Pakistan and crises seem to have become virtually synonymous. Poverty is growing amid endemic corruption and growing lawlessness. This need not be the case.
The country is endowed with vast natural resources but the tragedy is it is plagued by a corrupt and grossly incompetent political class from its early days. Plundering the country’s resources and stashing them in banks abroad have been their primary obsession. The West, especially countries like Britain, France, Switzerland, the US and Canada, are equally guilty in facilitating this money theft from Pakistan.
Facing such dire straits, it would be natural to assume that the country’s rulers would take steps to rectify the situation. For instance, in order to narrow the trade deficit, every effort should be made to increase exports and decrease imports, especially of luxury goods. While officials immediately start drum-beating about a slight uptick in exports, they ignore the much larger increase in import costs.
Why does Pakistan import expensive cars or, luxury items such as hair color and cosmetics, for instance? Surely, Shireen Mazari can do without using multiple colors on her hair. There is no need to look like a peacock. The same goes for Maryam Nawaz and Sherry Rahman. They need not apply tons of make-up to hide their blemishes. They should learn to live with their looks, whatever nature has endowed them with. There should be belt-tightening and sacrifices across the board.
Since the overwhelming majority of people in Pakistan do not pay tax, the government resorts to indirect taxation. Prices of essential goods—food, fuel etc—have skyrocketed. This places an undue burden on the poor, but do not affect the rich as much because they are involved in massive plunder.
They flaunt their ill-gotten wealth by leading a rapacious lifestyle living in gated communities, with an army of servants at their beck and call. They treat their servants as virtual slaves. It is surprising why people have not risen up in revolt against such injustices. They have been oppressed so much that they consider their plight to be ordained by Allah. This is also the message delivered from the pulpit, thus keeping them subdued.
Some people have resorted to strong-arm tactics as well as picked up guns. This is not to justify their actions but the fact is that these people and their groups have discovered that such tactics empower them. Take the case of Tehreek-e Labaik Pakistan (TLP). It frequently resorts to dharnas (sit-ins) and blocking motorways. They have realized that such actions attract attention and immense free television coverage. These may be anti-social activities that unnecessarily inconvenience ordinary people, but the TLP feels empowered.
Commentaries in English language newspapers have been scathing in their criticism of the government’s handling of TLP. They would rather see the government crackdown on the group using force. The same attitude exists over the government’s recent moves to grant amnesty to Tehreek-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP). The group has been involved in many gruesome acts. The arm-chair revolutionaries in the media demand that government take stern action against the TTP since they have killed many innocent civilians, especially the December 2014 attack on Army Public School in Peshawar. Hundreds of children were brutally gunned down.
Not every problem can be solved by brute force. The TTP emerged following brutal attacks unleashed by General Pervez Musharraf in Swat, the Lal Masjid in Islamabad, and in North Waziristan and the tribal belt. Thousands of innocent people, among them women and children, were killed. Without justifying the TTP’s brutal tactics, the underlying causes of their emergence must be examined. They did not emerge in a vacuum.
Invoking the doctrine of imposing state writ is not a valid argument. If the government can defang the TTP through negotiations, it will be one less headache for it. Ultimately, one negotiates with one’s enemies, not friends.
Unfortunately, the government’s writ is conspicuously absent in matters relating to defending people’s rights. The social contract between the state and the people does not exist. The state has failed in providing the three most essential services to people: food, healthcare and education. Nearly 40% of the population lives below the poverty line.
Another glaring example is the lack of justice in the country. Both the lawyers and judges are corrupt. Wealth, connections and power can and do subvert the judicial system. A government that cannot provide justice to its people does not command respect.
There are 2.1 million cases pending in Pakistan’s archaic courts, as pointed out in the Senate. Many of them relate to the illegal occupation of properties. In most municipalities, officials that are supposed to keep records are in league with what is referred to as the land mafia. Ownership of land is transferred multiple times without the real owners knowing about it. By the time they realize, some gangster has built a plaza or other structure over illegally-occupied land. The real owners are then trapped in an endless cycle of court cases without hope of seeing justice.
Some of the biggest crooks are linked to people in high positions. Malik Riaz is a notorious creature who has made a huge name for himself by building gated communities in almost every city of Pakistan. They are called Bahria Towns. An uneducated man, Malik Riaz has many generals in his pocket. He provides them palatial homes in his estates and they ensure he can continue to indulge in illegal land grabs.
Asif Ali Zardari, another venal character who became the president of Pakistan—yes, a street urchin who is not fit to be even a door man—occupied the highest civilian office in the land. He was also notorious for forcibly occupying people’s property if he fancied it. He has an army of gangsters at his call. There is widespread belief in Pakistan that Zardari was responsible for the murder of his brother-in-law Murtaza Bhutto and his wife, Benazir.
The Sharif brothers (not so sharif) are another mafia family. Emerging from modest background, they have become multi-billionaires through theft and gangsterism. They now own choice properties in Britain, Dubai, Saudi Arabia, Singapore and a host of other places.
Nawaz Sharif, who served as prime minister several times, feigned low platelet count (he claimed to have such a low count that doctors said, if true, he would be dead!) escaped from the country allegedly for treatment in England. His platelets miraculously soared as he stepped off the plane at London’s Heathrow airport!
He roams around the streets of London enjoying ice cream and pizza without the slightest hint that he is unwell. He staged the platelet drama to escape abroad to avoid having to answer for the myriad charges of corruption and theft.
So, what is the solution? In the short-term, there should be belt-tightening all around. The burden of debt repayment and IMF conditions should not be borne only by the poor through high prices. The elite must give up their rapacious lifestyle. In the long-term, the entire system must be uprooted. It is unresponsive to the needs of the people.
Without drastic steps, Pakistan will continue to lurch from one crisis to the next like a corner drunk.