On a recent visit to Pakistan, I couldn’t help but notice the general despondency. With food prices escalating, gas loadshedding making a cold winter unbearable, unemployment growing, law and order deteriorating abysmally, life is undoubtedly hard. Perhaps this has always been the case for many. But what makes it worse is that after a successful lawyers’ movement and the ouster of Musharraf, a new democratic era was hailed, with the expectation that rulers would be responsive to the woes of their people. The media was far more vociferous and visible, claiming to represent the concerns of the average person. And yet, there is a complete disconnect between the real Pakistani and those who shape the national discourse.
Speak to empowered elite, listen to government officials and aspirants or tune into talk shows, and most conversations are irrelevant to the country’s people and its future. Social dialogue mostly revolves around elaborate décor and menus at weddings, dresses, jewellery or expensive gifts exchanged between relatives-to-be. Political discussions hover around sensational stories of corruption and yearning for the messiah who will fix it all, not to mention, of course, the conspiracy theories of foreign involvement. Although public opinion on complex matters is frequently sought, little effort is made to engage on basic issues affecting everyday life. There is naturally nothing entertaining about gutters overflowing to produce unfathomable stench, insects mixing with tap water to spread disease, or women suffering from fistula becoming pariahs to their families.
There are a few people who have, nevertheless, taken it upon themselves to work for the benefit of the masses. Dr Shershah Syed, since returning from abroad, has set up the Koohi Goth Women’s Hospital and is working hard to combat maternal mortality. At the impressive 16-acre facility on the outskirts of Karachi, he told me, “Our issues are very basic. We need nurses and lady health workers far more than doctors.” In training midwives and health workers from remote parts of Pakistan, he is assisted by the likes of Dr Shabbir Safvi and his English-born wife, Seara, who remain committed to Pakistan and their cause, in spite of suffering through Dr Shabbir’s kidnapping.
It may be unrealistic to expect large numbers to follow in their footsteps but, at the very least, we must change the focus of our conversations. We need to come out of our bubbles and start facing reality. Only by talking about issues that affect large sections of Pakistan and constantly reminding ourselves of the squalor and misery that surrounds us, can we ever hope to pressure the government into meaningful change, or develop a democratic alternative to existing practices. As Dr Shershah said, “This work should not be mine, but that of the government’s”.
Pakistan’s case is not like Egypt’s. We have risen up against dictators repeatedly, elected our leaders, freely criticised our government and fought for an independent judiciary. Yet our economic indicators and literacy levels are pathetic. Our population is exploding and our resources are scarce. Thus, we must concentrate exclusively on human development and population control. It may be exciting to talk about Blackwater operatives shooting at would-be robbers or power tussles between various branches of government and political bigwigs, but such conversations are as unrepresentative of Pakistan as the foreign media’s portrayal of it as a country comprised primarily of bigoted crazies.
We must engage society and pester the government on the following: How can we overcome obstacles to population control? How can we provide clean drinking water to our people? How can we meet our energy needs? How can we assure basic health facilities in every locality? How can we achieve functional literacy and train people in simple trades? How can we ensure women-friendly transport? Equality does not exist in any society but we have an exceedingly long way to go before we can dispense even basic human needs. There are no easy solutions but we have not even begun to brainstorm.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 8th, 2011.