Thursday May 19, 2022

Beyond the questions

September 02, 2021

Our politicians are often criticized for raising petty and unimportant questions that do not interest the majority of citizens. They are accused of picking fights with powerful circles of the state to extract favours from them. They are lambasted for employing the rhetoric of democracy and rule of law. They are castigated for promoting sloganeering, failing to deliver on the ground, reneging on their promises and adding to the woes of people instead of coming up with a concrete plan to solve them.

But during his recent visit to Karachi, Shehbaz Sharif raised some valid and important questions in a cogent way over the performance of the PTI. The former chief minister asserted that after the three year rule of the PTI, 33 percent Pakistanis are living below the poverty line while 40 percent are facing food insecurity. He charge-sheeted the incumbent government citing statistics that have not been denied by the brigades of PTI supporters that are always ready to spit venom against anyone who criticises their beloved leader.

The former chief minister bemoaned that inflation is on the rise, increasing every week with the cost of fuel, essential commodities and food items are going upward and are getting out of the reach of the hardworking Pakistanis. Shehbaz claimed that inflation had skyrocketed from three percent under the PML-N to 17 percent under the PTI. The cost of medicines, the former chief minister complained, had soared by 500 percent.

Shehbaz Sharif also criticised the PTI over the debt situation, claiming Imran Khan’s government increased national debt by 54 percent by borrowing heavily during its rule. He revealed that the current government had added Rs9,000 billion to domestic debt and Rs4,000 billion to foreign debt. He expressed concern over the rising debt servicing, which rose from Rs1,500 billion to the historic high of Rs4,000 billion this year. Shehbaz questioned the rationale of rupee devaluation, asking what the government had achieved after this 45 percent devaluation.

These are all crucial questions that need to be answered by the ruling elite. However, it must be mentioned that the performance of the N League has not been very impressive either. It is true that it carried out giant infrastructure projects, pumping billions of dollars into such initiatives, but the ground realities for the people did not change either. For instance, out of over 20 million out-of-school children, the majority belongs to the much-reformed Punjab where the PML-N ruled for more than 12 years. Several urban centers of the largest province are not equipped with water and industrial treatment plants. The province also houses the largest number of poor while the rapaciousness of the police is also more visible there.

The condition of educational institutions was not rosy either, with thousands or rather tens of thousands of schools being bereft of basic necessities. Literacy which was 20.7 in 1972 witnessed a meagre rise over the decade, reaching 46.60 percent in 1998. In 2012, 2013 and 2014, the rate was 71 percent, 62 percent and 61 percent. A number of countries like Cuba eliminated illiteracy within a few decades of their liberation despite the many hardships imposed on that country by the imperialist powers. Even a poor country like Nicaragua demonstrated miracles in health and education, earning praise from international bodies for working on those crucial sectors. Nothing of the sort was witnessed during the tenures of the PML-N in Punjab.

In reality, some educationists claim that literacy went down instead of rising between 2012 and 2014 when the PML-N was ruling over the province. The condition of such places of learning was also deplorable. According to a report of 2015, the province had 2,229 schools without drinking water. According to another report of 2016, around 48 percent of schools in the country did not have toilets, boundary walls, electricity and drinking water. Although the situation was worse in Sindh and Balochistan, Punjab was only slightly better than other federating units. The much-vaunted Danish schools may have benefited a few thousands students but it may be asked why all schools were not upgraded in the same way. Even these schools were not sustainable.

It is not only education that was ignored by all successive governments, including the PML-N’s. The health sector did not feature in the list of priorities of any political party either. For instance, a 2018 report of the Punjab Health Agency revealed that the province has only 94,179 doctors and dentists registered with the Pakistan Medical and Dental Council (PMDC) besides having 64,846 nurses, 44,452 lady health workers (LHWs) and 1799 lady health supervisors. Hepatitis positivity rate is over 14 percent in the province currently while some years ago the largest province contributed 63 percent of the total TB case load of the country. Had adequate measures been taken, the situation would not have been that grim.

So, it is quite clear that on the issues related to a common citizen of this country, the performance of all political parties is the same; because all believe in the philosophy of free market and unbridled capitalism. Take the economic policies – from General Zia to Imran Khan. Nawaz, Zardari, Musharraf and Imran Khan all want to privatize state-run concerns. All of them serve the interests of private capital and want to appease cronies and private profiteers.

The Orange Line was developed in Punjab but the metro style transport system was also introduced in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Sindh. Six cities of Punjab witnessed the installation of safe city cameras but Sindh, KP and even Balochistan did not remain behind in the race, pumping billions of rupees into this project with a claim that it would help control crime (which is on the rise instead of going down). All political parties have a penchant for mega projects and capital intensive development initiatives, leaving very little money for health, education, and sanitation and poverty alleviation.

It is time for the PML-N and other political parties to do some soul searching. If they really want to establish the supremacy of civilian rule, they will have to serve the people, focusing on an agenda that might wipe out poverty which is plaguing the lives of over 40 percent Pakistanis, with millions condemned to lead a miserable life in slums. They could also extend free health, education and sanitation facilities. Raising important questions is good but coming up with answers is difficult.

The writer is a freelance journalist.