DAWN - Opinion; January 16, 2008

Published January 16, 2008

A deadly sense of humour

By Zafar Masud

“PRESS freedom wears out fast if not used regularly” is the motto that has appeared unfailingly every Wednesday for the past 91 years under the masthead of le Canard Enchaîné, a Parisian satirical weekly. The name ‘the duck in chains’ owes its origin to a historic event.

When Georges Clemenceau, a larger-than-life figure at the turn of the century of French journalism, and later of statesmanship, had restrictions imposed on his newspaper, l’Homme Libre (the free man), in a touch of irony he transformed it into l’Homme Enchaîné (the man in chains). That same year the journalist couple Maurice and Jeanne Maréchal brought out their own weekly newspaper and, inspired by Clemenceau’s example, promptly called it le Canard Enchaîné.

Why a duck? Because in popular French parlance ‘canard’ also means a newspaper, most probably alluding to the quack-quacking, an indispensable condition for quality journalism, or so it seems.

In all these nine decades of publication le Canard hasn’t changed much, appearance or writing style wise. Its eight pages are a jumble of ungainly typesets that will never be considered elegant by today’s computer-generated norms; the pair of ducks (the Maréchal couple itself no doubt in a self-deprecating vain), a crumpled hat and bowtie for him, a long headwear with a protruding rose for her, parenthesising the masthead are frankly ludicrous. There are as many cartoons as there are stories and wordplay is accepted in all its forms, often transgressing the norms of bourgeois decency.

But the French love le Canard – and dread it – for it has remained the paper’s speciality for nearly a century now to wash in public dirty linen belonging to the high and the mighty. And all this with a deadly sense of humour!

Le Canard’s most recent scoop was on Dec 20, 2007 following which Jean-Paul Blufer, the highest ranking official in the ministry of housing, was fired for using his position to rent a 190 square-metre apartment in a choice Parisian neighbourhood for about a quarter of its normal rent of 5,000 euros a month.

But Blufer (pronounced bluefair and not what you are thinking!) was small fry compared with Hervé Gaymard who was finance minister in 2005. He had just moved into a 600 square metres apartment for which the government paid 14,500 euros per month in rent. He had it redone according to his taste and his requirements (he had eight children) at a cost of 32,000 euros, once again paid by the government.

A detailed story in le Canard dated Feb 15, 2005 had the entire country atwitter over what was perceived as a scandal. After a series of nervous, and often contradictory, statements to the media during the following ten days the minister resigned. Seven months later he paid back to the government two months worth of rent and the money he had spent on the renovation.

The list of scandals brought to public attention by le Canard is a long one and dates as far back as 1928. Two more examples will be of interest here.

Italian farmer Aldo Bonassoli and Belgian aristocrat Alain de Villegas teamed up in the late 1960s to work on a shared passion – scientific experiments on a series of crackpot inventions that interested no one. But Bonassoli had all the time and de Vilegas had all the time plus the money. Years of camaraderie and rare successes in peddling their gadgets to the farmers enabled the twosome to hone their skills in salesmanship. Once they understood they had started sounding credible, they decided to strike mother load.

This happened in 1975 when they contacted Elf, the French oil giant partly owned by the government, to expose their most ‘revolutionary’ idea. It consisted of equipping aircraft with a ‘technology’ capable of detecting subsoil and undersea zones from high altitudes. Elf saw in this unheard of possibilities of exploring oil reserves that nobody thought existed. There were military implications too, as the same ‘technology’ could pinpoint enemy submarines and underground weapons depots. Bonassoli and de Villegas were advanced 400 million French francs to carry on their research.

By 1979 this sum had swollen to a billion francs allowing the ‘scientists’ to lease a Boeing 707 and equip it with their mind-boggling device.

The deal was highly classified and would have remained so, had not le Canard revealed the swindle in its issue of Dec 21, 1983. The term used in the headline, ‘sniffer aircraft’ proved to be an immediate hit and was used many a time during heated parliamentary debates. Bonassoli and de Villegas could escape prosecution as they returned some of the money to Elf, which did not press charges. Their trick, as revealed by le Canard, was simple. Insert a piece of imaginatively prepared transparent plastic sheet in the apparatus that projected images of territories filmed by the ‘supersensitive’ cameras of the aircraft. Elf had squandered a further 100 million francs trying to drill oil in an area ‘detected’ in South Africa.

Not all the scoops by le Canard proved to be glorious though. Pierre Bérégovoy who was the last prime minister of the Socialist president François Mitterrand was a simple man. Son of a Russian immigrant, he had spent most of his early years as a poor factory worker. A long career in trade unionism brought him into politics, then to the Socialist party. Mitterrand appointed him prime minister in 1992.

Having lived all his youth in modest houses, in middle life Bérégovoy succumbed to the temptation of buying a respectable apartment. An interest-free loan for one million French francs was obtained and he moved into a 100 square metre flat in the chic 16th arrondissement in Paris.

By the time the story hit the front page of le Canard in Feb 1993, Bérégovoy had returned nearly half of the loan. He had committed no crime; still he was deeply hurt by the way he had remained in the headlines despite his resignation. This relentless fighter for the workers’ causes shot himself in the head on Labour Day, May 1, 1993.

A close friend who attended the funeral remarked: “If I were a journalist I’d have some trouble trying to sleep tonight!”

The writer is a journalist based in Paris.

The stalled human development

By Zafar Mehdi

THE government’s economic policies have failed to improve the socio-economic conditions of the poor. Despite an average annual growth rate in the GDP of seven per cent in the last five years (2002-2007), no trickle down effect is discernible in the economic conditions of lower income groups.

The structural adjustment programmes and economic reforms have been unable to create favourable conditions for the equitable distribution of resources. At the same time the IMF and World Bank sponsored reforms to create a free market model have failed to create true competition in Pakistan.

The Human Development Index (HDI) is the best measure for human progress because it incorporates all social and economic indicators. The current Human Development Report (HDR)-2006 has revealed the impact of the economic public policies on the masses. Pakistan’s rank in the HDI in last three years has been almost stagnant at 135, 134 and 136.

The public expenditure on health as a percentage of GDP is the lowest in the list of the 177 countries. On average Pakistan spent only 0.4 per cent of its GDP on health and the current budget has allocated less than one per cent on health. This is a clear demonstration of the government’s neglectful attitude towards the health sector.

The last five years have been the worst for 90 million people, that is, 56.25 per cent of the total population and their per capita income is $450 or below as the double digit food inflation did not permit the poor masses to consume necessary proteins, vitamins, carbohydrates, minerals and calcium. This made an impact on the people’s health who suffered from malnourishment that has been a major problem since the 1990s; the HDR confirms that 24 per cent of the population is undernourished.

South Asia is home to 40 per cent of the world’s absolute poor. According to one estimate 135-190 million people, 45 per cent, of the world’s chronic poor live in South Asia. Three-fourth of these are in India while the remaining are in Bangladesh and Pakistan.

Chronic poverty is a permanent feature in the rural regions of Pakistan. The worst form of poverty is the one that is often passed on from parents to children because the sufferers do not have access to education, health, nutrition and civic facilities that are necessary to help a person escape the vicious circle of poverty.

The government claims that it has spent Rs1.441tn on poverty reduction and employment generation but 24 per cent of the population still lives below the national poverty line, estimated to be Rs878.64 per month per adult rather than Rs1800 per month (the international standard). The unemployment rate is 6.20 per cent while in 1990 around one million people were unemployed and unemployment swelled to around 3.5 million in the year 2003-2004.

Seventy-four per cent of the population lives on or below two dollar per day in Pakistan. The remaining 26 per cent consists of low, middle and high-income groups. One interpretation of this huge gap in income is that wealth is concentrated in the hands of a small minority (26 per cent) while the majority (74 per cent) is deprived of adequate resources and opportunities for socio-economic development.

The poverty alleviation programmes in South Asia have not been successful in achieving their goals. The annual reduction in absolute poor in 1981- 2004 in South Asia was merely 0.40 per cent while in East Asia and Middle East it is 6.06 per cent and 2.76 per cent respectively.

In terms of the Poverty of Opportunity Index (POPI) Pakistan’s performance is not satisfactory at all in creating better health and educational opportunities and reducing income inequalities. There are 46 developing countries in POPI analysis and Pakistan’s rank is 27.

The students’ enrolment in primary, secondary and tertiary level is 40 per cent and it stands at 15 from the bottom of the list of 177 countries. The school drop out rate is also very high due to poverty in rural and urban regions. The literacy rate is 55 per cent as per the official standard however it is far less in case of using the International standard.

Around fifty per cent of the labour force is illiterate and its skills are deficient and this has resulted in lower labour productivity. According to the International Labour Organisation, the average labour productivity in Pakistan was merely 2.90 per cent between 1980 and 2005 and is higher in East Asia.

On average the government has allocated only 2.30 per cent of the GDP for education in the last few years. In terms of public expenditure on education, Pakistan occupies the 17th lowest position among 177 countries. In the current budget the education sector has got four per cent of GDP but the access to education is still questionable because of an insufficient educational infrastructure and the feudal norms that do not encourage spread of education in non-feudal communities in rural areas.

Inflation in Pakistan was highest in the SAARC region during1987-1997. The years 2006 and 2007 are the worst in terms of double-digit inflation with respect to food and non-food items. The State Bank’s tight monitory policy has been completely unsuccessful in reducing price hikes especially on wheat flour, oil, ghee, pulses, rice, egg, and sugar.

The share of rent is 23.30 per cent in the non-food basket and it recorded an inflation rate of 10 per cent in last year so the cost of living has increased tremendously.

The inflation in pharmaceuticals, fees of medical services and doctors has been rising. For instance, heart surgery costs Rs300, 000 in government hospitals and at private hospitals it ranges from Rs400, 000 to Rs1000, 000.

The current budget has increased minimum wages from Rs4000 to Rs4600 rupees per month and the pension of some specific groups has also increased. The idea of fixing minimum wages is to protect the ‘working poor’ from price rises but the increase of only Rs600 per month is insufficient to nullify the impact of inflation.

According to Labour Force Survey, the formal sector is 30 per cent of the total labour force; the minimum wage rule is only applicable to just 10 per cent of the formal sector while the remaining 90 per cent is not the domain of labour and minimum wage laws.

The contract labour system is exploitative but it is dominant in local and multinational corporations because there is no legal binding on employers to provide all benefits like social security, provident fund, medical and insurance facility to labour.

The gloomy picture of our social and economic indicators are a clear manifestation of the pattern of our economic policies that are pro-rich. They offer ample opportunities for ‘wealth concentration’ to the affluent while the poor have been marginalised in human development. If our HDI ranking has to improve, the policy makers must re-evaluate the reforms and priorities they are pursuing.

The writer is a research analyst and teaches management sciences at the Institute of Cost and Management Accountants of Pakistan.


Defying logic and reason

By Mir Mohammad Ali Talpur

MULLAH Naseeruddin, the sardonic sage, once decided that he could make his donkey survive without fodder because it was proving expensive and troublesome. In spite of objections he began reducing the fodder daily by a fistful. This continued for quite some time until one day a dejected Mullah told people that the foolish donkey died just as it was getting used to living without fodder.

He said had it survived one more day without the last fistful it would have got used to living without food and he would have been spared a lot of trouble and expense.

Successive Pakistani governments have devotedly followed Mullah Naseeruddin’s theory. It seems they believe that if food prices gradually go beyond the purchasing power of people they too like the Mullah’s donkey will learn to survive without nourishment. They are oblivious to the catastrophic consequences of their policies. Prices have steadily risen while real incomes have fallen sharply due to overall inflation and the rising cost of services and utilities. The lower and fringe classes were barely surviving anyway but in the nine years that this government has ruled the roost, prices of essentials have tripled and this has now broken the back of the middle class as well. The flour crisis has hit the country like a magnitude 10 earthquake on the economic Richter scale and the expected increase in POL prices will be a devastating tsunami for the people.

Ominously ‘food poverty’ has now reached the rural areas where it was unheard of before and the centuries-old cushion of helping out each other is no longer working. The old buffers are breaking down under the consistent and sustained assault of distorted government policies. This has been aggravated by exorbitantly priced agricultural inputs and successive crop failures. Once the social fabric unravels in the rural areas the resulting chaos may prove to be the last nail in the coffin.

Slowly and inexorably the prices of commodities are going beyond the reach of the majority of people. A few statistics will help explain the acuteness of the food inflation problem. Figures comparing the prices of some essentials in 1999 with those of 2007 are self-explanatory. The price of a 2.5 litre Dalda ghee tin rose from Rs173 to Rs275, a 59 per cent increase, while loose-ghee prices skyrocketed by 127 per cent from Rs40 to Rs91. Significantly, only the poor use loose ghee.Fresh milk rose from Rs22 to Rs34, a 54 per cent rise. Irri-6 rice jumped from Rs12 per kg to Rs24 in 2007 and is now selling at Rs26. Beef with bone registered a 166 per cent rise from Rs60 to Rs160 while the boneless variety shot up by 186 per cent from Rs70 to Rs200. Again beef is consumed mostly by those who can’t afford any better and the way cattle are slaughtered and transported is not for the weak-hearted to know. In Hyderabad I have on many occasions seen stray dogs biting off pieces of meat from the carts it is transported in.

Sugar prices rose by 58 per cent over the last eight years without a corresponding increase in sugar-cane prices. Lentil forms the mainstay of poor people’s diet and all types registered a significant increase in price. In the early sixties a friend used to say ‘but for daal there would be a revolution in Pakistan’ because it was sustaining the stomachs of the poor. Now it too is getting beyond the reach of the poorest.

One is forced to wonder if the government is really short of funds. The facts prove otherwise but policymakers refuse to consider the problems of the people as worthy of their attention. According to a State Bank report the government borrowed a staggering $15bn-plus over the last four years as the country’s total debt and liabilities surged to the $40bn mark. Our rulers need these colossal amounts to meet the demands of their luxurious and wasteful lifestyles.

In the period that prices of essentials tripled for the people, the total cost of running inefficient state institutions rose four-fold. We are not talking peanuts here. If these funds were put to better use like research and development in the agricultural, medical, education and social sectors, many of the problems faced by the country could be eradicated. Instead the rulers choose to spend the hard-earned money of the people, and foreign largesse, on themselves.

The expenses at President House rose from Rs75m in 1999 to Rs309m now, on the PM from Rs98m to Rs367m, on the National Assembly from Rs250m to Rs1, 006m and on the Senate from Rs111m to Rs577m. The icing on the cake is that the veritable army of incompetent, bumbling and at times positively rude ministers, advisers and special assistants now costs Rs155m while seven years ago Rs24m was enough for this contingent’s upkeep. In 2004 Mr Jamali took 29 persons for Umra at a cost of Rs16.7m, Chaudhry sahib’s 134-person entourage dipped into the exchequer to the tune of Rs15.23m while Mr Aziz took along 49 persons on a trip that cost us Rs11.12m. How much of a dent the pilgrimage undertaken by the new caretaker PM and his entourage put in the public pocket is not yet known. It needs to be asked if sins can be washed away by performing Haj and Umra at the taxpayers’ expense.

A report in this paper on Oct 23, 2007 said, ‘Government spends Rs65m on overseas treatment of 18 bigwigs’ and ‘that too in a country where the public per capita health expenditure is a measly Rs360’. It adds that MNA Kunwar Khalid Yunus’s treatment in the UK cost Rs4.5m while Sher Afgan’s cure accounted for $50,000. I ask the readers to kindly visit government hospitals where the conditions are no better than those found in abattoirs.

Can one expect the governments here to change and work towards the welfare of the people? I suppose not because their warped and misplaced priorities are aimed only at self-aggrandisement and perpetuation of their rule.

The people have never been their priority and never will be because that entails sacrifice on their part. They relentlessly pursue policies which are unquestionably anti-people and defy the logic and reason that govern the laws of governance.

It is said Mullah Naseeruddin was told one day that his mother-in-law had drowned. He rushed to the river and asked to be shown the spot where she had drowned. He then started walking upstream. Surprised, his friends said it would be better if they went downstream. He replied, “You probably don’t know the lady, she acted obsessively differently from normal people. So I am certain we will find her body somewhere upstream.”

Our rulers are devoted disciples of Mullah Naseeruddin’s mother-in law and will never do what common sense and circumstances demand of them.

Eliminating child labour

By Hafizur Rahman

THE other day a lady, a very sincere and dedicated social worker, described forced child labour as nothing less than slavery. She apologised for using such an odd expression, but insisted that she was not wrong in her assessment.

The wages may not mean much to these children but the fact that they are subjected to menial work when they see other children going to school and having time to play. This is bound to have a lasting impact on their minds and on their hearts, and is tantamount to slavery in many respects.

There was a time when even the most humane and sympathetic people felt no qualms in employing such kids as domestic servants. Their conscience was comforted by the self-assurance that they were treating these kids as part of their family. But nowadays, with increased awareness of social disapproval of domestic child labour they are becoming averse to the old practice. However, the practice of employing young boys in workshops and roadside eating places on a mere pittance goes on and the employers are too backward to feel bad about it.

As it is, throughout the world hundreds of thousands of children, particularly girls, are exploited when working as house maids. One is pained to see that in Pakistan hardly any politician or social reformer or religious leader feels inclined to campaign against this evil. That is the trouble with politics and social work. Those who choose to undertake this task, of course, for personal publicity do it in areas where the press and the electronic media are more interested. But child labour is a dark area; dark in the sense that the spotlight rarely falls on the volunteers who spend their time and efforts in pursuing it.

The truth is that many of those who are involved in this noble work do not see anything much wrong with little children working like grown-up adults in strange homes. This is despite the fact that now UN agencies like the International Labour Organisation (ILO) are extremely serious about the matter, though this is not an easy challenge for these bodies. Just look at what the ILO wants communities to ensure when they are engaged in campaigns against child labour. It wants these communities to spread awareness and address the root causes of exploitation of little ones, apart from the infinitely more difficult task of protection and withdrawal of children from harmful situations.

The ILO would like governments to develop time-bound measures and set specific goals to achieve results and then expose the affected children to education and skills for self-improvement. It advocates mobilisation of public support for actions to combat exploitation of children in domestic labour, especially its worst forms. And it expects governments to keep children’s rights high on their official agendas.

Which government in the Third World has time and inclination to do all this? However, the ILO has acquired unbounded patience over the long years when it has been pursuing such goals and keeps pestering governments, reminding them again and again, and seeking progress reports where there is hardly any progress. It asks about special measures taken by them and not just a rhetorical response and lip service to an unpleasant and difficult job.

I think it is appropriate to make the readers of this newspaper acquainted with at least the two ILO Conventions that are more intimately concerned with child labour. In their framework the ILO recognises three categories that must be abolished. One, all work done by children under the minimum legal age for that type of work. Two, work that endangers the health, safety and morals of the child. Three, worst forms of child labour defined as slavery, trafficking, bonded labour, forced recruitment into armed conflict, prostitution, pornography and activities such as the sale of drugs. All these are covered by Convention No. 182.

Convention No. 138 sets a minimum age of 15 years for employment, with an allowance of one year (i.e. 14 years) for developing countries. Very few of these countries however include domestic service in national minimum age provisions because of the difficulty, or rather impossibility, of enforcing it in private homes. And studies show that children enter domestic service when they are very young, mostly between 12 and 14. As an immediate step the ILO expects countries to prevent the employment of children under the minimum age and to gradually withdraw those who are under-age. Again, a Herculean task because of the extremely widespread nature of the problem.

Readers must pardon this scribe for being pessimistic about the ability of governments to do anything positive in this respect. I am not cynical by nature, but let us look at a hypothetical situation. Suppose the government actually succeeds in preventing small children from being employed in domestic labour, but can you visualise it withdrawing them from their jobs? Withdraw to where, and what to do with them when they are withdrawn?

So while I am all in favour of the ILO being strict in enforcing these Conventions, I am not optimistic about our government’s ability to expose these children to education and to skills that can enable them to acquire self-respect and self-reliance. That is why I believe that the campaign against child labour in homes should be run by society. In this connection I will like to make a positive suggestion. I know that private social welfare agencies do not have the clout to mobilise people against this evil. So this work must be taken up by various political parties.

If the political parties can have a serious showdown with the government on constitutional matters, why can’t they persuade themselves to be equally serious about helping to eradicate child labour from homes? Or aren’t they interested in the future of these small children who remain devoid of education which we, as Muslims, believe to be a basic right of every man, woman and child? I am sure that with the kind of popularity and influence they have, they can be very helpful in this regard.

© DAWN Group of Newspapers, 2008



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