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May 10, 2018

For the people


May 10, 2018

Somewhere within our conscience – perhaps buried deep down or a little closer to the surface – all of us know the reality of people’s lives.

We have all seen the child sitting atop a donkey cart filled with garbage. We have seen homeless people in the streets throughout winter and the ruthless heat of summer. We have observed labourers working at building sites and children carrying heavy tools to expertly fix cars at workshops in every city of the country.

Although these are the realities of our society, what we tend to talk about are quite different matters. The preoccupation with iqamas; allegations of corruption; and the questions of whether Imran Khan’s marriage will break up once again, Bilawal’s voice is too high-pitched and Nawaz Sharif’s tactics of anger will succeed in bringing him back into politics, are matters that we speak of during almost every discussion.

Partially as a result of the ceaseless television talk shows that are aired round the clock, we have become almost addicted to politics. When a politician either leaves his house in a car or is momentarily delayed for some trivial reason, it is flashed as ‘breaking news’ on our television screens. But how many people’s day-to-day lives are truly affected by these events? Are they, at best, a mere distraction like a soap opera? And, are they more significant than the other events that seldom gain any space in newspaper columns, even if they are spoken of a little more frequently over social media?

Last weekend, 23 miners lost their lives in two separate accidents in an area of Balochistan that many have barely even heard of. A methane explosion at a coalmine in Marwar killed a large number of miners while the others died what must have been a horrific death in a landslide in the mine they worked in Sooranj. The 289 workers who were killed in the fire at a garments factory in Baldia Town, Karachi have been virtually forgotten. Their families, led by a mother who lost her only son, are struggling to fight court cases – that are delayed repeatedly – to earn justice for those who were killed so needlessly and by design.

There are other events that we either don’t hear of or prefer not to hear about. Last year, seven workers working on the Orange Line project, which is being built to contribute to the surreal vision for Lahore held by Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif, died in a fire near Mehmood Booti. Although the budget for the project included rooms for workers, they had all been housed in a small space, with clothes hung out to provide some semblance of privacy.

These clothes made the fire spread more quickly. The workers had no unions to speak on their behalf and only a few people are aware that the incident took place. The system of contractual labour, in which one man brings in many others to labour under his supervision, deters the formation of unions since this man is responsible for the actions of workers and takes a small cut of their salary in exchange for employing them.

All this shapes our society in ways that are far more powerful than any cases involving politicians or any unruly scuffles during budget speeches in parliament. But for most of us, they have little significance. We have turned away from the ugly face of our society and prefer to ignore its existence.

We do, however, speak about atrocities in other countries. Political and religious parties preach to us about the need to donate for Rohingya Muslims in Burma and we also lament, quite correctly, the fate of Palestinians, Syrians, Iraqis and others.

Of course, the suffering of these people is terrible. It is a horrific illustration of what is happening in our world. But perhaps we should discard the binoculars and also take a closer look at those children in our country who attend schools where there are no chairs, classrooms, teachers and textbooks; those who don’t go to school at all; and those who are beaten, abused and brutalised on a daily basis. We desperately need to work towards changing the contours of our society and developing within it a greater sensitivity towards the needs of the people.

We have learned to simply ignore the existence of the people. The death of labour unions and student unions, notably after the 1970s, has made thousands of citizens in our society even more invisible than they were before. Students are provided an atrocious quality of education at all levels on university campuses. They dare not protest against corruption in university administrations. The example of Mashal Khan warns them of what could happen to them if they adopt this course of action.

Perhaps our obsession with the actions of politicians or even the outcome of elections should diminish in favour of a greater interest in the lives of people. Of course, elections matter. Of course, politics plays a role in the social and economic life. The truth, however, is that no matter what party wins the upcoming election, how the polls are conducted and what the final outcome is, little is likely to change for the vast majority of people in the country.

The question of how change can be engineered for them is something that we need to compel political players to think about. We must also raise awareness among other groups at workplaces, educational institutions and other forums in this regard.

If we are able to mobilise more people towards working for broader social change and empowering the most vulnerable members of our society, perhaps forces like the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah would become less potent. They are only able dominate because there is little to counter them. For millions of people in our country, food and access to it are more important issues than those that are rooted in either theology or abstract belief.

Somehow, our focus needs to be on working towards real and meaningful change. This can only happen if a large number of people become involved. Drawing them in is difficult because individuals who attempt to effect change are often made victims of a system that seeks to maintain the status quo. The status quo, however, is unacceptable. It cannot be allowed to continue and it can only be swept away if more attention is given to matters that are of real significance rather than the constructed dramas played out in the public theatre of political life.

It is true these dramas are compelling; they are far more entertaining than the stories of farmers who battle to feed families or minors trapped for days in a mineshaft collapse. TV cameras don’t cover their plight. They do not pan in when workers are either killed on the basis of ethnicity or when all rules regarding safety are ignored. They also ignore the millions of people who go hungry each night in the country and those who live in fear for their lives simply because of their beliefs.

A force that can change this is the need of the house. There is a small opening in the window through which we can watch this force approach us. We must hope that this window will open wider in the future.

The writer is a freelance columnist and former newspaper editor.

Email: [email protected]

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