While the innocent suffer

THERE are two categories of people who are the worst sufferers in the current standoff at Lal Masjid: to one category belong the hostages. Their exact number is not known, but they are believed to be in their hundreds, and include women, girls and children. They are holed up in the midst of rotting bodies and living between hope and despair. Food supplies and water are either exhausted or are in short supply. Either the terrorists may themselves shoot them in panic and put the blame on the security forces or the hostages may die in the crossfire when the authorities finally decide to move in. Death could be their fate anytime. Belonging in most cases to the low income groups, they are innocent souls. Their only fault was that they believed in what the two maulanas told them. In the other category are the residents of Islamabad’s G-6 Sector where Lal Masjid is located. Barring curfew relaxation hours, when they buy grocery, medicines, etc, they remain home-bound and wonder whether the fighting would spread and hurt them. As mothers told newsmen, children wake up and cry when firing and explosions break the night’s silence. They do not know how long they will have to suffer because an end to the standoff does not appear imminent, and Abdul Rasheed Ghazi seems to be determined to hold on. He is detached from reality and is indifferent to death and destruction and to the suffering which his obstinacy may cause to other human beings.

While his elder brother may have invited ridicule because of the way he tried to escape and is now appealing to his younger brother to surrender, Abdul Aziz must nevertheless be credited for making a correct decision, having realised his mistake and acted in a manner that saved hundreds of lives. The younger brother has, however, forfeited the nation’s sympathy, including the ulema’s. The MMA leaders are in London attending the multi-party conference, while the madressah leadership throughout Pakistan has either criticised Ghazi or maintained silence. His criminality is evident from the way he refused Bilqees Edhi’s plea to let her take away the children with her. His acolytes have also fired at parents who were approaching the mosque to secure their children’s release. The defiant ones are well armed, and the government must let the people know why and how such quantities of arms and ammunition could be stocked in the mosque. Obviously, this was not done in a day or two and must have taken a long time. Why did the security agencies fail to check this constant movement of arms into the mosque? Are their Aziz-Ghazi brothers’ supporters in the agencies?

Ghazi is now enjoying his publicity over the electronic media. While the media must, of course, cover the Lal Masjid confrontation that has its poignant side as well, must a lawbreaker be allowed to monopolise the mini-screen? That may not be the intention of the channels, but many citizens feel that the electronic media’s 24-hour focus on the man tends to give an impression as if his acts are being glorified. From a purely professional point of view too, the channels ought to be aware of viewer fatigue. With things so grim — a machine gun and two anti-aircraft guns on a rooftop in Rawalpindi and the terror attacks in Dir, Fata and Swat — the viewers deserve some respite.

Threatening Iran yet again

ALTHOUGH talks between the US and Iranian envoys to Iraq held in Baghdad sometime ago was described as positive, it seems that Washington has still not given up the option of attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities. This was made clear by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Friday when she told a news channel that Iran was a “very dangerous state with very dangerous policies” and referred to “coercive elements” in Washington’s foreign policy. The US may want to keep its options open regarding a military strike, but it will find few backers in the region for any such premeditated action. Countries such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait have already said they would not allow any such attack to be conducted from their territory. True, Iran’s hard-line president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has done little to lessen the impression of Iran’s being a supporter of terrorism, especially with his hawkish views on Israel. But neither have the US or its allies taken advantage of any diplomatic gesture, such as the release of the 15 British sailors by Iran last April, to achieve some measure of a thaw with Tehran.

Iran can be a useful regional partner, at least where the insurgency in Iraq is concerned. It has considerable influence over the Shia militias there and is, in fact, widely perceived to be arming and training them. While no one can defend such an action, it would perhaps be natural for a much maligned country to react in this manner to bolster its own defences against hostile world powers. Threatening Iran at this point would do more harm than good, and one hopes that better sense will prevail in Washington so that it works on achieving less inimical relations with Tehran which has made grudging efforts towards meeting its detractors halfway. However, Tehran will have to do its bit by toning down its nuclear rhetoric and persistent criticism of Israel. Its energy resources make Iran an important partner for several countries, which are, nevertheless, muted in their political support for the regime. An attitude of compromise and goodwill may make them to think differently.

Disaster relief priorities

MORE than two weeks after the cyclone struck parts of Sindh and Balochistan, relief goods have yet to reach many of the thousands of the affected people. President Pervez Musharraf’s announcement on Friday that each affected family will be provided with a monetary assistance of Rs15,000 by the federal government is welcome. Immediate needs of the marooned people in far-off places that remain cut off from major towns and cities include water, food and shelter. Nature and geography have combined to add to the misery of the mainly very poor who have been affected by the severe flooding. An estimated 400,000 houses have been wiped out. Livestock, a major means of sustenance in the impoverished region, the few date farms, and the little basic infrastructure that was there, have been washed away. The scale of the calamity is vast, stretching from coastal Sindh to the entire southern stretch of Balochistan, prompting the UN to start a global flash appeal for relief for the affected.

The electronic media remains the only window on the vast-scale devastation and the misery suffered by those trapped in the disaster zone. Many of those who have lost everything have told mediamen that the government’s monetary assistance of Rs15,000 per family may never reach them. There is a need to set up a transparent mechanism to ensure that such assistance and relief goods bound for the affected people reach them in an efficient manner. The absence of a monitoring mechanism is giving rise to apprehensions on that account. Because entire villages have been swept away in Balochistan, the federal government must also put in place a longer-term rehabilitation and reconstruction plan for the disaster-hit areas. Immediately, an organised national effort is needed to ensure the provision of water, food clothes and tents to the people in distress.

Discrepancies in draft electoral rolls

By Sarwar Bari

AS population numbers are perpetually changing, no electoral roll can be perfect at any point in time. However, the enrolment of an optimum percentage of eligible voters is necessary for an electoral contest to be acceptable. Despite possessing state of the art software, funds and experienced foreign consultants, the Election Commission of Pakistan has failed to deliver. About 40 per cent eligible voters are missing from the draft rolls.

The Chief Election Commissioner has announced that the registration of new voters will continue until the election schedule is announced. The government has created confusion about the date. Therefore, it is impossible to calculate how many more eligible voters can be registered. Let us first calculate the missing male and female voters in various provinces and then look for a solution which is acceptable to all political parties and that does not provide the government with an excuse to delay polls.

The draft roll contains about 52 million names. This number is less than the one in the 1997 electoral rolls when the voting age was 21 years. There were nearly 72 million registered voters in the 2002 general elections and the 2005 local bodies’ polls. This means a net shortfall of 20 million in the 2007 draft roll, while the population has increased during this period.

By last December, the projected population of 18 years and above was between 86-88 million. Therefore, the total number of missing voters in the draft rolls stands at a staggering 35 to 38 million. In the gender-wise provincial breakdown of missing voters and CNIC holders, there is an astounding gap between missing male and female voters.

The gap between registered male and female voters is even larger than the missing voters. In all previous rolls, the gap remained between four million to five million. In the 2007 draft roll, this has reached 13 million, while half (20.36 million) of eligible women voters are missing from the draft roll.

Interestingly, Balochistan achieved the highest rate (75 per cent) of enrolment for both sexes, while the lowest women enrolment is in the NWFP (40 per cent). In the Punjab and Sindh it is 52 and 47 per cent respectively.

How come the enrolment rate is highest for both sexes in Balochistan where the road infrastructure is weak, the literacy rate the lowest, that was facing a military operation at the time of registration and above all whose population density is the lowest in Pakistan? Why have places with higher population density, better road facilities and more stability, Punjab and Islamabad, registered only 61.7 and 52.8 per cent voters respectively? Also, in the NWFP, male enrolment has increased as opposed to the other provinces where it has declined.

The ECP has been insisting that all CNIC holders have been included in the draft roll. A comparison of Nadra and ECP data reveals a different picture. By February this year, Nadra had issued about 52 million CNICs. As this number matched that on the draft roll, the ECP argued that it had enrolled all CNIC holders. The fact of the matter is that about 30 per cent of those enlisted in the draft roll have old IDs. This means that nearly 16 million CNIC holders were not registered.

For instance, a comparison of CNIC holders and the draft roll of Islamabad and Sindh reveals that there are as many as 403,292 and 773,595 CNIC holders more than the names entered on the rolls. Moreover, it is strange that in Islamabad, there are more CNIC holders than the total projected population of 18 years and above in 2006. Nadra needs to explain this.

Why do government departments and organisations commit such blunders and get away with them? Do they see the local context and look into the concerns of the public at the planning stage? Experience shows that they do not. The preparation of the draft roll is one such example.

The ECP and its consultants ignored the local context and worked in isolation. They failed to realise that there is general political alienation among citizens and most political parties have no party infrastructure at the local level that could have assisted the registration of voters. The ECP used schoolteachers as enumerators. It’s not a secret that many of them were appointed on the recommendation of politicians. It was perhaps a misplaced trust in them to register voters and man display centres professionally, while no incentives and proper training was imparted to them. This shows poor planning.

Also, the whole concept of self-administered registration forms by eligible voters shows a serious lack of understanding of ground realities. The enumerators acted just as postmen. They distributed forms to households, saying that they would be back to collect them after a few days. This method was wrong as the literacy rate is low in the country and people have little experience of filling forms. Interestingly, no women enumerator or display centre information officer was appointed. No wonder, 20 million eligible women are missing from the draft roll.

Why did the ECP, despite having foreign consultants, perform so badly? Perhaps because of poor governance and absence of strict accountability. It appears that heads of government organisations do not pay attention to public outcry because they want to keep their bosses happy.

Despite a massive hue and cry, the ECP has not taken any action to improve the working of the display centres. The CEC issued a statement on June 30 that all eligible voters would be included in the final roll. However, he did not bother to elaborate how he would achieve this target and whether the law allowed this.

Also, the CEC has not taken any serious steps to enhance the confidence of political parties and civil society organisations. The ECP should have taken these factors into consideration, engaged stakeholders on a regular basis and adopted a vigorous monitoring system in order to achieve a high standard of work. This would have saved it from much embarrassment later on.

What is to be done now? In my view, the ECP still has a chance and the time to control the damage provided it is willing to listen to criticism and advice given by political parties and civil society organisations. All stakeholders must join hands to correct the situation. The ECP must be seen as being neutral, transparent and strong enough to resist partisan pressure. It is its responsibility to prepare flawless rolls.

Keeping in view the lacklustre response of the public and the inability of political parties during the registration and display period to mobilise voters, the ECP should find an out of the box solution.

According to some estimates, only three million people have appealed during the display period. Motivating the rest of the missing voters is a Herculean task. Also, the ECP has no capacity to hear appeals of millions of people as the revising authorities (the judges) have a huge workload of litigations.

The cyclone and flood disaster has added another negative factor. The monsoons may inundate more areas. The people living in these areas could not avail themselves of the display period. Many might have lost their CNICs as well. Therefore, it is imperative to find a solution which involves very little field work.

Comments in various newspapers reveal a consensus in favour of using the Nadra database for the preparation of the final roll. As the draft roll is also computerised, it will be easier to cross check the ECP data with Nadra’s. This exercise can eliminate duplicate entries from the draft rolls. All CNIC holders and applicants must be entered on the roll without any appeal as their details are sufficient for registration purposes.

According to Nadra, it has the capacity to issue 75,000 CNICs in a day, while currently it has been producing only 34,000 cards. Steps should be taken to enhance the demand. This can be achieved by reducing the cost of the CNIC. Also Nadra offices and vans should work during evenings. In the next three months Nadra can issue another 10 million CNICs. Nadra has already issued nearly 60 million CNICs, about eight million more than on the draft roll.

In the meantime, the ECP and Nadra should work together and remove all fake entries from the draft roll. However, names of old ID card holders should not be deleted. Every eligible citizen must be on the final roll. This is the responsibility of the CEC and the state.

Civil society organisations and political parties should think hard to avail themselves of this opportunity to bridge the gap between the 18-year and above population and the CNIC holders. Moreover, people should be allowed to apply for registration by showing any photo ID which is attested by their employers, representative and government officials.

In the meantime, they should apply for a CNIC. However, nobody should be allowed to cast their vote without the CNIC as this is a legal requirement. I am sure this task can be accomplished to set a firm foundation not only for the next poll but for many more to come as this roll would be used as the basis for future rolls.

The CEC and parliament should remove all legal barriers to enrol every eligible citizen on the final rolls.

© DAWN Group of Newspapers, 2007


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