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October 14, 2018

In pursuit of sanity


October 14, 2018

The headline of the lead story in this newspaper on Thursday was: ‘Don’t be afraid, stay calm’. This comforting message was delivered by Prime Minister Imran Khan when he launched the Naya Pakistan Housing Programme in Islamabad on Wednesday. He was obviously responding to a palpable sense of anxiety and unrest that has spread across the country in the wake of some disconcerting developments on the economic and political front.

There is little doubt that people in Pakistan are getting increasingly apprehensive about economic difficulties that experts have mainly projected as the cost of the bailout we are seeking from the International Monetary Fund. Prices have started rising. A dramatic fall in the value of the rupee has rung alarm bells.

Ironically, the PTI leaders have themselves contributed to this atmosphere of gloom and tension by vigorously harping on the corruption of the previous government that, they insist, has left the economy in the doldrums. Their message is that there is nothing left in the national kitty. Fawad Chaudhry would tell you, in colourful language, that Pakistan is now like a dwelling that has been looted by dacoits.

Meanwhile, the new government, promising ‘tabdeeli’ and Naya Pakistan has, on so many occasions, bungled the job for lack of any advance planning or preparation. A lot of attention was devoted to needless optics. At times, it all served as comic relief. But ‘governing the ungovernable’, as one of its present advisers had already specified, is a very serious matter.

It was against this backdrop of uncertainly and apprehension that Imran Khan sought to calm the nerves of the people. “Be patient,” he said. “I will steer you out of this crucial time”. A published report quoted him as saying that there was nothing to worry about as a false impression has been created for the past 24 hours that the “country is about to collapse, the sky is going to fall or the day of judgement is upon us”.

It is instructive that a leader who reckons himself as a saviour made these remarks. Clearly, he has sensed the national mood and is conscious of the urgency of creating a spectacular sense of movement in the affairs of the state. Hence the mega-housing programme to construct five million low-cost units in five years. But it doesn’t help the PTI government that critics are finding gaping holes in this project in terms of its scope and financial viability.

In any case, the need to be patient and to keep one’s cool is quite evident. The economy aside, our society itself is in dire straits. But there is no evidence that Imran Khan’s attempt to raise the spirits of the people was part of any concerted plan to inject peace into a highly charged and intensely polarised environment. On the contrary, we have detected no let-up in the incendiary rhetoric of the PTI leaders.

Logically, the present government should go out of its way to defuse the kind of political confrontation that complements an electoral contest. Today’s by-elections are crucial. But the tempo of political discord is dictated more by moves that have been initiated on the accountability front. Shahbaz Sharif’s arrest is a kind of a catalyst in the ongoing political turmoil.

For that matter, Imran Khan himself spoke in a belligerent tone when he addressed a press conference in Lahore on Sunday. He expressed displeasure over the performance of NAB chairman and said that he would have sent 50 big fish to prison had the bureau worked under him. Once again, he had assumed his ‘dharna’ image.

Coincidentally, he counselled patience on a day that was being celebrated as World Mental Health Day. It could be an excuse to spare some thoughts about the mental health of our people in a collective sense. We know that in addition to a substantial number of people who normally suffer from mental distress in every society, the prevalence of this illness naturally increases in times of crisis. That is what we have at this time.

This year’s theme for World Mental Health Day was: young people and mental health in a changing world. It is particularly relevant for us because we are demographically one of the youngest nations in the world. About 30 percent of our population is between the ages of 15 and 29. What is the state of these young people in Pakistan, with specific reference to education and job opportunities? A search for answers to this question is likely to enhance the depression of those who look into it.

To extend the argument that an incumbent government requires an environment of political harmony and consensus to be able to advance its agenda, it can be asserted that no development is possible without creating sufficient social capital. Unfortunately, our successive governments have taken no notice of the moral, cultural and intellectual degradation that our society has suffered.

Even a cursory look at the prevailing state of our society would underline this neglect. In one respect, Imran Khan’s government has also proclaimed its unwillingness or inability to challenge one of the most detrimental ailments of our society: religious extremism and intolerance. The removal of a name from an advisory committee was symptomatic of a severe, collective mental illness.

And if there is a cure, the present government, too, is just not interested. We have seen that it has demonstrated sympathy and support for some particular obscurantist groups and bigots. Is it helpless in the face of ruling ideas that have subverted the growth of a truly democratic and enlightened society?

As for mental health and how a government can take concerted action to protect the sanity of the country’s citizens, let me conclude with an example. On Wednesday, which was celebrated as World Mental Health Day, UK Prime Minister Theresa May named a minister for suicide prevention as part of a new push to tackle mental health issues.

Some months ago, Britain had appointed its first minister for loneliness. The minister, Tracey Grouch, said that the loneliness strategy expected next week will help to improve ‘social connections’ and to get better evidence about what really works in reducing loneliness. It will not be focused on the elderly, but would recognise how feelings of loneliness could deeply affect people at many points in their lives.

Social conditions do vary from country to country. But there is no doubt that we are exceptionally impoverished in this domain. Sadly, there is no international agency that we can invite to repair our torn social fabric. Left to our own devices, we seem determined to further rip it apart.

The writer is a senior journalist.

Email: [email protected]

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