DAWN - Opinion; December 24, 2008

December 24, 2008

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Fading dream of social justice

By Zubeida Mustafa


IT wasn’t such a long time ago when a simple, soft-spoken man dressed in khaddar wearing dark-rimmed glasses used to be a familiar figure in Dawn’s office.

He would drop by for a chat to tell us about his social engineering experiments he was undertaking in Orangi, once described as Asia’s largest slum. Whether it was the drainage scheme, the school programme or the health plan he was dilating on excitedly, his zeal was always infectious. It compelled you to visit his projects to learn about them.

Now that Dr Akhtar Hameed Khan is no more — he died in October 1999 — I often wonder had he been around today what the internationally renowned social scientist would have said about the vanishing norms of social justice in our society. Hence it came as no surprise that the Ninth Dr Akhtar Hameed Khan Forum organised last Saturday by OPP-RTI focused on the issue of social justice.

This came at a time when the ugly forces of capitalism and the free market are gaining strength. The fact is that the market may be freer today but it actually restricts the options of the poor whose numbers are growing rapidly. According to the Islamabad-based Centre for Research and Security Studies, 49 per cent of Pakistanis fall below the absolute poverty line.

And the poor were Dr Akhtar Hameed Khan’s constituency. He was their guide, philosopher and friend. In order to see life through their prism he had given up his life of power and authority as an ICS officer in the 1940s to work as a labourer and blacksmith for sometime. Hence the theme of Saturday’s forum, social justice, was very pertinent and instructive for the community workers from far and near who had gathered for the moot.

Envisaging equal opportunities and equitable distribution of advantages, as pointed out by Dr Haroon Ahmed, a leading psychiatrist and the keynote speaker that morning, the concept of social justice seeks the realisation of every individual’s full potential. This is society’s responsibility. But with the role of the state in recession and globalisation having robbed the developing countries of their choices, there is little likelihood of the government intervening in favour of its citizens.

Which sectors but education and healthcare make the greatest impact on a person’s ability to realise his full potential? Dr Fouzia Qureshi, a paediatrician who has also worked in community health, succinctly brought out the close link between health and every aspect of human life. Disease and poverty, disease and education, disease and employment — you name it and she would be able to tell you how a person’s potential is restricted just because he is ill and has no access to affordable healthcare which should have been his birthright anyway. Dr Qureshi quoted statistics to show that of the people who fell ill more were poor, illiterate and from the lower strata. Conversely those who fell ill did badly in school and in their jobs.

Isn’t there a method by which the depressed classes could uplift themselves and come out of the indignity of dependence and improve the quality of their life? There was a time when a determined young man with a dream could go to the ends of the earth to gain knowledge that landed him a respectable job. Thereafter it was easy sailing for he could work his way up. Stories of ‘from rags to riches’ were quite common. No more today. Education which alone can open doors to new avenues has become virtually a closed shop. If you are rich and have the right connections — and the right parentage — you can gain entry into the best of educational institutions quite effortlessly. Next, with the help of an impressive degree, that doesn’t really guarantee that you have learnt anything, you can get a fantastic job for the asking.

Merit doesn’t come into the picture. Social standing does. That is why Nadia, my domestic help’s nine-year-old daughter, who has the mind of a genius, may never realise her full potential. Social justice does not form the underpinning of our society. And since good education for each and every child is not recognised as a fundamental right — regardless of what the constitution or the International Convention on the Rights of the Child, which Pakistan signed and ratified, say — Nadia may never be able to get the education she can lay claim to. She is lucky not to be one of the 400,000 children — most of them girls — of her age who are not even enrolled in school.

After being denied good education will she ever be able to get a job that fetches her enough money to allow her to leave behind the poverty she has lived with since the day she was born? Thus society will continue to be neatly divided between the rich and the poor, each living in his own separate world with a wide gulf dividing the two. They meet on the fringes because they still need each other — one for the cheap labour it provides and the other for the charity it doles out.

It is a pity that education which should have helped bridge this gulf has only deepened it. The system is so skewed that a small elite class enjoys all the privileges one can dream of. It uses its advantages to create an exclusive system that continues to benefit a small group of beneficiaries while keeping the ‘others’ out of it. The system perpetuates social injustice in education that helps perpetuate injustice in employment and health. Thus poverty is never eliminated and the vicious cycle continues.

Dr Akhtar Hameed Khan spoke of mobilising the people. He also believed that the government has to be mobilised as well. He spoke of the people’s partnership with the government. It is here that the crunch comes. So far the link with the government has not proved to be strong enough. The question to be asked is: can the commitment be created in the government to strengthen its partnership with the people?

zubeidam@gmail.com

No end to energy crisis

By Dr M. Asif


WITH its immense socio-economic ramifications, the prevalent energy crisis has become a critical issue for Pakistan. In December once again it has turned acute.

It is not only preventing people from carrying on with their daily routine, it is also depriving many of their livelihoods. Having paid all bills, conscientious citizens find the poor quality of such essential services as the steady supply of power a violation of their fundamental civic rights.

If appropriate measures are not taken by the relevant authorities on an immediate basis, the situation may turn nasty as it did some months ago when there were regular demonstrations against power utilities and attacks on their offices. In some cases clashes ensued between the demonstrators and law-enforcement personnel while many refused to pay their electricity bills. Such ‘civil disobedience’ does not bode well for the state of law and order in the country.

Although the wider energy crisis, particularly the shortfall of electricity, has been gifted by the last regime, the current office-bearers have to face the consequences. Instead of blaming the current troubles on past rulers, rational solutions should be found and pursued on a war footing so that matters do not get out of control.

Ideally, there should be a three-pronged approach. Firstly, power generation capacity enhancement should be sought through value-engineered options; secondly, the generation capacity in place must run at optimum level; and, thirdly, there should be an effective energy conservation programme. In terms of an increase in the installed capacity there is not much the government can do on an immediate basis. Nevertheless, work should proceed to put in place secure, cost-effective and sustainable power-generation projects.

As part of the immediate remedial measures, the greatest opportunity lies in the optimum use of the available energy through effective conservation practices and tactical load management. For this purpose it is imperative to win wider public support. Policy gurus and decision-makers must win the trust of the people for this one — easier said than done. They have to come out of their lavish offices and talk to all stakeholders of society and show solidarity with those at the receiving end of the crisis.

The industrial sector is crucial to the load-management programme. It must be supplied with the required amounts of electricity/gas without any disruption so that the national economy does not suffer as it has been from long periods of inactivity. Meaningful energy conservation programmes need to be designed and implemented to ensure that every unit of the available energy be it electricity or gas goes into productive use. Again, this requires a national effort in which every citizen must revise his or her energy usage pattern, and the only way to bring this about is to win public confidence through more action and less words on the part of the government.

Media reports suggest that the sudden jump in the electricity shortfall during October was due to the fact that quite a few of the thermal power plants were not running at their optimum level for various reasons. These included fuel supply issues, the poor maintenance and consequent breakdown of operating infrastructure and, of course, few funds owing to outstanding charges. It should be obvious that such a situation can be easily avoided as long as there is commitment and resolution to make the optimal use of power and at the same time not allowing it to be wasted. Moves like increasing electricity and gas rates, despite the fact that the people’s patience is already being tested to the limits by the relentless crisis as well as soaring inflation, are not going to be of any help, particularly when the average citizen is aware that oil prices in the international market are following a downward trajectory.

Public order is not altogether peripheral to the subject. It is important to spread awareness among the people that they will be achieving nothing by attacking the offices and infrastructure of the Water and Power Development Authority (Wapda) and the Karachi Electric Supply Company Ltd since these departments are not primarily responsible for the crisis, and are, after all, national assets. In fact, senior Wapda officials insist that their department had issued timely warnings of the looming crisis to the previous regime. However, no attention was paid. It is noteworthy that when it comes to decision-making on the enhancement of electricity generation through the installation of new power plants the authority does not lie in Wapda’s but in the government’s domain.

However, the power utilities cannot be exonerated altogether. Both Wapda and the KESC must accept responsibility for their failures. One of their major weaknesses is the huge transmission and distribution (T&D) losses which actually are theft losses. For Wapda, these losses are reported to be 20 per cent at the country level with many areas experiencing 30 per cent in losses.

The situation in areas where KESC is providing services is even worse. Losses go up to 40 per cent as indicated by the department itself. In order to truly address the T&D losses, system loopholes, such as corruption, nepotism, political influence and the kunda culture, need to be removed. Ironically, when corrupt elements obtain electricity through questionable means, probably taking advantage of the T&D losses, they exploit it to the full. For instance, if they were to run air conditioners for four to five hours a day while paying the standard rate, they would now run it almost round the clock. The two departments, particularly the KESC, cannot progress unless such losses are sorted out. It is simply a matter of implementing the writ of government.

Other mismanagement issues such as over-billing and untimely load-shedding are like rubbing salt into the people’s wounds. They need to be instantly addressed. Wapda and the KESC should stop torturing the people by orchestrating load-shedding irregularly and abruptly. These departments should come up with a sensibly designed schedule so that people can make the appropriate arrangements at home and at the workplace so that there is minimal disruption in their routine during the hours without electricity.

In order to address the liquidity crunch, the power utilities should try curtailing the T&D losses rather than shifting the burden on to the customers through frequent jumps in tariff. The concerned authorities can also help in recovering the huge sums in outstanding charges that are owed to the power utilities by various organisations and individuals.

The writer is a lecturer in renewable energy at the Glasgow Caledonian University, UK.

dr.m.asif@gmail.com

Make them pay more

By Duncan Campbell


THE panto season is under way, and bankers are, perhaps predictably, cast as the villains in some shows. Are we just picking on chaps when they’re down, or is it fair to portray the banking classes as a new type of scoundrel?

A few weeks ago, I bumped into someone I had last seen on a robbery charge a quarter of a century ago. We chatted, and I asked what had become of his young sons. He chuckled. They had gone into the City of London, the UK’s financial hub, and made far more money than their criminal dad ever did.

The fortunes made in the City and the subsequent collapse have many echoes in the criminal world. Armed robbers enjoyed their heyday in the 70s, thanks to a combination of unsophisticated security in banks, a corrupt detective branch in Scotland Yard and a code of criminal conduct that eschewed informing. When all those three factors altered, many criminals looked for other, safer ways to make money. One popular scam was the long firm fraud. It works thus: you set up a business in a warehouse using a bogus name, you order goods and pay on time; repeat, for a much larger number of goods and pay again on time; repeat for a much, much larger amount and disappear.

In many ways, some of our financial institutions have in effect been carrying out a fantastically sophisticated long firm fraud, although that may not have been their intention at the outset. They asked people to give them their money, they paid out on time; they asked for more, and paid out again; then they asked for even more — and announced that they had nothing left.

The big difference, of course, is that the dodgy warehouse version of this operation is illegal, while the City version, involving supposedly venerable institutions, is legal.

Years ago one of the regular sights on Oxford Street, one of London’s main shopping streets, was a handful of shifty-looking men and a cardboard box. They were engaged in the three-card trick, or “find the lady”: a queen and two other cards would be placed face up on top of the box, turned over and shuffled around; the dealer would then invite bets from the public as to which was the queen. From the watching group a plant would emerge. When the dealer was supposedly not watching, he would bend over the edge of the queen card and bet on it. He would win, and generously tip off a member of the public on this fail-safe method of winning. The punter would foolishly place a bet and when the card with the bent edge was turned up, it would no longer be a Queen but a deuce.Here in the UK, it is 45 years now since the great train robbery. Here were a group of criminals robbing one of the country’s venerable institutions, the Royal Mail. When they were caught, they had to be punished severely. In fact, one of the robbers — Ronnie Biggs — is still in prison, aged 79, and unable to communicate except by pointing at letters on a laminated sheet. Why he is not released on compassionate grounds is one of the many wonders of the British justice system.

But the point is this: an example was made of Biggs and his fellow robbers because they had caused such damage to an institution on which people relied. No one is suggesting that the chaps at the top of our collapsed financial institutions, who have been rewarding themselves so lavishly for so long, should join Ronnie in a prison cell; well, not many people are. But here’s a thought: why not set a government department the rewarding task of tracing the assets of the people whose irresponsibility and personal greed led to the collapse of the institutions where money was thought to be safe?

If, say, all assets in excess of what could be accumulated from a $1m annual salary and $1m annual bonus, were confiscated from those involved in the collapsed institutions and placed back in the public purse, would that not have an immediate beneficial effect on the economy? And would it not act, just like those 30-year sentences, as a wonderful reminder about how to behave?

As the judges like to say when dispatching a miscreant to the cells: “Society needs a rest from this kind of behaviour — take him away.”

— The Guardian, London