Friday, October 17 was the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty. Sounds pretty grim, but if you are on the wrong side of the poverty divide it is even grimmer. In Pakistan, where we are hopelessly poor on most fronts, it’s apocalyptic and, it appears, there is no plan or policy to do anything, even something cosmetic, about it. Most of Pakistan’s hundred and seventy million people live in abject poverty; those hovering on the poverty margin find themselves below the line given spiralling inflation with no commensurate increase in income. As poverty’s population increases so does despair and frustration and with it an increased demand on already stretched social and charitable resources and facilities.
The economic crisis does not just hit the poor, it hits everybody. While the rich may have enough of a cushion and know that Skid Row is not quite around the corner, they have seen enough carnage in the financial sector to be very worried and to know that it is something that needs to be taken seriously.
Seriousness, however, seems to be the missing ingredient. The only plan the government seems to have is a series of expensive overseas trips asking foreign governments for money. So far not much has been forthcoming, and do you blame them? Pakistan’s balance sheet lays bare its capacity to deal with the problem. No one denies that some work is being done, and that, contrary to popular belief, the government is aware of the fact that we are facing several serious crisis, and there are a few well-intentioned well qualified people working toward solutions. But it’s important for government to realise that it’s the poor and lower income groups who are the hardest hit by these solutions and that to sell tough measures it too must live by example and be willing to make sacrifices.
Seriousness means it’s not enough to ask for money. You need to show that you can and will work toward self-reliance. Perception is important, understanding it is something that seems to elude the government. Surely those we look to for financial help must find it odd that some of Pakistan’s richest men are asking them for money. They must wonder who these people are, how they represent the tens of millions who live in abject poverty and why we are unable to get these people to invest their money in Pakistan. And this may seem petty but it is part of the perception born out of frustration, Mr Zardari needs to stop looking like he is having the time of his life. It’s all too happy in a time when people are dying because of hunger, where poverty-related suicide endemic, where terrorism is on the rise, where there is no institutional structure and there really is nothing to be so happy about. The big grin is wearing very thin and really needs to fade.
Also wearing thin is the huge expenditure of government. You want to cut the fuel import bill and import more food, put those gas guzzling monster SUV’s away. If this is the people’s government, stop running over their mandate in your new Land Cruiser with its blacked out windows and no number plates. Whatever happened to the 1600cc car rule? And take commercial flights like the rest of us. You want to improve law and order and security for the ordinary citizen, release all the security details attached to so-called VIP’s and functionaries and let them protect the people. Surely, despite Mr Rehman Malik’s unfortunate statement to the contrary, after the Marriott bombing, their lives are as valuable.
Seriousness is not restricted to trips, perception and big smiles, it requires commitment to structural reform, to independent functioning institutions, to dealing with issues and not evading them or tackling them in a manner where the issue festers and eventually spreads like a cancer destroying whatever may be left of the system of governance. Empty platitudes like “you will hear good news on Kashmir in a month”, “load-shedding will end by October 2007”, “All judges, including the Imam of the judges Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry will be restored” or broken promises like “the judges will be restored within 30 days”, “the judges will be restored in 12 days”, “the judges will be restored immediately, within twenty-four hours after General Musharraf’s resignation”. The platitudes and unfulfilled promises are so numerous they can’t be listed here, but the government should not think for a minute that they have been forgotten in the sea of misery and uncertainty Pakistanis are required to stay afloat in.
Seriousness requires those responsible for security and law and order to be around to answer questions legislators may have in relation to the in-camera briefings made to parliament this week. Part of strengthening parliament as an institution is to take it seriously and not gloss over issues. Parliament, if briefed and brought up to speed on the security issue should be making policy so there is not only consensus but all actions taken by our armed forces in dealing with security threats have political legitimacy.
Seriousness requires that we have strong institutions, uphold the Constitution and ensure the rule of law is applied equally to all. This will in turn result in the strengthening of institutions, including political institutions and will ensure political stability. Without that there can be no governance.
But what do we see? We have a situation today where the government, taking cover behind the financial and security crisis, has further mangled our much-battered Constitution. The law minister has announced that the judges who have not taken a fresh oath have been ‘virtually’ retired. What on earth does that mean? Virtually means – effectively, in effect, all but, more or less, practically, almost, nearly, close to, verging on, just about, as good as, essentially, to all intents and purposes, roughly, approximately. So, Mr Naek, have they more or less retired? How are you, the law minister, going to retire them and under what law? Or do you propose to use force? What happened to the sovereignty of parliament? Recent history reminds us that General Musharraf’s efforts to do all this did not work. This schizophrenic method of dealing with serious issues has resulted in a complete lack of credibility in the government and the widening of the trust deficit between the government and the general populace.
What we need to see is a government that does not seek to control the judiciary. A government that has a vision for its citizenry and is able to articulate that vision in the form of effective policy that it is able to implement. A judiciary that is independent and able to check the excesses of government and its functionaries. And a citizenry that enjoys benefits of that vision and looks forward to real leadership. This is not virtual reality, or some virtual world like Second Life, this is Pakistan with serious issues and it needs real and honest solutions, not attempts at illegal wizardry.
The writer is a corporate lawyer, host of a weekly talk show on satellite television and a freelance columnist. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Source: The News, 20/10/2008