Islamabad diary By Ayaz Amir
In the waters of the devastation hitting Pakistan lies a chance to reinvent our condition by washing away the regrets of the last 63 years and laying the foundations of a new temple. But only if we have the courage and vision to think on these lines.
What would Maoist China have done? It would not have moped or looked to foreigners for help. It would have acted out the cliché of turning grief into strength. What did the Japanese and Germans after suffering unspeakable destruction in the Second World War? They picked up the pieces and from the ruins came resurrection. A similar chance awaits us provided we can muster the same resolve.
We keep on saying that this disaster is unprecedented, the havoc wrought beyond imagining. True, but then shouldn’t our response too be unprecedented?
First should come a moratorium on all useless statements, a resolve to eschew needless talk and concentrate on essentials. Then should come immediate steps to mobilise domestic resources. Others have talked of a flood surcharge on goods and services. Much better to levy it immediately on property. What’s stopping the government from imposing a property charge — it could be anything from five to ten lakhs — on houses in the posher sectors of the following cities: Islamabad, Lahore, Rawalpindi, Faisalabad, Multan, Peshawar and Karachi?
Shops and department stores in luxury markets in the same cities should have a similar tax imposed. We talk of the diminishing writ of government. More to the point is the diminishing writ of the tax authorities in whose remit, for all practical purposes, big shops and department stores no longer remain because they pay no taxes. Of course there will be an uproar, the mercantile classes not known for such willing sacrifices.
They would even take to the streets. But this would just be the stimulus and the sense of crisis the country needs. If the business and propertied classes — living off the fat of what is still a bounteous land — howl, that would be the sign to the millions hit by the raging waters that others are sharing their plight.
If Pakistan is to be remade, as the more unhinged among us think it should, then there should not be a return to the old ways. This is too much of an unequal society, an Islamic Republic only in name, its highs too high, its lows down in the depths. Not only have we defended the status quo, we have made it more uneven.
Mention not President Asif Zardari, a commodity incurable and irredeemable. Afflictions such as him have to be endured until the furies above think fit to bring about a different order of things. But why can’t Prime Minister Yousuf Gilani exert himself a bit? We know he is as much an accident of history as the president. We know he was always inadequate for the greatness thrust on him. But is even symbolism beyond him?
Since becoming prime minister, no one in the Republic with normal eyesight has seen him wearing the same suit twice. Why doesn’t he put up for sale a part of his wardrobe and donate the proceeds to flood relief? Hands-on leadership no one expects from him, not even his fiercest partisans. He has visited two relief centres and both turned out to be fake affairs. That’s how seriously he is taken. But his suits are in danger of becoming a national eyesore, a rag in red to a nation in an increasingly ugly mood. Or is this asking for too great a sacrifice?
Do we even remember the meaning of the word self-reliance? In a country as precariously placed in an economic sense as ours what earthly justification is there for the import of luxury goods and expensive consumer items? Let there be heavy taxes on them and let there also be a ban on the import of luxury vehicles. BMW and Mercedes showrooms in Pakistan? How absurd can we get.
As for the domestic manufacture of Japanese cars, it would be far better to set up plants for the manufacture of buses and trucks. Public transport, transport for the masses rather than the favoured few, is what we need. Our priorities have been skewed. Now is the time to set them right. Now is also the time to think afresh about our railways, in a pitiable state and a burden on the public purse. But the answer is not heedless privatisation. Serious money needs to be poured into this sector, with the ultimate aim of having trains cover the distance from Peshawar to Karachi or Quetta in less than a day.
The floodwaters should not be an excuse to shelve the taking of big decisions. Indeed, they should be a spur to national thinking. Even as relief and rehabilitation are underway, a national education conference must be convened, charged with the taking of two decisions: abolishing our multiple education system and revamping our textbook boards. These decisions must be implemented on an urgent basis and our best minds should be put to the task.
We should say no to the Kerry-Lugar bill which, judging by past experience, will do us no good. We have nothing to show for American money coming to us in the Zia and Musharraf years. Contractors, NGO analysts and auditors benefit the most from such deals. Kerry-Lugar will be no different. Much better to ask our American friends to help build us the one or two big dams that we need or, if they balk at that, to ask them to help revive our railways.
Our American friends have come to our help in our hour of need and we should be grateful to them. Their helicopter teams are doing excellent work. But there is the larger issue of renegotiating our terms of engagement with them. The lease for Jacobabad airport, if there is such a lease, should immediately be rescinded and the airport returned to Pakistani control. Reports in the press suggest that we couldn’t use this airport for flood relief because the American presence there was a problem. Nothing can be more embarrassing than this. If the CIA is to continue flying its drones, it should do so from Bagram airbase or similar facilities. We can no longer carry the burden of this privilege.
And we should renegotiate the terms for allowing the use of our soil for supplying American and Nato troops in Afghanistan. Our infrastructure and roads have been degraded and what have we got for our pains? We are very tough negotiators when it comes to India but pudding and jelly when it comes to the US. Down the years we have been America’s leading frontline warriors, ready to engage in any American enterprise around our borders, but lousy when it comes to protecting our interests. The American connection has made Pakistan’s elites happy but it has not been good for the country. We don’t need to court American hostility but friendship should not mean sentry duty in costly adventures.
One of the things washed away by these floods is our front in the war against the Taliban. Or at least this war has been put on hold which may not be a bad thing entirely. We have done enough and suffered enough. The Taliban remain a problem but the crisis on our hands gives us the time to rethink many of the things associated with this endless war. What we have gained let us consolidate. But let us be wary of opening fresh fronts in this war.
The army has done an excellent job in flood relief but just when its role has received plaudits comes word that the Defence Housing Authority Islamabad — an army enterprise — is in a serious financial mess. If anything, this is a reminder of just what the army should do and what it should avoid. The real estate culture has done the army serious harm. Just as the nation needs to reset its priorities, the army too faces a similar task.