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Rights group rejects ‘select consultations’ on cyber bill

Sun, 10/11/2015 - 19:37

QUETTA: Amid calls for greater consultation with stakeholders on the controversial cybercrime bill, an internet rights’ group has accused the government of hearing only select voices with a narrow focus towards national security.

Internet Policy Observatory Pakistan (iPOP), an internet research group, claims that the government, in order to placate a vociferous demand for broader consultation on the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Bill 2015, has handpicked groups for hearing who are nothing more than government surrogates. “There is no transparency in the consultation process, and the bill is being wrapped in a deep cover of secrecy,” Director iPOP Arzak Khan said.

The bill was passed by the National Assembly Standing Committee on Information Technology last week. It will now be debated on the floor of the assembly before being referred to the Senate.

Arzak Khan, while rejecting the consultation process, claimed that the proposed bill gives indemnity to the government and law enforcement agencies. He called for civil society organisations and IT experts from all the provinces, especially from Balochistan, to be taken on board.

He warned that overregulation of internet under the proposed cybercrime bill may deprive users of major benefits the information economy brings.

Published in The Express Tribune, October 12th, 2015.

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Categories: Pakistan & World News

ECP’s dilemma : Parties outnumber election symbols

Sun, 10/11/2015 - 19:36

The rapidly growing number of political parties registered with the premier poll supervisory body has once again caused shortage of election symbols. The Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) had updated the logos before the 2013 general elections, but the number of registered political parties has again exceeded the quantity of approved emblems.

New registrations in the past two years have raised the number of political parties to 307, and after the last update the quantity of available symbols stands at 171.

The ECP is in a quandary: how will it match the upsurge in parties with new logos, an exercise that demands creativity to ensure that the voters are able to discern all the symbols.

Before the last general elections, the number of registered parties stood at 227. Short of symbols, the electoral body sent a summary to the then president Asif Ali Zardari, who approved around two dozen new logos proposed by the ECP. The polling body laments that lax laws make it easy for anyone to register a political party. “Most of the groups are one-man parties. Once registered, a party cannot be struck off the list – unless it is officially banned,” an ECP official told The Express Tribune.

Because of the upcoming local government elections, the ECP has accepted dozens of new applications in the recent months. Two and a half years after the last elections, the electoral body has again sent a summary to President Mamnoon Hussain for getting some 50 new emblems approved.

Power of the symbol

Considering the low literacy rate in the country, political parties attach a lot of importance to having an election symbol – and one that stands out. Hardly any voter reads manifestos of political parties. Grand logos are sometimes employed to persuade the undecided or uninformed voters.

Emblems are printed next to the candidates’ names on the ballot papers. Those who cannot read, recognise their preferred candidates with the help of the symbols. Occasionally, apparent similarity between two logos is used as a gimmick to confuse the voters for seizing the vote bank of a rival party.

In an earlier by-election an independent candidate ran with the ‘cat’ as his symbol. The Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) later complained that many voters could not differentiate between the ‘cat’ and the ‘tiger’ (the PML-N’s symbol), and that some of the voters had stamped the ‘cat’ instead of the ‘tiger’. Besides the candidates who contest elections on party tickets, many run as independents; and each one of them is assigned a different logo.

Non-serious runners

According to the ECP, the country’s archaic laws embolden many non-serious people to register political parties, contest the polls on party tickets or run as independents; the most they could lose is their security deposit.

The official fee to contest for a National Assembly seat is Rs4,000; to run for a provincial assembly seat the fee is Rs2,000. This fee is submitted to the national exchequer as a security deposit, but it is refundable if you secure a certain number of votes.

“Many candidates enter the race only to write ‘former candidate’ or ‘chairman’ of a certain party with their name,” complained an official of the polling body. “They exploit the system to elevate their social status.” He said the ECP had proposed amendments in the relevant laws to streamline the electoral process and discourage non-serious people from entering the race.

Published in The Express Tribune, October 12th, 2015.

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Categories: Pakistan & World News

Foreign funding claims: Disgruntled members to take PTI to US courts

Sun, 10/11/2015 - 19:34

ISLAMABAD: Some members of the Imran Khan-led Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf have decided to take the party to court in the US against alleged financial irregularities. Already these leaders have filed a case with the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP).

Akbar S Babar, one of the party’s founding members, has accused the party of receiving money in the form of donations from foreigners, including US national Barry C Schneps and US-born Indian Inder Dosanjh.

The ECP has already turned down the PTI’s plea that the electoral body does not have the authority to look into financial affairs of political parties.

“I have accepted the challenge of Punjab’s former governor Chaudhry Sarwar and decided to file a case in the US,” said Babar, who has served as the PTI’s information secretary, while talking to The Express Tribune on Sunday.

He said Sarwar had dared him to go ahead with filing a case abroad during a TV talk-show while claiming the party had not violated any laws in the UK or the US while collecting funds.

“We were waiting for the NA-122 by-election to take place,” Babar said. “Or, they [PTI] would have accused us of trying to influence the election campaign.”

Responding to a question about the show-cause notice issued to Imran by the party’s founding members, he said the PTI chairman was given two weeks to respond to the funding allegations but he did not answer.

The notice, which also warned of public agitation, was issued on September 20. “We have started preparations for a convention of founding members from across the country in Islamabad,” Babar added.

According to the charge sheet, Imran has been asked to explain his refusal to hold an inquiry against those who auctioned PTI tickets, his refusal to implement the internal election tribunal’s decisions, illegal appointments in violation of PTI’s constitution and for not honouring his commitment of introducing an honest and competent leadership through the 2013 general elections.

Commenting on the low voter turnout in NA-122 reported by the media, Babar said it once again reflected the party’s flawed policies and nepotism in giving party tickets to its blue-eyed candidates.

Published in The Express Tribune, October 12th, 2015.

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Categories: Pakistan & World News

Sad statistics: 588 dead, 1,007 injured in 821 acts of terrorism

Sun, 10/11/2015 - 19:31

ISLAMABAD: Some 588 people were killed and another 1,007 sustained injuries in 821 incidents of terrorism in the country during the first eight months of the year.

This was revealed in a month-wise break-up issued by the interior division for the period between January and September 2015. January and May proved to be the deadliest months with 121 and 137 fatalities respectively. February turned out to be the safest month with only nine dead in acts of terrorism.

According to the Interior Division figures, 122 people were killed and 174 injured in 124 incidents of terrorism during the month of January.

Similarly, in 10 terrorism-related incidents during February, nine people were killed and 49 injured, in March 86 acts of terrorism occurred in which 45 persons were killed and 141 injured and in 113 incidents during month of April, 59 lost their lives and 110 got injured.

The data further revealed that the month of May witnessed 121 incidents of terrorism with 137 fatalities and injuries to 162 people. In June, there were 70 such incidents in which there were 50 dead and 55 injured, July saw 116 terror acts that left 65 people dead and 131 injured while in August, 61 people were killed and 77 injured in 82 incidents of terrorism.

Published in The Express Tribune, October 12th, 2015.

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Categories: Pakistan & World News

Nandipur power plant: Officials pass the buck as project fails to kick off (National)

Sun, 10/11/2015 - 19:29

ISLAMABAD: A one-man show in operating the 425 MW Nandipur power project has caused a delay in the power plant’s construction, a power ministry official has told The Express Tribune. Now the government has found a way out and has decided to outsource the plant’s operations to a Chinese engineering contractor, Dongfang Electric Corporation, for a period of six months.

According to the official, the managing director (MD) of the Nandipur project should have, as a first option, considered tasking his own men with running the plant. Barring that, he could have either engaged an engineering, procurement, and construction (EPC) contractor or asked General Electric (GE), the manufacturer of the plant, to operate it in the short term.

Instead, the project chief, who has been appointed by the Punjab government, decided to choose the last option among the four provided to him ranked in terms of feasibility and cost, and invited bids for a long term contract to maintain and operate the plant.

A Malaysian firm emerged as the successful bidder because it was the single party that made the offer. However, the board of directors of Nandipur was concerned at the rates quoted by the Malaysian company, which forced it to scrap the tender. The board noted a number of issues in the process like post-bid changes, paying more to the contractor than what the plant will receive from the National Electric Power Regulatory Authority (Nepra), and an open-ended contract for nine years of the proposed contract period.

The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that the MD also wanted the water and power ministry to approve awarding operation and maintenance of the project to the Malaysian firm while bypassing the project’s board of directors and responding to the questions raised by the board. The official said that hiring a Chinese EPC contractor was the second option which the MD should have explored if he had given due consideration of all options before selecting the last one. He said a draft agreement had been given to Dongfang to sign a short-term deal for operating the plant before international competitive bids are awarded. The EPC contractor is bound to provide all equipment related to the power plant. It has submitted a $35 million guarantee and if it is found to be irresponsible, the guarantee may be encashed.

Nandipur power company’s MD Captain Mahmood defended his decision to hire a long-term operator and blamed the project’s board of directors for delays in awarding a contract towards this end to the lowest bidder. “I wrote dozens of letters to the power ministry, asking it to intervene in the affairs of the board which did not take timely decisions,” he said, denying that he asked the ministry to approve the project by bypassing the board.

Asked about the first option of using his own team to run the plant, Capt Mahmood said, “Everyone knows how Gencos (power generation companies) are being run… It was not a good idea to have a local workforce operate the Nandipur plant.”

Regarding the third option of having GE run the plant in the short-term, he said the US-based conglomerate was only a manufacturer, not an operator of such plants. “In any case, we couldn’t award a short-term operation contract to GE without an open bidding process,” he added.

“The best option was to hire a long-term operator,” Captain Mahmood maintained, saying the move was even approved by Minister for Water and Power Khawaja Asif. He added that Dongfang Electric Corporation had now been hired due to an emergency clause, but pointed out that the Chinese EPC contractor has no experience of running power plants.

The main problem with the tri-fuel Nandipur power plant is the low capacity of the furnace oil treatment plant, which has created hurdles in the way of operating the power plant at full capacity, the official explained.

The Nandipur power plant requires a furnace oil treatment plant with an annual capacity of 30 million tons, but the current treatment plant only has the capacity to process 19 million tons. Now the EPC contractor is making arrangements to enhance the capacity of the treatment plant at its own expense to meet this obligation. The official said that Dongfang had also given operation and maintenance rates that have been submitted to Nepra.

Published in The Express Tribune, October 12th, 2015.

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Categories: Pakistan & World News

Musharraf takeover: ’99 coup was a black day: Shahbaz

Sun, 10/11/2015 - 19:26

LAHORE: Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif has said that derailing of the democratic system on October 12, 1999, was a heinous conspiracy and the nation was still facing its consequences. In a message on the eve of the coup of the then army chief Gen Pervez Musharraf, he said those who hatched conspiracy against democratic system stand rejected while the elected representatives are engaged in public service today. He paid rich tributes to PML-N chief Nawaz Sharif, party leaders, workers and the political forces who stood against the dictator. Shahbaz said October 12, 1999 was a black day as a dictator toppled a democratically elected government, adding that military regimes have caused great loss to the democratic system.

Published in The Express Tribune, October 12th, 2015.

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Categories: Pakistan & World News

Safe waters: Pak EEZ no more high risk area of piracy

Sun, 10/11/2015 - 19:25

KARACHI: The Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) or the extended maritime border of Pakistan consisting of 290,000 square kilometres of seabed extending 350 nautical miles southwards, has been declared almost safe from the risk of pirates preying on vessels off Somalia’s coast. According to a press release of Pakistan Navy, the Contact Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia (CGPCS) has announced new revised limits of the piracy High Risk Area (HRA) which will be effective from December 01. The revised limits put almost the entire EEZ out of HRA, the press release said. The declaration will eliminate the extra insurance and security charges shippers from the Gulf and Far East were paying since 2010. Pakistan Navy, in collaboration with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, had made concerted efforts to exclude EEZ from HRA, based on argument that no incidents of piracy had occurred in EEZ due to Pakistan Navy’s vigilance that has commanded counter piracy Task Force – CTF 151 – six times.

Published in The Express Tribune, October 11th, 2015.

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Categories: Pakistan & World News

Insurance sector’s glory days long gone

Sun, 10/11/2015 - 19:18

ISLAMABAD: At the time of independence, Pakistan had five domestic and 77 foreign insurance companies. These companies were regulated under the Insurance Act of 1938. The government in 1948 established the Department of Insurance within the domain of the Ministry of Commerce to supervise the affairs of insurance industry and safeguard the interests of the insured.

The Act was amended in 1958 for the first time keeping in view the requirements of domestic market and to have effective control over the insurance premium rates. Since then, various amendments have been made in the Act.

In 1970s, the federal government nationalised all insurance companies and created a large state-run conglomerate, today called the State Life Insurance Corporation of Pakistan. The Department of Insurance further created the controller of insurance for the same purpose that was abolished in 2000 when SECP was made responsible for supervising the insurance business in the country.

Present state

The insurance industry in Pakistan is relatively small compared to its peers in the region. The insurance penetration and density remained very modest as compared to other jurisdictions while the insurance sector remained underdeveloped relative to its potential.

As of December 2014, the industry’s total premium revenue stood at over Rs108 billion, which is 0.80% of GDP. In the year ending 2014, the industry received Rs60 billion in premium in the non-life segments spread over 39 companies, Rs48 billion in the life sector, spread between five companies of the private sector.

However, a bigger portion belongs to the state-owned life insurance company, to the tune of approximately Rs112 billion, based on its reported 70% market share.

Currently, there are 39 non-life insurers operating in the market, including three general Takaful operators and one state-owned company. Approximately, 65% of the market share in gross written premium rests with the top three players.

In addition, a government owned reinsurer continues to benefit from a mandatory minimum 35% share in the treaties of non-life insurers. There are nine life insurers, including two family Takaful operators and one state-owned corporation in the life insurance sector.

At the moment, it is mandatory for any business firm with 5 or more employees to register with the EOBI, however, contribution to private pension funds and other similar schemes is not mandatory in general. This means that private pension funds and insurance companies do not enjoy any state legislation, which is customary in most countries, whereby state possibly discriminates in favour of its own enterprise.

According to Dr Ishrat Husain, “the insurance and takaful industry has suffered due to benign neglect in absence of a strong champion and promoter in the government or the regulatory agency. It is time to consider setting up an independent regulatory authority for the insurance industry which should act both as a watchdog and promoter.”

Perhaps, Dr Husain overlooked the omni-presence of SECP in this context.

Shortcomings of the industry

My general position is for a strong regulatory role of state, which should facilitate the business and protect consumers, but not necessarily that of actual service delivery that has possibly induced inefficiencies and protectionism.

The call for a “promotional” role by the regulatory agency is fettered with great risks. The contribution of SECP in expanding insurance market in the country is highly questionable. With total insurance premium as percentage of GDP almost static over the last 15 years, as SECP gained more powers, there could hardly be two opinions about its promotional role. In fact, by increasing the minimum paid up capital requirements for insurance firms very recently, the SECP has increased the entry barriers, thereby indirectly curtailing competition.

According to the State Bank, “there has been a consistent decline in the number of life insurance companies operating in this area mainly due to limited demand for life insurance on account of small urban market, [and] presence of state-owned corporation, which enjoys almost a complete monopoly in the market and thus leaves very little share for other companies.”

The verdict is very clear. From a vibrant private sector-led insurance market at the time of independence, we have a state-dominated life insurance sector, a regulator which has done little for its promotion, and a tamed private insurance sector which does not enjoy a level playing field.

The writer is founder and Executive Director of PRIME Institute, an independent think tank based in Islamabad

Published in The Express Tribune, October 12th, 2015.

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Categories: Pakistan & World News

Consumers start looking for more gas supplies than oil

Sun, 10/11/2015 - 19:17

ISLAMABAD: Some countries including the United States appear to have broken the monopoly of Saudi Arabia in world oil supplies.

The US has tapped its shale oil reserves and is releasing them in the international market, pushing crude oil prices down and forcing some energy companies to default on payments. In this scenario, not only Saudi Arabia, other major oil producers like Iran, Russia and Venezuela are also losing their market share.

Despite sharply lower oil prices, which have dropped more than 50% since June last year, Riyadh is not willing to slash production to arrest the price fall. It has even declared that it will not reduce output even if prices plunge to $20 a barrel.

However, due to the persistently low oil prices, several energy companies have defaulted and some US firms have started shedding the workforce. Besides shale oil, the US has massive reserves of shale gas and it is going to become a major liquefied natural gas (LNG) exporter. Australia, Russia and Malaysia are also emerging as key players in the LNG market.

According to market experts, the US seems to be working on a plan to replace the Saudi oil with gas. In this regard, Qatar and Pakistan, backed by Washington, are getting closer to striking a deal on LNG supplies in order to reduce the share of Saudi oil in Pakistan’s market.

Economy-energy link

The European Union and China – two major economic powerhouses – have faced a marked slowdown in their economies and any boost to their growth will trigger the demand for energy resources. This will lead to LNG replacing oil in satisfying the energy needs – the main reason for the rift between energy-rich Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Iran.

The US and other countries will also make efforts to promote Iranian oil, which has a lower cost, to stabilise the global market. Iran has vast gas deposits as well and it may try to take over the market of Saudi Arabia and some other Middle Eastern oil producers like Kuwait and the UAE.

Choices for Pakistan

In order to power its electricity producing plants, which swallow a huge quantity of expensive furnace oil, Pakistan is going to sign a deal with Qatar for LNG import. Like the tussle between oil and gas lobbies in the world market, Pakistan also faces similar tough conditions.

Reflecting these are the remarks made by Petroleum Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, who said recently that oil importers had offered him a bribe to push him to shelve LNG imports.

Apart from LNG, Pakistan can also consume Iranian gas and there are hopes that the pipeline project with Tehran will be completed in the next two years. Therefore, the country will be banking much on gas consumption in future, causing a dent in revenues of Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern oil suppliers.

Pakistan is working on another pipeline project being backed by the US. This gas, to be supplied by Turkmenistan, will be consumed by power plants. Pakistan should also explore the option of buying LNG from other countries like Russia as domestic gas production is dwindling.

India is also part of the Turkmenistan pipeline project and in future its energy market will be dominated by Tehran and Ashgabat. China is already purchasing gas from Turkmenistan and plans to import from Iran as well. As a result, the entire region would be increasingly relying on gas supplies and the share of oil-exporting nations will shrink.

The writer is A staff correspondent

Published in The Express Tribune, October 12th, 2015.

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Categories: Pakistan & World News

External debt: The Eurobond conundrum

Sun, 10/11/2015 - 19:15

LAHORE: The successful float of a five-year Eurobond with 8.25% coupon rate has been attributed to continued confidence of international investors, up grading of credit rating to B3 by Moody’s and drum-beating of foreign exchange reserves to meet the requirements of the Extended Fund Facility (EFF) of the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

The government is continuously tapping international debt market to bolster foreign exchange reserves. Policymakers are paying attention to external debt-to-GDP ratio, which is around 25%, and this ratio is considered normal from the standpoint of solvency.

If external borrowing is done to enhance productive capacity of the economy, either to modernise infrastructure or to augment technological progress, it is considered prudent.

Debt for the sake of debt servicing shows that domestic resource mobilisation is not done according to the emerging requirements which in turn increase the gap between expenditure and revenue.

The case of foreign debt is made stronger and is usually propagated on the ground that foreign debt is cheaper than domestic debt and debt servicing cost is being reduced to gain fiscal space. Such statements favour short-term political exigencies at the expense of long-term economic development since political governments take decisions keeping in view their election cycle and are more concerned with day to day functioning.

A significant economic variable ie exchange rate is assumed fixed in this argument. However, a bit of reflection tells that earlier Eurobonds were floated when one dollar was equivalent to around Rs100. The rupee has further depreciated during this short span of time which also brings exchange rate loss to the borrower and makes the Eurobond conundrum.

Regarding debt, an important question needs to be asked: whether a government can default on domestic debt or not? The answer is that a government can never default on the domestic debt since it can borrow from the central bank and enhance its monetary base accordingly.

However, a government can default on to its external debt and commitments. Asian, Latin American and East European peripheral countries are only a few that have defaulted in the past.

The case of Argentina is instructive as it was dragged into the US Supreme Court by private institutional investors after it defaulted. The dispute is still unsettled and Argentina is unable to tap international market and this is a stumbling block in its debt restructuring. In addition, default on the external debt gives rise to unpopular decisions since lenders demand strict actions from the borrowing countries in return of the existing loans which also becomes a threat to fledgling democracies.

The government has resorted to external as well as expensive commercial borrowing which doesn’t suit the low value-added export structure of a developing country.

A developing country’s dollar-earning capacity hinges on its export structure. Being a commodity and low value-added producer, dollar earnings are rather limited in Pakistan since the current export structure is not sophisticated and markets are geographically constrained. On top of that, the precipitous decline of global commodity prices in the last year has further weakened dollar earnings.

In a nutshell, the decision of tapping international debt market requires proper planning by looking at the future streams of income and structural considerations. The focal consideration needs to be liquidity. Historically, Pakistan is sensitive to liquidity crisis as the inability to fulfil obligations to the lenders leads to balance of payment crisis. In this regard, advice from IMF can prove to be instrumental.

The writer is an Assistant Professor of Economics at Lums

Published in The Express Tribune, October 12th, 2015.

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London proposes tougher rules for app-based taxi firms like Uber

Wed, 09/30/2015 - 09:02

LONDON: London’s transport chiefs announced plans on Wednesday to tighten control on private hire vehicles (PHV), a move that could hit app-based ride-hailing firms such as Uber.

Drivers of the city’s famous black cabs have argued Uber bypasses local licensing and safety laws and amounts to unfair competition.

They have staged a number of high-profile protests, including go-slow demonstrations that have brought traffic in the centre of London to a standstill.

A protest earlier this month at London’s City Hall led to a scuffle that resulted in arrests for assault and aggravated trespass and the suspension of a meeting where Mayor Boris Johnson was answering questions.

Read: China’s Uber-style taxi app raises $2 billion

“In recent years the private hire industry has grown exponentially and technology has also developed rapidly,” said Garrett Emmerson from Transport for London, which has issued the proposals that will now go out for a 12-week consultation.

Under the plans, firms would have to provide a booking confirmation at least five minutes before a journey starts and let allow cabs to be booked up to seven days in advance.

They could not show vehicles for immediate hire via an app and must specify the fare prior to the booking being accepted.

“These bureaucratic new rules will not improve your ride,” said Jo Bertram, Uber’s Regional General Manager, UK, Ireland and Nordics. “They’re designed to address the concerns of black cab drivers, who feel under pressure from increased competition.

But the answer is to reduce the onerous regulations cabbies face today, not increase them for everyone else.” An online petition set up by Uber against the proposals has already attracted 86,000 signatures.

Unlike black cabs, which can be flagged down in the street and use a meter to calculate fares, San-Francisco based Uber, backed by heavyweight investors including Goldman Sachs  and Google, allows customers to book and pay for a taxi using an app on their smartphones.

It also provides a second app for drivers to calculate the cost of a journey.

Uber has provoked a backlash in cities across the globe, with the mayor of Rio de Janeiro saying on Tuesday he would ban its use in the city while a taxi drivers protest jammed the centre of Bratislava on Monday.

The European Commission has launched a study of Uber to address a number of legal disputes including German and Spanish court bans and a new French law on taxis. The RMT union, which represents some London black cab drivers, welcomed the proposals.

“This is a step in the right direction towards tightening up controls on the PHV sector and apps like Uber but the union recognises we need to continue to fight for full implementation and a rigorous system of monitoring and control to make this work,” RMT General Secretary Mick Cash said.

Other private hire companies also backed the move. “We and others have been saying for some time that new app-based entrants have been playing fast and loose with the law and public safety,” said Mike Galvin, Head of Regulatory Affairs for taxi firm Addison Lee.

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Categories: Pakistan & World News

Petrol, diesel prices to remain unchanged in October

Wed, 09/30/2015 - 08:55

The government decided on Wednesday to let petroleum product prices remain unchanged during the month of October.

Addressing a press conference, Finance Minister Ishaq Dar said that he had spoken to the prime minister about the matter before reaching the decision for the unchanged prices.

Dar also shared that the Oil and Gar Regulatory Authority (Ogra) had suggested decreasing petrol prices by Rs0.15 and diesel prices by Rs2.68. However, the finance minister, with the approval of the prime minister, decided otherwise.

On August 31, the government increased gas prices by 3.8% and decreased the petrol prices by 3.9%.

The current price of petrol will now stand for the next month at Rs73.76 per litre, whereas diesel prices are Rs82.04 per litre.

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Categories: Pakistan & World News

Lebanon arrests 40 Palestinians believed leaving for Europe

Wed, 09/30/2015 - 08:39

BEIRUT: Lebanese security forces arrested 40 Palestinians on Wednesday as they tried to leave by boat from the northern city of Tripoli for a journey toward Europe, the National News Agency said.

The group, which included men and women, was aiming to reach Germany and had come from the large, long-established Ain al-Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon’s south, NNA said. The boat’s owner was also detained.

There was no immediate comment from Lebanese justice authorities, but it is an offense to enter Tripoli’s port area without a security clearance or ferry ticket.

In the past three months thousands of Syrian refugees from the neighbouring country’s civil war have been leaving Tripoli on passenger ferries toward Turkey with the aim of reaching Europe, which is struggling to cope with hundreds of thousands of people fleeing the Middle East, Asia and Africa.

Lebanon has taken in over 1 million Syrian refugees, one of the highest number per capita in the world, and has increasingly become a transit point for Syrians trying to reach the European Union via Turkey.

The small eastern Mediterranean country has also long hosted tens of thousands of Palestinians who live in camps like Ain al-Hilweh that developed after Lebanon absorbed refugees from the war of Israel’s creation more than 60 years ago.

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Kashmir, India and terrorism to remain focus of Nawaz’s UN speech, say analysts

Wed, 09/30/2015 - 08:29

KARACHI: Foreign policy experts believe Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s address at the 70th UN General Assembly on Wednesday, which comes amid rising tensions with neighbouring India and Afghanistan, will focus on the war against terrorism and regional relations.

Read: Nawaz-Kerry meeting: Pakistan conveys concern over Indian ceasefire violations

Speaking to The Express Tribune, former ambassador to Afghanistan Rustam Shah Mohmand said the premier was likely to talk about the global war on terror in the region and Operation Zarb-e-Azb in the country’s tribal areas, Pakistan’s role in Afghanistan and recent tensions with India.

“PM Nawaz, I assume, will also speak about the Pakistan-China Economic Corridor and its broader benefits to the entire region,” Mohmand stated, adding that he may also take this opportunity to tell his global audience how his government is working for the social and economic welfare of people.

“I expect he will share with the world how his government plans to deal with the energy crisis and what he is doing to increase the literacy rate,” the former ambassador said.

Stressing the need to improve relations with India for the development of the country, Mohmand said Pakistan’s limited resources must be allocated for the betterment of people.

“If relations with India are not improved, the 68-year-long history of our existence will repeat for the next 68 years and nothing will change,” he emphasised. “Nations do not progress in such circumstances,” he added.

Acknowledging the importance of regional cooperation, former Pakistan high commissioner in the United Kingdom Abdul Kader Jaffer said the prime minister must use this platform to further the agenda of peace.

Read: PM Nawaz urges UN chief for plebiscite in Kashmir

“Regional harmony is of utmost importance; all countries must work together to resolve their issues through dialogue and not through threats,” Jaffer said.

“The world is changing fast and everyone is turning nuclear; we have had two world wars before us and we cannot have the third one,” he expressed concerns, calling on leaders to realise what’s at stake. “We need to learn to coexist; this world is for everyone,” he said.

Professor of political science at LUMS Rasul Bakhsh Rais, meanwhile, said the premiere would speak about India but the test here would be how careful he is with language.

“The diplomatic language should be such that Pakistan tells the world about India’s involvement in Balochistan, Karachi and other parts of the country but not in a confrontational style,” he suggested.

“There is pressure within the country from political and religious groups to highlight the Kashmir issue and the military would also like PM Nawaz to talk about it at the forum,” he added.

Rais further went on to add that Prime Minister Nawaz would discuss, in a more aggressive and assertive manner than previous occasions, Pakistan’s role for peace in the region and the world in the form of peacekeeping missions.

Read: In meeting with Ban, PM makes a pitch for UN Kashmir resolutions

“He will highlight the toll of terrorism on the country and the sacrifices Pakistan has rendered,” he said.

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Categories: Pakistan & World News

Sussanne Khan denies wedding rumours, criticises Indian press

Wed, 09/30/2015 - 08:26

MUMBAI: Bollywood star Hrithik Roshan’s ex-wife, Sussanne Khan, has denied reports that she is set to marry again. A successful entrepreneur, she says such gossip “hurts” as “families and human feelings” are involved.

Sussanne, an interior designer, decided to issue a statement in light of media reports around her rumoured wedding to “one of Hrithik’s close friends”.

Several newspapers in India have been stating that Bollywood actor Arjun Rampal — who was believed to be a key reason behind the Hrithik-Sussanne split — is that “close friend”. Earlier this week, it was reported that Sussanne and Arjun were spotted at a coffee shop in Mumbai.

Photo: Google

Following all the ensuing media speculation, Sussannne issued a clarification, saying, “Persistent speculation in the media has made me realise that idle Bollywood gossip mongers, who are influential, are insistent on spreading rumours and lies about me.”

“Stories are fabricated on upcoming weddings and meetings in coffee shops. There are families and human feelings involved and it hurts people when false gossip is passed off as true. I am a single working mother and take tremendous pride in the way I live.”

A mother of two, Sussanne is the daughter of veteran actor Sanjay Khan and Zarine Khan. 

Photo: Google

Hrithik and Sussanne dated for four years before tying the knot in 2000, following the success of the actor’s debut film Kaho Naa Pyaar Hai . The couple called it quits in December 2013, just a few days before their 13th anniversary.

Earlier, Sussanne spoke out against rumours of Arjun Rampal being the reason behind her split with Hrithik, and had said that nobody was to be blamed. ”There is no reason. Sometimes you have to do this because of a situation,” she had stated at an event.

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Categories: Pakistan & World News

Russia carries out first air strikes in Syria: US

Wed, 09/30/2015 - 08:14

MOSCOW: Russia launched its first air strikes in Syria on Wednesday after President Vladimir Putin won parliamentary permission to use force abroad, the United States said.

A US official said the strike was near the city of Homs in what is Moscow’s first engagement in a distant theatre of war since the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.

Russia’s deepening engagement in Syria comes as Putin and US President Barack Obama push rival plans on ways to defeat the Islamic State group in Syria and on the future role of the country’s embattled leader Bashar al-Assad.

“They gave us a heads-up they were going to start striking in Syria,” a US defence official said. “It was in the vicinity of Homs.”

The Russian defence ministry declined to immediately confirm the strikes.

President Vladimir Putin had just hours earlier won permission from the upper house of parliament, the Federation Council, to deploy troops abroad.

“The Federation Council unanimously supported the president’s request,” the Kremlin’s chief of staff Sergei Ivanov said.

He said the decision to launch air strikes was taken after Assad asked Russia for military support.

Ivanov, a former defence minister, declined to give details of the operation, saying only it would be limited in duration and ruling out ground operations by Russian troops.

Damascus confirmed Assad had requested military assistance from Russia.

Putin is seeking to muscle his way back onto the world stage after months of Western isolation following Russia’s seizure of Crimea from Ukraine and support for a separatist insurgency in the east of the ex-Soviet country.

Russia is later Wednesday to preside over a special UN Security Council meeting on countering terrorist threats that is bound to produce a sharp difference of views between Moscow and Washington.

Addressing the UN General Assembly for the first time in a decade, Putin on Monday proposed a broad UN-backed coalition to fight IS militants and clashed with Obama on the future of Assad.

Washington and its allies blame Assad for the mayhem in Syria, where four years of bloodshed have killed more than 240,000 people.

France meanwhile said it has launched a probe into Assad’s regime for alleged crimes against humanity, saying it was forced to act in the face of “systematic cruelty”.

The French investigation is largely based on evidence from a former Syrian army photographer known by the codename “Caesar,” who defected and fled the country in 2013, bringing with him some 55,000 graphic photographs.

France, which is part of the US-led coalition against IS, carried out its first air strikes against the extremists’ positions in Syria on Sunday.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said the bombs killed at least 30 extremists, including 12 child soldiers.

Russia argues that the West should support Assad in his fight against the extremists.

But Washington says the Syrian leader must go if the Islamic State group is to be defeated.

The Pentagon says Russia has in recent weeks sent warplanes and other military hardware to north-western Syria — along with at least 500 troops — in what many fear is an attempt to keep the war-torn country’s president in power.

Moscow’s proposal has exposed differences among Washington’s European allies, with some siding with Obama and others saying Moscow should have a greater role in fighting Islamic State.

Russia’s military involvement in Syria will be Moscow’s first engagement outside the former Soviet Union since the occupation of Afghanistan in 1979.

Putin had also sought permission from the council to deploy military forces in Ukraine ahead of Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in March 2014.

Konstantin Kosachev, head of the council’s international affairs committee, said Russia’s forces would be working in close coordination with Syria’s army and stressed Moscow would not be sucked into a protracted conflict.

Ivanov said that by moving to launch air strikes in Syria, Russia was acting in the national interest, to prevent foreign terrorist fighters from crossing its borders.

“We are not talking about achieving some foreign policy goals, satisfying someone’s ambitions — what our Western partners regularly accuse us of.”

But many analysts accused the Kremlin of a short-sighted approach.

Alexander Konovalov, head of the Strategic Analysis Institute, said Russia was guided by a desire to end its diplomatic isolation and may not fully realise long-term consequences of a military involvement in Syria.

“We were coming to Afghanistan for six months and stayed there for 10 years,” he told AFP, referring to a conflict that killed over 14,000 Soviet troops between 1979 and 1989.

According to a recent poll by the respected Levada Centre, 69 per cent of Russians are against Moscow’s deployment of troops in Syria, with just 14 per cent in favour.

Wednesday’s news set social networks alight, with many commentators predicting dire consequences for Russians. “Hide your sons,” one Russian, Zaira Abdullaeva, wrote on Facebook.

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Categories: Pakistan & World News

ECP halts implementation of PM’s Kissan package

Wed, 09/30/2015 - 07:57

The Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) on Wednesday halted certain parts of Nawaz Sharif’s Rs341 billion Kissan package — a controversial relief package announced by the PM ahead of local government elections in Sindh and Punjab.

The secretary ECP said the package was a violation of the code of conduct of the commission as it was announced at a time that could heavily influence voters.

The election body has halted three parts of the package and their implementation till December 3. The three points include:

1) Rs5,000 per acre to the farmers to the extent of 12.5 acres

2) 2% deduction in rate of interest for rice and cotton growers

3) Rice from Rs2,000 to Rs4,000 in production index units of agricultural lands

The prime minister’s package was announced on September 15 according to which farmers would receive Rs341 billion in grants, subsidies and loan advances from the government, in a bid to spur sluggish growth in one of the country’s main economic sectors.

On September 22, election authorities had sought assurance from the government that the relief package for farmers would not be used in any way to influence voters in the forthcoming local government elections.

Read: ECP questions timing of PM’s Kisan package ahead of LG polls

The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) and other opposition groups had approached ECP with apprehensions about intent of government for introducing packages when schedule for local government elections in Punjab and Sindh was already announced.

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Categories: Pakistan & World News

Woman, child drown as migrant boat sinks off Greece’s Lesbos

Wed, 09/30/2015 - 07:53

GREECE: A migrant woman and a child drowned off the Greek island of Lesbos after their boat sank, police said Wednesday, adding 45 other passengers had been rescued.

The Greek harbour police did not give the victims’ ages or nationalities and it was not clear if the two were related.

According to testimony from the survivors, 49 people were on board the dinghy when it capsized in the Aegean Sea off the northern coast of Lesbos.

Read: Migrant boat heading to Greece from Turkey sinks, 13 dead

Twenty-year-old Nilofa Ghonami, an Iranian-born Afghan woman, told AFP that the boat they were sailing in — which was only supposed to hold 14 people — had broken in half.

“There was water (in) the boat and all the people stand up in one group and the middle of the boat broke and all the people went to the sea,” the survivor said.

“Turkish police saw us and didn’t help us, a second boat coming from Turkey to Greece saw us and (called) the Greek police who helped us,” she said.

“We were two hours in the sea, it was very hard,” said Ghonami, who was studying to become an engineer in Iran

“In Iran, we are just living, we are not alive. I want to improve my level of living,” she said.

The island of Lesbos has become one of the main points of entry to the EU for thousands of migrants from the Middle East and Asia arriving from Turkey which lies just eight nautical miles away.

Read: Four children missing after migrants’ boat capsizes off Greece

Some 515,000 people have reached Europe via the Mediterranean this year, figures from the UN refugee agency UNHCR show, many of them undertaking perilous journeys in inflatable dinghies.

Nearly 3,000 others have died or disappeared during the crossing, the UNHCR said earlier this week.

More than half of those entering Europe are fleeing the conflict in Syria.

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Categories: Pakistan & World News

Here’s a look at Facebook’s fancy new workplace in Singapore

Wed, 09/30/2015 - 07:45

Moving into a new place is always exciting and stressful in equal measure. Will everyone in the family like it there? Will there be a weird neighbour upstairs playing the trombone at 4am?

A huge touch-enabled screen provides real-time information on users by country, trending topics and more. PHOTO: TECH IN ASIA

Facebook probably has little reason to complain about its new Singapore HQ. Located at the South Beach Tower, just minutes away from the Suntec City commercial hub, the social media behemoth has commandeered four floors of this latest addition to Singapore’s skyline.

The office maintains fully-stocked kitchens on all floors for when the employees get the munchies (the beer taps are there strictly for after hours!). PHOTO: TECH IN ASIA

It’s probably not too much of a surprise to say that the office is all sorts of comfy. There are adjustable desks that can convert from sitting to standing. (There’s even one of those vaunted treadmill desks for those people who feel their desk is slowly killing them.)

Instagram posts by notable local artists showcased on the wall. PHOTO: TECH IN ASIA

Bright, open spaces are surrounded by large windows that overlook the lion city.

Wood panels against gray concrete make the place cozy while maintaining that industrial, unfinished feel. PHOTO: TECH IN ASIA

At the same time, exposed concrete and ceiling fixtures such as ventilation systems reflect Facebook’s philosophy of having completed just 1% of its goals – thus the sense of an unfinished building.

An internal staircase, adorned with the work of a local artist, connects the four floors comprising the Singapore HQ. PHOTO: TECH IN ASIA

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Categories: Pakistan & World News

France’s Sarkozy disowns ally over ‘white race’ comments

Wed, 09/30/2015 - 07:42

PARIS / RACISM: Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy on Wednesday removed one of his staunchest allies from his conservative party’s list for December regional elections, punishment for saying France was a “white race” country that must stay that way.

After four days of silence over the latest outburst from outspoken lawmaker Nadine Morano, Sarkozy said her comments harmed The Republicans party’s image and could not stay without consequences.

The case illustrates the challenge posed to Sarkozy in his bid to unite a divided party which is struggling in particular to decide its line on immigration under pressure from an increasingly popular far-right National Front.

Sarkozy himself has taken a tough line on immigration as he seeks to secure his party’s ticket for the 2017 presidential elections, but he has stayed clear of such comments on race.

Morano told French TV on Saturday evening: “France is a Judeo-Christian country … of white race, which is attracting foreigners. I want France to remain France. I don’t want France to become Muslim.”

The 51-year-old EU lawmaker from eastern France, one of Sarkozy’s closest supporters for years and a former minister, insisted she had said nothing wrong.

Read: France will take in 24,000 refugees over next two years: Hollande

Sarkozy aides said on initially that he disagreed with her comments but did not plan any sanctions.

However, as the controversy grew on Wednesday and local officials asked for her departure, he decided to cut her from the party’s list of candidates.

“Her latest comments do not correspond to what France is or to the values supported by The Republicans,” Sarkozy said in a statement. “All those who seek to attract publicity that harms The Republicans’ credibility must understand there will be consequences.”

Her eviction from the party’s election ticket is set be rubber-stamped by its election committee at a date that has not been announced yet.

Equality between citizens regardless of race and religion is such a deeply ingrained principle in France that statistics based on ethnicity are illegal.

At the same time, as a diverse country that hosts Europe’s largest Muslim population, ethnicity and immigration have become important political issues.

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Categories: Pakistan & World News