Apr 172008

At least two shocking incidents took place in the country within the last week. These did not involve the beating of politicians or the ups and downs in relationships between political parties, but events that concerned ordinary people, offering an insight into their lives.In Lahore, on Saturday, a young mother wrote a carefully worded suicide note, calmly took her two small children, aged five years and three years, along with her and lay down before a passing train. As the woman had planned, she and her children were instantly killed. The mother, Bushra, had cited poverty and near-starvation as the reasons behind her decision. No one will know what ran through her mind as she went about her terrible, but carefully thought-out, mission. Her distraught husband, who worked in a welding shop, is recovering in hospital.

The story made the front pages of a few newspapers. Others gave it a miniscule amount of space on inner pages. Like the tale of the equally desperate mother who at the end of March this year flung herself and six children, one after the other, into a waterway in Khanewal in an unsuccessful suicide attempt, or the father who a few days before this killed two small daughters and then himself at a village near Faisalabad, the fate of these families is unknown. Within hours of the incident, they have disappeared back into the gloomy mists within which millions across the country live their lives. Certainly, they have not filed hours of television time or dominated talk shows. Yet can we really say that, in terms of a reflection on the situation of the country and its people, these happenings are any less dramatic than the hurling of shoes at a former chief minister or the roughing up of an ex-minister?

The lynching of a Hindu factory worker by fellow labourers in Karachi, who accused him of blasphemy, is an event as tragic as the cases of child murder and suicide. Yet, outside Karachi, that violent incident barely even made it into print. If it, at all, flickered across screens, it was for no longer than a few brief moments.

Moulded by the now omni-present TV channels which in many living rooms are almost never turned off and newspapers, the definition of ‘news’ has been forced into an increasingly narrow frame. More and more people know precisely what is taking place in terms of political developments, but does this in any way mean they are more aware of the reality as it exists today? By refusing to move away from the most limited definition of what constitutes news, the media plays a role in blinkering society. Even newspapers, which one would have expected to make adjustments in response to the new age of 24-hour news, have remained largely rooted in their traditional role, with a primary focus on day to day political developments, often based around the statements of politicians.

Of course, these events are not completely insignificant. Pakistan’s quest for democracy and good governance has been a long one. The results of the February 18 elections were an important landmark in this struggle, But there is also another reality: unless the new government can offer something to people, do something to alleviate the plight of millions at least marginally, it really makes little difference to them as to who sits in parliament, who occupies the presidency or what the relationship between the various political parties is.

It is only by addressing these issues that people can be convinced that democracy really matters. Whereas voters across the country used their ballots with great wisdom and an astute decisiveness, the fact also is that turnout has been falling since 1988. There has been disillusionment with democracy, and as such a need exists to change a system that is oppressive, unjust and discriminates against the most vulnerable citizens.

All of us must think as to what the real concerns of the country are. The social injustice we see everywhere has created a sense of rage and contributed to existing feelings of frustration. Laws such as the one on blasphemy have played a part in constructing the climate of frenzied intolerance that led to Jagdesh Kumar being murdered after a quarrel, during which it is alleged he used blasphemous language. Reports that police stood by and watched as he was dragged out of the factory security office by a mob and that the management did little to protect him, is a further insight into the horrors of the society we have created. Whereas the beating of Sher Afgan, the violence in Karachi and the question of judicial restoration are being discussed everywhere, the tale of Jagdesh Kumar has received only minimal media attention.

Society cannot of course be changed overnight. The kind of development countries in the same region, including India, have seen, will take years to achieve. But to alleviate these issues, awareness is a necessity. Much of what happens around us deserves to make a bigger splash. The notion of parents killing children they cannot feed is a horrific one; studies conducted by UN agencies that show a third of Pakistani children are wasted or stunted, failing to reach height or weight levels expected for their age, constitute facts that should confront decision makers far more directly than is currently the case.

Some change, like an amendment in blasphemy laws to guard against their misuse, can come quite swiftly. As crucially, a strong message can be delivered by ensuring that if the allegation that police stood by and watched while a citizen was put to death is proved correct, all those responsible are duly penalized under the relevant law. The perception that a non-Muslim life is in many ways less valuable than that of a Muslim must be altered.

The rapid rise in cases of desperate parents killing themselves and their children, alongside grim warnings that food prices will rise further, mean too that there is a urgent need to put up a safety net for those simply unable to survive. The philanthropy which is so much a part of our society can be used to help build such a system. Whereas charity is not a desirable solution to issues of poverty, in the short term it can offer relief. This is also a case in which religion can be put to use to serve a positive purpose and the relatively wealthy asked to help feed those who survive on barely a single meal a day. Other policies, such as adapting existing poverty alleviation schemes that focus primarily on rural communities, to also address the needs of the rapidly expanding population of the urban poor can also be considered. While lasting solutions lie in holistic policies that include budgetary adjustments, slicing away the immense amounts spent on defence and administration, such steps can serve a short-term purpose.

The realities of the time we live in must be faced up to. For this, people everywhere, perhaps most of all media professionals, must reconsider what makes news. Their definitions after all play a major part in the shaping of perceptions and the determining of social priorities. Today, with inflation and unemployment having made life harder than ever before for millions, while growing intolerance has added to the violence we see everywhere, there is a genuine need to reassess these priorities so that a change can be ushered in before the situation spirals completely out of control.

Email: kamilahyat@hotmail.com

Courtesy: The News, 17/4/2008


 Posted by at 10:03 am

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