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June 27, 2019

Lives cut apart


June 27, 2019

We live segmented lives. Those in one major city are increasingly less concerned about events in another and the same is true across provinces and even regions.

The proof of this comes in the creation of sections in major newspapers devoted to news from the particular city in which that edition is published. News from other cities occupies less prominent space somewhere in the inside pages. Moving beyond our own borders, this is also true of us as global citizens. International events, no matter what their significance, in this increasingly small planet linked together by technology and air travel that we all share, only rarely makes front pages or bulletin headlines.

We care only about the specific sphere in which we live our own lives and the limited service carried out suggests that we are also most likely to focus on our own immediate neighbourhood. It is also not insignificant that news about the wealthy, the famous and others in even relatively minor positions of affluence or power assume a greater space in the formulation of news agendas.

When a murder takes place in the house of an affluent family, in any city or town, it tends to make news. Lives lived in smaller dwellings whose owners may command less social status in many cases do not merit anything more than a single line or two of print space. Some people then in our society are more important than others.

The fightback against this has been too limited and carried out only in isolated episodes. Divisions along the line of precise ideological belief, profession, and other areas keep groups apart. It is not a coincidence that a recently posted video clip which did the rounds over social media and featured a former cricketer talking about the state of the game in the country pointed out that acute divisions continued to exist between cricketers from Lahore and Karachi. This of course has been a feature of Pakistani sports for decades. It is sad that we have come no closer to resolving the problem and that indeed the gap seems to be widening.

There are other aspects to this divide. In one province and amongst people of one ethnicity, the feelings of others are known at best only hazily or from a great distance. It is difficult for many of us living outside the province to understand quite what sentiments, both social and political, are in Balochistan. Various events have created rage across that province. The rest of us barely feel the reverberation from this collective anger. We cannot therefore discuss the reason, justifications or lack of them behind it.

Similarly, many outside the immediate area struggle to comprehend what is happening in our former tribal areas, in rural Sindh or in other places. Even when voices are raised from these regions, we often ignore them or simply pay no heed to them until they go away.

The lower income groups across the country face common perils. They are endangered by the sharply rising cost of living, unemployment – with reports of a new wave of job losses coming in – and problems including access to education, healthcare, justice and opportunity. There have been occasional efforts in each province to draw attention to these.

Farmers in Punjab have raised their problems, workers in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Haris in Sindh and other groups in Balochistan have attempted the same. But they have not been able to unite in the common purpose of demanding uplift and a chance to live dignified, decent lives without a struggle to obtain even the most basic of amenities. These include food, housing, education and medical attention.

A political party which could address these issues would undoubtedly make gains. But the loss of faith in political parties and the continuing feeling of letdown as new leaders take over have not helped. The social and political movements which do exist need to come together, so that the voices of those who are essentially voiceless can be heard. We also still hear adamant claims from people in our country, most often at lavish dinner parties or in glittery, air-conditioned drawing rooms, that no one in Pakistan goes hungry. This is simply not true.

According to a Unicef study conducted in collaboration with other international agencies and the Ministry of National Health Services, only 16 percent of infants between six and 23 months receive a minimum acceptable diet. The number is shockingly low, even though at least the younger group in the age bracket surveyed should be largely dependent on their breastfeeding. The extraordinarily high number of stunted and wasted children in the country, who are quite often referred to by our prime minister, simply accentuates the picture. And it is not a pretty one.

The reports from Sindh, the most malnourished province in the country, of starving mothers and poorly nourished girls bearing babies while suffering alarming deficiencies in iron and other nutrients adds further perspective to a massive problem. But those of us in other parts of the country like to pretend hunger happens only in other places, other regions. This is also untrue. Even in major urban centres, there are people who live on extremely poor nutrition, or are unable to afford anything more than a single roti for their evening meal.

While there have been deaths due to drought-like conditions leading to famine in Tharpakar, which recently experienced its first rain in some parts of the desert, there is also famine, acute water shortage and hunger in Cholistan in Punjab. This is not as frequently reported.

To call ourselves a country, we must educate ourselves better about all its citizens, no matter where they live or what group they belong to in terms of income, ethnicity or gender. The ostrich-like approach taken too often – that all is well and will be even better once the corrupt are brought to book – is not helpful. As we all know, security is a vital need. People can be secure only if they have what they need to survive and also an understanding that they will be fairly treated by the state they live in.

The perception among some groups, whether true or false, that this is not the case adds to the potential friction. Our federation needs to be drawn closer together. It is ironic that very few of us speak any regional language other than that from our own region, if any at all. There are no classes in Pashto or Sindhi or Balochi or Brahavi in schools and colleges in Punjab. Punjabi is not taught even in the province itself, leave alone others. School children learn Arabic and French and Mandarin and Spanish, but none of the languages that can draw them closer to others in their own country.

Ties between different groups of people need to be created so that we can weave together a well-knit, solid hole able to withstand any hardship that may face us and work together to combat it collectively as a single nation and interlinked society.

The writer is a freelancecolumnist and former newspaper editor.

Email: [email protected]

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