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February 23, 2020

Something’s in the air


February 23, 2020

Wake up and smell the coffee. This expression may have different contexts but it is also meant to tell someone that they are wrong about a particular situation and must realise what is really happening. That is, to be aware of the truth about one’s situation.

Our problem is that what we smell is not as aromatic. It is toxic. My reference, of course, is to the Karachi gas mystery which caused the death of around 10 persons and affected so many more earlier this week. It happened near the port area and caused a scare in some parts of the posh Defence Housing Authority that are near the sea.

That we live in a toxic environment, particularly in Karachi, is another matter. And it is true in both its literal and metaphorical senses. However, this specific incidence of so many people getting sick and some dying after inhaling something in the air was naturally a national emergency and called for proper action. Because of its strategic location, it also had security implications.

Thankfully, the menace quickly subsided or, one could say, it dissolved into thin air. Yet, what had actually caused it remains a mystery. This, I think, is the measure of our competence in dealing with emergencies, including the ones that are unforeseen. We may be able to attend to the situation on the surface, but digging down the causes and taking effective preventive steps is obviously not our forte.

Or is this a habit ingrained in our ruling arrangement to ignore or knowingly gloss over certain fundamental problems? Perhaps there is another dimension to this tendency to deny or conceal the reality of a situation. It could be a part of some strategic plan to manage the affairs without any legitimate oversight.

The point I am trying to make is that we always know that something is in the air, metaphorically, but we are unable to get to the truth of what it is. Even the option of speculating about it is restricted, given the limits of media freedom and rational public debate.

Take the example of the abrupt resignation of the attorney general of Pakistan and questions that this fiasco has raised against the backdrop of the case of Justice Qazi Faez Isa. The entire episode, ongoing as it is, has a bearing on the role and the power of the higher judiciary in the present system of our governance.

This is a very serious matter and I would not want to dwell on it in any detail. But I see it as a glaring example this week of how we can smell something that is rotten and yet we are unable to find the truth of it. We do not know how detrimental it is for the health of the system that, for sure, is already in a poor state.

Thankfully, we do have some comic relief in the midst of a very tragic manifestation of the state of the nation. Look at how the former attorney general Anwar Mansoor and the present law minister Farogh Naseem have virtually accused each other of lying. This is the behaviour of the most senior officials who are constitutionally assigned to deal with truth and justice.

Another aspect of this case that I would mention in passing is the report about the surveillance of the judges of the higher courts. It refers to the statement that the former attorney general had made in the Supreme Court and had then retracted. It is another foul smell that makes us sick.

Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, who is a star on the political stage at this time since the main opposition party, the PML-N, has retreated into the wings, has asked the government to clarify the report and to resign if the report is true. What we can smell, however, is extremely noxious.

Coming back to the Karachi’s gas mystery, it is clear that it should have been readily resolved. After all, it was so tangible and the area affected was so restricted. The expertise to do so is supposedly there. Yes, the University of Karachi made its investigations and ‘suspected’ that the cause was ‘soybean dust’ but it was not confirmed by other available facts.

Meanwhile, this human tragedy involving a large community of citizens was quickly drowned in the noise made by cricket that is being played in Karachi. The entire nation is smelling cricket in the air and the Pakistan Super League has distracted people from many other concerns.

We do need these distractions. Spectator sport is big business and cricket is our national obsession. So much so that its idiom has dominated our political discourse. One instance this week is that when the attorney general resigned, someone said that Imran Khan’s government had lost a wicket.

That Imran Khan had earned his charisma as a cricketer is also very relevant. Even if he now concedes that politics is not a game of cricket, his character and his temperament were surely shaped by this game and he never tires from invoking his triumph as the captain who won the World Cup. Now his supporters blame his ministers – his team – for the failures of the government but the World Cup he pretends to have won all on his own. Ah, let me not talk about the Wasim Akram-plus of his present team.

It would be relevant here to talk about deteriorating physical environment of the city of Karachi. There is always something that leaks. This week, the Saddar area near the Empress Market had sewerage on the roads. Garbage is an old story.

Air quality remains an issue though climate change as such is something else. In the same vein, the global crisis that has been caused by the new coronavirus is far beyond the concerns that we have to presently deal with in Pakistan.

In any case, there must be a sense of urgency about the environment in which we live. We can sniff something in the air and are affected by it in a big way. But there is no clarity about what it is. We have no answers.

The writer is a senior journalist.

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