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In the dark
Punjab, Haryana groping on power front
T
HE inadequacy of rain is adding worry lines to the foreheads of not only farmers but of all sections of society. In the absence of sufficient precipitation, the demand for power has skyrocketed, but supply lags far behind. As a result, long power cuts are being witnessed both in Punjab and Haryana.

Pay hike unjustified
Punjab MLAs need to practice austerity
A
T a time when Punjab’s finances are in doldrums, the manner in which its legislators, cutting across party lines, have joined together to get their pay and perks enhanced is regrettable. Clearly, if the MLAs’ pay and perks are increased, it will be a drain on the state exchequer. 



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Common medical entrance 
It will ensure transparency and fair play
I
N a nation where often moolah rather than merit becomes the criterion for admission to various professional colleges, the Medical Council of India’s proposal to have a “single common national entrance” examination for all medical colleges deserves to be welcomed.
ARTICLE

Education Policy — A Tribune Debate 
Mere tinkering won’t do
Can we make a new beginning?
by Kavita A. Sharma
T
HE discourse around making the board examinations for Class X optional has moved largely around the issues of stress on the students on the one hand and the importance of examinations in ensuring a minimum of learning outcomes on the other. The emphasis is on examining the student, but it has to shift from this to evaluating the institution in which the teaching and learning takes place to see if there is an enabling environment for the  student to learn.

MIDDLE

The millionth word
by Shailja Ashok Yadav

Slumdog Millionaire” created a global sensation by winning eight Oscar awards. Back home with the Congress party purchased ownership rights of its title song “Jai ho” for enchanting the Indian electorate during the parliamentary elections held recently.

OPED

Growth has not dented poverty
50 per cent of Indians earn less than Rs 90 per day
by Kuldip Nayar
T
HE financial meltdown has not affected India as much as it has other world economies. Industry is looking up, and so are some other sectors. The overall scene holds hope. Yet, I am still seeking the answer to the following question: Why poverty in India is so indelible that the hike in economy, 7 to 9 per cent for the last seven-eight years, has had little impact on the living standards of roughly the lower two-thirds of the population?

Difficult choices to manage US fiscal situation
by Alan J. Auerbach and William G. Gale

THE United States confronts not one but two economic challenges: its worst recession since the Depression and a growing imbalance between federal spending and revenues that makes its underlying fiscal policy unsustainable.

Inside Pakistan
by Syed Nooruzzaman

  • Musharraf’s bid to enter politics

  • Taliban’s supporters

  • ‘Carbon tax’ controversy


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In the dark
Punjab, Haryana groping on power front

THE inadequacy of rain is adding worry lines to the foreheads of not only farmers but of all sections of society. In the absence of sufficient precipitation, the demand for power has skyrocketed, but supply lags far behind. As a result, long power cuts are being witnessed both in Punjab and Haryana. The worst hit are the small scale units, which are on the verge of closure in cities from Ludhiana to Panipat and Jalandhar to Yamunanagar. Production is hit, and many of the employees find their jobs on the chopping block. That is a sorry state of affairs and can cause acute social unrest in the days to come.

The crisis has not emerged just due to the miserliness of rain gods. In fact, it is more man-made. Governments have been busy pursuing populist policies without caring to increase power production adequately. After all, headlines are obtained more by announcing free power supply to certain sections rather than augmenting generation. The result is that almost the whole region is grappling with scheduled as well as unscheduled power shutdowns.

Even when power is supplied, it is either of low voltage or with voltage fluctuations. In Punjab, full one-third of the total electricity is being wasted in transmission and distribution but hardly any attempt has been made to curb pilferage. As a result, most industries are having to go in for captive power, which increases the production cost of various goods sharply. It is a pity that despite being fully aware of the shortage, the governments have been overly liberal in sanctioning tubewell connections. Electricity is thus being taken away from the paying sector to the non-paying sector. Punjab has a 20 per cent gap between supply and demand. Haryana’s situation is equally bad. Electricity is the driving force behind almost all activities of human life. States will be ignoring this fact only at their own peril.

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Pay hike unjustified
Punjab MLAs need to practice austerity

AT a time when Punjab’s finances are in doldrums, the manner in which its legislators, cutting across party lines, have joined together to get their pay and perks enhanced is regrettable. Clearly, if the MLAs’ pay and perks are increased, it will be a drain on the state exchequer. Their argument that instead of reimbursement of their telephone bills, conveyance and other expenditure, they should be paid in cash as part of their salaries is also flawed and should not be entertained. Equally unsustainable is their demand for pay revision in the context of the state government’s decision to implement the Pay Commission’s recommendations for its employees.

Punjab’s legislators are a pampered lot in terms of the perks and allowances they enjoy. Yet, they are unhappy and ask for more. Shockingly, the government pays even their income-tax. This amounts to squandering tax-payers’ money. It is surprising that Finance Minister Manpreet Singh Badal stands isolated on the issue of revision of pay and his appeal for scrapping subsidies has fallen on deaf ears.

What makes matters worse is the role of the officials. It is common knowledge how Punjab boasts of a bloated bureaucracy and a top-heavy police force. It is as if the legislators and officials have ganged up at the exchequer’s cost. If the powers-that-be are interested to stem the rot, streamline governance and work for general well-being, they need to put service before themselves. The government spends heavily on salaries, pensions and loan repayments. Consequently, it has hardly anything left for development. The legislators would do well to strive for generating more revenue instead of appropriating the scarce resources for their own benefit.

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Common medical entrance 
It will ensure transparency and fair play

IN a nation where often moolah rather than merit becomes the criterion for admission to various professional colleges, the Medical Council of India’s proposal to have a “single common national entrance” examination for all medical colleges deserves to be welcomed. Indeed, the move, that aims to cover nearly 290 medical colleges in the country, both government and private, will not only be conducive to standardisation but also transparency in admission procedures.

Malpractices have often been reported in admission to private medical and other professional colleges. More recently, even the Supreme Court felt there was foul play in admission to medical and dental colleges. Though capitation fees has been banned by nearly every state in the country, sting operations have time and again exposed how private colleges demand and get away with huge capitation fees, thus making a mockery of the admission process. As things stand, there is a yawning gap between the standards of education in different medical colleges. While the functioning of many medical colleges has come under the scanner, there are discrepancies at the entrance level as well.

Common entrance test, a fair tool for uniform evaluation, has of late become popular in India. The prestigious Indian Institute of Management has a Common Admission Test for its business schools. India’s premier institute IIT conducts Joint Entrance Examination. Single entrance test for admission to MBBS courses will certainly benefit students who now have to take several entrance tests as well as spend money to buy forms for private medical colleges. The MCI has proposed that a national regulatory body may be told to conduct the examination. If the UPSC can conduct all-India tests for civil services, certainly medical colleges, too, can have a common entrance test. The MCI’s suggestion can help plug many existing loopholes. While ensuring that meritocracy as well as ethics and professionalism prevail, it can slam the door on backdoor admissions. 

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Thought for the Day

Let noble thoughts come to us from all sides.  — The Upanishads

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Education Policy — A Tribune Debate 
Mere tinkering won’t do
Can we make a new beginning?
by Kavita A. Sharma

THE discourse around making the board examinations for Class X optional has moved largely around the issues of stress on the students on the one hand and the importance of examinations in ensuring a minimum of learning outcomes on the other. The emphasis is on examining the student, but it has to shift from this to evaluating the institution in which the teaching and learning takes place to see if there is an enabling environment for the student to learn.

For example, if the teaching-learning environment of school A is way below that of school B, the results of the board examination can only be skewed and meaningless and can exclude the unsuccessful student from further learning opportunities. In such a situation, it achieves no purpose and can be actually harmful.

However, when the state proposes to change its policy concerning the boards, it will have to meet at least two basic challenges. In the absence of national or state board examinations, what will be the state policies which will hold schools more accountable so that the process of teaching and learning does not decline even further; and how will the state deal with the diverse student population and the learning opportunities available to them to ensure a measure of equity between them? There are some thoughts.

Achievements have to be measured not merely of students but also of teachers and the management. The school itself has to be constantly evaluated and improved because if the learning environment improves, the students will also do better. This involves an analysis of how goals, perceptions, motivations and strategies are structured by institutional arrangements because the instructional leadership must come from the schools themselves who must set their goals and targets of learning achievements. It means that issues have to be identified and prioritised, competing policies considered, and key participants have to be taken on board as educational reforms are usually politically sensitive. They succeed only when there is readiness to accept the organisational capacity to meet the challenges and the power to overcome resistance.

The first question to be asked is: what is the purpose of the board examinations? Presumably, it is to ensure a minimum learning outcome among students by getting it evaluated by an impartial and objective examining body. But for it to be a truthful and meaningful assessment, the playing field has to be reasonably level. Otherwise, it will breed feelings of inferiority and alienation. Huge disparity among schools is one of the factors for high failure and dropout rates. It condemns children to inequities because of exigencies of birth and economics. These feelings only get exacerbated by board examinations which only give marks for the “right” answers according to a predetermined marking scheme. It encourages rote learning as every school concentrates on achieving a particular pass percentage.

The concentration is on giving the students the right examination techniques and thus the whole teaching-learning process gets vitiated to focus only on examinations. Rote learning rather than actual learning becomes the goal. Since schools stake their reputation and define the worth of students by marks and pass percentages their goal shifts from ensuring thinking, learning and comprehension to seeing that the children pass the examination. In any case, the Class X board examination is used primarily for streaming the children into commerce, science and humanities as usually no cognisance is taken of it when they enter institutions of higher education.

Therefore, the abolition of the board examinations is not enough. It is only a first step as must be accompanied by attention quality. What is the goal of schooling? Is it certification or learning or both and which has primacy? If it is learning, then learning outcomes must be improved. They depend on a variety of factors like the physical infrastructure available in a school, its academic and pedagogical practices, access to teaching and learning tools, quality of teachers and their motivational levels, the cultural and social milieu, the home background of the student and parental support. There are many more.

There is a wide gap in the quality of schools in different parts of the country and often even within the same city. For example, there is not only the rural-urban divide but also disparities in even the basic minimum school facilities in different parts of a city. There are issues of gender and of inclusiveness for certain sections of society. There are matters related to affordability. Hence, before the Boards can seek to measure the learning outcomes of students, there must also be a process of measuring the learning infrastructure and facilities of schools and strengthening them.

While education has to be child-centric, the teacher is the pivot in its delivery. Therefore, the qualifications, motivations and training of teachers have to be a matter of immediate concern. Further, the self-worth and self-esteem of teachers has to be improved by societal recognition of the vital role they play in the delivery of education and the lives of their students. This cannot be done by symbolic gestures alone. Teachers have to given a say in setting goals and missions for the school, in curriculum formation and pedagogical practices and encouraged to innovate while spelling out for them the over-arching desired leaning outcomes. Also their relationships with parents and the wider community are powerful determinants in student learning and they can create a sense of ownership in the community for the school which is absolutely essential for success.

The community must feel that it has a stake in maintaining a good school as the education of children depends on it. Therefore, a decentralised school-based management with appropriate community involvement is conducive to change and innovation so that teaching-learning processes improve. This can be done by incorporating local resources in the different spheres: physical infrastructure, curriculum formation and the knowledge delivery system, formal and informal. After all, the best learning takes place from the familiar to the unfamiliar, from the near to the far. India is equipped to put this in practice as it is rich in crafts, dance, music, theatre, puppetry and narrative traditions. All these can be both studied and used to study sociology, history, economics, politics, literature, science, mathematics and other subjects.

Many other transformational changes can be discussed. But if the abolition of the board examinations can simultaneously reduce stress on the students and become a springboard for far-reaching improvements and innovations in the teaching-learning processes leading to an improvement in schooling, a much awaited new beginning would have been made. Otherwise, it will be just another tinkering with the system.

The writer is Director, India International Centre, New Delhi

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The millionth word
by Shailja Ashok Yadav

Slumdog Millionaire” created a global sensation by winning eight Oscar awards. Back home with the Congress party purchased ownership rights of its title song “Jai ho” for enchanting the Indian electorate during the parliamentary elections held recently.

The two words “Slumdog Millionaire” and “Jai ho” might have brought smiles on the faces of billions but like Shakespearean “one may smile and smile but be a villain”, the English language preferred instead what sounds a drab “Web 2.0” word while inducting the millionth word in English language.

Had “slumdog” or “Jai ho” found favour with the jury, the momentous event would have become eternity as Robert Browning would have liked to put it.

Reaching the millionth mark, however, indicates the all-absorbing capacity of the language to embrace as many new words as possible from all hues, nationalities and civilisations and grow richer with time. Even great poets like Shakespeare and Wordsworth used Greek and non-English words in plenty at will. The Oxford English Dictionary has credited Shakespeare with introducing nearly 3,000 new words into English language.

The linguistic vastness of English also brings forth the adventurous temperament of the British who sailed around the world and discovered various countries and kept growing economically, politically and linguistically. Little doubt that the English language has emerged as the biggest importer of words.

Britain, christened as the Vatican of traditions, damns orthodoxy when it comes to English language as about 14 non-English words are finding their entry into English dictionary on an average every day leaving other languages much behind in race. Today the language of the most populous country in the world, China has about five lakh words, Japanese and Spanish a little over two lakh, Russian, German and Hindi less than even two lakh and French just close to one lakh words.

The momentous event is a pointer that though the British empire crumbled long ago in the world, the linguistic imperialism continues with gay abandon as English language is showing its domination as a powerful medium of global expression. No wonder that this language has managed to sneak in and trespass even among nations inimical to Britain and emerge as the sole unifying factor in both the hemispheres of the planet. What the Englishmen perhaps could not achieve politically, the English language has achieved by embracing new words from whatever source it came through.

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Growth has not dented poverty
50 per cent of Indians earn less than Rs 90 per day
by Kuldip Nayar

THE financial meltdown has not affected India as much as it has other world economies. Industry is looking up, and so are some other sectors. The overall scene holds hope. Yet, I am still seeking the answer to the following question: Why poverty in India is so indelible that the hike in economy, 7 to 9 per cent for the last seven-eight years, has had little impact on the living standards of roughly the lower two-thirds of the population?

Our GDP has more than quadrupled since 1950, from 8.4 per cent to 39.1 per cent. But the needle of poverty line is stuck more or less at the same point where it has been for many years. It is not coming down. Again, the per capita income has increased from Rs. 5,708 to Rs. 25,494, more than four times, but without changing the fate of some 40 crore people who are worse than before because the prices have soared beyond reason. Economic surveys and budgets mean little when there is no dent in poverty.

Statistics can be manoeuvred, but the ground reality cannot be. The big talk that India is being taken to Bharat is empty because not even half of the villages in the country have electricity and those which have do not get it for days. Water is a long haul away. Doctors and teachers are becoming a rare sight in rural areas, although the claims made by the centre and the states about providing education and health facilities are increasing day by day.

Still more shocking is the report of a government panel, recommending that 50 per cent of India’s population should be given below poverty-line cards. Cards entitle its holders cheap food grain. That means 50 per cent of India’s population is still below the poverty line, i.e., the earning is less than $2 (Rs 90) per day. But even these figures would not have been available if the Supreme Court had not appointed its own committee, headed by Food Commissioner N.C. Saxena, to find out the veracity of the government claims. The Planning Commission still places the line of poverty at 28.5 per cent. However, the recent Arjun Sen Gupta committee report says that 70 per cent of the country’s population does not earn more than $2 per day.

Apart from the discrepancy, the ever-growing dilemma is where has the additional money earned or earmarked by the government gone? There are two possibilities. One is that the lower middle class has become the upper middle and the upper middle class has become the elite rich. But the fact is that the rich have become richer. The Forbes magazine, which regularly lists the top rich people in the world, is having more and more Indians among the first 15.

The other possibility is the reality. The amount which travels from the government in the shape of cash or food grains gets reduced to a trickle when it reaches the supposed beneficiaries. There are too many middlemen and the transmission line is too long. It does not let the benefits flow freely and reach the targeted people. Former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi said that only 15 per cent of the allocations got to the people for whom they were meant.

The proliferation has gone up. No amount of effort, if exerted, has made little difference. The 15 per cent appears to have got reduced to 12 per cent and the share of the poor is decreasing constantly. Take the ration-card holders. They do not get food grain prescribed for them. The shopkeepers, a part of a long chain of corrupt paraphernalia, do not give them full rations or say that they have not received them from the government. Rice, wheat or kerosene oil is diverted to the black market. This is purchased by the haves.

The entire system is reeking with corruption. The clerical staff, the gazetted officers and political masters runs the administration without caring about the complaints made by the common man. The government machinery does not work until you grease it and it has to be done at every step. It is easy to say that those who offer graft are equally to blame. But their problem is that they cannot go ahead without bribing the horde of babus.

New machinery may be too expensive to put on the ground to ensure that the poverty alleviation programmes do not suffer the same fate. But where is the guarantee that the new machinery would be honest and stay so? Perhaps a deputy commissioner would do well if he were to have a committee of eminent citizens and top district officers to supervise the programmes like the one that guarantees employment in rural areas or the distribution of food grains through fair price shops.

Still there is need to appoint a high-power commission to find out where the extra money has gone. Thousands of crores of rupees have been allocated to the aam aadmi programmes. But everybody knows that this money has not reached the right quarters.  After the completion of two Five-Year Plans, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was pilloried in Parliament that despite the increase of 42 per cent in national income, the living conditions of the poor had remained the same. He appointed a committee headed by a ‘progressive’ P.C. Mahalanobis to find out the answer.

The committee found that “the concentration of economic power in the private sector more than what could be justified as necessary on functional grounds.” Yet, the committee wondered “how  far this is an inevitable part of process of economic development, how far it can be justified in terms of economy of scale and full utilisation of scarce managerial and entrepreneurial resources…and how far the growth which has taken place is unhealthy and anti-social in its consequences.”

Even though the radicals found the report as the grist for their propaganda mills, they could not make a convincing case against the private sector because the report itself was not categorical in its observations. However, Mrs Indira Gandhi, when she came to power, used the report to put restrictions on the activities of the private sector. One can hardly expect anything from the Manmohan Singh government which is all for privatisation. I am still seeking the answer—Where does the  government money go?

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Difficult choices to manage US fiscal situation
by Alan J. Auerbach and William G. Gale

THE United States confronts not one but two economic challenges: its worst recession since the Depression and a growing imbalance between federal spending and revenues that makes its underlying fiscal policy unsustainable.

To get the economy going, the Obama administration and Congress have committed trillions of dollars to bailouts of the financial and automobile industries and to a stimulus package of tax cuts and government spending. These measures, on top of our current economic weakness and the imbalance between spending and revenues, have left us with a projected federal budget deficit of $1.7 trillion in 2009, or 12 percent of U.S. gross domestic product, a deficit share we have not even approached since World War II.

Most economists accept the need to put aside concerns about fiscal balance as we address the recession. But soon enough we will face pressure to shift our focus from the short-term economic problem to our longer-term fiscal problem. And, unfortunately, poor policy choices in the past combined with the enormity of the recession make the second problem worse and reduce the time we will have to deal with it.

The nature of our short-term problem is evident to all of us, as workers anxious about the future of our jobs, as homeowners worrying about the declining values of our houses, and as citizens wondering whether our state government can still function. The longer-term problem, though, is less apparent to most of us, and its more subtle nature has, until now, left our political leaders with little incentive to act.

There are two parts to the problem. First, over the next decade or so, even once we recover from the recession, federal revenues will fall far short of federal spending. Under the policies laid out in the Obama administration’s recent budget, for example, the annual deficit will be 5.5 percent of gross domestic product by 2019, an exceptionally high share in normal times. In the meantime, the national debt will accumulate so rapidly that it will stand at 82 percent of GDP, its highest mark since 1948, when we were paying off our war debts.

And we will be looking ahead to even larger deficits and faster debt accumulation. That’s because of the second element of the problem, the rapid growth of our “big three” entitlement programs: Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Due to an aging population and ever-increasing medical costs, these programs are growing much faster than the tax revenues we have to pay for them.

These realities aren’t news, although the Bush administration’s policies of massive tax cuts and increased spending on all fronts made these underlying problems substantially worse. Recent developments, however, have made ignoring the situation much harder.

The deficits projected over the next 10 years will accelerate our arrival at a debt-to-GDP ratio that for most countries would signal impending fiscal collapse. Indeed, Britain, with a debt-to-GDP ratio not appreciably worse than ours, was just warned by Standard & Poor’s that its creditworthiness might be downgraded. The US has traditionally enjoyed a favoured status in this regard, as the supplier of the dollar, the world’s reserve currency, and as a perceived haven in times of financial stress. But for how long?

In March, Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao publicly questioned the safety of US Treasury debt. Over the winter, prices in credit-default swap markets implied a significant probability of default on US debt in the next five years.

Default on national debt is what happens in failed states and banana republics; such a possibility for the U.S. would have been unthinkable in the past.

All of this will finally force difficult choices on policymakers. Health-care reform, for example, is crucial if we’re to fix entitlement programs. But it alone won’t be enough. Spending will have to drop, and taxes will have to rise. And the choices could get harder still. If the economy recovers very slowly, those decisions will need to be faced in the context of a weaker economic situation with demands for further fiscal stimulus.

In the immediate future, policymakers will face a delicate balancing act between encouraging economic recovery and establishing fiscal sustainability. Short-term stimulus can boost an otherwise weak economy, so withdrawing stimulative policies and imposing fiscal discipline too soon could slow the recovery. But delaying fiscal discipline too long could be equally destructive. Success will take new ideas, some luck and uncharacteristic honesty and resoluteness—from our leaders in Washington and from the rest of us.

— By arrangement with LA Times-Washington Post

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Inside Pakistan
by Syed Nooruzzaman
Musharraf’s bid to enter politics

Former President Gen Pervez Musharraf, it seems, is busy trying to enter politics to influence the course of events in Pakistan today. This is being seen as one reason why he has sought the postponement of the PML (Q) office-bearers’ elections. The party polls, scheduled for July 20, as announced by its present head, Chaudhary Shujaat Husain, are being opposed by pro-Musharraf elements at this stage. They want to use the former General, who once patronised the PML (Q), to sideline the Chaudhary, accused to have been using the party as his fiefdom.

General Musharraf’s supporters are reported to have plans to pave the way for the former President to take over the PML (Q) and launch himself into politics. But will it be in the interest of the party? The Nation says, “The former President is sadly mistaken if he thinks the people have forgotten what he did to the country during his long misrule.

“To cling on to power, he held a referendum, which was universally rejected as a fraud, and resorted to political engineering aimed at uprooting the two mainstream parties. He kept the issue of terrorism alive to remain in power, till it became an existential threat for the country.”

It will not be easy for General Musharraf to recapture the PML (Q) as most of the party’s members in the assemblies are Chaudhary Shujaat’s camp followers.

Taliban’s supporters

“The news coming from the regions formerly dominated by the Taliban clearly indicate a change in the security situation in Pakistan. Received by a ‘new mind’ in Pakistan, the reports represent a turning of the tide…”, as Daily Times points out. But the authorities will have to remain on the guard as the Taliban as an extremist movement still has its supporters all over Pakistan.

There are people like Maulana Abdul Aziz of the Lal Masjid (Islamabad) fame who do not hesitate in speaking in favour of the Taliban openly even today when it has got thoroughly discredited. The other day he addressed a “huge” gathering of pro-Taliban elements and criticised the Swat operation, according to The News. It is a different matter that a case has been registered against him for his provocative speech.

Actually, people like Maulana Aziz are using the inability of the Pakistan government to properly handle the refugee crisis to decry the drive against militancy. “And, on top of it all, the state of the economy is making life difficult for the common man and actually negating the efforts being made to face off the curse of terrorism”, as Daily Times says.

‘Carbon tax’ controversy

The Pakistan government has been faced with an embarrassing situation following its decision to increase the prices of petroleum products recently. The announcement in this regard by the Oil and Gas Regulatory Authority (OGRA) on July 1 was challenged in the Supreme Court, which ordered on Tuesday the suspension of what was called “a new carbon tax”.

Through a presidential fiat the government ordered reintroduction of the petroleum levy on Thursday to make up for the revenue loss that would have been caused after the court verdict. The government is under pressure from the IMF to increase its tax revenue.

The government had to admit in the court that it made a mistake in levying the “carbon tax” which it could not justify without reducing the pollution level in Pakistan.

“The government must know that it is not being judged by a panel of sympathetic economists. And outside the court there is a movement gathering momentum to get the government removed through mid-term elections”, as Daily Times says. These are, indeed, difficult times for the PPP-led government.

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