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November 14, 2019

Pieces of life


November 14, 2019

Somewhere in Lahore, three young children live without their parents. Their parents and their elder sister, 13, were killed in a police encounter and their paternal uncle initially attempted to reach a settlement involving money to ‘forgive’ the murderers.

The government has intervened, but of course those children who witnessed one of the most traumatic events a child can be subjected to as both parents died while they looked on will never recover – and will never lead a normal life.

Elsewhere in the country, in Lahore, to celebrate the launch of a new brand, a lavish party was thrown with tables flowing with food and guests dressed in designer best. The entire affair must have cost lakhs and lakhs of rupees. We have no idea if the FBR is attempting to discover where the money came from. And as we all know, in other parts of the city and in other cities, people struggle to survive and obtain even a single meal each day. This has been documented in reports by our own institutions and those from overseas. But does anyone care? Does anyone bother?

In towns and cities across Punjab, we are all afflicted by smog. The matter has already been taken to court by teenagers concerned about the veracity of government figures and their health. But it is the security guards, the policemen, the labourers and the peasants, road builders, cleaners, who work outside the entire day who are most affected by the toxic emissions they cannot avoid inhaling. For them, there is no escape; no money and no awareness to buy masks. it is easy to blame the situation on farmers and peasants burning stubble to clear fields. But has anyone researched another method they can use? Are they expected to starve by failing to plant another crop? Does the government have resources to subsidise them and assist them in acquiring newer technologies which do not unleash so much damage on lungs and respiratory systems?

And do the more privileged among us consider not using our vehicles quite so often and would we accept a scheme such as the one which operates in Greece where cars with even number plates are permitted on the roads one day and those with odd number plates the other day? It is likely that if such a policy was adopted in our country, much energy and zeal would be put in by the privileged to find ways out of it. One can imagine two sets of plate or of course two vehicles with different number plates to circumvent such an attempt to help others in society and of course the vehicle users themselves.

The contrast in lives is too great. The chasm it leaves within society divides the nation and weakens it by making it more difficult to hold together. We see the indifference everywhere. Many of us do not hesitate to pay the small boys at automobile workshops a small tip. We do not ask why they are working or why they have been kept out of school. The same is true of domestic labour, with ‘maids’ as young as five years old hired to look after children only a few years younger than themselves. Because they are paid wages of barely a few thousand rupees, these children working in homes are affordable and the exploitation is of course not of relevance to those who hire. While they will do a great deal for their own children, buying them every new toy and treating them to luxury items on a regular basis, the children who work at cafes or in their homes are somehow ‘alien’, removed from their reality. The cases of abuse arise from the sense that these are not people, not humans, but ‘things’ intended only to toil and labour in lavish homes.

How have we turned into such vile people? Yes, vile. There is no other word for it. Why do we have people in influential positions who are willing to use the most abusive and demeaning terms directed against those who disagree with them at public forms? Why are they unwilling or unable to set examples? The language we come across on Twitter and the rest of social media is no better. It imparts a terrible message of intolerance, hatred and downright abuse. The problem appears to have worsened in the last months. Yet it is not this language which is banned from television channels but images of opposition leaders and bans on anchorpersons acting as experts. Yes, the orders are being reviewed on the prime minister’s directives. But who issued them and who chose to send out the warnings to television channels? We need to know so we can better understand the kind of nation we have turned into and how our world continues to grow a little darker each day.

Within this darkness, there are glimmers of hope. The larger attendance at protests and marches to mark days commemorating rights for women, the effort by young people to speak out on issues including labour laws and the environment. The organisers who have made attempts to galvanise students to create the force that once existed and the move – even if it is a clumsily handled one – in the Sindh Assembly to restore students unions all offer signs of hope. But will these signs stay with us long enough? The young people who take to the streets or to courts or to colleges and even the organisers bringing them together may yet vanish into other countries. So many have already done the same. We do not blame them. They need to build their own lives and their own futures. But we do question who will help us build ours and create an environment where people from all income groups have a hope of constructing better lives and better futures.

The divide is simply too great. One small group lives in immense luxury; others in the deepest poverty. And of course there are those who manage in between on salaries, pensions and other limited resources. It is pointless taking cosmetic measures. Only genuine land reform and a reallocation of resources can even out things. There is little prospect that this will happen. The ideology does not exist, at least within the governments that have ruled recently and there seems to be little hope of any other group claiming the votes that could bring them to power.

The writer is a freelance columnist and formernewspaper editor.

Email: [email protected]

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