Small steps —Syed Mansoor Hussain

Of all the problems facing Pakistan today, the most important ones are terrorism, both homegrown and imported, and the economic downturn. That these are interlinked is quite obvious

A few days ago, while getting petrol for the car, my driver pointed out to me that the price of petrol was down by five rupees a litre. So, as is often the case, I involved him in a discussion on what I call ‘survival’ economics. I asked him about the other things important to him that had become less expensive over the last few days. He told me about the price of rice going down by almost fifty percent, cooking oil by about a third, potatoes used in pakoras (fritters) by half and, interestingly enough, fertilizer by quite a lot too.

The fall in the price of wheat flour is another spectacular change that he mentioned; the price of a pre-cooked roti (flat bread) coming down to two rupees from five. But the most interesting part of the discussion for me was the way new prices were being enforced. My driver told me that the previous evening, he went to a local hotel to buy rotis. When he came out of the hotel, three policemen confronted him and made him swear that he had actually bought the rotis for two rupees each!

He then told me that he actually saw a roti-seller hauled away by the police because he was selling them for three rupees each. This person was fined Rs 1500 and then allowed to resume his trade; thereafter, he sold the rotis at the approved price. Where the fine money went is of course a matter of some concern but I am for now willing to accept that it went into the public kitty.

I do realise that the Punjab government is providing the roti-makers with subsidised flour and, therefore, expects them to sell the bread at its recommended rate. That said, the price of wheat flour in the open market has also come down considerably. However, for me the more important part of this entire discussion is the fact that prices are actually being enforced with considerable vigour.

Here, the question that comes to mind is whether this style of enforcement will also continue after the month of fasting is over, and whether it will also extend to other things that are of concern to the ordinary public. I can only wish Mr Shahbaz Sharif the best of luck in such things, but fear of the implacable weight of bureaucratic inertia and its endemic corruptibility does make me wonder.

The problem with bureaucratic corruption is not about the people at the top, these can be replaced. What is worrisome is the entire edifice of corruption starting from the lowly doorkeeper upwards that sustains the system. A friend of mine once said to me that there are perhaps only a few people left in Pakistan that are no longer corrupt. My suggestion to him was that we should identify those ‘few’ and incarcerate them immediately. No honest people around, no need to worry about honesty!

Clearly, corruption is not going anywhere soon. However something has to be done about it and we do as a nation have to make a start somewhere. As I have said before in these pages and will say it again, I am convinced that President Zardari and the Sharif brothers are at that point in their political and personal lives that they are more concerned about redemption that making money.

If the people at the top are free from corruption and ensure that those around them are also untainted then that indeed will be great start. More importantly if they are willing to do the right thing by the people they govern then that will be the best thing that can happen to Pakistan. It is a sad reality that Pakistan confronts problems of such great magnitude that no easy fixes are available.

Not much has changed over the last few months. But things are happening that provide some hope. I have already mentioned the considerable fall in prices of some basic food items in Punjab. In my own field, I see visible attempts to expand free medical care for indigent patients, though the opposition to these changes from the medical bureaucracy are significant. How the CM tackles this issue will be one of the more important tests of his determination to improve things.

At the centre, President Zardari has set a good example by taking a commercial flight for his first private trip abroad, and the fact that he is taking only a small group of ministers and advisers with him for his upcoming official trip to the US is also encouraging. The price of petrol has come down albeit only by a few rupees and load shedding, at least in Lahore, has now become a minor irritation at best.

Also it seems that the political tussle between the PPP and the PMLN in the Punjab is simmering down a bit. That Mr Nawaz Sharif accepted President Zardari’s invitation to attend the president’s address to the joint session of Parliament is also a hopeful sign in this connection. Without collaboration between these two major political parties, the most pressing problems facing the country cannot be confronted in a meaningful way.

Of all the problems facing Pakistan today, the most important ones are terrorism, both homegrown and imported, and the economic downturn. That these are interlinked is quite obvious. Without a stable law and order situation, Pakistan cannot attract the foreign investment it so desperately needs and at the same time keep its business community active and productive.

Finally, an observation and a question: Our media expends considerable time talking about the victims of the reprehensible US attacks, but rarely about those killed by suicide bombers. That most of these victims are ordinary citizens, many of them breadwinners for their families, is a fact that is entirely glossed over.


Syed Mansoor Hussain has practised and taught medicine in the US. He can be reached at

Source: Daily Times, 22/9/2008

Leave a Reply