Pakistan 'defers' plans to resume Indian imports until disputed Kashmir’s autonomy restored

Pakistan laborers unload sacks of onion imported from neighboring India at Pakistani border Wagah near Lahore Pakistan on May 14, 2013. (AP/File)
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Updated 01 April 2021
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Pakistan 'defers' plans to resume Indian imports until disputed Kashmir’s autonomy restored

  • Foreign minister says ‘impossible’ to normalize relations with India until New Delhi revises August 5, 2019 decision to strip Kashmir’s special status
  • Pakistan’s Economic Coordination Committee had on Wednesday given the go-ahead for imports from India

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan has decided to defer plans to allow limited imports of sugar, cotton and wheat from India, a top minister said on Thursday, following what is being seen as a political backlash against the move in the South Asian nation.

Pakistan’s Economic Coordination Committee had on Wednesday given the go-ahead for imports from India, with Finance Minister Hammad Azhar telling reporters the government had made the decision in the public interest when questioned why trade was resuming despite no change in New Delhi’s position on Kashmir — a disputed territory ruled in part but claimed in full by both nations.

Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed told reporters the decision to allow Indian imports had been “deferred” until New Delhi restored Indian-administered Kashmir’s special status.

In a video message after a cabinet meeting to review the decision on Indian imports, Foreign minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi said: 

“It was everyone’s unanimous decision, including the prime minister’s, that until India does not revise the August 5, 2019 unilateral decision [to revoke the special autonomy of Kashmir], normalizing relations with India will not be possible.”

Pakistan’s major opposition parties have already expressed concern over the government’s announcement on Wednesday.

Former senator Sehar Kamran from the opposition Pakistan Peoples Party said trade with India and restorations of relations “cannot be done at the cost of Kashmir.”

“Any peace initiative can only progress if the people of Kashmir get their right to self-determination as per the United Nations resolutions,” she told Arab News. “At a time when people of Kashmir are facing oppression and suppression, what kind of relationship we are trying to build with India? Naturally, there are concerns and apprehensions.”

Raja Zafar ul Haq, a senior leader of the opposition Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz party, echoed Kamran’s sentiments.

“The government didn’t bring this matter to parliament or discuss it with political parties and Kashmiri leadership,” he told Arab News. “This will not have a positive impact on the country.”

Earlier this week, Prime Minister Imran Khan responded to a letter by his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi on the occasion of Pakistan’s Republic Day on March 23, saying the government and people of his country wanted peaceful and cooperative relations with all neighbors, including India.

“Durable peace and security in South Asia is contingent upon resolving all outstanding issues between India and Pakistan, particularly the Jammu and Kashmir dispute,” Khan said in his letter.

Qureshi this week also acknowledged progress in relations between the two South Asian neighbors, saying there had been “positive developments” such as the announcement of a cease-fire on the disputed Kashmir border in February and the resumption of water talks last month. 

India and Pakistan have fought three wars since gaining independence from British colonial rule in 1947.


Pakistan flour millers’ strike over withholding tax enters second day, threatening shortages

Updated 21 sec ago
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Pakistan flour millers’ strike over withholding tax enters second day, threatening shortages

  • Budget for fiscal year 2024-25 imposed 5.5% withholding tax on sales of flour mills 
  • Around 1,600 flour mills employing some 4,000 workers are shut across Pakistan

ISLAMABAD: A strike by Pakistani flour millers due to a dispute with the government over the imposition of new taxes on sales entered its second day on Friday, threatening flour shortages in parts of the South Asian country.
Hundreds of mills across Pakistan went on strike on Thursday on a call by the Pakistan Flour Mills Association (PFMA), which represents over 900 mills, against a new 5.5 percent withholding tax imposed on the sales of flour mills in the federal budget for fiscal year 2024-25, which came into effect on July 1. 
The PFMA says the government has also directed flour mills to collect another 2.5 percent withholding tax on the sale of essential commodities to retailers (non-filers) and 2 percent from wholesalers (non-filers). The association says millers also now have to collect 0.5 percent withholding tax on the sale of flour from retailers (filers) and 0.10 percent tax from wholesalers (filers).
“We are observing a nationwide strike against the government for imposing taxes and making flour millers tax collection agents,” Javed Yusuf, a former PFMA chairperson, told Arab News. 
“Our strike will continue till the government accepts our demand of withdrawal of all taxes levied in the budget.”
Yusuf said around 1,600 flour mills, which directly employed some 4,000 workers, were shut across Pakistan:
“We cannot collect taxes on behalf of the FBR, it’s not our job,” he added.
The strike takes place as Pakistan navigates a tricky path to economic recovery amid double-digit inflation and a deepening macroeconomic crisis. The South Asian country has been scrambling to secure foreign investment from friendly nations and a bailout from the IMF in a bid to keep its fragile $350 billion economy afloat. 
The tax-laden budget with a tax revenue target of Rs13 trillion ($46.66 billion) for the current fiscal year, up about 40 percent from the previous one, has been rejected by almost all major trade bodies and opposition parties. Pakistan’s government has taken the unpopular measures amid negotiations with the IMF, which has made tax reforms and increasing revenue a major precondition for a fresh loan program.
There are 1,725 flour mills in Pakistan and the daily national flour consumption stands at around 45,000 tons, according to the PFMA.
The ongoing strike has already halted flour supply to grocery stores across Punjab, the country’s most populous province, and market stocks are expected to last only one week.


Pakistan says ‘deeply values’ cooperation with Afghanistan as ties sour over deportations, militancy 

Updated 39 min 15 sec ago
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Pakistan says ‘deeply values’ cooperation with Afghanistan as ties sour over deportations, militancy 

  • Pakistan says Kabul not doing enough to tackle militant groups using Afghan territory to target Pakistan, which it denies
  • Over 600,000 Afghans expelled since November last year when Islamabad launched deportation drive against illegal foreigners 

ISLAMABAD: Pakistani Federal Minister for States and Frontier Regions, Amir Muqam, on Friday discussed bilateral ties with Charge d’Affaires of Afghanistan, Sardar Ahmed Khan Shakib, and said Pakistan “deeply valued” its cooperation with the neighbor on addressing the issue of Afghan refugees. 
Relations between Islamabad and Kabul have soured in recent months amid a surge in militant attacks that Pakistan blames on Afghanistan, saying its Taliban rulers were not doing enough to tackle militant groups using its territory to target Pakistan, which they deny. 
The Pakistani Taliban have stepped up attacks against Pakistan security forces in recent months, with daily assaults on army and paramilitary posts and targeted killings of police and government officials.
“Pakistan deeply values its longstanding friendship and cooperation with Afghanistan particularly in addressing issues concerning Afghan refugees,” Radio Pakistan reported Muqam as telling Shakib who called on him in Islamabad. 
The statement said Shakib thanked Pakistan for extending the deadline of UNHCR-issued Proof of Registration (PoR) cards for almost 1.5 million Afghan refugees for one year.
Islamabad launched a deportation drive last year against illegal foreigners residing in the country after a spate of suicide bombings which the Pakistan government, without providing evidence, said were carried out by Afghan nationals. Islamabad has also blamed them for smuggling, militant violence and other crimes. 
A cash-strapped Pakistan navigating record inflation, alongside a tough International Monetary Fund bailout program last year, had also said undocumented migrants had drained its resources for decades.
Until the government initiated the expulsion drive last year, Pakistan was home to over four million Afghan migrants and refugees out of which around 1.7 million were undocumented, as per government figures. 
Afghans make up the largest portion of migrants, many of whom came after the Taliban took over Kabul in 2021, but a large number have been present since the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
Islamabad insists the deportation drive is not aimed specifically at Afghans but at all those living illegally in Pakistan. 
In October 2023, Pakistan announced phase one of the “Illegal Foreigners’ Repatriation Plan” with a 30-day deadline for “undocumented” aliens to leave the country or be subject to deportation, putting 1.4 million Afghan refugees at risk. Over 600,000 Afghans have been expelled under this phase.
In phase two, Afghans holding Pakistan-issued Afghan citizenship cards (ACCs) will be expelled while phase three is expected to target those with UNHCR-issued PoR cards.


Major victory for ex-PM Khan as Pakistan top court rules party eligible for reserved seats

Updated 12 July 2024
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Major victory for ex-PM Khan as Pakistan top court rules party eligible for reserved seats

  • Khan’s PTI was denied its share of 70 reserved seats which were allotted to parties part of PM Sharif-led ruling coalition
  • Supreme Court says the PTI was and is a political party and eligible for reserved seats for women and minorities

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan’s top court on Friday delivered a landmark verdict saying the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party of jailed former Prime Minister Imran Khan was eligible for reserved seats in parliament, mounting pressure on the fragile ruling coalition of premier Shehbaz Sharif.
PTI candidates contested the Feb. 8 general elections as independents after the party was barred from the polls and though these independents won the most seats, 93, the election commission ruled they were not entitled to their share of 70 seats reserved for women and minorities since these were meant for political parties only. The seats were then allotted to other parties, mostly from those in Sharif’s ruling coalition.
In Pakistan, parties are allocated 70 reserved seats — 60 for women, 10 for non-Muslims — in proportion to the number of seats won in general elections. This completes the National Assembly’s total 336 seats. A simple majority in Pakistan’s parliament is 169 out of 336 seats.
In March, both the ECP and Peshawar High Court in separate rulings said the independents were not eligible for the reserved seats, dealing a blow to the embattled PTI’s governing prospects and proving to be a major setback for Khan, who has been in jail since last August. The verdicts were subsequently overruled by the Supreme Court, which has since last month been hearing a set of petitions on the issue.
On Friday, the Supreme Court set aside the Peshawar High Court verdict and said the ECP order declaring the PTI ineligible for reserved seats was “ultra vires of the constitution, without lawful authority and of no legal effect.”
“PTI shall be eligible for women and ministries reserved seats in parliament,” Chief Justice Qazi Faez Isa said as he read the verdict in one of the petitions filed by the PTI-backed bloc, calling on the ECP to recalculate the number of reserved seats Khan’s party was entitled to.
PTI’s Syed Shibli Faraz, currently serving as the leader of the opposition in the Senate, said this was a “historic” day in Pakistani politics.
“Heartiest congratulations firstly to the Pakistani public and their leader Imran Khan,” Faraz told reporters after the court ruling was announced.
The PTI is currently entitled to around 23 reserved seats, which does not affect the parliamentary majority of the Sharif-led coalition government.
The verdict also bolsters the political position of Khan’s supporters, whose rallying cry has been that the election commission and a pro-military caretaker government that oversaw the polls indulged in electoral fraud to deprive it of a victory. The ECP denies this.
“PTI WAS AND IS A PARTY”
All candidates from Khan’s PTI party were forced to contest the February polls as independents after the party was stripped of its election symbol of the cricket bat by the ECP on the technical grounds that it did not hold intra-party elections, a prerequisite for any party to take part in polls.
After the election, the PTI-backed candidates were forced to join Sunni Ittehad Council (SIC) party to claim a share of 70 reserved seats as independents are not eligible for the extra seats.
“It is declared that lack of denial of an election symbol does not in any way affect the right of a political party to participate in an election,” said the court order in one of the PTI petitions, which was supported by eight judges and opposed by five of the 13-member full court bench. “The Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf, PTI, was and is a party.”
The order said elected members of the PTI could not be declared independents or candidates of the SIC and gave the PTI 15 days to submit its list of candidates entitled for reserved seats to the election commission.
Addressing a press conference, Law Minister Azam Nazeer Tarar said the government would wait for the detailed judgment to decide on its course of action, but pointed out that the petitions had been filed by the SIC but “relief” had been given by the court to the PTI, which did not file the pleas.
“A lot of confusion and questions has been born from this judgment,” he told reporters. “A situation has been created in which there is little clarity.”
In a statement sent to media, the PTI said 86 PTI-backed returned candidates in the National Assembly and 107 in the Punjab Assembly, 91 in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Assembly and 9 in the Sindh Assembly “are entitled to be counted for the purpose of election to the reserved seats on the basis of proportional representation.” It is expected that the PTI could get up to 23 reserved seats after Friday’s judgment.
PM Sharif formed a weak coalition with other parties after the Feb. 8 general elections produced a hung parliament.
Sharif’s PML-N party’s 79 and the PPP’s 54 seats together made a simple majority in parliament to form a government at the center and also roped in smaller parties in the coalition.


PM calls for restructuring Pakistan wheat board weeks after import crisis protests

Updated 12 July 2024
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PM calls for restructuring Pakistan wheat board weeks after import crisis protests

  • Wheat has nine percent share in Pakistan’s agriculture sector and contributes 2.2 percent of GDP 
  • Pakistan saw weeks of protests by farmers demanding government stop wheat imports that had flooded market

ISLAMABAD: Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif has called for the restructuring of the country’s wheat board and steps to enhance production of wheat and other crops, his office said on Friday, weeks after farmer protests over wheat imports. 
Pakistan saw weeks of protests this year by farmers in Punjab, the country’s largest province and “bread basket,” who demanded the government stop wheat imports that had flooded the market at a time when they expected bumper crops.
Pakistan’s wheat production during 2023-24 stood at 31.4 million tons as compared to 28.2 million tons last year, posting a growth of 11.6 percent. According to official data, the country had over 36 million tons of wheat stock by June, including carry-forward stock.
Wheat has a 9 percent share in Pakistan’s agriculture and contributes 2.2 percent of the GDP and is harvested in Pakistan from April to June, with peak vegetation development occurring between late March and early February.
Sharif, while presiding over a meeting of officials of the national food security ministry and other bodies, issued directives to include representatives of the Land Information and Management System and the Space & Upper Atmosphere Research Commission (SUPARCO) in the wheat board.
“Farmer representatives should be included in the wheat board,” Sharif was quoted as saying in a statement issued by his office.
The prime minister urged authorities to devise an alternate strategy to purchase wheat and consult Gilgit-Baltistan, Azad Kashmir and provincial governments in this regard.
During earlier protests, farmers had said the import of wheat in the second half of 2023 and the first three months of this year had resulted in excess amounts of the commodity in the country, leading to reduced prices. 
Official data shows Pakistan spent over $1 billion to import 3.5 million tons of wheat from July 2023 till May 2024.
Agriculture is one of the most significant income sectors in Pakistan, making up nearly 23 percent of the GDP of the country.


‘We can’t wait another year’: disaster-hit nations call for climate aid

Updated 12 July 2024
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‘We can’t wait another year’: disaster-hit nations call for climate aid

  • This year has witnessed a string of catastrophes on multiple continents, from floods and landslides to heatwaves and wildfires
  • Unprecedented flooding in Pakistan in 2022 killed over 1,7000, caused more than $30 billion in damages and economic losses

PARIS: Countries on the frontlines of climate change have warned they cannot wait another year for long-sought aid to recover from disasters as floods and hurricanes wreak havoc across the globe.

The appeal came during a meeting of the “loss and damage” fund that will conclude Friday amid concerns it is unlikely to be able to approve climate aid until 2025.

“We cannot wait until the end of 2025 for the first funds to get out the door,” Adao Soares Barbosa, a board member from East Timor and a long-standing negotiator for the world’s poorest nations, told AFP.

“Loss and damage isn’t waiting for us.”

Nearly 200 nations agreed at the UN COP28 summit last November to launch a fund responsible for distributing aid to developing countries to rebuild in the wake of climate disasters.

That historic moment has given way to complex negotiations to finalize the fund’s design, which some countries worry will not move at a pace or scale that matches the tempo of extreme-weather disasters afflicting their people.

“The urgency of needs of vulnerable countries and communities cannot be left until we have every hair in place for this fund,” said Barbosa.

Damage bills for climate disasters can run into the billions and there is barely enough cash set aside for loss and damage at present to cover just one such event, experts say.

This year has witnessed a string of catastrophes on multiple continents, from floods and landslides to heatwaves and wildfires.

Delegates met in South Korea for the second meeting of the loss and damage fund this week as Hurricane Beryl left a trail of destruction across the Caribbean and North America.

The “massive” destruction witnessed in recent weeks “puts immense pressure on us to deliver on our work,” Richard Sherman, the South African co-chair of the board steering the negotiations, told the meeting.

The fund said it wanted money approved “as soon as possible, but realistically by mid-2025,” according to an official document seen by AFP.

In an appeal for faster action, Elizabeth Thompson, a board member from Barbados, said Hurricane Beryl alone had caused “apocalyptic” damage worth “multiple billion dollars.”

“In five islands of the Grenadines... 90 percent of the housing is gone... Houses look like packs of cards and strips of wood, roofs are gone, trees are gone, there is no food, there is no water, there is no power,” she said.

“We cannot keep talking while people live and die in a crisis that they do not cause.”

Thompson said the fund needed to reflect “the urgency and the scale required to respond to... the risk, the damage and the devastation faced by people across the world who need this fund.”

Wealthy nations have so far pledged around $661 million to the loss and damage fund. South Korea contributed an additional $7 million at the start of this week’s meeting.

“That would hardly cover the likely losses from one major climate-related disaster,” Camilla More, of the International Institute for Environment and Development, told AFP.

Some estimates suggest developing countries need over $400 billion annually to rebuild after climate-related disasters. One study put the global bill at between $290 billion and $580 billion a year by 2030, and rising after that.

In one example in 2022, unprecedented flooding in Pakistan caused more than $30 billion in damages and economic losses, according to a UN-backed assessment.

Developing nations had been pushing for a specific fund to distribute aid to recover from climate impacts for 30 years, and the agreement struck in November was hailed a major diplomatic breakthrough.

“(But) ee can’t have a fund without money,” said Brandon Wu from ActionAid.

Technical discussions are taking place this year over the details of the loss and damage fund, including with the World Bank which will house the fund on an interim basis.

The Philippines was chosen this week to host the fund’s board.

Contentious discussions remain to decide how the money is allocated and in what form it should be made available to countries.

On Tuesday, more than 350 nongovernmental organizations sent a letter to the fund’s board demanding that a substantial share of the money be made directly available as small grants to local communities and indigenous groups.