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A little of everything

January 09, 2014

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PAKISTAN can easily be described as a country that has a little of almost everything that a modern, developed state can boast of and also much that an underdeveloped, backward-looking state often wishes to hide.

Spurred by the latest campaign of the International Labour Organisation (ILO), for workers’ social protection and their right to decent work, several Pakistani labour organisations have stepped up their efforts to secure social security cover for their following, including bonded labour.

Their struggle has already helped a good number of workers, several hundred of them bonded, receive social security cards that go a long way in improving their economic security. They constitute a small group of privileged workers, though not necessarily from the disadvantaged category.

A vast majority of the workers are still deprived of their basic rights — the right to work of one’s choice, a fair wage, security of tenure, unionisation, collective bargaining, et al. The disparity between the two groups is truly enormous.

The state’s desire to keep up appearances with the advanced and privileged societies of the world and its inability to substantially improve the lot of a vast majority of people has created similar disparities in almost all fields of life.

Take justice, for example. The apex court has been vying for honours with corresponding courts in the advanced world in terms of its capacity for innovative interpretation of the basic law, its exercise of the suo motu jurisdiction, its ability to check the executive’s transgressions, and its keenness to remove citizens’ grievances.

At the same time, ordinary people get little justice from the subordinate judiciary, and stories of corruption and inefficiency at that level are common. The ordinary Pakistani, particularly the rustic villager, lives in perpetual dread of the police that are supposed to serve and protect him. And if that Pakistani happens to be a resident of Balochistan, he is exposed to greater excesses by the more privileged ‘servants’ of the people. Also, the poorer one is the lesser his or her access and entitlement to justice.

Pride in the country having become a nuclear power and owner of a nuclear arsenal is now an integral part of the Pakistani people’s mindset. Yet, a large number of schools, perhaps a majority, do not have a science laboratory worth the name.

The disparity in the standards of educational institutions that serve the rich elite and those meant to cater to the needs of the less resourceful segments of the population is quite alarming. Institutions in the former category claim to be at a par with Western centres of learning, while the products of the latter are distinguished neither by their learning nor by their proficiency in any vocation.

Besides, it took the republic 63 years to recognise the right to education as a fundamental right, a concession meant entirely for the underprivileged people as the affluent ones had no problems, but almost four years since Article 25-A was added to the Constitution one does not know how and when the state is going to fulfil the obligation it has much too belatedly assumed.

Otherwise, too, nobody can claim that Pakistan is taking due care of its disadvantaged children. Child labour is still rampant and little has been done to end the worst form of child labour although Pakistan was quick to ratify ILO Convention 182.

The protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child that prohibits the employment of children as soldiers remains unratified — perhaps out of deference to or fear of militant extremists. The infant mortality rate is still very high and small girls continue to be given away for settlement of feuds and sex-related crimes.

Much is said about the advances made by women. Their number in the legislatures has risen by a wide margin and they can, theoretically at least, make laws for the whole population. It is doubtful if they are allowed a share in managing their homes and in taking decisions about their children. There is, however, no doubt about the denial of such privileges to a preponderant majority of Pakistan’s womenfolk. Most of them are no better off than unpaid servants of the patriarchs.

The company responsible for waste management in Lahore can advertise its modern machinery and advanced methods to keep the city clean, while a better part of the population is condemned to wallow in filth and squalor. Construction barons are building luxury houses that match Western comforts but there is no hope for the slum dwellers.

These disparities are visible to the naked eye and sear the disadvantaged people’s hearts. It was such disparities that sparked the alienation of the Bengalis and these are now alienating the Baloch and the tribal population.

True, no country is free of differences between the privileged and the disadvantaged but civilised societies try to ensure that such distinctions are progressively reduced, that at least they are not allowed to increase.

Pakistan unfortunately belongs to the group of countries where the gap between the elite and the common citizens is widening all the time. Any improvement in the life of the poor is insufficient to reduce the gap because the margin of uplift of the privileged is much higher.

The stark reality is that a minority has everything and the majority has very little for itself. So long as this equation is not altered in the interest of the poor and those without resources, Pakistan will remain stuck in the danger zone.