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Fast-food business: Some spice left in Mr. Burger

KARACHI: 

When it comes to fast-food businesses, particularly burgers, the role of Mr. Burger – a Karachi-based chain of outlets and the first player to introduce the concept of gourmet burgers in Pakistan back in 1979 – cannot be ignored.

Despite the presence of international burger chains including KFC and McDonalds, the market has developed only recently.

Pioneer in the business, Mr. Burger entered the market when majority of Karachiites were not even familiar with the concept of fast-food and the burger was termed a ‘bun kebab.’

Mr. Burger, which currently runs eight outlets in the city, according to industry sources, has been among those who developed the concept of fast food but remained on the path of a steady decline for years and could not fully cash-in on the ongoing consumer boom.

With dozens of new outlets opening every year – excluding international chains such as Burger King, Hardee’s, Fat Burger and Johnny Rockets that also entered the market during last couple of years – the market has expanded manifold.

However, the oldest burger chain, which, by most accounts, still has the best local burger, has lost the fame and charm it once had. Even notable food portals, EatOye and Foodpanda, have stopped working with the city’s oldest burger chain.

Critics say Mr. Burger compromised on quality of service while some of their trained workforce was hired by international chains that entered the market later. They did not react to the growing demand and rising competition.

“Mr. Burger didn’t improve their overall quality of service,” said an official who requested not to be quoted. “They didn’t have adequate number of riders thus, orders were not delivered on time. We, therefore, stopped doing business with them.”

Majority of sources The Express Tribune spoke to said the quality of service has gone down and the business is not growing.

Mr. Burger says otherwise.

“The business is growing and our transactions are improving constantly,” Mr. Burger’s General Manager Agha Muazzam Husain said, pushing aside the market gossip that the business is struggling.

Husain, who has been with the company for 16 years and looks after operations of all outlets, says they are soon opening an outlet in Islamabad. “We are also expanding internationally by opening out first outlet in Jeddah, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia next year,” he said.

He also informed about the recent increase in the number of riders in response to the growing demand for takeaway orders. “Our Tariq Road outlet has 15 riders now. It had just one.”

Responding to a question, Husain said, “So far, we have closed only one branch that was in Gulshan-e-Iqbal near NIPA roundabout. The reason was the growing extortion demands.”

He added that they would be opening the Gulshan branch in Lucky One Mall once it was operational. “You are safer from extortionists in malls compared to roadside shops,” he added. Hussain, acknowledging the latest trend of ordering food from home or work, said that one can cover greater geographical area from existing network by hiring more riders. “We still have a fair share in the city’s burger market.”

Asked if they are planning to expand to populated neighborhoods, Husain said, “Will think about expanding if we feel customers are out of reach.”

The GM said the competition was not a worry since the market is huge.

“Mr. Burger still offers value for money and I think they still have the best burger in Pakistan compared to others,” said Nauman Mirza, CEO of EatOye.

Published in The Express Tribune, December 19th, 2014.

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Torture report fallout: CIA chief admits some interrogations ‘abhorrent’

LANGLEY, VIRGINIA: Two days after a US Senate committee released a report investigating the ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ employed by the Central Investigation Agency (CIA), chief US spymaster John Brennan admitted on Thursday that some agency interrogators had used unauthorised and “abhorrent” tactics and said he believes torture tends to lead to false intelligence.

In a rare news conference, broadcast live from the agency’s Langley headquarters in what is believed to be a first in CIA history, Brennan mounted a stout defense of his officers.

But, in the wake of a damning Senate report into its treatment of al Qaeda suspects that triggered global revulsion, he confirmed that some had gone beyond their orders and abused prisoners.

Brennan said the Central Intelligence Agency had been too rushed to launch a detention and interrogation program for the suspects in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

“We were not prepared,” he said, describing how then President George W Bush had authorised the so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” now denounced as torture.

President Barack Obama halted the program upon taking office and has since described the Bush-era use of torture by the CIA as counterproductive and an affront to American values.

“In a limited number of cases, agency officers used interrogation techniques that had not been authorised, were abhorrent and rightly should be repudiated by all,” Brennan admitted.

‘Strong prospect’ coercive methods can yield false information

Amid a political row about whether Bush was right to order tough tactics in the wake of the attacks, Brennan said it is impossible to know whether harsh interrogations had won useful intelligence.

“I tend to believe that the use of coercive methods has a strong prospect for resulting in false information,” he said.

Counter to the findings in the report, Brennan maintained that information from detainees was indeed useful in the hunt for Osama bin Laden, but it was impossible to know whether the enhanced interrogation had been necessary.

“There’s no way to know if information obtained from an individual who had been subjected at some point during his confinement could have been obtained through other means,” he said. The Senate report had found that detainees more often than not gave the correct information when simply asked for it than when they were tortured for it.

CIA no longer tortures suspects

Brennan said that the CIA was no longer involved in detaining and interrogating suspects and has instituted reforms to prevent such abuses from happening again.

But he was critical of this week’s Senate intelligence committee report that accused the CIA of having misled the US government and public for years about the success of its torture methods.

Feinstein live-rebuts Brennan

Committee chair Senator Dianne Feinstein, who released the report after a long wrangle with the CIA over what should be redacted, responded to Brennan point-by-point even as he fielded questions from reporters during the live briefing.

“CIA helps keep our nation safe, strong. Torture does not. We must learn from our mistakes,” her staff wrote on Twitter.

She said the 500-page executive summary released on Tuesday was a small part of a 6,700-page report, and denied that lawmakers had cherry-picked damning material.

And she disputed the idea that it could not be known whether torture — known as enhanced interrogation techniques, or EITs — had led the CIA to its quarry.

“Study definitively proves EITs did not lead to bin Laden. Page 378,” her staff tweeted.

The report into the US intelligence agency’s abuse of al Qaeda suspects in a network of secret prisons around the world between 2002 and 2009 triggered global outrage and demands for justice.

Obama has condemned the torture, but has refused to say whether he thinks it is sometimes effective.

He was ambushed Thursday with a question on torture at the beginning of a meeting of his export council and dodged it, protesting: “We are talking about exports here.”

Earlier, his spokesperson Josh Earnest had refused a “yes or no” question as to whether Obama believes that torture saves lives.

“The most important question is: Should we have done it? And the answer to that question is ‘no’,” he said.

“The President does not believe that the use of enhanced interrogation techniques was good for our national security.”

Cheney denies Bush kept out of loop

According to the report, Bush only learned details of it in 2006, four years after it started in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.

But, speaking to Fox News, former vice president Dick Cheney denied Bush was kept out of the loop.

He said the then-president “was in fact an integral part of the program and he had to approve it.”

Detainees were beaten, waterboarded — some of them dozens of times — and humiliated through the painful use of medically unnecessary “rectal feeding” and “rectal rehydration”.

Asked if Bush knew how specific interrogations were being conducted, Cheney was more vague, saying: “We did discuss the techniques. There was no effort on our part to keep him from that.”

According to the report, the first CIA briefing with Bush on the interrogation techniques was on April 8, 2006.

Some prisoners — including Abu Zubaydah, allegedly a close associate of Bin Laden, and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, who allegedly led al Qaeda operations in the Gulf — were tortured in 2002.

US faces international anger over torture

That US interrogators tortured al Qaeda suspects in secret jails in allied countries was known. But the detailed report was seized upon by America’s shocked friends and gloating enemies alike. Pakistan on Thursday deplored the US’ use of torture.

In response to the report, Obama acknowledged that torture had been counterproductive and contrary to American values.

“No nation is perfect,” he said. “But one of the strengths that makes America exceptional is our willingness to openly confront our past, face our imperfections, make changes and do better.”


Harvesting rainwater: Clean drinking water saves some lives in Thar

MITHI: There is a village five kilometres away from Mithi Town where, unlike the rest of Tharparkar, no child has died in the last two years.

Medical records and interviews with the residents of the Moori Ji Wandh village show that safe drinking water is what saved their lives in the drought affected area of Mithi, Tharparkar.

“Three children have died in a village next to ours,” said Heero Bheel, a villager. “But we are all fine and healthy. There is no disease here.”

While talking to The Express Tribune, Heero claimed that their children were healthy compared to those living in nearby villages.

“It is because we harvest the rainwater. We store it in this nadi pond [man-made ponds],” he said while pointing towards a small pond which was about four metres deep and has a storage capacity of 30,000 litres. One end of the nadi pond, he said, was closed off with a flat sheet while the other side – which was higher, had a cane on top.

There is a 75mm thick layer of concrete around 1,066 feet catchment of the nadi pond where the rainwater is collected and can be filled up within 30 minutes – even in 70 to 80 mm of rainfall.

“We cover the roof of the pond and install a geometric sheet inside to curb the slow seepage,” said Mukesh Raja, programme coordinator of the Sukkar Foundation, an NGO that has provided the village with 10 nadi ponds. “Each pond provides water to four households for three to four months.” He added that they had around 20 different villages in three talukas of district Tharparkar with these ponds.

Raja claimed that communities in over one hundred villages had been mobilised to start doing this on their own.

“We have introduced another method for the villagers to get clean water,” he said. “Locally we call it chonara pond. It is a large ground water tank and has the storage capacity of at least 50,000 litres.” He added that community based organisations had been formed to look after and maintain the rainwater harvesting systems to ensure that their drinking water demand was met.

While responding to a question about how the lack of rainfall affected this system, Raja said that there was at least 60mm to 100mm rainfall twice a year. He added that while this might not be enough for agricultural purposes, it could be easily used to harvest drinking water.

As word spread, many people in Mithi, Diplo, Islamkot and Chelhar adopted similar rainwater harvesting techniques without any help from the government or NGOs.

“There were around 20 wells near our villages which had contaminated ground water,” said Haresh, a primary school teacher from Deedsar. “Now, three villages have built their own nadi and chora ponds. Each house now gets around five buckets of water.”

According to Haresh, the water doesn’t go bad for months due to the way the ponds are built. He said that this was because they used bio-sand to filter it.

Water woes

Ali Akbar Rahimoon, a social activist from Tharparkar claimed that there was a great potential to harvest rain water in the area but due to the unavailability of a structure or awareness about water conservation, the villagers would not be able to do it. He said that while some organisations had run successful pilot projects it was primarily the government’s responsibility.

According to Rahimoon, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has set a limit according to which a person cannot drink more than 1.5mg of fluoride per litre but they were forced to drink water with high levels of fluoride toxicity.

According to a research study conducted by the Pakistan Council for Research in Water Resources, the total domestic water need for Thar equals to 0.25 per cent of the total annual rainfall in the area. This means that there is need to improve the capacity to harvest it.

Published in The Express Tribune, December 12th, 2014.


Chinese interest: Keen to invest some more

ISLAMABAD: 

Chinese businesses have shown keen interest in getting mega projects in construction, energy and power generation sectors across Pakistan. 

A business delegation, headed by China Railway 20 Bureau Group (CR20G) Board Director and Vice President Li Lingxuan, met Iftikhar Babar, Board of Investment secretary, to discuss investments in mega projects.

CR20G is a subsidiary of China Railway Construction Corporation Limited (CRCC), which is included in the world’s top 500 companies.

Babar said that the investments will provide significant benefits to the industry and generate employment opportunities. Additionally, Babar highlighted various incentives and facilities available for foreign investors in Pakistan.  The CR20G is committed to avail investment opportunities available in Pakistan specifically in the field of wind power installation and hydro power projects. Babar concluded that investors should explore opportunities in Pakistan and assured them the support of BOI.

Published in The Express Tribune, December 10th, 2014.

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For some people life will never be the same

On the evening of last Thursday, I sat in an easy chair on the lawn listening to the quiet friction of foliage and the loud chirping of a mother crow, whose heir apparent had fallen out of its nest and landed on the lid of the water tank. It was a good time for reflection, for cogitating on the events of the day as they were reported in the newspapers and on the telly. In some respects, it was not a normal day. The new Pakistan cricket team, that in the recent past had been scraping the bottom of the barrel, appeared to be making a habit of breaking records and beating opponents by an innings and over a hundred runs. They looked as if they were going to repeat their performance. Life for these cricketers will never be the same.

The road tragedy that occurred near Khairpur in which, among others, 14 members of a wedding entourage perished was a truly dreadful affair. It left a huge trail of mourners for whom life will never be the same. There were also two death notices, erroneously referred to as obituaries. I didn’t know either of the deceased. But I nevertheless, bowed my head in respect. For the mourners, life will never be the same. And then there was the horrendous case of the beating and burning of the Christian couple on charges of committing blasphemy. The news made me sick. There were the usual polite editorials in the papers condemning the event and the odd article. The fact that the perpetrators of this heinous crime had been arrested is not going to bring back the husband and his wife. This is not the Soviet Union where the villagers would undoubtedly have been hanged. This is a country with a strong genetic disorder and three months down the line, the event will be forgotten except for the immediate family of the deceased for whom life will never be the same.

I reflected on the fact that an anti-terrorist court had issued a warrant for the arrest of the irrepressible Imran Khan and Tahirul Qadri who is marooned in expatriate purgatory. True to form, Imran Khan retorted by giving the government until November 30 to accept his demands or else… The threat was left in parenthesis. He also added that he defied the government to oust him. It is not very clear whether he made the warning before or after his stint as a comedian on the telly. “When I raised the slogan ‘Go Nawaz Go’,” he said tongue-in-cheek, “he misunderstood the edict. He did go but to Britian and Germany and China, instead of back to where he came from.” The rest of the epistle was a flapping farrago of barely credible twists and dead ends, delivered with staccato explanation marks. If he fails in his mission, life will never be the same for the fawning female forces that have clung to his every word.

I also noticed that there were no reports on Thursday of pious citizens upholding the family honour by dispatching their wife, sister, mother, aunt, brother’s wife, brother’s wife’s mother and aunt. Honour killing is practised in almost all Muslim countries and is quite prevalent in Jordan. I didn’t know Parween Rahman, the activist who was apparently slain for knowing too much about land grabbing. When I heard about what had happened to her, I mourned her death along with her relatives and admirers for whom life will never be the same. One can only hope that sanity will one day come to this beleaguered nation.

Published in The Express Tribune, November 16th, 2014.

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Windows 7 and 8: Microsoft stops sale of some versions

Microsoft – the multination technology giant based in US – has stopped the sale of retail copies of some versions of Windows 7 and 8, according to the BBC.

The date to stop the sale was set a while ago, a development that would help Microsoft move people to more recent versions of the operating system (OS).

According to statistics, consumers using very old versions of the OS are finally moving to recent versions. The latest version of the OS – Windows 10 – is set to be released by the end of 2015

Consumers can now no longer buy the Home Basic, Home Premium and Ultimate versions of Windows 7. But now, even Windows 8 is unavailable. This change will affect both pre-loaded copies in PCs and laptops and retail copies sold in stores, as the Windows 8.1 version will only be preloaded and sold.

However, this will take its due time to have effect as older stock of the OS is still available to be sold to the consumers. Only few firms offer a downgrade from 8.1 to the Windows 7 Professional version.

This change in policy from Microsoft highlights their acceptance of Windows 8 (original version) failing to catch the market share as many users still preferred Windows 7. According to experts, this change will also make way for the arrival of Windows 10.

Published in The Express Tribune, November 4th, 2014.

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Stampede in Multan: Some lessons

It was April 1986. The venue was the Qasim Bagh Stadium, Multan. The event was Benazir Bhutto’s first-ever public rally in the city. She had arrived in Pakistan after spending a long time in exile. Earlier, she had made a historic return to Lahore, with an unprecedented reception awaiting her. Prime Minister Junejo was in the saddle, while the lurking shadows of Ziaul Haq’s authoritarian rule still chased the frail democratic system. After her heartwarming welcome in Lahore, BB never looked back and rode high on the crest of her new-found popularity.

Multan was now all set to accord her a tumultuous welcome. After all, it was the same city where the late Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (ZAB) had contested and won a seat in the 1970 elections, although it later became the staging ground for stiff defiance against him during the 1977 PNA movement. As a young officer, I had been witness to the worst clashes between the protestors and the federal security force not very far from Qasim Bagh.

Now, a few years later, I was posted as deputy commissioner of the city. In April 1986, we came to know of Ms Bhutto’s plan of visiting Punjab and staging public rallies in various cities, including in Multan. It was a trying time for me as I had to tie up loose ends and oversee one of the largest public rallies ever by an opposition leader, with people like Nawabzada Nasrullah Khan and Meraj Muhammad Khan also accompanying Ms Bhutto. Her visit created a flurry in the ranks of the local administration. There were hiccups regarding the choice of venue: the organisers were adamant on holding the rally at Qasim Bagh in the open, while our view in the administration was that it should be held in the adjoining stadium, which was a far more suitable place from the security point of view. In a stadium, the crowd is caged and the proceedings are insulated from any outside mischief. We had also got a tip-off about threat to Ms Bhutto’s life. I, along with SSP Multan, were summoned by the chief secretary, who gave us a clear message that if anything untoward happened, both of us would be held responsible. After this warning, we huddled together with the PPP’s central leadership, which was headed by the late Rao Abdur Rashid, one-time special assistant to ZAB and an ardent party supporter, who suffered a long imprisonment during General Zia’s reign. We were able to convince him to change the venue of the rally. Being a former civil servant, it did not take him much time to gauge our intent and sincerity. Ms Bhutto’s security was so much on our minds that the rostrum she used at the stage for her fiery address was provided by the district police. During her stay in Multan, the SSP and I tailed her every movement for security reasons.

During the rally, instead of sitting in the control room, I moved and mingled within the crowd incognito, while a Punjabi poet on the microphone warmed the hearts of the spirited crowd with his verses: “Bhutto dae naaray wajan gae” (Bhutto’s slogans will reverberate). Ms Bhutto was at her best as she charged the Multani crowd while lashing out at Zia’s dictatorial rule.

Nearly three decades down the road, on October 10, as I watched the PTI’s rally on television, I could see that it was possibly the largest-ever staged at Qasim Bagh. Images of disorder and mismanagement on the stage were quite disturbing and indicated that something worse could happen. After the rally, as soon as visuals of the stampede popped up on the screen, it was enough to give me goosebumps as youngsters in their twenties died haplessly at the stadium’s gate.

The unfortunate incident has raised many questions that require answers from both the district administration and PTI stalwarts. I believe mistakes were committed on both sides. Let us discuss the selection of the venue. Basically, a sports stadium has a seating capacity of about 20,000 to 25,000 along the ramps. The gates of the stadium are, therefore, customised to allow for the entry and exit of this number and were not meant to cater for the brimming, cramped crowd that showed up. Everyone knew that Imran Khan’s rallies were pulling more than the expected number of people. Why, then, was this venue chosen, which was not customised to handle such a huge crowd? The PTI had earlier held rallies in stadiums in other cities, for instance, in Sialkot. However, while the Sialkot stadium catered to the local crowd only, Multan has a history of drawing crowds from catchments as far as Layyah, Taunsa and Rajanpur.

Also, one does not know whether arrangements for water carriers, maashkis, were made at the rally as has been the practice in the past. Many people collapsed just because of dehydration much before the actual stampede took place.

According to standard procedures in such rallies, temporary steel-frame buffers are erected between the crowd and the stage, and also within the ground for security reasons and to regulate movement. No such arrangement could be seen despite a stipulation to that effect in the agreement and permission order signed by the two parties. It seems that the organisers did not make provisions for the buffer, and if this was the case, then the district administration is also to blame as it failed to enforce the stipulation.

Political rallies have become mega corporate events, with tasks being outsourced without much oversight. These are now often arranged on a few days’ notice, which leaves so many details to chance. It is time that political parties started mulling over this before they are faced with more setbacks. There is a need to draft protocols for the conduct of these rallies. The government should take reasonable time to vet requests for permission to hold rallies. The PTI has drawn a battery of former civil servants to its fold. It is time now that its leadership gives them the task of helping evolve operating procedures when it comes to managing and staging rallies.

Imran Khan and Dr Tahirul Qadri have made a highly valid point when they ask our rulers to declare their assets and sources of income. It is time now that this argument is taken further: our political leaders should also be made accountable for the sources and amount of funds they get for these high-cost rallies and mobilisation at such a massive scale. I do not doubt at all that the sources of funds that parties get for their rallies are bona fide. The point I wish to make is that there is a need to document and make transactions transparent. Our legislators need to revisit the Political Parties Act and widen its scope. Just like expenses for an election campaign need to be documented, spending on off-season rallies should also be brought within the scope of law.

Published in The Express Tribune, October 21st, 2014.

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