for the poor
On bus from Karachi to Naudero.... Impressions of a Punjabi travelling for the first time in interior Sindh
"So you're from Pakistan?" asked a middle aged man from Larkana, the ancestral place of the most celebrated political family in the country's history. At first, I didn't understand what he meant as Larkana was as much a part of Pakistan as Lahore. Only later did I realise that he was taunting me due to the resentment many Sindhis feel against the injustices committed against them by the Centre (read Punjab).
My first experience in interior Sindh gave me an opportunity to see the ethnic and provincial divide in the country and to understand it from the perspective of those at the receiving end of the State's discriminatory policies.
When I took a bus to Larkana from Karachi, I didn't know how different the rest of the province would be from the provincial metropolis. Soon I realised it was under-developed, and worst of all, one could observe an acute water shortage. One witnessed vast tracts of barren land throughout the journey. I could finally see why the water problem lies at the heart of the discontent against Islamabad. One could also observe great reverence for Sufi shrines which reflected a more relaxed approach towards religion. There were many Hindu temples throughout the province and locals say that Muslims gave protection to these temples after the Babri Masjid carnage. Probably this is why we never hear about terrorism or sectarianism being an issue in interior Sindh.
Another distinctive feature was the use of the Sindhi language on almost all signboards.. Coming from Punjab, this came as nothing less than a shock as I have never seen signboards in Punjabi, nor have we ever made a serious attempt to preserve our language. This gave a clear indication that Sindhis take more pride in their culture and identity than we do. Or maybe, since the Centre is dominated by Punjab, they feel insecure about their language and heritage. In any case, they have done a remarkable job in keeping their culture intact.
The politics of interior Sindh is different from anything I have witnessed. In Lahore and Karachi, we hear the urban elite looking down upon Sindh as a 'feudal' society where one has to do as told by the feudal lord. Such stereotypes were shattered as I saw Sindhis to be politically very assertive and far more aware of their identity than many Punjabis. I also found the atmosphere much more open and tolerant for divergent views as compared to Karachi where the MQM doesn't take any criticism lightly. For example, I met Sobho Gayan Chandani, a veteran communist leader, in Larkana. A Hindu, he is very critical of the partition. He was even accused of an assassination attempt on Z.A. Bhutto. Yet, he has lived calmly in the Bhutto stronghold for many years and has earned the respect of all local activists who look up to 'Sobo ji.' At the age of 89, he is still a committed Marxist and has reservations against the partition, a view you seldom hear in Punjab.
Benazir remains the hegemonic figure in all of Sindh. All shops and offices have her posters pasted on their walls. Her mausoleum in Garhi Khuda Buksh is still thronged by locals. After a beautiful drive from Larkana to Garhi Khuda Buksh (which was made even more beautiful by the monsoon rains) one could not hold back tears after looking at the graves of all the four Bhuttos.
It is this appeal of the Bhuttos that has forced all local political parties to embrace Benazir as one of their own. The PPP claims that she was killed because she was its leader, the PPP-Shaheed Bhutto says she was killed for being a Bhutto while nationalists claim that that her biggest crime was being a Sindhi. Even some religious groups claim that she was assassinated for being a leader of the 'Islamic World.' Hence, politics in Sindh is almost impossible without praising the former prime minister of Pakistan.
However, the nature of PPP in Sindh is quite different from that of Punjab. Despite belonging to the same party, many PPP activists in Sindh feel that Punjabis, in general, are a cause of their sorrows. There were many statements in the press by Sindhi ministers belonging to the PPP which openly called Punjabis the exploiters of their land. Many observers say that the anti-Pakistan sentiment was so high after Bhutto's assassination that had the PPP command not given the slogan of Pakistan Khappay (We want Pakistan), things would have looked different today.
The nationalist sentiment has been gaining momentum for the past few years, especially under General Musharraf who supported the MQM and Sindhi politicians with no roots amongst the masses. This has increased the sense of deprivation amongst the Sindhis. However, the issue that has done the most damage has been the State oppression of any dissent. The hatred against the military in Sindh stems from the fact that Sindhis have always been treated more violently by the men in uniform. Sindhis still commemorate the massacre of many PPP activists in 1983 during the MRD movement.
During Musharraf's rule, after Balochistan, Sindh suffered the most at the hands of the establishment. Not only was Sindh ruled by the likes of Ishrat-ul-Ibad and Arbab Ghulam Rahim (who only had support in the GHQ), there was a brutal crackdown on any dissenting activity. Locals claim that hundreds of Sindhis are still missing and are believed to be held captive by the intelligence agencies. The case of Dr Serki still haunts Sindh who mysteriously went missing for many years before being released as his health started deteriorating.
Nationalists have a long list of such stories to tell. The view that Pakistan will now only be run by Punjabis in collaboration with Mohajirs is a notion that is gaining strength, especially amongst the educated middle class. A few people who were familiar with the ground realities in Balochistan claim that the Baloch have given up on the idea of Pakistan. This may not be true for Sindh as of now but one can sense that things are moving in that direction. The Pakistani establishment has either ignored the discontent or just been suspicious of it. Even the debacle in Dhaka and the military operation in Balochistan have not changed the mindset of the establishment.
Musharraf is no longer at the helm of affairs, but the threat of 'break up' that has haunted the subcontinent since 1947 is still present and can only be reversed if the union is based on mutual respect rather than coercive measures. For this, we will have to reach out to our Sindhi friends and convince them on keeping the Pakistani dream alive. We must also educate Punjabis about the plight of the smaller provinces as many of us in Punjab fail to understand the context in which this hatred for the State rises.
As one Sindhi nationalist put it, "For 60 years, the establishment has been asking Sindhis to prove their loyalty towards the federation. Today we want to tell Punjabis to prove their loyalty and show their respect towards smaller provinces. It is up to Punjab to rise up to the occasion if they want to stay united with us."
Punjab government's hurriedly started food scheme aims to target 1.8 million families
By Ali Waqar
Soon after forming his government, Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif announced the Punjab Food Support Scheme to help the "poorest of the poor". This, some insiders believe, was done to preempt the PPP's Benazir Ration Card scheme.
The 'hurriedly shaped' programme is worth Rs 21.60 billion with the aim to pay to each of 1.8 million families, a money order worth Rs 1000. The scheme was formally launched on Aug 14, 2008 and will continue throughout the fiscal year 2008-09.
While some observers see it as an attempt of the Punjab government to compete with the federal government, many PML-N insiders believe the scheme has been started with sincere intentions. That is why, they say, the PPP has also approached the Punjab government to study the pattern of the scheme, and if possible, to follow the same pattern for the Benazir Ration Card Scheme.
Shahnaz Wazir Ali, MNA, PPP, attended a meeting chaired by Shahbaz Sharif before the programme was finalised and showed an interest in studying it. Shahnaz Wazir Ali, who is tipped to become a federal minister in the near future, may have acted opposite to the line taken by the Punjab Governor Salman Taseer, who in an interview with TNS strongly doubted the "authenticity" of the Punjab Food Support Scheme.
The scheme, reportedly, began after strong and heated arguments and a sort of tussle between the bureaucracy and the Punjab PML-N politicians, who wanted to keep the whole scheme in their hands and disburse money to the people mentioned in their non-verified lists. However, the bureaucracy had a different view, claiming that there should be proper verification and disbursement of money through money orders to ensure transparency. After a couple of days' debate, Chief Minister Shahabaz Sharif agreed with the view of the bureaucracy and decided to start the scheme giving it into what he called the "safe" hands of the bureaucracy.
The government has claimed tight scrutiny and verification process for the issuance of the money orders and District Coordination Officers (DCOs) have been declared fully responsible for the purpose. However, the PML-N MPAs have been asked to provide the lists of people in need. Such lists are later verified by the DCOs through impartial teams. Where there is no PML-N MPA in a constituency, the chief minister has approved a list of 5,000 needy people with one third (33 per cent) recommendations from the MPA (from which ever party), 33 per cent from PML-N representatives and 33 per cent from PPP representatives.
Because of the doubts in the process, the Punjab government has temporarily blocked and ordered re-verification of the data of nine districts that include Multan, Dera Ghazi Khan, Khushab and a few others.
In the scheme's first phase in the first week of August, amount has been disbursed in Attock, Bahawalpur, Bhakkar, Chakwal, Faisalabad, Gujranwala, Gujrat, Hafizabad, Jhang, Jhehlum, Kasur, Khanewal, Lahore, Layyah, Lodhran, Mandi Bahauddin, Mianwali, Nankana Sahib, Narowal, Okara, Pakpatan, Rawalpindi, Sahiwal, Sargodha, Sialkot, Toba Tek Singh and Vehari.
According to the figures prepared for the projects, the estimated population of the Punjab is 90 million which include 36 million (40 per cent) urban and 54 million (60 per cent) rural. The figures are quoted from National Institute of Population Studies (NIPS).
According to Economic Survey of Pakistan 2007-08 the poverty level (2005-06) is as: extremely poor 0.5 per cent; ultra poor 5.4 per cent; poor 16.4 per cent; vulnerable 20.5 per cent; Quasi non poor 36.3 per cent; and non poor 20 per cent.
Beneficiaries of the food scheme include households that do not have a bread earner; widows, orphans, destitute; chronically sick, disabled persons and elderly persons who have been abandoned by their family; the poorest of the poor segments of the society with marginal income.
Annual expenditure of one household as per Ministry of Food Agriculture and Livestock is Rs 2,000 and the proposed food subsidy per household is Rs 1,000 per month at the rate of fifty per cent of the total estimated household expenditures.
The total amount of the subsidy in the scheme is Rs 21.60 billion at the rate of Rs 1.80 billion per month for 1.8 million families. The scheme will cover both rural and urban areas.
According to the data available with TNS, 50,000 poor families have received Rs 750.51 million stipends under this scheme (till last week).
Till now, the government, under the FSS programme, has registered 0.65 million people after scrutinising their applications and Rs 766.40 million had been distributed among 377,533 beneficiaries of 27 districts. As many as 50,000 families have been given Rs 2,000 token financial assistance for food support programme for two months, July and August.
Omer Rasul, Secretary for Implementation and Coordination (I&C) Punjab government , told TNS that training of master trainers for data entry operators in district was being managed and different tiers of verification have been activated and the process of verification is underway. The DCOs of 35 districts have been given responsibility for all verifications and would be responsible for any wrongdoing. He said the funds would be released to the blocked districts after the re-verification process is complete.
"A Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) has been signed between the Punjab government and the Post Office Department to ensure the credibility and implementation of the project. A subsequent monitoring and evaluation of the scheme would continue," Omer Rasul said. He added that the government would ensure transparency in the process, and that the media should play its role to identify lacunas in the scheme. "The list of beneficiaries is being prepared with the assistance of public representatives which will be followed by a strenuous and elaborate mechanism for verification of the beneficiaries and with an elaborate mechanism to oversee and monitor the scheme by Pakistan Post, district administration and provincial government. A third party evaluation through a firm on international standards has also been approved.".
S.A Hameed, Chairman Chief Minister's Task Force on Food Stamp Scheme (FSS), told TNS that it was a scheme for the poor without political motives. "The PML-N government launched a similar scheme in 1997 to provide flour and other edibles to the poor at subsidised rates," he said, adding, "This scheme is likely to be expanded to the rural areas."
By Shoaib Hashmi
The records tell us that South Park Street Cemetery was opened in 1767, and closed about sixty years later with the last tombs being erected around 1830. That makes it the first European cemetery in the subcontinent, certainly in Calcutta. The cemetery is in the most fashionable part of town and it is peculiar to reflect that they selected this area because it was in wilderness and Warren Hastings hunted tigers in the forest here at the end of the eighteenth century.
I think it would be fascinating to start here and trace the spread of the British all across the continent from the cemeteries -- there must be hundreds, if not actually thousands from here at the mouth of the Hoogly river to the foothills of the Himalayas. And I mean the foothills because there are cemeteries not only in the larger 'hill stations' like Simla or Dalhousie, there is even one in teeny 'Thandianee.'
This is a single hilltop at nine thousand feet, the highest point in the neighbourhood with a rest house right at the top and the cemetery and nothing else. That is why the rest house has a nifty little library made up of books left as gifts by people who stayed there and had nothing much to do.
The cemeteries everywhere are called Gora Kabristan or 'white men's graveyard' and they must have been a curiosity because the local traditions were very different -- the Hindus by definition didn't need one, and the Muslims had simple mounds and very few actual name plates or headstones. And when the place was full we didn't close the graveyard, we simply went on building more graves over the old ones.
There are at least two in Lahore, a relatively downscale one on Ravi Road and an upper class one on Jail Road, next door to the golf course. These were probably built later than the one in Calcutta because the Brits didn't really take charge of Lahore until 1848 when they ousted the successors of the first, and last and only Punjabi ruler Ranjit Singh. Just to make sure, they took Ranjit Singh's youngest son Daleep Singh with them to England to be brought up by Queen Victoria.
Apart from realpolitic part, the reason for the arrangement might have been that he was known to be the possessor of the 'Koh-i-Noor' diamond -- one of the largest and most beautiful of gems. I do not wish to be mean and accuse the great Queen of any skulduggery but the fact is that the gem landed up among the crown jewels in the crown made for the Queen's great grandson's queen, and was last publicly seen adorning the cortege of Princess Diana. The young Sikh Prince, who was much beloved of the Queen, called her Mrs Fagin behind her back!
Eventually Daleep Singh married a European lady and had a daughter, called Princess Bamba, who came to live in Lahore in the new suburb of Model Town where I live now. Model Town was connected to the city by a bus service run by the Model Town Society which the Princess regularly rode, until the conductor asked her for the fare! She stared at him with a steely eye and told him she had owned and ruled over a few hundred miles of territory round his route!
The conductor was suitably daunted, and so was his employers the Board of the Society which ran the bus service, and they had the grace to decree that no conductor was ever to ask her for the fare. Just in case you are curious, the fare then was all of two annas so the society did not land in the poorhouse. In the Gora Kabristan on Jail Road if you go along the central aisle the most prominent tomb on the left is that of the venerable Princess Bamba!
The similarities between Zia ul Haq and Musharraf are uncanny and so are the differences...
By Amjad Bhatti
Some may term it an astrological surprise that the birthday of Pakistan's two dictators -- General Zia ul Haq and General (r) Pervez Musharraf -- falls one after the other. Zia was born on Aug 12, 1924 and Musharraf on Aug 11, 1943. It makes this "superstition" more intriguing when we note that Zia died as president of Pakistan on Aug 17, while Musharraf resigned from his post on Aug 18.
Zia joined the British Indian Army in New Delhi in 1943, the year when Musharraf was born and both fought the 1965 and 1971 wars against India.
General Zia was born in Jalandhar while General Musharraf was born in Delhi and the parents of both migrated to Pakistan after partition. Embedded in Mohajir identity, both overthrew the governments of prime ministers who had bypassed five senior generals to appoint them army chiefs. Some reports suggest that both were under scrutiny when the 1965 war broke out between India and Pakistan but their cases were closed because of the emergency situation.
General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq's is the longest martial rule in Pakistan, which continued for 11 years from 1977-1988. Appointed Chief of Army Staff in 1976, General Zia-ul-Haq came to power after he overthrew the elected Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto on July 5, 1977 and imposed Martial Law. He assumed the post of President of Pakistan in 1978 which he held till his death on Aug 17, 1988.
General (r) Pervez Musharraf rose to the rank of a general and was appointed as the Chief of Army Staff on Oct 7, 1998 when Pakistan's army chief, General Jehangir Karamat, resigned. General Musharraf was given additional charge of Chairman Joint Chiefs Staff Committee on April 9, 1999. On Oct 12, 1999, when through a bloodless coup the military took over the government in Pakistan, Musharraf became the head of the state designated as the chief executive. He assumed the office of President of Pakistan on June 20, 2001. In order to legitimise and legalise his rule, General (r) Pervez Musharraf held a referendum on April 30, 2002 thereby elected as President of Pakistan for a duration of five years.
In accordance with the deal with MMA (Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal), he agreed to leave the army on Dec 31, 2004 but continued to serve a five-year term as president, as he got a vote of confidence on January 1, 2004, from the parliament and the four provincial assemblies under the provision of the 17th Amendment passed by the National Assembly and the Senate.
Then again in another controversial move, Musharraf got himself elected for five years from the outgoing assemblies on Oct 6, 2007.
A shared doctrine
The action of overthrowing the elected governments by Zia and Musharraf was challenged in the courts but their overstepping was justified by the incumbent courts on the precedence of "doctrine of necessity" first introduced by Justice Munir in the Maulvi Tameezuddin case. In the case of Musharraf, however, the superior court not only legitimised his coup but extended the favour to let him amend the constitution at his will.
Referendum was another similar strategy employed by both military rulers through which they resumed presidency. The process and results of both the referendums were never accepted nor endorsed by political forces and independent analysts.
Both dictators grafted Pakistan Muslim League as their public face and handpicked politicians through a carrot and stick policy. If MQM was established in the Zia regime, its fullest utility was reaped by Musharraf as he always banked upon MQM as his ethnic constituency.
US emerged as their common mentor in securing the lease for their regimes from popular outrage and domestic resistance. The successive historical events indicate that domestic dictatorships in Pakistan were strategically subsidised by the foreign democracies. In the particular cases of Zia and Musharraf regimes, a popular perception suggests that Pakistan's security establishment was employed as a "client" to American interests and designs. First, in the Afghan Jihad and now in the 'war on terror', Pakistan entered into an active partnership with American adventures and military campaigns under the leadership of two military dictators -- first under Zia and then under Musharraf.
Some reports suggest that in 1979, President Zia's international standing greatly rose after his declaration to fight the Soviet "invaders" in Afghanistan. "He went from being portrayed as just another military dictator to a champion of the free world by the Western media," a report suggested. Jimmy Carter offered Pakistan $325 million in aid over three years. He also signed the funding in 1980 that allowed less than $50 million a year to go to the Mujahideen. After Ronald Reagan came to office, defeating Carter for the US Presidency in 1980, all this changed. Aid to the Afghan resistance, and to Pakistan, increased substantially. The United States, faced with a rival superpower looking as if it were to create another Communist bloc, engaged Zia to fight a US-aided war by proxy in Afghanistan against the Soviets.
A declassified document titled "Coordination Program for Combating Communism" dated August 7, 1951 outlined the American designs: "to destroy communist influence and develop a positive (counter) program based on the new national ideals of Pakistan." One of the purposes of this strategy enlisted in the dispatch suggested: "To show the communists as anti-God and therefore a threat to the continued existence of Muslim world as a free and independent religio-political entity."
This is the political and historical context in which American president Reagan termed the USSR an "evil empire" and engaged the Pakistan army under Zia in the "Afghan War." As a religious crusader, Zia made a para-military strategy to recruit Mujahideen and unleash a "proxy" war in Afghanistan. Religious elements became the building blocks for his regime.
But some two decades later, these building blocks for one dictator became the stumbling blocks for another; when Musharraf had to abandon his "boys" against the backdrop of 9/11.
War on terror led by America again dictated the change in Pakistan's strategy and Musharraf allowed military and intelligence support to NATO forces who designed to attack Afghanistan. Musharraf became the most important ally in the war on terror. America and Pakistan had to resume their place in the same battlefield which they left in 1989 after the withdrawal of Russian troops. But this time their target was their own nursery which had once implemented their war plans in the rugged mountains of Afghanistan. As a result, a new insurgency has erupted not only on the Pak-Afghan borders but within the settled areas of Pakistan.
In the Zia regime, the protesting workers of Colony Textile Mills in Multan were besieged and targeted by the security forces, which enraged the populace. This time, in the Musharraf regime, it was Lal Masjid which brought accusations of brutality against the regime and a subsequent retaliation by the suicide bombers. Perhaps this was because of a perceived shift in the dictator's paradigm -- from "Islamisation" and "jihad" to "enlightened moderation" and liberalism.
If in the name of Islamisation a spate of sectarianism was flourished, suicide bombing was harvested by the architects of "enlightened moderation." A huge cost for an experimentation with dictatorship. It is, however, interesting to note that beneficiaries of one martial law become the protesters of other. And the tale of two dictators still continues. Neither did it end with the plane crash nor will it end with resignation. If peace is an interval between two wars, democracy is an interval between two dictatorships, at least in Pakistan.
A case study of Landikotal to depict the dismal state of girls' education in the seven tribal agencies...
By Ashrafuddin Pirzada
There are virtually no educational facilities for women in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), though successive governments have made tall claims in this regard. Even though FATA has been the focus of the national and international media during the last seven years, nothing has been done to promote education in the seven tribal agencies.
The extent of the government's inability to develop women education in the area could be gauged from the example of Khyber Agency where many girl students like to get education but there is no support from the government. The basic problem in the area is lack of schools and colleges besides the absence of qualified staff. Landikotal, a known town in Khyber Agency, lying in close proximity to the provincial metropolis, had only one girls' higher secondary school to cater to a population of 350,000. This school, which was initially established as a primary school was upgraded to a middle school in 1969, to matriculation in 1975 and to higher secondary in 2003. There are 846 students in the school; the students' strength is higher in grades one to eight, but low in higher classes.
Authentic data of an education survey unfortunately shows that every year only one percent of girls manage to reach graduation level due to lack of facilities, strict Pakhtun environment, poverty and un-availability of degree and postgraduate colleges in Landikotal.
Those girls who want to pursue their education either shift to Peshawar or to other cities after passing intermediate; however, this depends on their families' economic conditions.
Female teachers are mostly hired from Peshawar and other districts of the NWFP due to non-availability of locally trained and qualified teachers. Those who are teaching are facing problems ranging from inconvenient transport, boarding and lodging to being grossly underpaid.
"We face problems in school attendance, and we don't receive our salaries on time," says Zahida, a senior certified teacher. "Given the tribal environment, the government should provide us with separate vehicles and other facilities including security, as many a time I have received verbal threats from local tribesmen for coming alone to the schools in public transport, because Pakhtuns do not tolerate that women come out of houses alone," she says.
Zahida is of the opinion that it is impossible for men to teach at a girls' school in the tribal areas. "Pakhtun culture does not allow male teachers in girls' schools. Our school lacks staff. There are no teachers to teach the subjects of Physics, Urdu, History, Pakistan Studies, Civics, Computer Science and Chemistry," she says.
The teachers of the school also say there is no librarian, clerk and lab assistant in the school.
Besides the ineffective government policies, the strict code of conduct for women in the area is also a major impediment to spread girls' education. Commentators allege that maximum funds allocated each year to FATA education directorate do not end up where they should.
In comparison with Peshawar, where girl students have many choices as far as getting admissions is concerned, FATA has very few colleges and just one university. Sabaoon, a student of grade 8, says: "We must have the right to education, but unfortunately, our traditions are hindering us." Nadia Ashraf and Nimra Shinwari, both students of class 10, say: "education is necessary for a bright future but we are not satisfied with the performance of the only government school in Landikotal." They demand the government to set up more girls' schools in the area.
Residents of Landikotal cite various reasons for the lack of women education. According to Shamsul Amin, a private school teacher, early marriages of girls obstruct their education. He says that the education officer of Khyber Agency is running ghosts schools, which are an injustice to the poor masses and an unnecessary burden on the public kitty.
The educated community and social circles often demand of the government and NGOs to launch an awareness drive for girls' education in Landikotal. Jabir Shinwari, a university student, criticises the education managers of FATA and says that every government has denied educational facilities to the residents and that is the reason that unlike settled areas, education cannot develop in the tribal areas.
Muhammad Amin, a businessman from Landikotal, is not in favour of girls' education. "We do not want our girls to receive education, because an educated girl does not follow our Pakhtun culture and traditions," he says.
"The government claims to be spending millions on education in FATA, but this is merely lip service," says Hazrat Ali, a student of Landikotal Government Degree College. "The government can flush out extremism out of the tribal areas through better education," he adds.
However, Akhtar Rehaman Afridi, Landikotal Assistant Education Officer, speaks highly of girls' education in the tribal areas. "There are 250 girls' schools in Khyber Agency and we are doing our utmost to provide girls' schools with maximum facilities," he says, adding: "There are 47 primary schools, five middle schools and one higher secondary school in FATA, but the education department is keen on setting up more girls' schools to accommodate the rest of the students."
Asked if the government was taking steps to set up more schools in Landikotal and to provide staff to the only girls' school there, Afridi says: "The government recruits most teachers through the Public Service Commission and intends to construct more girls' schools in Landikotal and to provide them with staff. The girls' schools that lack teachers will be soon catered to."
Now that General Musharraf is no longer president, one of the main hurdles often cited by the coalition government as an impediment to its smooth functioning has been removed. And this means that the government had better get its act together and get on with the till-now-shoddy job of governing the country. Readers will already know that the country is beset with major crises -- economic, social and of deteriorating law and order. And perhaps, the most important in terms of warranting the full attention of the government: the militant insurgency in FATA and parts of NWFP's settled districts.
Let's take the issue of the economy. In a nutshell, it seems to be on a downslide -- inflation is at its highest in almost 30 years, the budget deficit is unsustainably high as is the trade deficit, food prices seem to be rising all the time, and the rupee has hit around 75 to the dollar. The problem with a lot of what is written and said in the media and press itself on this issue is that it is usually not substantiated with fact and/or logic, especially that related to simple economics.
Take the issue of inflation for instance. In the short-term, and while the government may not want to publicly say so (though it should), there seems to be no solution to checking inflation. One remedy has been employed -- that of tight monetary policy, where interest rates are raised to a level where there is a fall in investment and total demand in the economy (assuming that some demand by consumers and firms comes from funds taken as loans -- such as a lease). However, as was ably pointed out in the editorial pages of this newspaper some time ago by former IMF and planning commission economist, Dr Meekal Aziz Ahmed, such a policy will work only if accompanying fiscal measures are taken as well -- meaning basically that the government needs to cut down its own expenditures. Unfortunately, that does not seem to be the case at all and if anything government borrowing has reached record levels, signifying that the government (both this one and the one before it) has been resorting to borrowing from the banking system to finance its expenditures. What this does is that it further balloons the budget deficit, increases the level of public debt, which is already very high for an economy the size and strength of ours, and ends up causing inflation. Such fiscal measures have no bearing with whether Musharraf is or is not in power.
Similarly, inflation in large part is being caused by the worldwide rise in food and oil prices -- both factors over which the government has little control. While the former may fall, there is no real possibility that the oil prices will come back to where they were a year or two ago. And the reason for that is simple -- oil is an exhaustible or non-renewable resource and the rise in its price reflects this fact, and it also means that its price may well rise even further in future years as stocks begin to deplete. What is needed to combat the effect of oil prices -- not only in terms of inflation, but also its effect on the trade balance, which in turn is the main reason for the recent hemorrhaging of Pakistan's foreign exchange reserves which have fallen by over five billion dollars in recent months -- is for people in the country to come to grips with this reality and accordingly bring some changes into their lifestyles vis-a-vis petrol and oil consumption. Measures like car-pooling or switching off the engine while waiting at a red light are commonplace in most civilised countries and make sense because they reduce the proportion of one's household budget that is spent on fuel and transport but in Pakistan, so far, they seem alien. And to make matters worse, the government takes the lead in this life of fantasy because a cursory look at the way its senior functionaries travel would make one think that this isn't the government of heavily-oil-dependent Pakistan but some oil-rich Gulf state.
As for bringing down inflation, somebody needs to tell the people of Pakistan that this is easier said than done. For starters, measures such as increasing interest rates only lower the demand-pull component of inflation -- meaning that this move can only influence that kind of inflation which is being caused by demand being very high, as in a booming economy. Our problem is that much of the inflation now is what economists call the 'cost-push' variety, and caused by rising costs of production (oil being a key input) and hence its remedy lies in bringing down production costs.
However, while it may not be in the government's power to import oil at a lower price, it can adopt certain measures which can bring down the cost of producing goods and services in the country. Unfortunately, most of these work -- and there is no guarantee that they will always, the reason being that economic theories sometimes are not as effective in real life as they look in a textbook -- in the long run.
Moving on from economics, the coalition partners will have to quickly forge a united front against militancy and terrorism. What has been happening in Kurram Agency over the past few weeks, with all-out battles between Sunni and Shia tribes suggests that the government is powerless to intervene and bring out even an end to hostilities -- other than issuing an inane ultimatum to both sides to stop the fighting within THREE day (and this came at a time when dozens were dying every day!).
People think that the government felt nothing wrong in a few more dozen lives being lost as long as the fighting ended in three days. One can only wonder what kind of message this sent to the Shias of Kurram, since by all accounts they seem to be at the receiving end in this war (which has its genesis in General Zia's days).
And then look at what is going on in Bajaur. One aspect may be heartening in that the military is giving a solid fight to the Taliban there and has used its air-power to put them on the defensive. However, the hapless residents of the agency are caught in the crossfire, and there are numerous reports of the Taliban preventing them from fleeing their homes -- so that they can be used as human shields.
Clearly, the government has its work cut out for it -- and it better get on with the job of running the country. Only the next few weeks will show whether this is, at best, very optimistic wishful thinking.
The writer is Editorial Pages Editor of The News.
Email: [email protected]