The cat and the cream
The scene is etched in my mind. She stepped out of the elegant five-star hotel in the heart of the beautiful city, opened her umbrella and braced herself to the cold wind as she ventured out into the wet street towards the underground tube station.The beautiful city was the city
The scene is etched in my mind. She stepped out of the elegant five-star hotel in the heart of the beautiful city, opened her umbrella and braced herself to the cold wind as she ventured out into the wet street towards the underground tube station.
The beautiful city was the city of Vienna, the lady the wife of the highest ranking officer in the Austrian army. There was no protocol, no official cavalcade of cars, and no fanfare. Her official duty with the visiting Pakistani dignitaries was over during which she and her husband had gone around in expensive official cars, dined at the top hotel of the city and hosted events with full glittering protocol.
Now her official work was over, and she was like any ordinary citizen of her city – heading home in public transport.
How different is the conduct of senior officers of developed countries compared to ours! This is just a small example, but it depicts a mindset, a culture that respects national assets and draws a line between private and public roles, responsibilities and rights.
The German president and his wife used to come to their official residence on working days. They returned to their private apartment in the evening where they lived a simple but elegant lifestyle. No fleet of cars, no bevy of servants, no palatial residence. They paid their own bills like all other citizens.
It is no small wonder that those nations have developed while countries like ours lag behind. It is refreshing to note that in developed countries, people of all classes have the basic necessities – a home, a car, health insurance, free education, public transport in which people of all walks of life travel without feeling the least degraded. Students, professors, even officers in ceremonial uniform feel no qualm in travelling in the train or the tube to an official event.
Back home, the metro bus, the new toy in town, has created ripples of different types among the residents of Islamabad. While the daily commuters are thrilled at the new development, there are those who think the beauty of the city has been destroyed. The cheap fares of the air-conditioned buses are bringing hordes of the ‘public’ to places like the Centaurus, meant to be the exclusive domain of the ‘elite’.
How many of our senior officers or ministers, or even their families, would care to rub shoulders literally with the subjects that they are technically there to serve? They travel instead in cavalcades, set in place to protect them from the public.
Even our priorities for austerity are misplaced. Instead of controlling lavish public expenditure, private wedding functions are being cut down to size. The time and the menu are controlled by the authorities even though the bills are footed by the hosts themselves while national dinners and functions remain as lavish as ever. Restraints are put on weddings; despite the fact that so many people make a living out of these events and there are such few opportunities of entertainment in our society. Preaching austerity is a positive step, but it should be practised especially by those who do not pay the bills themselves. The national treasury must not be treated as personal property. Most of our leaders and high-ranking officers are prone to helping themselves to it without any qualms.
No wonder necklaces donated by tender-hearted visiting dignitaries for poor calamity-hit women in our country find their way into the houses of so-called leaders instead.
We have as a nation encouraged and tolerated an atmosphere of exploitation where those who rise to a position of power consider themselves masters of all that they survey. In the absence of any system of checks and balances on national expenditure, the bills reach astronomical figures and yet there is neither remorse nor a sense of guilt by those indulging in excesses. In fact, those who practise austerity are considered stupid.
Reckless misuse of national assets for personal use by leaders and high ranking officers along with their families and friends is criminal, particularly in a country where people are denied basic rights. This has become a trend, accepted by everyone as the spoils of war for the winning candidates or any official getting promoted in any field, civil or military. There is no authority to keep a check on excessive expenditure. The beneficiaries are supposed to monitor themselves.
That is like asking the cat to guard the cream.
The result is that, apart from wastage, the lack of checks and balances generally encourages those personalities to fight for high positions who pretend to serve the nation but in reality they would go to any limit to get unrestricted access to free amenities. Their lackeys and subordinates facilitate their bosses in doing so and help themselves also in the process.
How can those who do not even foot their own bills be trusted with national assets? How safe can the cream be when the cat is guarding it? And who will bell the cat?
The writer, Country Project Coordinator for a German welfare organisation, has her short stories about Pakistani people she comes across in her fieldwork are published in