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April 18, 2021

A decent life


April 18, 2021

For some years now I A Rehman Sahib, who passed away gracefully and in harness at age ninety last week, would let out a wry lament, ‘Fighting state oppression presented a clearer adversary than is the case now.’

Society itself had darkened through the years. No matter. He continued to smile, take short, resolute steps and push back against the shadows. He leaves behind a mighty message. One does what one must to preserve decency in society and to live a decent life oneself.

Rehman Sahib’s comrade for decades, Professor Amin Mughal, once described for some of us the creed by which the doctor in Camus’ novel ‘The Plague’ lived, even when his efforts seemed so inadequate in quelling the disease. “He did not leave the city when he could have because to do so wouldn’t have looked good. Comrade, the doctor running away from his patients would have been a grotesque spectacle”. Some posts must be guarded, not because it is heroic to do so but because it is what one does. Rehman Sahib never abandoned his post. Till the end he questioned, exposed and resisted. The immediate questions he leaves behind ultimately coalesce into a challenge to the nature of the state that we inhabit. Consider.

Interrogating the state about its plans to make vaccines available that may provide protection against the most harmful effects of the raging coronavirus requires more than a deep breath. The facts that reflect decisions made, and those not made, must be demanded, stated and then resisted. With a population of over 220 million, Pakistan has so far vaccinated a little over one million individuals with at least one dose of an approved vaccine. Most vaccines on offer require at least two doses to be effective. This number includes privately procured as well as publicly made available vaccines.

The average numbers vaccinated daily in Pakistan is 40,000. The corresponding number in India is three million with over 10 million already inoculated. The Indian state has set a preliminary target of 500 million individuals to be vaccinated. The eventual target is above 1000 million. The Indian vaccination programme is based on domestic production of vaccines under licence granted by the original producers.

Vaccine availability in Pakistan is likely to remain sporadic. Availability of vaccines through the WHO and Unicef-led COVAX project remains indefinitely suspended. The Chinese producer of the single shot vaccine, Cansino, is likely to make three million or so doses available by the end of the month. A pharmaceutical plant owned by the National Institute of Health might be able to start filling up domestically, based on imported concentrate, three million doses of Cansino each month. The foreign minister has said that Germany might also provide 1.5 million doses. The private sector has imported 50,000 doses of the Russian vaccine and may be able to import similar quantities in the future. The quantity of vaccines arranged for import by Bangladesh is nearly twenty times that of Pakistan on a per capita basis.

Given the uncertain availability of vaccines, the Pakistani state has set no targets for vaccination. The state has also chosen not to undertake a mass awareness campaign through the electronic and print media, aimed at encouraging the people to seek vaccination. Conspiracy theories against vaccination remain largely unanswered. The state cannot afford for more numbers to turn up at its vaccination facilities than the small numbers seeking vaccination at present.

With the lack of coverage offered by the state, the market for privately procured vaccines is doing what markets do. By offering a minuscule number of vaccines at over Rs12,500 the market has efficiently sifted the haves from the rest. The grotesque spectacle of 220 million standing by while those who can afford, or are employed by privileged employers, scamper around looking for vaccines has already played out.

This spectacle is, of course, a continuation of the wider spectacle of debilitating disparity the state offers. One could carry on with the dismal state of healthcare generally, in non-pandemic times, across the country. The incendiary religiosity that we now see with increasing frequency on the roads is an outcome procured by the state through acts of commission and omission spread over decades.

School enrolment of those between the ages of 5 and 16 remains the second lowest in the world, after Nigeria. Data from 2018 shows 44 percent in this age group, totalling nearly 23 million, not attending any kind of school. Aggregate data masks regional and genders disparities. In Balochistan, the out-of-school ratio rises to 70 percent of the 5 to 16 age group. Literacy in the tribal areas of Balochistan is 9 percent overall. By grade 9, only 13 percent of girls of the relevant age group remain in school in Balochistan.

While school enrolment figures are abysmal, enrolment at state schools offers little by way of learning outcomes or social mobility. Several studies have by now established that militant world views are more prevalent among those at state educational institutions of all kinds than among those not enrolled or enrolled at madressahs of one denomination or the other. Weaponisation of religion is deeply ingrained as a project of the state. The venom of this project has, not surprisingly, spread through society with varying degrees of intensity. It has done so because it gives direction to the rage of the excluded millions. It provides an explanation and a solution, however otherworldly, to the predicament of the lumpen. Banning a manifestation of the malaise will not purge state and society of the maladies nourished for long.

How does one counter both the state and the society it has begotten? Rehman Sahib showed us the way.

Some years ago, Rehman Sahib, the late Kamran Arif and I found ourselves in a dark eatery in Kathmandu. The regular restaurants had shut down by then. We had spent the day conversing with, and listening to, Dr Hameeda Hossain and Kamal Hossain from Bangladesh and the several delegates from around the region as part of a gathering of the members of South Asians for Human Rights, an organisation Rehman Sahib had helped found. Dr Hameeda Hossain had recalled her idyllic childhood in Hyderabad, Sindh before 1947. Kamal Hossain had talked about the future.

Over dinner, our conversation turned to the bloodshed Rehman Sahib and his generation had repeatedly seen. The dawns that had turned dark across the region. Meanwhile, Rehman Sahib was busy observing the emaciated faces of the female attendants who were serving us. ‘How much are you paid,’ he asked one. It turned out they were not paid much, and one said she had not had a proper meal in days. Rehman Sahib motioned the manager over. The rest of the evening was spent listening to ten girls as they partook of dinner ordered by Rehman Sahib.

What Rehman Sahib stood for lasts. One engages with the facts and resists the actions of the state when it oppresses. One converses with the mind of the society one inhabits with a vision of a more decent life. One works for the big change while keeping an eye on the immediate sufferings of those that one can lend a hand to. One does not give up.

The writer is an advocate of the Supreme Court of Pakistan.

Email: [email protected] com

Twitter: @salmanAraja