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Opinion

May 27, 2017
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Rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic

Opinion

May 27, 2017

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Newspapers are full of matters of current interests. These are stories of ephemeral concerns only, which are, no doubt, important but not state-threatening matters. A year from now, these issues will mostly fade away.

There are serious concerns, though – five of them – that will continue to haunt us. Pakistan can either resolve them or be consumed by them.

So are we merely rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic? Not really. Pakistan has made considerable progress recently in ensuring internal security, maintaining strategic deterrence, developing infrastructure and generating electric power. The cricket fightback in Brisbane last year also depicted the country’s grit. But, in the end, we could still lose out as we did at Gabba.

Sadly, most Pakistanis are unaware that there are some basic truths that would cause us serious harm sooner than we expect. We have absorbed war, terror and civil strife in the past. But five imperceptible tectonic movements – which are currently at play – will surely overwhelm us. We can either hark the warnings now or suffer the consequences of the ‘Hanooz Delhi Door Ast’ (Delhi is still quite far away) syndrome.

These tectonic movements will define the country’s future. Fortunately, all are non-controversial. We must develop a serious attitude on these matters while continuing to play our small games. All decision-makers, whatever their level and mandate, must also heed these concerns.

Human resource development must assume centre-stage. After 70 years, the literacy rate is at a dismal 60 percent. But, in reality, it is even lower. Many countries like Cuba, Singapore and Venezuela (and the state of Kerala in India) managed to achieve complete primary school enrolment in about five years. Education has already been made compulsory and is also a constitutional obligation. If this is the case, why are 25 million children out of school? The provincial governments are to blame. They need to set a five-year target of universal school enrolment and then monitor the progress vigorously.

Once the political will is obtained, there are a variety of means to ensure the presence of all children between the ages of five and 16 at schools. Community schools – each with a bank endowment – have worked well in Gilgit-Baltistan. Mosques and madressahs that receive state sponsorship are an ideal way to improve literacy. The private sector would then complement the government in ensuring universal primary education. The introduction of cash transfer in the form of food vouchers is a foolproof vehicle to woo poorer children towards schools. The Benazir Income Support Programme and the Poverty Alleviation Fund could provide a way out. Alif Ailaan and other organisations know the rest.

The unsustainably high population growth rate of nearly two percent will surely do us in – if nothing else does. Over 90 percent of couples today are aware of the economic and social consequences of unplanned births. But the state has failed them. The unmet need is huge and nearly half the births are unplanned. A contraception prevalence rate of only 35 percent is a recipe for disaster. A fertility rate beyond 2.1 percent per couple is unsustainable. We ought to learn from Malaysia, Iran and Bangladesh. The main impediment is the failure to make supplies available to those who need it, especially after the subject has been declared a provincial concern. The best means of reaching out to everyone is through cellphones, hospitals, health centres, post offices, buses and mobile teams. Zeba Sathar and the Population Council could provide the right advice in this regard.

The country’s total land mass cannot increase, but the hordes of people will. The right balance is provided through strict regulation or land use planning. The conversion from existing ‘green-use’ (agriculture and forests) to ‘brown-use’ (concrete and asphalt) should be permitted very sparingly and at high fees. Agricultural fields, forests and water bodies simply cannot be replaced. It pains one to see the hills around Islamabad being levelled into housing colonies and factories replacing agricultural plains all over the country.

Fortunately, the Supreme Court prohibited some construction on the Margalla Hills a few years ago. But what about the ‘farmhouse’ invasion of hills from the Khyber side? Meanwhile, the rows of orphaned hills all around Islamabad are being crushed for construction every day. Why are we developing high-rise structures in the Blue Area or in Clifton and Gulberg’s Boulevard when abundant land is available within the cities? Is no one bothered with the suffocating traffic congestion, the water shortages, sewerage problems and garbage removal? We need to seek the advice of Dr Ashfaq Ahmad, Arif Hasan, Adil Najam and others on how to plan ahead.

At the time of Partition, the country’s per capita water availability was 5,000 cubic metres. Water availability has fallen six fold since then. So why is there no national development consensus and water policy on sustainable water use? Everyone will benefit if these policies are introduced – all the more so in the context of climate change. If the country could unanimously agree to the ‘Water Accord’ of 1991, why can’t it agree to policies on other water issues? Pakistan must create another 25 million acre feet of storage and price its water-use in economic terms. Failure would mean that we will soon be confronted with thirst and starvation. Reading John Briscoe’s ‘Pakistan’s Water Economy: Running Dry’ should be made compulsory for all policymakers.

The country has taken a beating in many spheres. But the most damaging effects have been noticed in our environment. Hills flattened, forests chopped down, streams turned into open sewers, wildlife all but annihilated, water polluted – the list is endless. For a ringside view of how best to devastate hills just step out of Islamabad on Murree Road, where some of our big real-estate interests are levelling pristine hills. The loss of habitat and indiscriminate practice of ‘hunting’ have taken a terrible toll. The iguana, python, black-buck, barking deer, brown bear, the Kashmir stag, goral, leopard and Marco Polo sheep are all but gone. Trophy hunting has saved the markhor, ibex and urial because the proceeds went to the community and not to the government. As an aside, we must also note that Potohar saw giraffes thousands of years back, rhinoceros were found aplenty in Hangu Valley 500 years ago, Khairpur was home to the Asian lion and the last tiger was killed in Pajnad in 1809. Can we restore the habitat that allowed these species to survive?

Every district must earmark 10 habitat protection parks in the public or private sectors. This would mean that a total of 1,500 protected habitats must exist in all. We can only look towards the chief ministers of all provinces for help in this regard. Wanted immediately: one high-profile sponsor each at the federal and provincial levels. And suo motu action too.

 

The writer has served as the chief secretary of GB, AJK, KP and Sindh and was the chairman of Wapda and the Pakistan Railways. 

Email: [email protected]

 

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