DAWN - Opinion; January 26, 2008

26 Jan 2008

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No need to fear dissent

By Afiya Shehrbano


STUCK in mythology, symbolism and romantic nostalgia, we seem to continuously look for liberation through these ethereal and allegorical paths. This unwillingness to break out of oppressive historical, religious and political moulds then allows the very real state to control and deny people their agency.

For eight years now, marginalised political dissent has been building a critical momentum through a combination of subversive writings, individual and collective protest, judicial activism, street power and other methods of challenging an anti-people, non-democratic state.

Yet when it comes to converting the power of these people into a meaningful expression of democratic desires, we resort to playing by the rules even if those are unfair, illegitimate and formulated by a dictatorial regime.

Why do we fear dissent and anarchy when we have already lived and experienced an illegal and bloody history for most of our 60 years? Why do we insist on unity, faith and discipline when we know that all three nouns don’t apply and perhaps shouldn’t anymore? Economically we have experienced the most speculative period under the Wizard of US and never questioned the lack of ‘unity’ or ‘discipline’ of a free-wheeling economy, let alone the ‘faith’ in the sinking US dollar we continue to worship.

We cannot question the lack of ‘unified’ command within the army which is splitting at the seams with regard to religious identity and a confusion of loyalty between national or universal jihad.

We also refuse to disengage and move beyond the symbolic value of patriarchal norms and insist on accepting the ‘unifying’ force of entrenched feudal politics, and rationalise it by giving it a different name. The trouble with ‘unity, faith and discipline’ is that it does not recognise the reality of class difference; nor tolerates abstinence from faith; and glosses over the potential of ethnic anarchy.

This spurious nationalism instead allows us a choice of mosques within the community but not of marriage amongst its members; of different political parties but not of the leadership within them; of ‘progressive’ thinking but not of criticism emerging from it because that would break the unity, question the faith and allow disorder. Hence, there can never be change.

So we mimic and duplicate the nationalist discourse in the name of ‘rule of law’, without questioning whose rule and which law. We get stuck in choosing sides rather than defining them. Funnily enough, we also seem prepared to give dictators and oppressive leaders a chance, depending on which side of the faith or ideology they personally represent. Thus the Jamaat-i-Islami breathed life into Gen Zia’s dictatorial rule and is directly responsible for the repercussions that those years yield today and in the future. It doesn’t matter how much the religious parties reinvent themselves, their opportunist role in rooting dictatorship is legendary now.

But unfortunately, so is the liberal class guilty of this sin. By choosing to play the ‘insider’ game, they too trusted Gen Musharraf’s anti-terrorist and pro-capitalist governance. That both generals exploited faith and a ruthless disciplinary method of preventing citizens from expressing dissent, as well as divisionary politics that privileged one class over the rest, is a burden that will be shared by those who supported them in any form.

Fear of losing privilege or compromising for an opportunity to gain it, is despicable but understandable. The other side of the equation, that of agency as a quality that is a potential tool for liberating us from a controlled and vicious cycle, is one we undermine repeatedly. The possibility of our own power, the fear our numbers instil even when it is limited to 10 people holding a peaceful vigil outside a deposed judge’s residence, demonstrates how agency can invert power relations.

Consequentially, the state can fear our intervention rather than the other way around. It is the only means and only moment when we can exert and influence change directly rather than seeking saviours, dealers or misadventurists. So we need to pursue our own brand of liberation. For now we have identified this to lie in the restoration of the Nov 2 judiciary, a restored 1973 Constitution and the removal of a president who was instituted through coercive and therefore unlawful means.

These are not ends, but the means that will tip the balance of power towards the people and which will give us the confidence to play a role in a democratic process in the future. Democracy is not about vengeance through the ballot alone, but by the process that gets us there.

For those who would question the ‘rejectionism’ that is implicit in such demands, we need to return the query unapologetically; why not put the energy spent on converting and saving a crumbling edifice and failed civil-military experiment instead into a redefined, independently representative and self-imaginative one? It is not that those seeking these demands are deniers of any reality. In fact, these arise from a recognition of the agency of all those who were pitted in a struggle against an oppressive state, regardless of their vision or ideology.

While we may not agree with the retrogressive tribal agenda of those who are fighting the state, we also recognise the failure of understanding, vision or tactics of the state in overcoming these forces. We understand that the nature of transition is merely an eyewash that gives cover to a state grasping for legitimacy and which has only created unprecedented mistrust between the state and the people.

If we continue to adhere to the musical chair power arrangements that dominated 2007 we can expect to be in a permanent state of transition. In weighing all the options, the institutions worth saving and protecting should not be in the interest of individual power or personal lifestyle liberties — instead, these must represent the process by which people’s agency is recognised.

This means acknowledging their participation, interventions and demands much, much before they get to the ballot. There are legitimate means outside and in the margins of the power game that we should not fear to use. We do not need to hope that army generals exert self-restraint from political intervention in the future. Instead, we should make it our demand by demonstrating that we can in fact symbolically, practically and democratically remove unlawful leadership now — even without the assistance of compromised parties.

Only those institutions and leadership that have proven to be conducive to the people’s agency should be supported — at the moment, these are only the pre-Nov 3 judiciary, deposed judges and lawyers who stand against the PCO.

afiyazia@yahoo.com

Power to the people

By Omar Azfar


OUT of the mists of history emerged an institution giving both God and man mastery over politics: the election by lot of politicians. In ancient Greece, legislators, magistrates and other officials were often selected by lottery.

It is unclear whether the method was chosen to empower God through divine manipulation of the lottery or man through the laws of probability that would lead to the selection of average citizens. The beauty of this method is that it empowers God if one believes God has such a power and man if one believes that such a power belongs to him.

The ancients debated the virtues of democracy as compared with other forms of government. But whatever their views on whether democracy was the ideal form of government, they all agreed that democracy could only result from selection by lottery. Elections by contrast led to aristocracy (the rule of the enlightened few) if you were lucky and oligarchy (the rule of the venal few) if you weren’t.

Plato preferred rule by a lone, unelected philosopher king. Aristotle preferred elections, which he thought would often produce aristocracy, to democracy; but even he felt that elections might sometimes result in oligarchy. Herodotus thought elections were far more likely to result in corrupt oligarchies and advocated selection by lot.

The simplest argument for random selection is that the process of electoral selection leads to corruption. This is partly because it is costly, and partly because it attracts the venal and the greedy. Selection by lot in contrast is costless for the candidate (and much less costly for the state). Ensuring no rigging is quite feasible (though not trivial) for election by lot — and is virtually impossible in actual elections (though rigging can be minimised by well-targeted activism).

The main argument for elections over random selection is that it attracts the talented and educated. The argument has a lot of strength for the choice of executive, but much less for legislators. In Pakistan we have a Patrician Senate, and a popularly elected National Assembly. This proposal calls for adding a third randomly selected ‘People’s Chamber’ with some limited powers.

What would the People’s Chamber look like? The chamber would consist of 500 people randomly selected from electoral rolls every year who would be asked to come to Islamabad and be given a decent but not extravagant wage. The distribution of people in the chamber would automatically look more like the distribution of the actual population. For example, approximately half would be women. Groups like Sindhi peasants would be represented by themselves instead of their landlords. While husbands and landlords would exert influence over wives and peasants, such powers would diminish over time.

Every year, these 500 people will return to their former lives and describe life in the chamber to their villages and neighbourhoods. The offering of monetary inducements in any form to members of such a chamber would be declared illegal, and members of the chamber would be asked to declare in private to an ethics committee any attempt at such inducement.

Some members would no doubt still be offered and accept bribes, but without the cost of running an election the fig leaf of campaign contributions would be removed. The chamber should be given a staff of lawyers, accountants and other specialists to consult with and assist members in investigations. There would be a requirement that this chamber gets an hour of airtime every week on TV channels.

Arguments against such a chamber rely on specific powers that one may not want to allow it. For instance, one could sensibly argue that we don’t want it to set monetary policy because setting interest rates is a technically complicated question that a poorly educated chamber is not well-equipped to answer. But there are three powers that if given to the People’s Chamber might lead to less corruption and better governance: the power to publicly question the executive; the power to send laws back for re-examination; and the power to investigate politicians.The chamber would have the power to call on either the prime minister, the president or a minister for question time.

The hour would be devoted to questions from the chamber, with 10 minutes given to the prime minister or president asking the chamber to discuss and vote on up to three issues before their next meeting. It is important that the transmission be live if the process is to contain corruption, because the juicy bits would be edited out otherwise. Such a requirement would increase the political cost of corruption, and eventually reduce it.

Since the other chambers would also have to vote on the issues, giving the People’s Chamber the power to propose laws would hardly be opening the door for too much populism. Laws could be proposed as they currently are or via the People’s Chamber. But if a law was proposed via the People’s Chamber, it would have a certain momentum, and legislators may find it a little difficult to vote against the will of the people — unless they could make a sound argument against it.

Should all laws have to pass a vote in this chamber? Eventually this may be a good idea, but it might be a lot to get used to early on. Initially the chamber might only be given the power to ask for a reconsideration of any law. If asked to reconsider, legislators may have to explain why they are voting against the people’s will. So, some laws may not pass the second reading in the Assembly or Senate, especially if the People’s Chamber acquires popular legitimacy.

Another power that should be given to the People’s Chamber is that of investigating politicians and other government officials. Here, a majority vote needn’t be required. Rather, each member should be allowed to identify government officials he/she wants investigated, thus increasing the cost of corruption amongst public officials.

And, who will guard the guardians? Members of the chamber would know they themselves may become the target of an investigation either by another member of the current chamber or by the new chamber selected the following year. In addition there should be a requirement for a regular nationwide survey to assess whether the chamber’s votes were at odds with the public’s wishes.

Why would the establishment allow the creation of such a chamber? Well, they probably wouldn’t, despite all their talk of the common man. But a great advantage of the idea is that it can be adapted so that it can just be started by civil society. All it takes is a TV programme to randomly select 100 people and have them debate and vote on various issues and select various politicians to be investigated. The votes would not have legal force but they could be picked up by any parliamentarian who could propose them with the weight of popular opinion behind him. Another advantage of the show would be introducing Pakistanis to each other. How many of us have actually met ‘the common man’?

So, how about giving real power to the people by collecting them in a room, hearing what they have to say, letting them vote and giving them a voice?

The writer is associate professor of economics, City University of New York.

omarazfar68@gmail.com

Smart power options

By James Trevelyan


LAST night, I heard yet another collective groan as the lights went out in the local market. Some generators roared, some shutters closed, most silently resentful.

Pakistan has a generating capacity of 17,000 megawatts which cannot handle the demand from 160 million people — 100 watts per person is simply not enough, even if it were actually available.

Pakistan’s capacity can only be partly used because water reserves are low for hydro-electric power. Oil and gas supplies are short because of government attempts to manipulate prices to avoid further civil unrest, costing money that could be used to educate everyone about the safe and efficient energy use. And, resentful electricity users don’t pay their bills, or steal electric power, further undermining supplies to everyone else.

Load-shedding forces people to use their own generators which are small, polluting, noisy and inefficient, raising Pakistan’s demand for precious gas and imported fuel. Lack of education leads to wasteful power use with inefficient appliances. The result is that the real cost of electric power is several times higher than in advanced industrial countries, causing unnecessary poverty and social unrest.

However, there is new technology that could help prevent this misery: smart electricity meters.

The technology in today’s electricity meters is a century old: today’s meters count how many times a small electric wheel turns. They can only measure how much power has been used since the meter reading man last called. Smart meters report how much power is used and when, allowing electricity to be priced according to demand and time of use. Smart meters can provide a display to the consumer showing how much power is being used and the cost, without waiting for the bill to arrive weeks later. Smart meters, like mobile phones, don’t rely on a person to read the meter and possibly falsify the reading in return for a fee or to extort a bribe. Smart meters can detect power theft and help prevent it.

Smart meters could be used in commercial centres to provide two kinds of power. Each meter could have two outlets. One provides guaranteed 24 hour continuous power, but at a higher cost per unit than the current price, beyond a nominal power level of about 100 watts. This would be enough for a few long life bulbs. The other outlet provides cheaper power, but when load-shedding is needed, this outlet is switched off by a signal from the power utility.

Shops and businesses, even domestic consumers, could have guaranteed uninterrupted power generated efficiently. There would be no need to start up a noisy, polluting, inefficient, back-up generator.

Most businesses would soon find that paying more for guaranteed continuous power makes sense, except perhaps for certain uses like air-conditioning and water-heating. And this additional income would help utilities invest in new power-generating capacity. Smart meters can also allow the price of electricity to be varied with overall demand and time of day. Businesses with high peaks in their power demand would be charged more per unit. Power would cost more at times of peak consumption.

Charging more for high-power demand in summer would provide the much-needed financial incentive to install wind generators and solar power plants. Smart meters can do this while still providing cheap low-level power to economic users.

Pakistan’s energy crisis needs new energy resources and educated users alike. Smart meters can provide new options and provide immediate feedback to create a new generation of smarter power users in Pakistan.

Eventually, with smart meters mass produced, even poor people would be guaranteed low-cost continuous power. However, once they exceed a minimum level, they would have to pay more like everyone else.

Mobile phones have shown the people trust technology that provides good service. Mobile phones won’t work if you have run out of credit on your card so the operator is assured of payment. The user trusts the technology through experience: the card provides exactly the usage that has been paid for. Smart meters could provide the same trust and confidence for electricity users and suppliers alike. Pre-paid cards could be used to top up the smart meter.

With this technology, the dark days of load-shedding could become an amusing bedtime story told to the young by their great grandparents.

The writer is professor, Discipline Chair for Mechatronics, School of Mechanical Engineering M050, The University of Western Australia.

James.Trevelyan@uwa.edu.au

A shift to the East

Davos was chosen by Thomas Mann as the setting for The Magic Mountain; he judged it appropriate that a novel casting doubt on the endurance of western civilisation should be set in a sanatorium up a Swiss mountain. Those uncertainties have been echoed in Davos this week.

It may be the volatility on Wall Street, or simply the desire to make a sweeping argument at the bar, but executives and experts at the World Economic Forum agree: economic power is shifting from the West to the East. That is a big statement. Is it true?

In part, yes. But this big argument is a conflation of two distinct questions. One is short-term: if the US is staring down the barrel of a recession, can China and India serve as the motor of the world economy? The other is long-term: is the axis of power shifting from the West to the East? On the first argument it is doubtful whether the big Asian economies really have enough fuel in the tank to pull the rest of the world out of a slump.

Instead, most economists describe this year as being one of “decoupling”: economies in the West slow down by varying degrees while China and India keep on growing at a furious pace. China is in the middle of an investment boom, not least because of the Olympics, and a housing-market crash in a faraway country (however big the crash or the economy) is not going to stop that.

India’s private sector is also in the middle of a spending splurge. But China is hardly enjoying a consumer-spending boom. That is partly due to Beijing keeping the currency weak, which makes foreign cars and clothes dearer to the Chinese. It also reflects a habit summed up by one Beijing official at Davos this week: “The Chinese save today’s spending for tomorrow, and the Americans spend tomorrow’s saving today.”

Still, that the prospect of an Asia-led recovery is being raised at all illustrates how the axis of power is shifting. Imagine another American recession in 20 years’ time and an argument being made that Africans will surely spend enough to keep the world economy motoring.

That would require impossible levels of growth - yet that is not so far from what the new Asian giants have achieved. China and India are not yet real competitive threats to American economic might. The World Bank recently cut its estimates of the size of the Chinese and Indian economies by 40 per cent to account for how much cheaper goods and services are there compared to the west.

–– The Guardian, London



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