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EDITORIAL: It seems an official or officials in some government department have bungled the post-lockdown reopening of the Afghan border for transport of shipping containers from the port so badly that at least 15,000 containers are now stuck in Karachi and other places en route to their final destinations. Yet the departments involved in the matter - the Federal Board of Revenue (FBR) and the terminal operator National Logistics Cell (NCL) - are just tossing the blame around and pointing fingers at others. Surely, this is one problem that should have been visible from a great distance since it was natural for traffic to build at border crossings once they were opened. Since the lockdown ruled out normal trade through land and air routes yet shipping lines remained open, a lot of containers were simply routed to the seaport where they were forced to sit and wait for the emergency to pass, which fortunately did not take too long in Pakistan. And ordinarily it wouldn't have been much of a problem. All that was needed was to speed up things a bit at Chaman and Torkham crossings, which are presently choked for miles with these containers. But it turns out that in April, just when the country was beginning to properly lock down, the director general of transit trade of FBR issued an office order that mandated an increase in scanning of Afghanistan-bound containers from 10 percent to 100 percent.

Surely, considering the unnatural buildup of containers at the port, the FBR official could not have issued such an order and then not expected problems to arise. It is inconceivable how such a step can be defended when what was needed was to hurry up the process of clearing the backlog. Now, with all the time the scanning is taking, not to mention the traffic jams at the borders, the people who are being hurt the most are exporters. And the last thing we need right now is for something as completely needless as this crisis to hurt our own exports to the neighbouring country in any way, especially since the August rains pretty much took the wind out of the July surprise, when the country recorded an encouraging year-on-year jump in export earnings while much of the world was still in shutdown. But since clearly nobody is willing to take any responsibility for any of this, it seems everybody will just have to wait till some high office takes note of the situation and orders a swift inquiry.

The situation is made all the more strange since a February 2014 notification of the FBR itself said that 100 percent scanning of consignments would be "subject to availability of requisite infrastructure," and that provisions related to weighing, scanning, tracking and monitoring of vehicles and containers shall become operative only when necessary facilities are made available. Since nothing about the infrastructure would have changed between the times when 10 percent scanning was enforced and when it was increased to 100 percent, one can only wait for a detailed investigation to reveal just what prompted the said director general of the Bureau to act in the manner that he did. From the looks of things his order not only made a bad situation much worse but also contradicted one of his own institution's earlier orders. NLC, for its part, believes its facilities are pretty sufficient to handle the task at hand; even though that does not explain all the delays. It says it has installed three scanners at Torkham, which can handle 1,200 to 1,400 vehicles a day. It also pointed out that its business ends with the scanning and weighing of vehicles inside the border terminal premises and it has no role in border crossings. That, of course, is FBR's responsibility, which must now get its act together very quickly.

This situation needs to be settled as soon as possible. At this rate the queues of containers waiting to get past the border will only get longer. So whatever needs to be done to speed things up must be done. Yet while this problem is being solved it must also teach very important lessons to people in important and sensitive official positions. While it is understandable that much about the pandemic and everything it has brought is unprecedented, there is no reason for the response not to be properly thought out.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2020

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