Sometimes things need to get much worse before they begin to get better. Or, you need to hit rock bottom, after which the only movement left is upwards. We’ve all heard these analogies before, especially with regard to the state of our country. And as things get progressively worse, we wait to hit rock bottom. But it never comes.
It is a master class in irony. We have more electricity, yet there is loadshedding. We have more schools, but circa 23 million children are out of school. We have a democracy, yet a handful of families continue to rule the country and undemocratic forces continue to meddle in the affairs of the state. We have one of the largest armies in the world, yet we have a terrorism problem. You get the idea.
Barring the last election, which saw the PTI emerge as a long-awaited third option for voters, Pakistan’s democratic journey has been in the hands of the PPP and PML-N. And neither of these parties has been able to tackle any of the major problems that the country faces. Yes, it can be argued that these parties need continuity of process to get the job done, and had the military not intervened, maybe things could have been better. But did either of these parties have any blueprints in place or some grand designs on correcting the course of the country? I think we all know the answer to this question.
The problem is that hard decisions and actions that are needed to deal with the country’s pressing issues – such as electricity, health and terrorism – not only create complications in the short run, but also don’t make for good optics in the press. Let’s take the example of electricity. Pakistan’s problem has never been about the generation of electricity. It has always been a matter of its delivery. Our transmission lines are old and decayed. There are massive line losses. Grid stations need to be upgraded to handle the new load and deliver it to its respective areas. There is also the issue of theft or kunda. Yet, we continue to install new power plants, which can create more megawatts and makes for a better headline any day.
Education is no different. Yes, we have more schools in absolute terms. But the fine print is that almost all of these are primary schools. And once a child turns 10 and needs to move to a middle school, there are not enough middle schools on the horizon. If children do make it to middle schools, then the next step is high schools, which are even fewer in number.
We have so many primary schools because they were the easiest to get approved and were, hence, used as a political tool as they came with two government positions. However, setting up middle and high schools requires more due diligence and, therefore, hasn’t featured high on the agenda.
At the same time, there is a dearth of suitable teachers. Primary schools can make do with a generic teacher, teaching four to five subjects (much like a general practitioner at a hospital). But in middle and high schools, you need specialised teachers, especially for math and science.
Until a few years ago, there were no math or science teachers in some districts of the country. At the government level, there was no categorisation of teachers either – something that is needed to understand where the gaps are and how best to fill them. Fortunately, over the past three to four years, there has been a growing understanding of this issue. But there is still a long way to go.
The state of politics is, perhaps, the best example of how Pakistan is just jogging in one place. The Sharifs remain a family unit, albeit mercantile and industrialist in nature. While the Brothers Grimm continue to show a unified front, anarchists are licking their lips to see how the next generation in waiting will bring down the House of Sharif. The bulk of their senior party members are longtime political families, who have had political power for numerous generations. The examples are endless – Ahsan Iqbal, Khawaja Asif, Saad Rafique and Khurram Dastgir Khan, to name a few.
And the PPP is no different. The PTI was supposed to be different. It was hailed as a grassroots party that would take power back from industrialists and feudal lords and put it in the hands of the people. Yet, political expediency reigned supreme and the PTI is now littered with multi-generational politicians who have had their way in Pakistan many times over.
The less said about terrorism, the better. The same can be said about the pressures being exerted on democracy and the shrinking space for critique.
Fixing these issues is not possible in a single term. Maybe not even in two. These are problems, positions and ruts that have been set over decades and it would be naive to expect that they will disappear quickly. What is needed is a Pakistan-first attitude, a willingness to say the hard thing and take hard decisions regardless of the outcome. But has it ever been about Pakistan, anyway? All we see are high-visibility, low-impact projects that make better headlines – party first, the rest can go to hell.
The writer is a freelance journalist.