Are paper ballots still necessary today? | The Express Tribune


All is set to print ballot papers for the 2024 election in Pakistan, and the three public sector printing press facilities – Security Printing Corporation, the Pakistan Postal Foundation, and the Printing Corporation of Pakistan – are dedicated to catering to the voluminous job in the shortest period of time.

The Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) sanctioned the printing of 250 million watermarked ballot papers for the upcoming general elections during its meeting held in Islamabad. It is estimated that a total of 2,070 tonnes of paper will be used to print 250 million ballot papers.

One tonne of paper is produced using the wood from 24 mature trees; therefore, 2,070 tonnes of paper will consume 49,600 trees, which may lead to an increased rate of deforestation.

The world has transitioned from traditional paper-based communication to paperless practices in business, as digitisation not only preserves trees but also reduces expenses on paper, printers, ink, postage, office space, and the time employees spend managing paperwork. This shift towards a paperless system has the potential to save significant national resources for countries embracing digitisation.

In Pakistan, the challenges of digitising the public sector are evident, and efforts are underway through initiatives like e-government. This aims to transition paper-based official communication and file management to a digital protocol, especially in cold mountainous areas, with a focus on enhancing efficiency and cost-effectiveness.

However, the process has been slow, spanning over a decade and initially implemented on a trial basis in selected ministries.

Forests face intense pressure in Pakistan due to a significantly low forested area compared to other South Asian and Asian countries. The predominant use of fuelwood for domestic energy, utilised by over 90% of the rural population, exacerbates the issue.

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Per capita fuelwood consumption stands at 0.72 m3 in cold mountainous areas and 0.52 m3 in plain regions annually. Consequently, a household with ten members consumes 72 m3 in colder mountain areas and 52 m3 in plain areas, equating to the felling of 6-10 trees per family each year.

This highlights an ongoing challenge, where afforestation rates consistently lag behind deforestation rates in Pakistan.

The task of cutting trees to produce 2,070 tonnes of paper for the 2024 election will result in the depletion of 49,600 trees, intensifying the strain on Pakistan’s diminishing forestry resources. To address this challenge, it is crucial to explore alternatives to paper for elections, aiming to conserve trees and alleviate pressure on existing forest reserves.

Forests serve as Earth’s life support system, providing essential ecosystem goods and services necessary for sustaining life on the planet. Their pivotal roles include oxygen production, carbon sequestration, habitat provision for biodiversity, regulation of water cycle, and mitigation of climate change impacts. The estimated annual contribution of a standing tree to nature is valued at $3,600.

This calculation factors in the cost of oxygen production and the value of carbon sequestration; showcasing the tree’s significance beyond its timber or firewood potential.

The shift to paperless practices, driven by state-of-the-art technologies, eliminates the need to cut forests for paper and pulp processing. Traditional paper production, coupled with its distribution and transportation, often relies on carbon-emitting fossil fuels.

Moreover, decomposing paper releases carbon dioxide or methane, potent greenhouse gases. Embracing a paperless approach mitigates these emissions, offering cost savings for businesses.

Research indicates that the most significant savings in going paperless come from reduced time spent searching for or recreating lost documents, averaging 86 hours per employee annually.

Adopting paperless systems can alleviate the environmental impact of the paper industry, where 42% of logged trees are used for pulp and paper production. A global shift away from paper could cut deforestation rates by almost half.

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Pakistan’s substantial import expenditure on paper and pulp could be curtailed by implementing paperless systems in businesses, offices, and society. The younger generation, accustomed to digital communication and business practices, holds the key to preserving forests through widespread adoption of paperless approaches.

Beyond environmental benefits, paperless systems reduce storage costs by minimising physical space requirements, transforming office layouts from file-centric to more efficient workspaces with desks and other functional areas.

Acknowledging the benefits of a paperless system, businesses remain cautious due to certain drawbacks such as security risks and viruses. Elections, similarly, face vulnerabilities, with digital rigging posing a threat to the integrity of results.

Despite these challenges, the global community employs various IT security protocols to protect banking and financial systems, continually developing advanced security and anti-hacking software.

Pakistan needs to enhance its capabilities, create new software, and leverage existing tools to secure its digital systems for the current and future generations.

While both paper and paperless systems have their pros and cons, the prominent advantage of the paperless approach lies in saving trees and achieving efficiency, time, and space reductions compared to traditional paper-based systems.

Pakistan should capitalise on the benefits of a paperless system and implement measures to safeguard against potential hacking and rigging threats.




Published in The Express Tribune, January 22nd, 2024.

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