Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Abused and missing women

From the Nation:

Eighty per cent of women in Pakistan face domestic violence at one or the other stage of their lives and seven million of them are missing, revealed Farhana Faroqi representative of Oxfam at a seminar on International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women here on Monday.

"Missing women" was a term coined by Amartya Sen to label the skewed male to female gender ratio in Asian countries, where the abortion of girl foetuses and the maltreatment of girl children resulted in fewer of them growing to maturity.

The Nation's article is a reminder for every Pakistani that the fight for female emancipation is not just against obscurantist beards, but society itself.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Karachi needs better IDEAS

In this city awash with arms, where mosquito repellent is harder to come by than a pistol, the country’s administrators, in their infinite wisdom, have made a habit of hosting a biennial arms fair, the International Defence Exhibition and Seminar (IDEAS). Grin and bear it, Karachiites were told, it’s good for the image of the city. “Arms for peace” was the organisers’ slogan. Orwell was smiling from his grave.

As VVIPS (Very, Very Insecure Persons?), foreign delegates and sundry other people from the military world converged on this city, even the most jaded Karachiites were left wondering what sins of their forefathers they were being punished for. Busy thoroughfares were closed, traffic diverted and parking disallowed as the special ones made their way to and fro in phalanxes of flashing lights. If the country’s guardians-cum-overlords wanted to prove that Karachi was a city of lights, they did a bang-up job - though perhaps not in the manner they hoped to. The administration’s idée fixe is an “investor friendly” country, but there is nothing friendly about a city under siege.

As sieges go, the one in Karachi vied for the beauty title. The obsequious CDGK mobilised hordes of workers to scrub roads, daub paint, erect billboards and drape the city’s thoroughfares with Christmas lights, even as dengue and other haemorrhagic fevers continued to stalk the city. Frightened residents desperate for fumigation were instead treated to scores of rented police cars and paramilitary vehicles. Let them eat cake was the message to the people of this city.

The toll the arms fair took on this city is still being counted. On the eve of the arms bazaar, some ingenious officials struck upon an idea to facilitate the movement of participants: close all schools in the city. Trading weapons for education was what brought this city to the knees in the first place, but tears of despair are no match for chutzpah. The venue for the bazaar was a stone’s throw from the nerve centre of the city’s administration, so that too was shut. The logic of madness is impeccable, Foucault has told us, and Karachiites would be hard-pressed to disagree. And for all the swarms of police, paramilitary and armed guards, it was business as usual for the petty criminals at Ground Zero. An indignant resident wrote to one newspaper, bemused at the mugging of a relative close to the venue. A delegate was relieved of his possessions at the door of the venue, by men in uniform no less. It would seem that the only people who came out of this whole sorry affair with their reputations enhanced are the petty criminals: at least they proved themselves to be equal opportunity bandits.

The upshot of deputising virtually every able bodied policemen to facilitate the arms circus was that the rest of the city wore an anarchic look. The police barely contain the beast of Karachi traffic at the best of times; however, with no one left to watch over the roads, drivers had a field day. The fair itself was shrouded in mystery: arms were being sold, but by whom and to whom nobody quite seemed to know. Ordinary Karachiites who weren’t privy to the secrets of the military elite were shut out altogether. When the organisers finally did condescend to allow some school children to visit on the last day, they shut up shop earlier than expected, leaving hundreds of schoolchildren stranded outside. So much for a “thank you” to this city.

Yet, Karachiites are nothing if not tolerant. The fair will be back in 2008, so here’s an idea for IDEAS: Karachiites will welcome the big men with their shiny toys, if the profits from the arms bazaar are used to finance the army and the savings in the defence budget are allocated to development expenditures in Karachi. Any takers?

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Thursday, November 23, 2006

This land is my land

The prime minister's cabinet appears to be the place to be if you want to more or less perpetuate the status quo, i.e. more for the rich, less for the poor. Senior ministers, who also happen to own a number of the country's sugar mills, made sure that investigating the sugar crisis would remain a non-starter (Leaving a sour taste). Now the landlords in the cabinet have acted to scotch any attempt to breathe some life into the country's dormant laws on ceilings for agricultural landholdings.

The landholding ministers objected on the grounds that there was no ceiling on industrialists and others. They would. But what they won't say is that a) they don't get taxed and b) the agricultural sector employs approximately 50% of the labour force. Vast landholdings are inimical to social cohesion and the well-being of the country's poor. They are, of course, good for those who can get them; and those who do have them won't give them up without an almighty struggle.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Bulls and bears; foxes and eels?

Countries looking to burnish their international economic credentials crave record-breaking stock markets. So, when General Musharraf determined that economic growth would be the cornerstone of his rule, his minions went out and conjured up the shiniest stock market in the world. But emphasis on records and not regulation, on form and not substance, had wrenching consequences for the small investors, who were lured by the mirage of impossibly high returns only to have their worlds implode when the powerful and the mighty engineered a spectacular collapse in March 2005.

The then-chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission of Pakistan (SECP), Dr Tariq Hassan, identified powerful brokers responsible for the scam, but was unceremoniously shown the door when it became apparent that he was going to take action against the brokers. Dr Hassan later publicly accused the prime minister, Shaukat Aziz, of protecting the culprits. Public pressure, however, led to a commission being formed to probe the market crash and issue a report of its findings. That report is now ready, but the government is trying to bury it by stealth and parliamentary subterfuge. The message to the people is clear: money matters; they don't.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Why I am a liberal extremist

President General Pervez Musharraf is angry with extremists; not just your garden variety bearded kind, but also “liberal extremists”. Addressing the nation in the wake of the passing of the watered down and egregiously named – more on that in a minute - Women’ Protection Bill, the President patted himself on the back for masterminding a path through the middle ground. Women are safer; the beards have been dealt a blow; and the demands of liberal extremists have been parried.

The beards have long been the bête noire of progress in Pakistan, but liberals have come in for some stick lately. For sure, the objects of the president’s displeasure were not all extremist liberals. Indeed, in the current dispensation, a certain kind of liberal extremist has been embraced and feted: the economic liberal extremist. Laissez faire is the order of the day with coastlines, islands, land and other assets being sold for a song and with the president regularly heard praising the “investment” in our country.

No, it is clear that the president reserves his disapproval for a particular kind of liberal extremist – the social one. Indeed, the label of “liberal extremist” is disingenuous for more often than not it is used as a proxy for a secularist. Secularists are definitely the most misunderstood group in the country; they are scorned as evil people who are determined to rid the world of religion, thereby invoking the wrath of God and expediting the end of the world. The particulars may vary, but they are all tarred with the brush of godlessness. Of course, the protests of secularists traduced in this manner are dismissed; the subtleties of the difference between neutrality and opposition to religion are ignored. Secularists, we are told, cannot comprehend the cosmic forces that they threaten to unbalance. If you’re not with us, you’re against us.

Well, Mr President, I protest this imprimatur given to misogyny in the name of religion. If secularism is liberal extremism, then I’m a liberal extremist and proud of the fact. I take umbrage at the charge that we are an incoherent lot. I pour scorn on the title of your bill to protect women; women don’t need “protection”, they need emancipation and empowerment. It’s not mere semantics; women are not the wards of the state and, if history has taught us anything, meddling in their lives only worsens their plight.

Mr, President, as a proud liberal extremist, I am neither an aberration nor a perversion of right-thinking. On the contrary, liberal extremists have a rich pedigree in this land. Allow me, Mr President, to quote the standard-bearer of liberal extremists:

“You are free; you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place of worship in this State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed – that has nothing to do with the business of the State.”

I’m sure you know those words well, Mr President. Despite the best efforts of your predecessor to erase the record of Mr Jinnah, his words have survived and continue to inspire. Liberal extremists are nothing if not determined to preserve the truth, Mr President. Many have tried to debunk the notion that Mr Jinnah was a secularist – a liberal extremist, if you will – but none have been able to reconcile his personal affairs and eating and drinking preferences with that assertion. Indeed, Mr Jinnah would have had to have been a self-loathing man of the highest order to live his life in the manner he chose and yet advocate that the state he created ought to dictate the religious mores of its people.

As a liberal extremist, I worry about the alternative. Religion is either a part of the state or it is not – the middle ground will yield no more than a slippery slope towards religious intolerance. It may be difficult to accept the word of a self-confessed liberal extremist, Mr President, so I refer you to the Report on the Punjab Disturbances of 1953, i.e. the Munir Report. Charged with examining the causes of anti-Ahmadi riots, Chief Justice Munir called the great and the good amongst Islamic scholars and asked them, amongst other things, to define a Muslim and the grounds for apostasy. After hearing the opinions of all the learned men who came before his commission, the Chief Justice made an observation that is so stunning in its logic and clarity that it is would be considered subversive today:

The net result of all this is that neither Shias nor Sunnis nor Deobandis nor Ahl-i-Hadith nor Barelvis are Muslims and any change from one view to the other must be accompanied in an Islamic State with the penalty of death if the Government of the State is in the hands of the party which considers the other party to be kafirs. And it does not require much imagination to judge of the consequences of this doctrine when it is remembered that no two ulama have agreed before us as to the definition of a Muslim. If the constituents of each of the definitions given by the ulama are given effect to, and subjected to the rule of ‘combination and permutation’ and the form of charge in the Inquisition’s sentence on Galileo is adopted mutatis mutandis as a model, the grounds on which a person may be indicted for apostasy will be too numerous to count.” (Emphasis added.)

Chief Justice Munir’s comments ought to have been printed and dropped from the skies all across the country, but truthfulness has never been a forte of our leaders. The report was buried for decades, an uncomfortable reality for a country bent on turning its back on the principles its founder. Mr President, it is easy, indeed, fashionable, to flog the body of secularism – liberal extremism – but it cannot be killed for it has already been immortalised.

I do not, indeed cannot, aspire to reach your high office, Mr President. But I do decry the pusillanimity of our elected leaders in the face of the beards’ bluster. And I demand that all the misogynistic and religiously intolerant laws that are a blot on the country’s consciousness be struck out. If I were ever to occupy a public office, I would eschew travelling across the globe to make a pilgrimage to the village of Miranwala and proudly stand besides that brave woman, Mukhtar Mai, who is probably the only genuine hero figure this country has produced since the death of its founder. I would do that, Mr President, because I am proud to stand up and be counted as a liberal extremist.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Spare the others their lives, too

Mirza Tahir Hussain is a lucky man: he was born British. Undoubtedly his release after 18 years on death row is a good decision - Amnesty International has campaigned for his release, arguing that Hussain did not receive a fair trial - but it was the personal intervention of the British prime minister, Tony Blair, that prompted Musharraf to release the man.

Others are not so lucky in Pakistan. The Asia Death Penalty has highlighted the plight of the more than 7,400 men and 36 women who are on death row in Pakistan and the rapid rate at which people are added to it. Given the broken state of Pakistan's judiciary and the country's overcrowded prisons, the president should declare a moratorium on the death penalty - not only should all current prisoners on death row have their sentences commuted, but the courts should be estopped from sentencing anyone to death.

A theoretical defence of the death penalty is possible in strictly limited circumstances; however, the praxis of capital punishment in Pakistan will remain dysfunctional in the foreseeable future. No one deserves to die if they are innocent; not even if it means the guilty get less than they deserve.

Friday, November 17, 2006

When servants become masters

Civil servants are by definition servants of the people; however, Pakistani civil servants are of a different ilk. In The State of Martial Rule, Ayesha Jalal authoritatively argued that, soon after the creation of Pakistan, "senior echelons of the civil bureaucracy and military succeeded in tilting the institutional balance of power against parties and politician". Nearly sixty years later that partnership is stronger than ever: the generals are de facto in power and senior bureaucrats set their own rules.

From a report in The News:

"Sources told The News that the Punjab bureaucracy in particular has repeatedly foiled the federal government’s attempts to transfer the Centre’s officers outside the province, particularly to Balochistan, that is facing a serious deficiency of District Management Group (DMG) and Police Service of Pakistan (PSP) officers.

"Last week, the Establishment Division (ED) yet again had to eat humble pie by cancelling the transfer orders of six DMG officers, who were posted to Balochistan from the Punjab several months ago. Instead of complying with the government orders, these officers continue to serve in the Punjab."

The News goes on to detail how the federal government has in essence tried to bribe bureaucrats to take up posts in Baluchistan by offering them lucrative financial incentives, but have been rebuffed by the bureaucrats. In desperation, the government has resorted to nominating junior bureaucrats without the relevant (read: Punjabi) political contacts to send to Baluchistan.

That the bureaucrats have defied government orders is merely another instance of their power. But what does it say about the state of the federation if those most attuned to the country's political current refuse to serve its most backward province?

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Not even if you wish upon a thousand stars

In the build up to talks between the Pakistani and Indian foreign secretaries, the Pakistani foreign minister, Khurshid Kasuri, raised eyebrows on both sides of the border by claiming that the two countries were close to an agreement on the Siachen dispute. It quickly became evident that Mr Kasuri was bluffing; the foreign minister was hoping to paint the Indians into a corner with a combination of bluster and spin. The Indians were having none of it; even the army expressed its disapproval - a rare instance in a service firmly wedded to the principle of civilian control.

The reason for the Pakistani foreign minister's bravado? The degenerating security position in west (Afghanistan and the tribal belt) and south (Baluchistan) Pakistan are cementing India's ascendancy between the two neighbours. A quick peace is always sought by the party most likely to lose from the perpetuation of the status quo.

India, of course, knows this. Ajay Sahni, director of the Institute for Conflict Management in New Delhi, told the CS Monitor, "The more difficulties (Pakistan) has internally, the more the calculus favors India. India's position will tend to become a little more inflexible. Why make concessions at a time when your enemy is weakening?"

The paper continues:

"Analysts in both countries agree that the unrest, while unlikely to change the overall tone of the discussions, is liable to weaken Pakistan's position at the negotiating table. That means Paki- stan's pushing on the large issue of Kashmir, the Himalayan territory to which both sides stake claim, will fall on deaf ears."

Indeed. Upon the conclusion of the foreign secretaries' talks today, the Times of India reports:

"On the Siachen issue on which Pakistan Foreign Minister Khurshid Mehmood Kasuri had claimed a settlement was on the cards in a few days, Khan said that talks were on and further discussions were needed."

The HDI report card

The Human Development Report 2006 makes for grim reading for Pakistanis. Based on statistics from 2004 - five years into the Musharraf regime - the country has limped to 0.537 on the Human Development Index which gives it a rank of 134th out of 177 countries.

From the Pakistan Fact Sheet:

"The HDI provides a composite measure of three dimensions of human development: living a long and healthy life (measured by life expectancy), being educated (measured by adult literacy and enrolment at the primary, secondary and tertiary level) and having a decent standard of living (measured by purchasing power parity, PPP, income).

"The HDI measures the average progress of a country in human development. The Human Poverty Index for developing countries (HPI-1), focuses on the proportion of people below a threshold level in the same dimensions of human development as the human development index - living a long and healthy life, having access to education, and a decent standard of living.

"The HPI-1 value for Pakistan, 36.3, ranks 65th among 102 developing countries for which the index has been calculated.

"The gender-related development index (GDI), introduced in Human Development Report 1995, measures achievements in the same dimensions using the same indicators as the HDI but captures inequalities in achievement between women and men. It is simply the HDI adjusted downward for gender inequality. The greater the gender disparity in basic human development, the lower is a country's GDI relative to its HDI.

"Pakistan’s GDI value, 0.513 should be compared to its HDI value of 0.539. Its GDI value is 95.2% of its HDI value. Out of the 136 countries with both HDI and GDI values, 132 countries have a better ratio than Pakistan's.

"The gender empowerment measure (GEM) reveals whether women take an active part in economic and political life. It tracks the share of seats in parliament held by women; of female legislators, senior officials and managers; and of female professional and technical workers- and the gender disparity in earned income, reflecting economic independence. Differing from the GDI, the GEM exposes inequality in opportunities in selected areas.

"Pakistan ranks 66th out of 75 countries in the GEM, with a value of 0.377."

It is worth noting the gender empowerment measure (GEM) amongst all these depressing statistics. Pakistan's ranking of 66th out of 75 comes despite having a generous 1/3 of reserved seats for women in parliament and a sizable percentage of reserved seats in the local government structure. The presence of women in the legislature is largely a token gesture ( indeed, the MMA-nominated women parliamentarians, in a singular act of self-loathing, have urged the government to send female legislators back to their homes) and if the measure is taken out, Pakistan would probably finish at the bottom of the pile.

Most worryingly, Pakistan's HDI trend has been falling behind the South Asian trend since 2000.

Read the full report here.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Organs for sale

With all the wars being fought in and around Pakistan, it's easy to forget that for the majority of the country the biggest battle is the one against poverty. The daily grind of a hard life has led an increasing number of Pakistanis to resort to selling their kidneys through middlemen and clinics to rich Pakistanis. The AP story estimates that 'organ tourists' make up less than 10% of the current demand in Pakistan, but, as word spreads and more clinics start cashing in, Pakistan could find itself with a distasteful solution to its tourism problems.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Free media?

Gen. Musharraf is fond of trumpeting the era of "free media" that he has purportedly ushered in. Well, General, all is not well in the fourth estate. From the Daily Times:

The Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) is understood to have suspended the transmission of a Sindh-based TV channel.

The reason? "Sindh TV has been airing documentaries and programmes with a special focus on the chaos in Balochistan and issues related to rural Sindh."

"The Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ) issued a press statement Thursday condemning the “forced suspension” of the channel allegedly on the order of high officials, following a news film related to the murder of a policeman and his alleged links with an ex-MNA close to the ruling party.

"The PFUJ’s Mazhar Abbas said that Sindh TV journalists have been working under stress after they received threats and a few days back its Dadu correspondent Pervaiz Narejo moved to Karachi with his family following his reporting and filming of the murder of a policeman after the attack on Dadu District jail."

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

This land may be pure, but its rulers are not

Good governance starts with bigger plots. Or so the prime minister, Shaukat Aziz, would want the country to think as he hands out 82 plots of land, valued at Rs20 million ($330,000) each, to federal secretaries and grade 22 (the highest ranking) civil officers.

On the same day as the news of the land allotment, the Daily Times reported that Pakistan had slipped to 147th out of 163 countries in a Corruption Perception Index compiled by Transparency International.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Accountability, anyone?

Excerpts from The Nation on proceedings in the Supreme Court:

"During the hearing of an appeal seeking release of a NAB prisoner Ishfaq Khalid, the bench was informed that the four former provincial ministers were released without paying the fine imposed on them by the NAB courts.

"According to NAB, the four former provincial ministers were ordered by the trial court to collectively pay a fine amounting to 468.9 million rupees for embezzlements and abuse of their offices but were later released by the Balochistan Home Ministry without recovering the huge amount of fine.

"Under separate orders in various corruption references, Faiq Jamali was ordered to undergo 38 years, Behram Achakzai 19 years, Hafeez Looni 10 years and Nisar Hazara four years imprisonment."

"Noting the release of prominent persons even after being convicted by the courts of law, the bench asked that if all the big fishes (sic) were released then what was the need for keeping ordinary persons behind the bars in the name of accountability."

Indeed. What is the reason?