Saving Pakistan from itself
The response of the political leaders, the government and civil society as a whole to the country’s worst-ever natural disaster has been both delayed and mean. It is a kind of save-Pakistan-from-itself situation.
Even the army that comes to the people’s rescue when the civil administration falters or fails was late this time in coming and its presence was felt much less than in earlier, lesser crises. The world response matches domestic indifference. Only the ‘hated’ American soldiers with their helicopters are there to save lives. Don’t we need to look at our ‘friends’ more closely?
The pledges made are small and much of the money promised would be available after the suffering has taken its toll. Well into the second week of the calamity, the donations received in the prime minister’s relief fund remain a pittance. Among a few large donors is a rags-to-riches politician who only a week earlier had spent, perhaps, an equal sum on a wedding feast at a plush Dubai hotel. Thus he has come to represent the rich of Pakistan as they are known to the world — charitable and vainglorious at the same time.
The rains and floods, the prime minister says, had put the country back by a generation. That sounds like an exaggeration only to forestall the criticism of his government’s extravagance and incompetence. The damage to the infrastructure would surely cost a great deal but repaired — sooner or later. It is the nation that seems to have lost its soul.
Its chosen representatives do not now have a dictator to curse nor can they blame ‘obstructing’ judges. They indulge in harangues but lack the moral strength to inspire a nation in crisis. Helping the people in distress are only the soldiers and some jihadis. The liberal or mainstream parties are nowhere to be seen.
For the failure of the political leadership and civil administration to deal with the day-to-day problems, much less with a crisis of this magnitude, the blame lies not with this or that individual or party but with the politics of vengeance and retribution that has marked the national scene almost for four decades now. There may have been moments of personal triumph here and there but the moral and institutional decline has been continuous and, barring a revolution, looks irreversible.
A quick reckoner of this decline is Bangladesh which is now poised to grow at twice the rate of Pakistan. A more tempting comparison, however, would be with Egypt which has been ruled by more strongmen and longer than Pakistan. In human development and social services starting from the same base in the middle of the last century, the literacy level in Egypt has risen to 85 per cent against ours at 54 and an average Egyptian expects to live eight years longer than a Pakistani. But, more amazingly, 99 per cent of Egyptian homes now have electricity and 97 per cent have piped water supply.In South Asian terms Pakistan shows up poorly and Southeast Asia (is altogether a different story. The old-timers can recall a time when the Koreans came to Pakistan to study our development model. Today an average South Korean is 30 times richer than his Pakistani counterpart.
In Pakistan the failure has been collective but the rot began with the political leadership. It travelled down the line to hit the bureaucracy and then spread across the national spectrum to undermine all other spheres. The causes are numerous and remedies are often recounted but relevant in the current context is the need to curtail government expenditure to save money for the rehabilitation of flood victims and modernisation of the physical infrastructure.
The size of the government calls for a drastic reduction. A smaller size would increase efficiency. One often wonders that if the province of West Pakistan (one unit) could make do with 13 or so ministers and as many secretaries why must each province now have three to four times that number? West Pakistan’s secretariat had just five cars for everybody to share; the number now defies a count.
The chief minister then had but one office room and that too in the main secretariat along with all other ministers and officials. The Punjab chief minister now hardly ever goes to the secretariat. A palace-like structure that Chaudhry Parvez Elahi built for himself is now occupied by an assortment of freeloaders who are a burden on a government that runs on bank overdraft.
Then come cash handouts or subsidies. Rs70bn set aside for payment to the poor selected by parliamentarians under a programme named after Benazir should be diverted to the flood victims. Putting the poor on dole, even if honestly chosen (which appears unlikely considering the political channel of distribution) is a bad idea. The same applies to the sum set aside for Punjab’s two-rupee sasti roti which even the rich can buy.
Though late, the Punjab chief minister has sensibly decided to stop this waste and divert the saved Rs500bn to flood relief. The Sindh government is now contemplating a similar subsidy in wheat flour through the millers for sale in the open market. Given our proven inability to control the market forces, this subsidy is unlikely to reach the poor just as the subsidy on fertiliser, pesticide or other commodities did not. It too will get lost in the long channel of bribe and profit.
The savings in these and other subsidies and a heavy cut in spendings by a mélange of political coalitions that have no policy or direction should make up somewhat for the lack of local and foreign donations. The saddest of all thoughts however is that the donors are being cagey or wary not because they do not realise the gravity and scale of the problem. It is Pakistan’s reputation for corruption and mismanagement that holds them back. And there we are stuck.
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