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DAWN - Opinion; May 26, 2008

May 26, 2008


A Pandora’s package

By Rifaat Hamid Ghani

NOT to speak of constitutional packages, generally a package is just, well, a package. Several items of varying worth are boxed together and some of the not-that-good gets by along with the more solid stuff.

An article the recipient might have chosen from the store could be left out of the package or come with slightly different specifications that make it unsatisfactory.

Pakistan, having had a 1956, 1962 and 1973 constitution (the last named having done 35 years allowing for time out in abeyance and suspension) now awaits a constitutional package. The deposed judiciary may be packed in with a broad constitutional amendment, the one making the other possible. Everyone is focusing on the judges, but what else may the contents of the package include?

For common and highly concerned Pakistanis, the package is under wraps until parliament unveils it. Perhaps there would not be enough public takers. But something happens to public representatives after they become parliamentarians. They can see the national interest or interpret the national mood rather differently from the public outside.

That parliamentary interest is a thing apart has been the trouble with democracy in Pakistan. At a point the phenomenon could also be blamed on the Eighth Amendment which gave presidents decisive powers. Yet, when Mian Nawaz Sharif obtained parliamentary consensus to revoke it, the way the government conducted its business was alarming enough to make people side with a usurping general.

Eventually, the Eighth Amendment’s lost power was reanimated courtesy the Seventeenth Amendment whose most significant provision was the one that helped out the un-retired General Musharraf as president. The Eighteenth Amendment seems to promise the general who is now retired but tripped over the constitution in transit, much the same; except that it extends personalised legal rescue service to many more.

Rumour has it that the package deems oversetting the constitution as treason. Isn’t that redundant? The 1973 Constitution was born with that provision; and the army chief who most lately usurped the functions of an elected and undoubtedly at the time highly unpopular prime minister is still playing at president devising ways and means to define the law for the rest of us.

But to focus on packaging. Oversetting is one thing, subverting (also being mentioned) another. Only the COAS commands the means to overset the constitution but any ordinary mortal may seek to subvert it. So anyone may be open to charges of subversion or abetting subversives from a vigilant ministry of the interior, defence, law, education, information...all answerable to the sovereign parliament. And that institution may no longer fear presidential monitoring as his power to dissolve parliament may be left out of the package.

That leaves judicial checks and balances. Perhaps after the constitutional package clears customs anybody supporting maverick lawyers could be termed a threat to law and order and a subversive element for national security and dealt with as such. Pemra, too, is due for a review.

Tiresomely independent media barons and journalists have often been regarded as overstepping different governments’ parameters of national security and maintenance of public order vis-à-vis the citizens’ right to know, to dissent and to freedom of speech and assembly.

We already see on the streets the repercussions of the application of law appearing to vary. A self-sanctioning refusal to abide by the law on the part of individuals pledged to uphold it is making a mockery of the concept of civic responsibility. The constitutional package is purported to circumvent the weaknesses and lacunae which allowed dictators and oligarchs to obtain endorsement from the superior courts.

But it may seat the deposed judges of the superior judiciary who practically demonstrated principled independence alongside judges expressly inducted after Nov 2, 2007, to suit General Musharraf’s preferences. If this is the transitional process it demands reorientation.

As a state Pakistan only has a history of 61 years. The federating units need sanctity in the constitutional agreement that binds. At this disturbed political juncture if the agreement is to open to amending review, wisdom demands the process be undertaken objectively and unhurriedly as a subject in itself.

The cause of the unconstitutionally deposed independent judiciary that checked and balanced executive caprice and interpreted the existing acknowledged law of the land, resisting mala fide efforts to refashion it for clearly limited political gain, is something separate. That judiciary represents the recovery of the violated principle of constitutionality. It safeguarded the rule of law already accepted and enshrined.

Unfortunately, democratically elected or otherwise, Pakistan’s legislature has often used its legislative powers in favour of vested interests and selective party gains. The deposed judiciary demonstrated why people could view it in good faith. People continue to hope the new legislature completes its transit likewise. It is too soon to be feeling that rhetoric and evasive tactics are cover for their reluctance or inability to come to grips with a non-sham democracy.

Pulsating with electoral success the PPP might well pour scorn on the suggestion of a fall from popular grace. It has a clear federal lead. Provincially, it is a strong second in Punjab and it is first in Sindh.

From within these prisms, the PPP could ask itself how it would react were an MQM-nominated governor of Sindh to make the kind of statement Punjab’s governor made after taking office about serving party interests from the vantage point of his new post. At least he was candid. The trouble is he heightened an unarticulated fear.

This may appear tangential to the subject of the deposed judiciary. But to what are people to look if the need to check and balance a freewheeling executive arm becomes more concrete? A narcissistic parliament? Cherry-picked judges? A discredited president?

Or the men he and partners in government appoint provincially as representative of the federation and the federal principle? Pakistan is lucky to have a deposed judiciary whose principled courage and legal ethic is acclaimed by the international legal fraternity. It wants it back.

Musharraf’s third coup?

By Mohammad Waseem

ASIF Zardari’s description of Pervez Musharraf as the greatest hurdle in the way of democracy has elicited a rebuttal from the latter. The president has reiterated his position as a constitutional head of state duly elected by parliament. The political circus is getting more exciting by the day.

The PPP–PML-N alliance had been teetering on the rocks for some time, allegedly because of some understanding between Musharraf and Zardari. In the new context, can we expect Zardari and Nawaz Sharif to join hands again, leaving Musharraf in the lurch? Will politics continue to move in a triangle? Will Musharraf launch another coup?

Musharraf’s first coup was launched against the civilian government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in 1999. He managed to topple the government which had retired him as COAS a few hours earlier. His second coup in the form of the emergency came on Nov 3, 2007. It was a desperate attempt to save his presidency from the much-feared verdict of the Supreme Court about the legality of his controversial election on Oct 6, 2007.

Musharraf suffered a huge setback on Feb 18 when his party PML-Q was defeated by the two mainstream parties. The coalition between the two was billed as a lasting commitment by Nawaz Sharif and Asif Zardari to stay the course for years and even generations. But that was not to be.

The president decided to stay on, against public demand that he should resign after the nation had rejected him. Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani failed to make a breakthrough in the given set of policies. The much-trumpeted 100-day agenda got bogged down in empty phrases.

There were no targets set, no goals defined and no definite outcome of administrative and policy measures promised for the honeymoon period.

This profile of weakness has characterised Gilani’s government from the beginning. The more he interacted with the establishment, the more he was struck with awe. The power and grandeur of the channels of power outside parliament were overwhelming for the prime minister. He was unable to move key persons to the top of various departments and institutes. Continuity of both policy and personnel was noted all around. Beyond merely surviving, Musharraf gave an image of thriving.

The dual leadership of Zardari and Gilani started to unravel soon. The latter’s loss of initiative in administration became obvious. PPP’s partners also felt marginalised. No effort was made to remove the PML-N’s reservations before the PPP entered into a coalition with the MQM. Asfandyar Wali Khan and Fazlur Rehman were allowed to fade away from the scene of high politics.

The government was not able to prepare credible programmes to meet the challenges of governance relating to poverty, inflation and the supply of foodstuff or to the acute shortage of electricity. There is no thrill at the end of 50 days, not is there likely to be at the end of another 50 days. The predominant impression is that nobody is in charge in Islamabad.

The loss of the prime minister has been the gain of the president. The postponement of by-elections for two months was a bombshell which shook the government. Democratic forces condemned this act. The NWFP government made a stunning announcement that it was none other than the PPP’s interior advisor who was responsible for this. The Election Commission was obliged to take back its decision in no time.

The media and political analysts interpreted this incident as a conspiracy to stop Shahbaz Sharif from becoming the chief minister of Punjab. This gap in trust between the two ruling partners widened. The new democratic set-up was understood by the media, the opposition and civil society to be a hostage in the hands of the president.

The judges’ issue has haunted the government from day one. For the PPP, it became a matter of disentangling itself from commitments made in the pre-election days and immediately after the formation of the government. Politically, rehabilitating the judges was never a bright option, given the pitched battles fought by the judges in the 1990s against elected governments.

Lawyers are fighting a battle for the judiciary. They are also leading civil society’s agenda for establishing the independence of state institutions. Their movement for the restoration of Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry and the other dismissed judges destabilised the eight-year long rule of the COAS, President Musharraf.

The announcement of the Pakistan Bar Council to start an agitation from June 10 does not portend well for the ruling set-up, which is still experiencing teething problems. The 30-day deadline and May 12 as the day for passing the resolution in the National Assembly to be followed by an executive order to reinstate the judges passed without any move forward. All this left Nawaz Sharif bruised and the lawyers alienated, the government’s announcement about moving a new constitutional package before June 10 notwithstanding.

Meanwhile, the coalition partners drifted apart, earning public ridicule. The appointment of a new governor in Punjab was perceived as a conspiracy to destabilise the PML-N government in Lahore, reflecting a policy of containment of Nawaz Sharif. Asfandyar Wali’s announcement of support for lawyers further complicated the situation. Ironically, the PML-Q offered its own ‘rescue’ policy to the PPP. The lines of alignment got blurred all around.

Is the formidable anti-establishment vote of Feb 18, 2008, fast losing its meaning? The removal of Article 58-2(b) appears an uphill task, given the lack of initiative on the part of the ruling coalition. The PPP’s package may fall short of satisfying lawyers, judges and civil society. The president’s public commitment to keep his powers to dissolve the National Assembly, along with other supra-parliamentary powers, keeps the pot boiling.

Will the PML-N assert itself once again to bring the PPP on board? Will Musharraf strike again, given that he is adept at taking arbitrary measures within or outside the constitution? Will the PPP government in Islamabad be shown the door, or will there finally be a Pakistan without its self-styled strongman?

Women in technology

By Leonie Cooper

IN 2005, Sarah Blow attended an event called Geek Dinners, a technology gathering with industry speakers, and found that she was one of only 20 women in a crowd of 150 people.

She was perturbed by the reactions to her presence. Blow is a software programmer for a medical company, and the other guests “either assumed I was in marketing or completely incompetent and that I didn’t have a clue about any of the stuff they were talking about,” she says. “I was standing next to one of my male friends, and was cut out of the conversation to the point where it was like: ‘You don’t know this stuff, this is absolutely nothing to do with you — you just sit there and look pretty.’”

The men’s conversation turned to Blow’s area of expertise, the programming language When they finished talking, Blow seized the moment. She showed them the binary watch she was wearing: “I lit it up, and they didn’t say a word; absolute silence. Then they went completely white and apologised profusely for what they’d done.

I said, ‘don’t make assumptions about people, because you never know who they are, or what they know — so whether I look like a techie or not shouldn’t matter.’ At that point they changed their attitude to all the females in the room.”

The reaction to Blow underlines the fact that women are still a significant minority in science, engineering and technology (SET). In the UK young women show huge interest and aptitude in these fields, out-performing the boys in chemistry, maths, biology, physics and technology at secondary school. But while 90 per cent of 11-16-year-old girls think technology is cool, 73 per cent would not choose it as a career because of its lack of female role models.

The knock-on effect is that only 16 per cent of UK IT and electronics workers are women, and though the Google corporation, for instance, has pledged to ensure that 25 per cent of its engineers are female (and has won awards for this initiative) such positive action is far from commonplace. According to official figures, more than 225,000 UK SET graduates are not currently working in the industry, with 50,000 not working at all. Most worryingly, since 2001, the proportion of female IT graduates entering the profession has fallen by almost half.

On the train home from that event, Blow began work on an idea to turn those figures around. A few months later she held the first London Girl Geek Dinner. The premise is simple: a regular event, with speakers and no barrier to entry — men can attend if they are invited by a woman. “I wanted women to get the chance to meet each other, as much as anything,” says Blow, “and to get that confidence that comes from knowing other women in the industry.”

She hopes that this will make participants feel more comfortable attending other general technology events, and says that the idea to allow men along was partly to be inclusive, but also so that they would realise what it was like to be in a minority.

Attracting women into technology is a big issue worldwide, which could become a disaster for business — the European Commission recently predicted a shortfall of 20 million skilled workers in the sector by 2030. An international study published in the Harvard Business Review earlier this month also found that retention rates in the industry are appalling.

While women account for 41 per cent of newly qualified technical staff, half leave the industry by their late 30s, and two thirds experience sexual harassment at work. This last problem was highlighted very publicly last year, when Kathy Sierra, a programming expert with a popular technology blog, was subjected to death threats and sexually threatening language online.

The international extent of the problem, and the eagerness to address it, became clear when Blow set up a website to advertise the dinners — she soon had women across the world contacting her, asking if they could set up their own branches. There are now groups in Australia, America, New Zealand and across the UK and Europe. Blow recently attended the Milanese Girl Geek Dinner, and found to her delight that geeks are the height of fashion in Italy.

“They had Glamour magazine down there, and that was just hilarious. In Italy the stars of the technology industry are also the stars in the local magazines.”

In London, the dinners have become so popular that participants have begun meeting once a fortnight for Girl Geek Coffee mornings. The next dinner is in June, and the biggest date on the horizon is their three-year anniversary event, to be held at Google headquarters in August.

Girl Geek Dinners isn’t the only group to encourage female SET enthusiasts. In 2004, the UK Resource Centre for Women in Science, Engineering and Technology was launched, supporting women who’d like to enter the field, and those who already have. Other groups include Equalitec, the Women’s Engineering Society, and Women into Science, Engineering and Constructing (Wise), which promotes tech-based careers in schools.

When it comes to networking, the British Computer Society has set up BCSWomen, an egroup that offers support to women working in IT, and hosts events — most recently a tour of Bletchley Park, the Buckinghamshire estate where the Enigma code was deciphered during world war two by a team of men and women. Other British groups include Know and Network, for women in IT, and Women in Technology, an online group with 3,000 members.

The guest speaker at a recent Girl Geek Dinner, Dr Sophie Kain, believes that the ultimate key to getting more women involved in the industry is to start treating science as an everyday topic of conversation. Kain graduated with the highest first class degree achieved by a woman in physics at University College, London, and also holds a PhD in quantum mechanics.

“If I went to a dinner party and somebody was talking about Pride and Prejudice,” she says, “I would nod along as if I’d read it, but if someone was talking about quantum mechanics, everybody would go, ‘what’s that? I don’t understand,’ and that would be considered perfectly reasonable. What we need to do is turn that around, and make it unreasonable for people not to know about quantum mechanics, cosmology and evolution. We need to tell interesting stories about science, because there are interesting stories, and we need to raise the profile of science on radio and in newspapers.” n

—The Guardian, London

Protecting entitlements of the poor

By Allah Nawaz Samo

“Development is a momentous engagement with freedom’s possibilities”. — Amartya Sen THE range of freedom’s possibilities that people in our country have reason to expect and value includes freedom from hunger, disease and illiteracy. They endeavour to achieve all three, without one being at the expense of the other, and by maintaining a delicate balance in the household economy.

One of the adverse effects of the current bout of inflation is the distortion it has caused in this balance in a way that education and health, where the poor and salaried middle class are concerned, are being critically compromised.

A recent estimation of the World Food Programme reveals that “middling poor, those on [two dollars] a day, are pulling children from school and cutting back on vegetables. Those on [one dollar] a day are cutting back on vegetables and one or two meals, so they can afford one bowl.”

This strategy, adopted to cope with the inadequate entitlement of food at the household level, predisposes people to an insidious process of endemic under-nutrition and deprivation.

Endemic under-nutrition is a silent killer. It is a less obvious and an insidious phenomenon compared to absolute starvation. Though it kills many more people in the long run, it does not get dramatic media attention. Women and children tend to be the worst victims of under-nutrition, as they get, due to their precarious status in the household, a smaller share of the food than what they need. They willingly allow this trend to favour the male members of their family. According to a recent Unicef report, “an estimated 423,000 children under five years of age die every year in Pakistan, and these deaths may be prevented with (among other things) good nutrition for their mothers”. Malnutrition resulting from the shockwave of inflation will enhance the number of preventable deaths.

In addition, the worst form of deprivation that the current crisis is leading to is being denied access to the right to education. The poor tend to save the family from starvation by engaging their school-age children in cheap labour. This arrangement has deteriorated to a situation in which according to the ILO, “some 3.3 million children, aged between five to14 years, are engaged in child labour”. These working children have never been enrolled or have dropped out of school before completing their elementary education.At a time, when the notion of human security relies heavily on the perception of values imparted through education, or the lack of it, this generation of deprived children deserves special focus. The state cannot afford to abandon children of lesser gods while creating models of excellence for the privileged ones. So far, elite-friendly fiscal policies have denied working space to the poor and have led to widespread dejection. This is the time to restore their confidence and encourage participation in economic and social activities.

Growth as such is not a dependable strategy for enhancing elementary well-being and capability. If it is to serve as a solid base for upgrading living conditions, Jean Dreze, the renowned economist says, “it must take a participatory form and a substantial part of resources made available by economic growth has to be devoted to the expansion of public provisioning”.

There are examples of remarkable success in health, nutrition and education provisions in difficult periods following some of the worst global disasters. During the Second World War, even though the per capita availability of food fell significantly in Britain, cases of under-nutrition declined sharply. Extreme undernourishment almost entirely disappeared.

Explaining the policy behind this achievement, J.M. Winter wrote in The Great War and the British People, “There were remarkable developments in social attitudes about ‘sharing’ — sharing of healthcare, subsidised nutrition and education, and public policies aimed at achieving that sharing.” Do we have the courage to adopt this social attitude of ‘sharing’ in this era of modernisation?

In the last two decades, countries like China, Cuba, Sri Lanka, Costa Rica and Jamaica embarked on expanded programmes of public health services, educational facilities, food subsidies, employment generation, land distribution, income supplementation and social assistance. All now have impressive records of achievements in removing malnutrition and deprivation.

It is time for us to concede that neither the Poverty Reduction Strategy nor the Second Generation of Reforms have succeeded in protecting and promoting our people’s basic entitlements to food, elementary health and education. We, therefore, need a major shift in strategy — from growth-ambitious targets to those that focus on the social and economic security of the masses. The next budget offers a good opportunity to initiate such a process of transformation.

The writer is a development professional.