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June 21, 2018

Living outside the structure


June 21, 2018

As usual, Eid this year was a delightful occasion for most. However, a large number of families in Lahore, and reportedly in some outlying areas, spent seven to nine hours of the day without electricity.

Not unexpectedly, generators and UPS’ collapsed – of those fortunate enough to possess them. As per the information provided by the Lesco staff – who remained immaculately polite and responded to a barrage of calls throughout the day – a major fault at the grid station had knocked the electricity supply out.

This is not an unusual occurrence on any day of the year, most notably during summer when the demand for power soars. We are told that a collapsing infrastructure as well as lack of rains have contributed to the situation. By now, people who have been living with power cuts since 1980 have generally become accustomed to them. More and more are finding means to make their homes self-sustainable by setting up solar panels, or at least investing in far cheaper devices such as rechargeable fans and other equipment which can help beat the searing heat.

However, the problem extends beyond the power supply. Over the last few weeks, we have for the first time been hearing social media and media warnings about the need to conserve water. Even in Lahore, a city known for its abundant supply of the essential commodity, tanks have been running dry. The concerned authority explains that underground water levels have sunk deeply.

Although this is a reality that is not discussed frequently enough, the water crisis in Karachi has persisted for years, with the main taps or turbines set up in communities sometimes getting water supply for only a few hours after three or four days. People rush to store however much they can in plastic cans, containers and other vessels. They complain that even the water supply is cloudy and has an unpleasant odour. The more wealthy resort to buying water through tankers, priced at around Rs4,000 per tanker, as often as is necessary. In other words, people have been left to survive entirely on their own.

Lack of gas, the collapse of public-sector schools, absence of amenities at public-sector hospitals, condition of roads in poorer localities as well as the rapid decline of government entities such as PIA and the Pakistan Railways has increasingly left people struggling to survive on their own. Heavy indirect taxes are charged, with the Supreme Court recently ruling that taxes on prepaid mobile phone cards were unjust. The state in turn offers little to people.

Parks, notably in Karachi, have become wastelands rather than areas which can be used by citizens. In Lahore, powerful land mafias have set about grabbing pieces of green land intended for use by people, and converting them into lucrative commercial enterprises. The cost of these enterprises will banish the less-privileged from the grounds they have for decades played in or used for recreational purposes.

Every citizen, whether he or she realises it, is contributing to the national exchequer. This comes in the form of GST, taxes on other commodities and deductions from salaries over a certain amount. The problem is that none of these resources are being used for the essential task of improving peoples’ lives. We have seen some betterment in services such as those offered by Nadra, and also in terms of the public transport, specifically in Lahore. But this alone does not improve the quality of life.

Laws which remain ineffectual end up acting against people. While there is a bar on children less than 14 years being out of school, tens of thousands of them are working in workshops, factories, mines, cafes and in homes. The recent case of Tayyaba, the minor maidservant who was severely tortured by a judge and his wife, has highlighted the issue. Setting what we hope is an important precedent the court disallowed her parents from reaching a private settlement in the matter. Most often, cases involving violence against child domestic workers are decided by handing over money to the families of the victims. Too many families feel unable to seek justice because they are unable to take on the powerful employers of their children and, of course, also because they desperately need the money being offered.

We then have a state that has become dysfunctional or, perhaps, even almost non-existent. This has certainly had an impact on the lives of the people, who are left to manage everything on their own. The social contract that should exist between citizens and the state they live under has broken down. Sadly, even as elections, scheduled for July this year, approach there is no evidence of anything having changed. For now, in the somewhat chaotic run up to the elections, parties are engrossed in dishing out tickets while avoiding the major squabbles within their own parties. We have already seen plenty of unfortunate events taking place, including the ugly revelations of Reham Khan. There is plenty more that is unfortunate, and the infighting within parties as well as their hostility towards each other does not help the situation.

We know that political parties face difficulties in acting. However, in the final run, as representatives of the people, the onus rests on the politicians to start putting their house in order and recognising that people are getting more and more desperate and anxious as the means to sustain themselves are becoming fewer and fewer. The high level of unemployment and the failure to stem poverty means there are families which literally do not get sufficient amount of food necessary to sustain themselves. The figures from national nutritional surveys verify this.

The first responsibility of any government, and behind it any state, must be to ensure that its people are catered to. It is not easy to achieve this within a structure that has over the years become increasingly defective. But we need to make a bigger effort to understand that why in terms of economic and social development has Pakistan fallen behind its South Asian neighbours as well as many African countries that it led throughout the 1950s and 1960s. Quite evidently, policymaking and resource allocation has not been adequate. It is also true that elected civilian leaders ruled for only a few years after Independence. But even if so, all rulers, regardless of their backgrounds, have had enough time to sort out at least some of the woes of the people. Other nations have managed to achieve this with far more competence. We can see examples in every continent.

As we move closer to the next elections, all parties need to consider what they can realistically do to change the playing field and allow people a chance to live lives that are not constantly wracked by anxiety. An improvement in the state’s delivery systems will help achieve this. Provision of food, water, and other basic amenities including power should be the right of every individual. At present, too many people are deprived of these facilities. Some mechanism needs to be formed to rebuild what has become a deck of fallen and badly scattered cards. The house will need to be constructed carefully and sensibly once again.

The writer is a freelance columnist and former newspaper editor.

Email: [email protected]

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