. And the caretaker minister acknowledged that his own ministry is understating the demand position and thereby understating the demand-supply gap. It is by now evident that the caretaker cabinet is not on the same page on this critical issue that continues to compromise not only the country's ability to operate at optimum productivity levels but is also a source of considerable anger for the general public. In all fairness though the 5 billion rupee figure indicates the pressure on the Ministry of Finance to contain the budget deficit, a prerequisite to assuring bilateral and multilateral donors that the country is embarked on meaningful reforms that would create fiscal space necessary to positively impact on all the key macroeconomic indicators including inflation; while the 22.5 billion rupee amount indicates the Water and Power Ministry's focus on reducing loadshedding to a level whereby the productive sectors can be enabled to become the engines of growth of the economy and to stop the domestic sector's angry demonstrations against heavy loadshedding given the current high temperatures. This is indeed a Catch-22 situation which unfortunately is further complicated by allegations of a 'mafia' operating within the Water and Power Ministry by the caretaker Federal Minister leading him to publicly maintain that the energy crisis is structured by the unscrupulous rather than structural which would require some major reforms by the several power sub-sectors. Dr Malik's revelation that a random check carried out by him in Sialkot and Gujranwala led him to become aware that the entire distribution system of these cities was shut down is truly mind-boggling. The problem of circular debt that the PPP-led coalition government could not resolve during its five-year rule is also one that cannot be overcome in a matter of weeks or even months, the duration of the current caretaker set-up. And last but not least, as the Water and Power Minister revealed in his press conference Qadirpur gas field due to annual turnaround is unable to release 150 mmcfd to the power sector and therefore the country is being deprived of 800MW. At the same time one cannot possibly minimise the impact of higher than budgeted allocations to the power sector - set at 185 billion rupees in budget 2012-13 and revised upward to 291 billion rupees. Sources indicate that if the 5 billion rupee is added to the total subsidies received by the power sector the actual total would rise to 320 billion rupees - money that the Treasury simply does not have. In short, the government maybe forced to print money, a decision that even Dr Malik acknowledges is not a solution as extending subsidies to the power sector is tantamount to throwing good money after bad. So what is the solution? The Law Ministry has vetted a Presidential Ordinance that seeks to enhance tax collections through the imposition of higher taxes including sales tax, income tax, withholding tax, federal excise duty and customs duty. Or in other words, higher tax collections would no doubt enable the Ministry of Finance to release a higher amount to the power sector as a subsidy with the budget deficit remaining unchanged. The Ordinance reportedly has the support of the government-elect; however Raza Rabbani, a ferociously independent PPP mind, has indicated that his party would oppose the passage of the Ordinance during the tenure of the caretakers as it is violative of the 18th Constitutional Amendment - a stance that is opposed by several constitutional experts. Be that as it may, it appears that the President has stayed his hand and not yet affixed the necessary signature on the ordinance and each day's delay is reducing its overall impact on revenue collection as well as on the budget deficit. A preferred solution is to reform both the power sector as well as the tax structure whereby subsidies to the former would decline while higher tax collections through enhanced documentation would reduce the budget deficit. This approach has been supported by multilateral and bilateral donors who argue that improved governance in the two sectors is necessary to enable Pakistan to come out of the existing economic quagmire. With respect to the power sector, donors suggest some unpopular decisions including payment of arrears at source by the Ministry of Finance for public sector entities and disconnecting private sector connections for unpaid bills, reducing transmission losses to the acceptable 2.5 percent level instead of the current 3.6 percent, targeting power subsidies to only the very poor, rationalisation of existing staff in the power sector and rationalising and subsequently eliminating the circular debt. A tough call but someone has to do it and that someone must be the elected representatives of the people not a caretaker set-up without a mandate from the people of this country.

Pakistan: A tragedy foretold

All the expressions of “shock and grief” and wringing of hands after the event from the President through to all significant political leaders, even the usual announcement of Rs 500,000 compensation for the dead and Rs 100,000 for the injured, is not sufficient to allay the tragedy of the school children and a teacher burnt alive in a school van fire incident in Gujrat the other day. This is neither the first such incident nor, given the dire state of transport safety generally, and school busing in particular, is it likely to be the last. The van in question was reportedly owned by the school administration, did not have a route permit, and its fitness certificate had expired. That sums up the state of vehicle certification and inspection from a safety angle. The particular incident has been reported to have happened when the driver switched from CNG to petrol. It is being said that a spark ignited the petrol, including a reserve petrol bottle inside the van, which must have exacerbated the effects of the raging fire. The driver initially escaped, as is usual in such occurrences, but was later arrested from Kharian and latest reports say he has been remanded for three days. The school administration is said to have disappeared after locking the school as soon as news of the incident reached. Both show the sense of responsibility of the driver and the school owners/administration. There is no news yet whether the school owners/administration have been arraigned. The incident should not surprise us. Ever since transport has been allowed to use CNG, numerous cases of cylinder explosions have cost many lives, including children. It is a sad commentary on the inefficiency of government and state authorities that the problem has been left to fester over the years without a single step being taken to regulate transport safety. Many CNG kits and cylinders are installed by fly by night mechanics, putting the lives of all who ride in such vehicles in jeopardy. In this incident, the cause may have been the petrol that ignited rather than the CNG cylinders exploding, but that takes nothing away from the risks posed by dual-fuel vehicles with non-factory fittings. Vehicle certification, fitness and regular inspections are conspicuous by their absence. After the horse has bolted, the usual plethora of reports is being asked for to fix responsibility for the particular incident and private schools (only in the area) asked to submit the fitness certificates of all vehicles in their use for transporting school children. This is typical of the dysfunctional state Pakistan has been reduced to. Laws, rules, regulations, and their implementation, all exist only on paper, or can be circumvented by ‘greasing’ some palms. Children are the flowers of our future. Any society that is careless or indifferent about their welfare does not deserve the title ‘human’. Even animals look after their young better. Whereas the wider problem of the use of risky fuel kits in vehicles needs urgent control, the issue of school busing and the dangers this kind of arrangement and a whole array of private arrangements throughout the country pose to the lives of our tender charges needs addressing on a war footing if further loss of young lives is to be avoided. The Gujrat incident is nothing less than murder, or at the very least manslaughter. It is doubly poignant that children and a teacher became the victims of a greedy transporter, an irresponsible school administration, and government officials and institutions that fail to do their duty. Shame on them, and shame on all of us that seem incapable of safeguarding our young.

10 more kids die of measles in Lahore, toll mounts to 120

Ten more children died of measles in Lahore on Monday, bringing the death toll in this city to 65 and 120 in Punjab province, FP news desk reported. The ten children breathed their last in different hospitals of Lahore today as provincial government has failed to curb the outbreak despite vaccination campaigns. Over 14000 children have been affected from the disease and are under treatment in government hospitals across Punjab.