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Another turn in #Peshawar BRT project

The treacherous, winding Peshawar Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) project has dodged many deadlines and cost estimates. The recent one is, as reported by the Peshawar Development Authority (PDA), the addition of another Rs3 billion cost to the BRT project, bringing the total to a mammoth Rs71 billion. The PDA took up the issue of cost hike and consequent revision of the PC-I of the mass transit project at a meeting where participants leaned in utter disbelief that the project’s cost had been up by Rs3 billion mainly due to the devaluation of the local currency and subsequent inflation. If the PC-1 is revised, which is a complex issue at the moment, it will be the second such exercise. Earlier last year, the PC-1 was revised to put the project’s cost at Rs68 billion from the initial Rs49 billion after falws were detected in the design. 

The provincial government, however, insists that the revision of PC-1 involves a hectic exercise and many forums such as the Executive Committee of the National Economic Council, so the approved PC-I and the time for the project’s completion will be followed.

The Peshawar BRT has gradually become the epitome of the public sector’s incompetence. The project has constantly been behind deadlines mainly because of flouting of clauses of the contract agreement by the contractor. Rules allow the government to penalise the contractor with imposing interim recoupable liquidated damages – maximum five per cent of the project cost and slapping the irreversible permanent liquidated damages and terminating the contract. It is high time the government shows its tough face to violators and saves the day. Also, the project had flaws in the drainage near Tehkal area on University Road. This speaks volumes of the efficiency of the project planners.
The Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf government of 2013-18 in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa initiated the BRT project only to beat the criticism haunting it in the wake of the launch of such projects in Punjab. Peshawar, a smaller city than Lahore, did not need such a project. It only needed an efficient public transport system. The government, however, went for the showoff project in haste, and the consequences can be seen.
The project’s cost escalation should be discussed by the ruling party’s top circles so bureaucratic hiccups can be removed at the earliest.

#Pakistan - Poverty and child mortality - Child mortality figures in Pakistan are worrying

Child mortality figures in Pakistan are worrying and demand immediate steps to remedy the situation.
Seventy five children out of 1,000 live births died in Pakistan before reaching the age of five years in 2017, according to the UNICEF.
The average under-5 mortality rate in the world was 39 and South Asia’s average under-5 mortality rate was 45 in 2017. In other words, around 8 percent of the children died before reaching their fifth birthday in 2017 in Pakistan. This requires an urgent response from the health sector.
Poverty is universally believed to be the prime reason behind high child mortality. High mortality and poverty are indeed inextricably linked. Poverty means lack of access to adequate resources. This, in turn, translates into malnourishment and morbidity among children. Malnutrition in the early part of life is not only associated with higher likelihood of under-5 mortality, it also has lifelong consequences, such as cognitive deficiencies and poor economic and social outcomes.
Poverty and illiteracy generally go hand in hand; their combined effect can frequently prove fatal. Poverty also means adverse living conditions, such as inadequate housing, poor sanitation, unhygienic environment, all of which contribute to child morbidity and mortality. Poverty also affects child mortality through a range of indirect pathways, such as gender discrimination, domestic abuse, incessant family feuds arising out of the division of limited resources and broken families.
Alleviation of poverty and inequality in Pakistan is a long-term proposition. In view of an increasing population, political uncertainty, recurring economic downturns and crises, it is only expected that poverty in Pakistan is there to stay for a considerable time. There are many reasons why poverty cannot be alleviated in a short time. An economic turnaround requires structural changes with a focus on the development of functional political and economic institutions as well as skill development and capacity-building of the labour force, among others.
It may be argued that catch-up industrialisation (a theory which posits that developing countries will industrialise more rapidly than the time taken by the developed world to industrialise) is less time-consuming. Still, a complete overhaul of the economy requires time. So, one implication of poverty reduction being a long-term phenomenon is that reducing child mortality and achieving the Sustainable Development Goal of 25 deaths per 1000 live births requires a sustained effort over a long time. However, one silver lining is that some quick fixes exist.
Existing evidence has highlighted some known risk factors in child mortality which are generally analysed in terms of individual, household and community-level characteristics. Mother-related risk factors of child mortality include inadequate antenatal care, home-based births, illiteracy, lack of exposure to the media, and poor health during pregnancy and after childbirth.
Poverty and illiteracy generally go hand in hand; their combined effect can frequently prove fatal. Poverty also means adverse living conditions.
Low birth weight, premature birth, and fraternal twinning are some of the known risk factors of early child mortality too. Institutional factors, such as inadequate healthcare available to the mother during the pregnancy as measured by inadequate antenatal care visits, lack of immunisation and difficulty to access healthcare facilities are other risk factors.
Coming back to the quick fixes, some factors have been identified which can be effectively used to reduce under-5 child mortality even without significantly reducing poverty. Two of these factors are optimal birth spacing between two successive childbirths and optimal breastfeeding practices. Evidence on the link between birth spacing and breastfeeding and child mortality in the context of Pakistan is slow to emerge.
According to one estimate, the children who were never breastfed were 20 times more likely to die before their fifth birthday than those children who were ever breastfed. So, optimal breastfeeding could be potentially a decisive factor against under-5 child mortality. Best breastfeeding practice consists of three components: early initiation of breastfeeding (within one hour of childbirth), exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months and complementary breastfeeding for 2 years. In Pakistan, only 18 percent of the mothers initiate early breastfeeding while only 37.7 percent of mothers practise exclusive breastfeeding for 6 months.
Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO director general has remarked: “Breastmilk works like a baby’s first vaccine, protecting infants from potentially deadly diseases and giving them all the nourishment they need to survive and thrive.” It also helps prevent diarrhea and pneumonia which are major causes of death in infants. Mothers who breastfeed have a reduced risk of ovarian and breast cancer, which are two leading causes of death among women. Promotion of breastfeeding could save the lives of 820,000 children under the age of five years globally.
It is crucial to have a clear understanding of the problem of suboptimal breastfeeding practices. Why women stop breastfeeding before two years requires special attention of health professionals and other stakeholders. According to the Pakistan Demographic and Health Surveys 2017-18 data, the reasons why women stopped breastfeeding before two years include, i) the child has grown (21 percent), ii) health problems (40 percent), and iii) child cannot suckle (18 percent). Interestingly, a sizeable number of women considered their child as “grown” and, therefore, unfit for further breastfeeding only when the child was just one year old.
Optimal birth interval can also help drastically reduce under-5 child mortality. It may be noted here that too widely-spaced or too closely-spaced childbirths both have their known risks for the children and mothers. However, the risks of closely-spaced childbirths far outweigh the risks of widely-spaced childbirths. According to one estimate, children who are born within 18 months of the previous birth were four times more likely to die than those who were born after 36 months of previous birth. Similarly, the children were 43 percent more likely to die when their subsequent sibling was born within twenty months as compared to those children whose subsequent sibling was born after 20 months.
The political economy of child mortality in Pakistan points towards some important processes which partly explain high child-mortality rates. Birth spacing is part of the larger debate on family planning. To begin with, there has been a lot of intellectual confusion about family planning in Pakistan. While the Population Welfare Department has been long trying to convince the population about the benefits of small family size and adequate space between two births, the clergy has a very different narrative which favours large family size and says that family planning is a sin.
Large family size and small birth space between two children have an economic logic, too. There is a widespread perception that the state lacks the capacity to provide a decent living for every citizen. In the absence of any dependable social security network for the population not employed in the public sector, people believe that their children are the only dependable capital on which they can fall back in time of need or in their old age.
Large family size is thus considered a safe investment. One takeaway is that more holistic approaches are required to address the problem of high population growth rate. Family size cannot be significantly reduced unless the government shows by its actions its commitment to provide a decent minimum living standard to its citizens.
Similarly, the approach required to achieve optimal breastfeeding must factor in maternal health status and the circumstances at her workplace if she is employed. While female employees in the public sector are assured paid maternity leave, the situation is not as well-defined in the private sector. When it comes to the rights of employed women in the informal sector, it is a complete disaster.

Squeezed by debt and the US, Pakistan slows Belt and Road projects

W. Tariq

'Even Beijing knows' things are on hold, experts say.
Facing a prolonged financial crisis, and trying to balance ties between China and the U.S., Pakistan's policymakers are slowing the pace of multibillion dollar projects under China's Belt and Road Initiative.
The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, or CPEC, launched in 2014, aims to build links between China's Xinjiang Autonomous Region and the port city of Gwadar in southern Pakistan. The total cost of the project is estimated at $60 billion.
According to Hassan Daud Butt, CPEC project director for the Pakistani government, many Phase-1 projects, including improvements to the port of Gwadar, power plants and road construction, are unfinished despite deadlines set for last year by the previous government. Nor has there been progress on Phase-2 projects, which include setting up special economic zones and industrial estates. The initial time table called for the zones to be up and running by 2020.
Butt, in a recent telephone interview with the Nikkei Asian Review, did not comment on the reasons for the delays. But many experts say the government has adopted a go-slow approach to projects.
"There can't be any progress with China. Even Beijing knows that CPEC is on hold at the moment," said Kaiser Bengali, an economist and former policy adviser to the Sindh provincial government. "The U.S. doesn't want China's influence to grow, ... [so] control of our economy is in the hands of the U.S. and its affiliated institutions," such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.
Pakistan has put most of its eggs in the China basket. Chinese investment in the CPEC has led to massive imports of Chinese equipment and materials, swelling Pakistan's current account deficit and external debt. According to an IMF report published in July, Pakistan's total public external liabilities stood at $85.4 billion in March, one-fourth of which was owed to China. The State Bank of Pakistan, using a broader definition, puts the total at $106 billion.
A surge in import and debt financing has left Pakistan's foreign reserves critically low since last year. According to the State Bank of Pakistan, the country borrowed $16 billion from abroad in the 2018-19 fiscal year to avoid running out of foreign currency. Forty-two percent of that, or $6.7 billion, came from China. The government also approached IMF, which in July approved a $6 billion bailout.
The huge debt pile is forcing a slowdown in new projects. One example is the $8.5 billion Mainline-1, a railway modernization project that was part of CPEC Phase-1. According to sources in the Planning Commission of Pakistan, the bureaucracy is reluctant to proceed because of increased scrutiny from the National Accountability Bureau, as well as IMF restrictions on Pakistan taking on more debt.
Ayesha Siddiqa, a political commentator and research associate at London University's School of Oriental and African Studies, sees another factor behind the go-slow policy: Pakistan's military.
"They are getting stories published that criticize CPEC. No newspaper would have dared publishing anything critical of CPEC two years ago," Siddiqa said. The military has long been seen as the government's equal in policymaking. "The green signal [for criticism of CPEC] is because the military wants to push back," she said.
Critical voices are getting louder in many quarters. "It should be noted," a prominent industrialist said, speaking on condition of anonymity, "Pakistan's business community is not fully involved in joint venturing with Chinese investors."
Members of the public are also skeptical. "CPEC is beneficial for Pakistan, since we need investment for economic growth and stability. But in comparison, I think China will benefit much more than Pakistan," said Tashfeen Farooqi, a Karachi homemaker.
Shahbaz Rana, a financial journalist in Islamabad, agrees: "Although Pakistan's energy bottlenecks have been removed [by CPEC power projects], in the long term, China has more benefit as compared to Pakistan," he said.
Violence against Chinese workers in Pakistan, such as a recent attack on a luxury hotel in Gwadar by Baloch insurgents, has also stirred debate over whether the CPEC will succeed.
Meanwhile, U.S. President Donald Trump's determination to withdraw troops from Afghanistan is an opportunity for Pakistan to improve its relationship with Washington, experts say. Because the U.S. is opposed to CPEC, Pakistan appears to have agreed to make certain adjustments to allay its concerns.
"Pakistan is essentially trying to balance its relationship with China and the U.S.," said Kamran Yousaf, a diplomatic affairs correspondent based in Islamabad.

Timeline: US military presence in Afghanistan

Some 2,400 US troops have been killed since the US invaded Afghanistan in 2001 to pursue the Taliban.
As the United States and the Taliban edged closer to reaching an agreement in a bid to bring peace in Afghanistan, the group's fighters launched a series of attacks across the country including in the capital, Kabul.
At least 100 people were killed last week in the Taliban-claimed attacks, including a US soldier, which brought the number of US troops killed this year in Afghanistan to 16. A Romanian soldier was also killed.
Amid the attacks, the US envoy negotiating with the Taliban, Zalmay Khalilzad, said his team had reached an agreement "in principle" with the Taliban.
The draft agreement concerned the US pulling troops from five bases in Afghanistan in exchange for the group not allowing foreign fighters to use Afghanistan as a launchpad for global attacks. About 14,000 US troops and some 17,000 from 39 NATO allies and partner states are in the country in a non-combative role.
But on Sunday, US President Donald Trump announced in a series of tweets that he had "called off" the peace negotiations and "cancelled" a secret meeting with the Taliban's "major leaders" that was planned for Sunday at a presidential compound in Camp David, Maryland. Trump said he had also planned to meet Afghanistan's president.
Here is a timeline of the foreign military presence in Afghanistan since the US-led invasion of 2001 that toppled the Taliban. The war between the Taliban and the US has been raging since, with some 2,400 US troops and tens of thousands of Afghan troops killed.
The conflict has also claimed the lives of over 50,000 Afghan civilians.
October 2001: Al-Qaeda fighters are blamed for the September 11 attacks in the US and then-President George W Bush announces that the US and UK had launched air attacks on Afghanistan for harbouring the armed group.
November 2001: Some 1,300 US troops arrive in Afghanistan 
December 2001: The US force grows to 2,500 and the Taliban, in power since 1996, is toppled. An interim administration is established and Pashtun leader Hamid Karzai becomes its chairman.
March 2002: The number of US troops in Afghanistan increases to 7,200.
December 2002: The total number of US troops in Afghanistan reaches 9,700 as the year ends. 
April 2004: The number swells to 20,300 as the US builds up forces along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border and provides security for fledgeling reconstruction projects.
December 2006: Attention shifts to the escalating war in Iraq; the force in Afghanistan remains just over 20,000.
December 2007: The force in Afghanistan rises to 25,000, but Iraq remains Washington's priority.
May 2009: As fighting in Afghanistan becomes more intense, the number of US troops surpasses 50,000.
December 2009: Troops numbered more than 67,000 and the situation was deteriorating, with escalating violence and more service members killed. Then-US President Barack Obama orders in another 33,000 troops to battle al-Qaeda fighters and a resurgent Taliban.
August 2010: US forces in Afghanistan reach 100,000.

US troops' gradual dropdown

May 2011: Al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden is found hiding in neighbouring Pakistan and killed in a US special operations raid. There are still about 100,000 troops in Afghanistan.
June 2011: Saying the US is meeting its goals in Afghanistan, Obama announces his withdrawal plan: Bring back 10,000 troops by the end of 2011 and continue at a steady pace until handing over security responsibilities to the Afghans by 2014.
September 2012: Troop levels down to 77,000.
December 2013: Down to 46,000 troops, the slow withdrawal continues.
March 2014: With nearly 34,000 troops in Afghanistan, Obama orders the Pentagon to develop options for a complete military withdrawal because Karzai refuses to sign a security agreement with the US.
May 2014: Obama announces his plan to pull virtually all US troops out of Afghanistan by the end of 2016 when his second term in office will be drawing to a close.
December 2014: Troop levels were cut in half since Obama's announcement in May, down to 16,100. Obama declares their combat mission over but says troops will continue training and advising Afghan forces.
March 2015: Troops decline to their current number - about 9,800 - on track for a nearly total withdrawal in 2016.
October 2015: In a reversal, Obama says the situation is too fragile for the US military to leave. He announces plans to keep the force of about 9,800 in place through most of 2016 to continue counterterrorism missions and advise Afghans battling the Taliban. The plan is for the number to decrease to about 5,500 troops by December 2016.
July 2016: Saying the security situation in Afghanistan "remains precarious", Obama announces that instead of dropping the US troop level to 5,500, he will keep it at about 8,400 through the end of his term in January 2017 and that his successor can determine the next move.
August 2017: Trump warns against a "hasty withdrawal" from Afghanistan, saying: "Conditions on the ground, not arbitrary timetables, will guide our strategy from now on." Weeks later, it is confirmed that additional troops will be deployed, eventually bringing the number to about 14,000.
September 2019: Khalilzad, the US envoy, announces that under a deal reached "in principle" with the group, the first 5,000 US troops would withdraw within 135 days of the agreement becoming final.
September 2019: Trump says secret meetings between himself and Taliban leaders and with the Afghan president at Camp David are now cancelled, citing the death of a US service member in a Taliban attack in Kabul two days earlier.

Trump cancels Taliban talks: What does it mean for Afghanistan?


US president says he called off secret meetings with the Taliban and Afghan president, cancels peace negotiations.
In an abrupt move, US President Donald Trump said on Saturday he had called off separate secret meetings planned for the next day with the Taliban and Afghanistan's president at Camp David.
Citing a Taliban-claimed deadly attack in Kabul last week, Trump also said he was cancelling the talks between the United States and the Taliban that started almost a year ago in Qatar in an effort to end the 18-year war in Afghanistan.
In a statement on Sunday, the Afghan government praised the "sincere efforts of its allies" and expressed its commitment to work with the US "to bring lasting peace".

Timeline: US military presence in Afghanistan

A Taliban representative in Doha, who is part of the team that had been negotiating with US officials since October last year, told Al Jazeera on Sunday that the group has called a meeting to discuss its next move, without reacting further to Trump's move.
In a statement later on Sunday, the Taliban said the decision to call off the peace negotiations disclosed the US's "anti-peace" stance.
So what is behind the US president's decision and what does it mean for the future of negotiations?

What have the talks been about?

On September 2, the US and the Taliban concluded their ninth round of negotiations in the Qatari capital, with US envoy Zalmay Khalilzad saying that a peace agreement had been finalised "in principle".
Since the talks began in October last year, the two sides' discussions over a potential agreement have focused on four key issues: a Taliban guarantee that it will not allow foreign armed groups and fighters to use Afghanistan as a launchpad to conduct attacks outside the country; the complete withdrawal of US and NATO forces; an intra-Afghan dialogue; and a permanent ceasefire.
The Taliban, which was overthrown in 2001 by a US-led military coalition for sheltering al-Qaeda, the group blamed for the September 11, 2001 attacks in the US, has long demanded a complete withdrawal of foreign troops to "end the occupation" in Afghanistan.
Currently, there are about 14,000 US troops and around 17,000 troops from 39 NATO allies and partner countries in Afghanistan in a non-combative role.

Why did Trump call off the talks?

The Taliban, which has long rejected calls by Washington and Kabul for a ceasefire, stepped up attacks in recent weeks, even as the negotiations in Doha were ongoing.
Last week, as the Taliban and US negotiators reached a draft accord, hundreds of the group's fighters overran parts of the strategic northern city of Kunduz.
Attacks were also launched in the provinces of Takhar, Badakhshan, Balkh, Farah and Herat, according to Afghan local media. The Kabul-Baghlan and Baghlan-Kunduz highways were blocked, too, due to the fighting.
The Taliban also claimed responsibility for two major suicide bombings that killed at least 30 people in Kabul, including one US soldier and one Romanian service member of NATO's Afghanistan mission.
Jeff Stacey, a former US State Department official, told Al Jazeera that although Trump's comments were unexpected, they showed a "serious" approach by a president who has been "very unpredictable" and inconsistent in regards to Washington's Afghan policy.
"It is positive sign, it confirms that it's been taken very seriously," he told Al Jazeera. "The fact the talks are cancelled just suggests that there is a little difficulty in the latest discussions," Stacey added.
"They are trying to move the Taliban further towards the American and Afghan government goals, so it's not really that big of deal - it's actually more positive than negative."
For Intizar Khadim, a political analyst in Kabul, Trump's move was "a negotiating tactic".
"I would not call it cancellation of the talks but rather a delay or suspension," he told Al Jazeera, predicting that Trump "will reverse" his latest move.
"It is a psychological pressure from the US government on the Taliban to concede a number of incentives that the Afghan government is asking from the United States."
The Afghan government, politicians and some members of the US administration who mistrust the Taliban say a deal that would see US troops withdrawing from the country could lead to a civil war in Afghanistan.
Following Trump's announcement, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani's office said on Sunday that "real peace" would only be possible if the Taliban stopped launching attacks and held direct talks with the government. 
The Taliban has long refused to negotiate with the Afghan government, calling it a "puppet regime" that has no real power.
"The Taliban need to abandon a military solution, agree to a ceasefire, negotiate directly with the Afghan government and reintegrate into Afghan society," Lawrence Sellin, a retired US Army reserve colonel, told Al Jazeera.
"A return to an Emirate is a recipe for disaster and would likely lead to civil war and an epicentre of terrorism and jihad."

Is US legitimising the Taliban?

Meanwhile, the location of the secret meetings came as a surprise to many who pointed out that Camp David has long been a place reserved for summits attended by world leaders
"Inviting the Taliban, who many consider a terrorist group, was a politically risky move both from the optics and from a greater likelihood of failure and embarrassment to the president," Sellin told Al Jazeera.
If such a meeting were to take place, it would also mean that Trump would host the Taliban just days before the anniversary of the September 11, 2001, attacks.
"I am frankly shocked that any presidential adviser would have recommended it. President Trump cancelled it for the reasons he stated - that is, the optics were unfavourable given the recent Taliban-claimed bombing in Kabul that killed an American soldier and many Afghans."
The apparent legitimacy offered to the Taliban was also "not acceptable" by many in Afghanistan, according to Faheem Dashty, a Kabul-based political analyst.
"They were complaining the way the US were promoting the Taliban and giving them ground to be recognised in an international way and in very high and credible manner, but after Trump's announcement, they will now they will feel under pressure."
In an article published in the Daily Beast, a senior European diplomat in Kabul said the Taliban was rather "rude with the US throughout the peace process because they have the impression that a withdrawal deal is a desperate desire of the USA, not the Taliban".
INTERACTIVE: Afghanistan control map - June 23, 2019

Why is Taliban refusing calls for ceasefire?

The Taliban now controls or holds influence over more Afghan territory than at any point since its toppling in 2001.
According to a report by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), as of January 31 last year, 229 districts (56.3 percent) were under the Afghan government's control.
On the other hand, 59 districts (14.5 percent) were under Taliban control. The remaining 119 districts (29.2 percent) remain contested - controlled by neither the Afghan government nor the Taliban.
"The civilians have been targeted to show visibilities and the group's strength to show to the international community that they cannot be defeated," political analyst Hashim Wahdatyar, who is a director at the Institute of Current World Affairs in Washington, DC, told Al Jazeera.
"For this reason, blind attacks including bombs and suicide attacks are resulting in civilian casualties."
The Taliban has repeatedly said there will be no ceasefire until US troops withdrew.
When the loya jirga (grand council) in May called for an immediate ceasefire between the government and the Taliban during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, Ghani agreed to a truce provided it was not "one-sided".
However, the Taliban rejected the call, saying waging a war during Ramadan had "even more rewards".

What happens if US troops leave?

A United Nations report released earlier this year said that 2018 saw the highest number of civilians killed in Afghanistan's war than any other year on record.
Civilian deaths jumped to 3,804, an 11 percent increase compared to the year before. The death toll included 927 children, while another 7,189 people were wounded, according to the UN figures, as suicide attacks and bombings wreaked havoc across Afghanistan. 
In another report released in May by the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, Afghan and international forces, including NATO, killed more civilians in the first three months of this year than the Taliban or fighters from other armed groups.
At least 305 civilians were killed by pro-government forces between January and March, with 52.5 percent of all deaths coming in that period.
With the spike in violence, there is a growing desperation for peace among ordinary Afghans.
"The country will fall to another civil war and some countries of the region will support each faction for a proxy war," Wahdatyar told Al Jazeera.
"The Islamic State [ISIL] will take the opportunity and will expand and the country will become a hotbed of international terrorism. Without the international community active support, the Afghan security forces will collapse."