education
Virtual reality
Virtual University initially envisaged as astate-of-the-art institute is now under neglect
By Shahzada Irfan Ahmed
Not much time has passed since we heard about launch of a world-class Virtual University (VU) in Pakistan that would offer state-of-the-art education to aspiring students all over the country. The university based in Lahore was awarded a federal charter and it started enrolling students in 2002. The federal charter and recognition from Higher Education Commission (HEC) meant that the degrees awarded by VU would be recognised and accepted all over the country as well as abroad.

Militancy to peace
Will the next NWFP government follow the steps taken by the caretaker setup to woo TNSM chief Maulana Sufi Muhammad for bringing peace to Swat?
By Delawar Jan
Serious efforts are being made at the government level to release the founding chief of the banned Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Muhammadi (TNSM), Maulana Sufi Muhammad, to bring an end to the prolonged militancy in Swat. The caretaker NWFP government wants Sufi Muhammad, father-in-law of Maulana Fazlullah, Taliban commander in Swat, to help resolve the problem peacefully.

Taal Matol
Gandah Naala!
There is the old story of the Lahoria who came home late from office, having walked most of the way. When his wife asked him why, he said, "Because when you wash my clothes you silly woman, you always neglect to wash the 'izaarband'!" Which is the drawstring of the 'shalwaar'. It seems every time he was able to get on a bus, at the very next stop the conductor would yell, "Ganday Naalay waalay uttar jain!" Which can either mean those with the dirty drawstring get off, or those who want to get off at the sewer!

interview
'Education for all is a government's job'
By Ali Sultan
Seema Aziz, it seems, has a special talent for beating the odds. Together with her brother Hamid Zaman, Seema runs Bareeze, arguably the country's most successful and fastest-growing womens wear retail business. That is in addition to single-handedly overseeing CARE Foundation (Cooperation for Advancement, Rehabilitation and Education), a charitable trust providing quality education to students in the Punjab without any funding from the government or foreign donor agencies. She is one of the proud women to be nominated as one of the torch-bearers of the Olympic Flame for Pakistan.

Of Nukes and 'Impotent Nations'
Sir Arthur C Clarke's death on March 19 was not only the loss of an important Sci-Fi writer and space visionary but also an 'ethnic human'
By Nalaka Gunawardene
"Do you know about the only man to light a cigarette from a nuclear explosion?" Sir Arthur C Clarke was fond of asking his visitors a few years ago.
Clarke, the celebrated science fiction writer and space visionary who died on March 19, aged 90, loved to ask such baffling questions.

Not much time has passed since we heard about launch of a world-class Virtual University (VU) in Pakistan that would offer state-of-the-art education to aspiring students all over the country. The university based in Lahore was awarded a federal charter and it started enrolling students in 2002. The federal charter and recognition from Higher Education Commission (HEC) meant that the degrees awarded by VU would be recognised and accepted all over the country as well as abroad.

The unique thing about VU was that its prospective students belonged to all age groups, professions and geographical locations. It was not binding for them to physically visit a campus and they were free to choose their study hours according to their convenience. In short a concept, unique to this part of the world, was introduced to impart education to people through modern means of communication and that also at their doorstep.

The university launched four free-to-air satellite television channels and a website that enabled the students to listen to the lectures prepared and delivered by the country's renowned professors. For those who do not have access to such facilities at home were offered the facility to attend VU affiliated institutions in their hometowns. These institutions were supposed to be equipped with computer labs and spacious rooms where large number of students could sit and see VU satellite channels simultaneously.

Initially the university got immense support from the government which led to its phenomenal growth. But almost six years down the road the situation does not seem to be satisfactory, at least according to the complaints brought forward by a large number of students. They say the affairs at the university are getting worse for the reason that VU students study in isolation and hardly have any interaction with each other. Another reason according to them is the lack of accountability. Initially there was a strong check on the performance of the university, something which is totally missing at this time.

Adeel Ahmed, an MBA student based in Rawalpindi tells TNS that the students are made to run from one place to the other which is contrary to the very concept of e-learning. He says the foremost problem faced by VU students is that they do not have access to the four satellite channels launched by the university. Secondly, he says, the server used by the university is so slow that it takes hours to download lectures or submit assignments within short deadlines. Adeel says students have repeatedly complained about non-availability of VU channels on cable networks but to no avail.

Amir Ijaz, another VU student based in Lahore, says the university has not increased the capacity of computer labs despite a major increase in the number of students. He tells TNS that the Faisal Town Lahore campus of VU has only 40 working computers whereas the number of students present there is never less than 200 at any given time. Amir adds that the VU is itself not interested in delivery of lectures through cable television or Internet. "In fact they want to sell CDs of these lectures and print-outs to make easy money," he alleges.

He goes on to say that even if the students want to buy books or CDs they are made to collect vouchers from the university, deposit money in the bank and go again to the campus to collect the material. Is it fair to subject VU students to this ordeal keeping in view that their very reason behind joining VU was lack of time and their limited mobility, he questions. Adeel says the university helpline is only available from 9 am to 4 pm with two hours break from 1 pm to 3pm for lunch and prayer. It should be available round the clock to facilitate students, he adds.

Another complaint brought forward by students is that students who send questions via email get their answers quite late.

TNS contacted VU's Faisal Town Lahore campus to know whether the facilities available there are enough for the students enrolled there. Ali Khan, incharge of the campus, tells TNS that it's a fact that the infra-structural facilities at the campus are not enough to fulfil the needs of the students. He says there are only 60 computers in the campus; therefore we have decided to link the computers with television hall where hundreds of students will be able to view the lectures. Ali says VU channels are not available at the campus now a days because of interruption caused by a huge booster placed by Wateen Telecom in close vicinity of the campus. About the other charges, like the unsatisfactory helpline and slow server he says there is a proper mechanism at VU to file a complaint.

Arafat Rao, in charge of VU bookshop, tells TNS that the procedure to buy books and CDs is not at all complex as claimed by some students. They can be purchased online as well, he says adding that the condition to deposit charges at a bank was put in place simply to avoid accounting problems. "But now we will ensure that a bank staffer sits at the Shadman Lahore campus and receives money there. This will save students their time and effort," he adds. Arafat says many a time students place orders online but deposit money very late. This results in delay in mailing the material to them, he says. "The students start calculating from the day they place the order whereas we start from the day we receive the money."

M Tahir, incharge of Cable TV Wing at Pemra tells TNS that they have issues several circulars asking cable operators to run all four VU channels on their networks. All these channels are in the list of 'compulsory channels' issued by Pemra but many cable operators are not abiding by this condition. He says the arrangement was such that VU had to simply provide hardware like receivers to cable operators which it did. The cable operators were asked to transmit these channels free of cost but most of them are reluctant to do that. He says the cable operators are more interested in running news and entertainment channels instead of those dedicated to social uplift of the masses. "This trend needs to be reversed by raising the awareness level of the people associated with cable TV business," he adds.

The names of the students have been changed on their request


Militancy to peace

By Delawar Jan

Serious efforts are being made at the government level to release the founding chief of the banned Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Muhammadi (TNSM), Maulana Sufi Muhammad, to bring an end to the prolonged militancy in Swat. The caretaker NWFP government wants Sufi Muhammad, father-in-law of Maulana Fazlullah, Taliban commander in Swat, to help resolve the problem peacefully.

Since the start of the operation, Shamsul Mulk-led interim set-up, still in office till the filing of this article, was in constant contact with the proscribed outfit. It secretly held many rounds of talks with the TNSM hierarchy to reach an agreement regarding the release of Sufi Muhammad, who was arrested in December 2001 for taking over 10,000 volunteers to Afghanistan to fight alongside Taliban against the United States. The U.S. and its allies had attacked Afghanistan in October 2001, to catch the mastermind of 9/11 attacks Osama Bin Laden, who they claimed was hiding in Afghanistan.

The recent spurt in militant activities in Swat district has further brought the government under pressure. Several deadly suicide attacks in Mingora, the district headquarters of Swat district, have caused grave concern among the people. The militants previously targeting forces in the Matta tehsil only now shifted their battlefield to Mingora city. A suicide attack on Feb 29 at the funeral prayers of a slain deputy superintendent of police left over 50 mourners dead and another 92 seriously wounded. On March 17, yet another suicide attack rocked the Mingora Police Lines killing two cops on the spot and injuring several others.

The people of Mingora, seeing no end to the violence in sight, were sandwiched between security forces and insurgents. All the jirgas have, so far, failed to make any headway in securing peaceful solution to the problem. A new grand jirga of almost 3,000 members has been formed to bring back peace to the valley but people don't expect much of it. Traditionally, jirgas are not as powerful in the Provincially Administered Tribal Areas (PATA) as they are in the Federal Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).

The caretaker provincial government has taken into consideration a number of proposals to pacify the local Taliban. It is convinced that the release of the imprisoned TNSM leader could placate the combatants. Sources, privy to the talks and subsequent developments, claimed that after a recent meeting with the black-turbaned followers of Sufi, the caretaker government had not only agreed to the early release of the TNSM chief but also decided to remove stumbling blocks in this regard. The caretaker chief minister on Tuesday confirmed to the newsmen that his release was under consideration.

Sufi was under similar circumstances in 1994 when his followers clashed with the security forces after taking control of certain government buildings and installations. Around 40 persons, including 12 security force personnel, were killed in a week of fighting before the government was able to re-establish its writ. But to end the tension, the TNSM agreed to strike an agreement with the then provincial government, paving the way for the enforcement of Shariah in Malakand division. Since then, Sufi strongly believes in a peaceful struggle for the implementation of Shariah and shuns all kind of militancy.

Today the ground realities have changed. Then he was in command of the TNSM but now Fazlullah is heading his heavily armed group. It would be a Herculean task for the feeble Sufi to convince his defiant son-in-law to abandon armed resistance (he is believed to have already tried to persuade him to avoid confrontation with the government which he spurned). Due to this disobedience, he was expelled from the TNSM.

The question that now arises is: Will the government allow the defunct organisation to continue its activities and give it a task for restoring peace to the valley?

"We support government-militants negotiations for a peaceful solution to the violence but the government should ensure that the militants do not use this opportunity for regrouping or reinforcing their strength," a member of the grand peace jirga told TNS.

The TNSM interim set-up refused to discuss the role of Sufi for bringing peace after his anticipated release. "It is premature to discuss what role he (Sufi) could play in restoring peace to the valley. We will devise our strategy once he comes out of the jail," a TNSM leader said.

A native of Mingora, Gul Hakeem, 25, expressed optimism regarding peace if Sufi Muhammad was offered an opportunity to play his role. He said that Sufi Muhammad could influence the firebrand cleric and commander of the local Taliban, Maulana Fazlullah. "At present, no one has direct contact with Fazlullah to hold talks but the TNSM chief will be able to meet and convince him on giving up the armed resistance," he argued.

Meanwhile the bedridden cleric recently advised his followers, who met him in hospital, to remain peaceful.

After the Feb 18 elections, political parties securing majority in the centre and NWFP had announced to hold talks with the Taliban for ending resistance. The NWFP Chief Minister-designate, Haidar Khan Hoti, had also offered talks to the insurgents. Reacting to his statement, the federal government had shown displeasure but he still considers talks the ultimate solution to the lingering militancy in Swat.

He and other ANP MPAs-elect, particularly from Swat, had shown willingness to take into consideration the much-opposed draft of the 'Sharai Nizam-e-Adl 2008', prepared by the caretaker provincial government to calm down the rebels. The regulation will deprive the people of seven districts -- Upper Dir, Lower Dir, Swat, Shangla, Buner, Malakand and Chitral -- from their right to submit a writ in the High Court and Supreme Court, as a Shariah Court at the division level would be the apex forum for the people of the region.

Many lawyers have already voiced their opposition to the proposed draft as being against the constitution. The draft, returned by the presidency with certain observations, was amended and re-sent to the president for approval.

 


Taal Matol
Gandah Naala!

There is the old story of the Lahoria who came home late from office, having walked most of the way. When his wife asked him why, he said, "Because when you wash my clothes you silly woman, you always neglect to wash the 'izaarband'!" Which is the drawstring of the 'shalwaar'. It seems every time he was able to get on a bus, at the very next stop the conductor would yell, "Ganday Naalay waalay uttar jain!" Which can either mean those with the dirty drawstring get off, or those who want to get off at the sewer!

I am reminded of this because, as you know Lahore is riddled with open sewers, and around this time of the year, as Spring sets in, they begin to stink like the chickens and make their presence felt. They have always intrigued me, and I think it is time I told you what intrigues me and let someone knowledgeable set my mind at rest.

There is for instance the obvious one which runs along Zafar Ali Road. If you don't remember it, take a ride along the said road and keep your eyes closed and your nose open. It runs dead straight along the street, and is lined with nice trees and is good to look at, and that is where it stops. It runs so straight that it cannot be a natural waterway, but then you are forced to turn off either on the Mall or Jail road, and the 'Naalah' meanders off in either direction crossing itself many times before you lose track of it completely.

My question is where the hell does it come from, and where the hell does it go? And what the hell is it? I said it is too straight to be natural, but if it is man made why did they leave it open? Some of the most fashionable people live along Zafar Ali Road, not to mention the American Consulate which used to be there, so how come no one thought to get the authorities to cover the bloody thing up?

Then there is the other one which runs past Ferozepur road and all through Samanabad and past Multan Road, and is known as the 'Gandah Naalah' -- and is it the same one as Zafar Ali Road or is this a different one. If it's the same how come it is so much larger, and so cleverly disguised and where does this one come from, or go to?

There is a third one which runs through Kot Lakhpat, Township and the endless new 'aabadis' which start at Akber Chowk and go on forever. This one too is dead straight so it can't be natural, but if it is a man made drain what was it supposed to drain before Model Town stopped being the edge of town and all the area it drained was open fields.

You must recall that around the fifties, Lahore stopped at Mozang Chungee and all the areas the three drains run through were open country with no need for man made drains, open or closed, so were these natural waterways? If so where did they come from, and how come we have mucked them up so completely even before we shifted to the environs!

There is also the drain which runs all round the walled city. That is easy, it was the old time moat round the city, and started being used as a drain. But then the question arises, the ruddy moat just went round and round the city so how was it supposed to drain anything? Somebody who knows please tell me before I blow my mind thinking about and soaking in the stink!


interview
'Education for all is a government's job'

Seema Aziz, it seems, has a special talent for beating the odds. Together with her brother Hamid Zaman, Seema runs Bareeze, arguably the country's most successful and fastest-growing womens wear retail business. That is in addition to single-handedly overseeing CARE Foundation (Cooperation for Advancement, Rehabilitation and Education), a charitable trust providing quality education to students in the Punjab without any funding from the government or foreign donor agencies. She is one of the proud women to be nominated as one of the torch-bearers of the Olympic Flame for Pakistan.

TNS spoke with her recently on the problems with education in this country and her own initiative. Excerpts of the interview follow:

The News on Sunday: Running a hugely successful business, how did the idea of CARE Foundation come into being?

Seema Aziz: There was a terrible flood in 1988 in all the rivers of Punjab. There was huge destruction. Thousands of villages were inundated. The water came right up to the Ravi Bridge, in fact they broke the dyke because they thought the city of Lahore would be flooded. They did so without a warning and thousands of villages around Lahore got totally washed out. So a group of us went out to help with food and water and realised soon they had enough food and water. Then we thought we should make houses for the affected people, so we got the names of the people who lost their homes in the affected parts near Lahore and marched off.

We arrived at the first location which was 15 miles out of Lahore on Sheikhupura road which was one of the worst destroyed places. Thousands of people were camped on the road with their animals and whatever else they had salvaged. We decided that whatever 10 houses we were going to build, we would build right here. So we got the lists of the affected and randomly picked 10 names, stood on the side of the collapsed houses and announced that we would give them money to build their houses and we started helping them rebuild.

In the process the rest of the group dropped out and I was left alone. I had never seen poverty at such close levels before; it was devastating. I was going there day after day, month after month and I had become like a pied piper, hundreds of dirty, half-naked children with matted hair and runny noses would follow me around every day. One day I asked a woman that why do these children follow me around? The woman replied "what should they do?" I asked her why don't they go to school? And she said there was no school. It hit me then that the flood would come again, houses would demolish again and would they come looking for someone like me again to rebuild their homes?And I thought the only difference was that I was educated and they were not and that is when I decided to build a school.

TNS: Was building the first school difficult?

SA:  All the poor women there said, "Please do it quickly, leave the homes, make the school!" When I came to the city and asked my friends about building a school, everyone said that I was insane and that didn't I know that the poor didn't want to study. I knew this was wrong. By then I had worked too long with the poor to know that everyone has the same dream for their children, and I knew they all wanted to study. I was very lucky. Someone donated a piece of land. I put together the money and quickly built the school. On Jan 17, 1991, the school opened its doors. On that first day, 250 children registered and we never looked back. I can never forget that first day. There were children of all ages, many without proper clothes. There was no drinking water or sewerage, or electricity, but we started.

We had a handpump in the school. On the first day we gave every one a towel and soap and got them cleaned. Within six months those dirty filthy children were neat, clean and gorgeous.

At that time we were giving uniforms, shoes, books, copies and stationery to everyone but charging Rs.10 from every child. I understood that it couldn't be totally free because there would be no value, and that I did not want any child to grow up thinking that he/she was educated on charity because in Care then and today, we firmly believe that it is their right and our duty. We are not doing them a favour and it is not charity in any way

By next year we had 450 children, the next 800 plus. After 18 years, today Care has ten custom-built village schools all over Punjab. That first school today has 2100 children.

TNS: Care then adopted government schools?

SA: In 1998, the government invited us to look at their schools. I went and looked at about 25 schools in the city. I was shocked. Nearly every school I visited in every part of Lahore had no drinking water, there were no toilets, there were some which didn't even have electricity connections. I walked into schools, where the floors had huge craters, like someone had exploded a bomb on them. There were some which had no roofs or were dangerous buildings. The children would clean the classrooms and the toilets, they would take care of the teachers' children. The children would bring flour sacks to sit because there was no furniture. There was no concept of a library let alone a lab. There were no teachers and the ones who were there would not teach.

In all this mess were these children with neat uniforms sitting on broken floors, waiting for an education which was never going to happen. So initially we agreed to take over 10 schools and pioneered the concept of public private partnership. There were a lot of difficulties, the teacher unions and the lower echelons of bureaucracy just didn't want us there. But I had seen the conditions of the children and I just thought we have to do this.

Today we have adopted 172 government schools. We are educating 17,000 children. More then 20,000 children have graduated from Care schools.

TNS: What in your opinion are the main problems with our educational system?

SA: The biggest problem of this country, after military, is that of teachers.We are failing in two things; in the number of people getting educated and the quality of education being imparted. You have thousands of people who have degrees but are not educated. The education is defective. Somebody who has done an MBA cannot be really given a MBA job. I've met hundreds of Masters of English who cannot speak one word of English.

The current curriculum is bad but we complain about it. It is the method of teaching which is important. If you are willing to teach then anything is possible. It is all about the commitment of the teacher.

The only way the country will move forward is through education. If the quality of our education does not improve and if every child does not get an education they will not be empowered.

TNS: What is the future of education?

SA: A lot of people asked me not to take over these government schools but I disagreed. The schools are owned by the government. They are run by the government. But the children are ours, the country is ours. Governments come and go. What is a constant is the people of the country and the civil society, and the duty of the society is to look after its people.

Once I had taken over the government schools and I realised that I could fix them, I felt that this was the right way to move forward. Look I can create a system of my own but I can never change the mainstream. This way we are working within the system and trying to improving the system.

I thought at that time that if we could make a model large enough to copy, then soon all schools would be like ours. Of course, there has to be a good government which wants to follow the model. This system also works because if you make your own schools then you are creating a separate stream. Education for the underprivileged, for a whole nation, is not something a private organisation can ever do. It has to be done by the government.

Email: [email protected]

By Nalaka Gunawardene

"Do you know about the only man to light a cigarette from a nuclear explosion?" Sir Arthur C Clarke was fond of asking his visitors a few years ago.

Clarke, the celebrated science fiction writer and space visionary who died on March 19, aged 90, loved to ask such baffling questions.

In this instance, the answer was Theodore (Ted) Taylor, a leading American nuclear scientist who designed atomic weapons in the 1950s and 1960s. Apparently he just held up a small parabolic mirror during a nuclear test -- the giant fireball was 12 miles away -- and turned light into heat.

"The moment I heard this, I wrote to Taylor, saying 'Don't you know smoking is bad for your health?'" Clarke added with a chuckle.

In fact, he took an extremely dim view of both smoking and nuclear weapons, and wanted to see them outlawed. But he was aware that both tobacco and nukes formed strong addictions that individuals and nations found hard to kick.

Years ago, Clarke had coined the slogan 'Guns are the crutches of the impotent.' In later years, he added a corollary: "High tech weapons are the crutches of impotent nations; nukes are just the decorative chromium plating."

Living in the Sri Lankan capital Colombo, the author of 2001: A Space Odyssey was acutely aware of tensions between neighbouring India and Pakistan -- both nuclear weapon states.

British-born and calling himself an 'ethnic human', Clarke offered a unique perspective on nuclear disarmament. His interest in the subject could be traced back to his youth, when he served in the Royal Air Force during Second World War. As a radar officer, he was never engaged in combat, but had a ringside view of Allied action in Europe.

Shortly after the nuclear bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki ended the War, he wrote an essay 'The Rocket and the Future of Warfare.' In that essay, first published in the RAF Journal in 1946, he wrote: "The only defence against the weapons of the future is to prevent them ever being used. In other words, the problem is political and not military at all. A country's armed forces can no longer defend it; the most they can promise is the destruction of the attacker."

Arthur Clarke's continued his advocacy against the weapons of mass destruction to the very end. The lure and folly of nuke addiction is a key theme in his last science fiction novel, 'The Last Theorem', to be published later this year. He completed working on the manuscript, co-written with the American author Frederik Pohl, only three days before his demise.

From his island home for over half a century, Clarke was a keen observer of the subcontinent's advances in science and technology. He personally knew some of the region's top scientists -- among them Indian space pioneers Vikram Sarabhai and Yash Pal, and Pakistan's Nobel Laureate Abdus Salam.

Shortly after India carried out nuclear weapons test in May 1998, Clarke issued a brief statement saying: "Hindustan should be proud of its scientists -- but ashamed of its politicians."

He chided the mass euphoria that seemed, for a while at least, to sweep across parts of the subcontinent. He signed the statement as "Arthur C Clarke, Vikram Sarabhai Professor, 1980."

That was a reference to three months he spent at the Physical Research Laboratory (PRL) in Ahmedabd, in western India, lecturing about peaceful uses of outer space. It was the only time he held the title 'professor.'

Clarke's direct associations with India went back further. In the early 1970s, he advised the Indian Space Research Organisation on the world's first use of communications satellites for direct television broadcasting to rural audiences. Preparations for the Satellite Instructional Television Experiment (SITE) Project were underway when India carried out its first 'peaceful explosion' of an atom bomb in 1974.

"I can still remember Vikram telling me how Indian politicians pleaded with him to 'build a teeny weeny (nuclear) bomb'," Clarke recalled in an interview in 2002.

He returned to the subject when delivering the 13th Nehru Memorial Address in New Delhi in November 1986, which he titled 'Star Wars and Star Peace.' He critiqued the Strategic Defence Initiative (which American President Reagan called 'Star Wars') -- a nuclear 'umbrella' over the United States against missile attacks. Clarke argued that SDI was conceptually and technologically flawed, and that its pursuit could hurt America's lead in other areas of space exploration.

Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi rejoined from the chair: "Forty years ago, Dr Clarke said that the only defence against the weapons of the future is to prevent them from being used. Perhaps we could add to that, we should prevent them from being built. It's time that we all heed his warning. I just hope people in other world capitals also are listening."

While campaigning against nuclear weapons, Clarke was equally concerned about all offensive weapons. "Let's not forget the conventional weapons, which have been perfected over the years to inflict maximum collateral damage," he said in a video address to the 50th anniversary celebrations of the Pugwash Movement in October 2007. "If you are at the receiving end, it doesn't matter if such weapons are 'smart' or 'stupid.'"

As tributes to Arthur C Clarke from all corners of the planet confirm, he commanded the world's attention and respect. His rational yet passionate arguments against warfare were heard, though not always heeded in the corridors of power and geopolitics.

For such people, he had the perfect last words from his own hero, H G Wells: "You damn fools -- I told you so!"

Nalaka Gunawardene is a Colombo-based writer and journalist who was spokesman for Sir Arthur C Clarke in the past decade.

He blogs at http://movingimages.wordpress.com and can be contacted at [email protected]

nalaka.org

 

Who says our VIP culture is dead. Perhaps the best place to see it alive and kicking would be if one goes to the airport. I recently happened to receive a family member at Karachi airport. Initially I was glad to see that the long line of government and military cars right outside the arrivals entrance was nowhere to be found. Upon inquiring from local staff I was told that because of security reasons all vehicles had been banned from near the arrivals terminal and hence the practice of vehicles of senior government and/or military officials being parked right in front of the arrivals terminal was discontinued.

However, much to my consternation, on my way back from the arrivals terminal and as I walked back to the parking area, I noticed that the area set aside for picking up arriving passengers had been taken over -- quite literally -- by all kinds of imposing government/luxury jeeps and vehicles. Of course, along with these came their accouterments, i.e. usually obnoxious looking and armed-to-the-teeth armed guards.

Now as far as I can tell, the area in Karachi airport where one can pick up arriving family members and/or friends is open to all and sundry. Since the car park is some distance away, and since taking a suitcases-laden trolley into the parking lot is a bad idea, what most arriving passengers with heavy luggage do is to wait by the kerb and wait for their car to pick them up. However, the evening that I was there this past week, this was not possible because all the slots alongside the kerb had been taken by these government/military vehicles and scores of guards were milling around. If the idea to increase the airport building security by banning all vehicles from parking directly in front of it was a good one, it wasn't good at all when it came to making the airport easier to use for ordinary people. Why can't the Civil Aviation Authority and/or the traffic police ensure that the area set aside for picking up arriving passengers is not monopolised by vehicles of senior government and/or military officials and that their drivers/guards/hangers-on park their vehicles in the general parking just like everyone else.

This wasn't all. The airport's 'restaurant' by the domestic arrivals lounge (it was anything but a restaurant and was more like a shop) had a poor choice of things to eat and almost all the offerings were very unhealthy (the concept of healthy eating doesn't seem to have caught on in much of the country, yet further proof that while the world is headed in one direction we are headed in the opposite one). Besides, why should a shop at the airport (and this is always the case in Pakistan) sell a small bottle of mineral water at double the rate found in any other place? It's not as if the airport is a hundred miles out of the city that transport costs should be high. Again, this is an issue that the CAA probably should have taken care of, but then when is looking out for the interests of the ordinary Pakistani the main priority of any government organisation.

As far as the VIP culture goes, sure there is a tendency among people everywhere to show off their actual or conjured up social status. It happens in India and it can happen in America as well (though at a much lower scale). However, the manner and propensity with which it happens in Pakistan is mind-boggling as well as nauseating. For instance, while waiting for my guest to arrive outside the domestic departures lounge I noticed two policemen (with paunches sticking out) talking to another man, who appeared to be a cop but dressed in plainclothes. In addition to them was another man with a walkie-talkie. It seemed that all of them were waiting for their boss -- who probably would have been some DSP or perhaps no more than a DIG. And turns out to be true because when the flight from Lahore landed and as the passengers began trickling out, the man with the walkie-talkie all of sudden told the other three men: "Oh I think I can see DSP sahib." -- and sure enough in another two to three minutes the 'DSP sahib' came out, with his daughter. Now as far as I remember a DSP is an officer of grade 17 or 18 rank so why he should have four policemen at his beck and call -- and whose overtime taxpayers would be surely paying -- is something that our policy/decision-makers need to tend to.

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Then take the case of NADRA -- which makes our CNICs and passports. Yes, one has to admit that the situation as far as getting one's passport and/or CNIC made is much better than the horrendous mess it used to be in the past but the fact remains that there are still many problems and these need tending to as well. For instance, I had to accompany a relative visiting from Holland to a NADRA 'swift' centre at Nisar Shaheen Park in Karachi's Defence Phase IV to collect her NICOP card (having this card means that she will not need to apply for a visa the next time she visits Pakistan). She had been told by NADRA that her NICOP card had arrived and was ready for pick-up. She waited in line at the pick-up counter and when her turn finally came she was told rather brusquely that she could not be given her card because she had to first find out her 'box number.' Apparently, all cards ready for delivery are kept in boxes at the collection office.

Quite rightly she asked the NADRA clerk that wasn't it the authority's responsibility to trace the box number, especially since everything was now computerised? The clerk told her that this was not possible and that she should first call the NADRA helpline, find out the box number and come again. Luckily she had a cell phone and after much protesting that this was really NADRA's job, she dialled the helpline number. She tried at least three times and each time the line dropped.

The fourth time she was put on hold for about 15 minutes and after that the line dropped. I noticed that this clerk was saying to over half of the people who had come to collect their CNICs that they first need to call the NADRA helpline (which is not a toll-free number -- surprise, surprise!), find out the box number and come back. One couple, which did not even have a mobile phone with them, protested vigorously saying that this was their fourth visit and would it kill the clerk to find out the box number himself, via his computer. He told them to come back again. And so goes the sorry tale of how ordinary people in this country are taken for a royal ride.

 

The writer is Op-ed Pages Editor of The News.

Email: [email protected]

 

 


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