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March 31, 2019

Once more, with ‘Ehsaas’

Opinion

March 31, 2019

Is Pakistan, manifestly a national security state, capable of transforming itself into a welfare state, given the supremacy of ruling ideas and inadequacies of our resources? And can this ‘tabdeeli’ be steered by the present government?

These are tough questions that we may hold in abeyance. Meanwhile, of course, Prime Minister Imran Khan has launched an ambitious programme, reminiscent of the grand schemes he had rolled out during his election campaign last year, to alleviate poverty and improve the conditions of the downtrodden segments of our society.

It is a bit reassuring that this programme, aptly titled ‘Ehsaas’, projects a genuine desire to lighten the burden that the poor and underprivileged segments of our society have to bear. This is reflected in the elaborate design of the project and the steps that are envisaged. They must have given some thought to the genesis of our disgraceful social underdevelopment and the threat that this national failure poses to our future.

In addition, the launching of the programme on Wednesday was meant to be a major political event. Islamabad’s imposing Jinnah Convention Centre was the venue. It was packed with the usual dignitaries and activists of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI). It was also a show of strength, in a political context.

Let us not be distracted by the fact that the content of Imran Khan’s presentation seemed so at odds with the air-conditioned opulence of the Convention Centre. This is how power is traditionally exercised, irrespective of the original aspirations of the ruling party to divest it of its pomp and circumstance. The party activists cheered and raised slogans while their leader spoke.

One salient feature of ‘Ehsaas’ is the intention of the government to change the constitution so that the provision of food, clothing, housing, education and medical relief is ensured to all citizens by the state without any discrimination. The idea is to define these basic necessities as the ‘fundamental rights’ of the people.

A tall order it is and its implementation will surely make Pakistan a welfare state. The big question is whether we can afford this programme at our present rate of economic growth. Instead of growth, should we be talking about the economic crisis? This does not, however, mean that we should not proceed in this direction with a resolve to at least do what is possible.

As an aside, it is difficult to not be reminded of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s and his Pakistan People’s Party’s iconic formulation of ‘roti, kapra aur makan’. This was the clarion call that galvanised the masses into political action in the late sixties in what is now Pakistan. Elsewhere in South Asia, all political parties have devised similar slogans to win popular support. In the 1971 Indian elections, the opponents of the Indian Congress had coined the slogan of ‘Indira Hatao’ and Indira had retaliated with ‘Gharibi Hatao’.

It is now for Imran Khan to demonstrate that at least this promise he is bent on fulfilling. It goes to his credit that he has always talked about the urgency of reducing poverty and about the suffering of the ordinary people. But, unfortunately, there have been some contradictions in how he and his government have pursued this mission.

The point here is that social change of the kind that would empower the poor is not entirely dependent on material resources. For instance, we find a special focus in the ‘Ehsaas’ plan on women. This shows an understanding of the dynamics of social change. The government will provide mobile phones to as many as 5.7 million women and enable them to operate their savings accounts in banks.

But what has this government done for the liberation of women in the rural sector who have waged a lonely struggle against orthodox and obscurantist values and customs? How disturbed have the rulers been about the apparently increasing practice of ‘honour killing’ in some areas? There are some legal provisions, but women in Pakistan remain particularly suppressed.

What I see as a proof of this government’s insensitivity towards women’s problems and well-being was the unanimous resolution passed by the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Assembly against the ‘Aurat March’ held in various cities on March 8. What was worse was that the PTI leadership took no notice of it.

Talking about the intention of empowering women in the rural sector where feudal and tribal values have survived, there are intimations of what the Grameen Bank had done in Bangladesh in the plan to provide mobile phones to a large number of rural women. But this was over 15 years ago when a mobile phone in the hands of a village woman was a more potent instrument of change.

I find some poetic justice in the impression that we are also learning from Bangladesh, which was usually seen as a poor cousin. We need courage and fortitude to accept that the tables have turned. In social development, we lag behind all South Asian countries except Afghanistan.

Let me just refer to one measure of it. According to the UNDP’s Human Development Index 2018, we are placed at 150 among 189 countries. Bangladesh is ahead of us at 136. It is ahead on many other indicators, particularly in the context of status of women and their participation in economic activity.

Because of the existing political discord, it would not be easy for the PTI to bring about a constitutional amendment to include the specific basic necessities in the list of fundamental rights as enshrined in Chapter One. Even if it succeeds in doing so, in the name of national solidarity, adequate action on it would still be problematic.

After all, that amendment on the right to education is about nine years old. Remember Article 25A? Here it is: “The state shall provide free and compulsory education to all children of the age of five to sixteen years in such manner as may be determined by law”.

Education becomes the major point of reference when we talk about equal opportunity. When it comes to promises, the PTI had vowed to introduce one, uniform system in the country. What we have now is a travesty of the concept of social justice. In these seven months that the PTI has been in power, no revolutionary or innovative steps were taken in the educational domain.

Yes, to affirm his sincerity in the implementation of the ‘Ehsaas’ programme, Imran Khan announced in his speech on Wednesday that a new ministry of poverty alleviation is to be created. On Friday, Brig Ijaz Shah was appointed federal minister for parliamentary affairs. Sure, the more the merrier.

The writer is a senior journalist.

Email: [email protected]

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