Austerity measures

08 Apr 2019


The writer is a member of staff.
The writer is a member of staff.

THE news wires that major organisations subscribe to are full of curious and sometimes wonderful things that may never make the cut in a newspaper’s limited space — and have the additional benefit of providing perspective. A colleague recently came across a little gem that she was kind enough to share with me.

As reported by AFP, it seems that in 2007, Tajikistan passed a law aiming to discourage lavish spending on wedding and other celebratory events, with the scope extending not just to public but also private venues. As a consequence, last week a pop star — Firuza Hafizova — was fined the equivalent of $530 for hosting a birthday party at her home, with her friends. The Tajik authorities got wind of the affair after a video emerged on the internet that showed her dancing with friends, with state prosecutors issuing a statement on Tuesday that as Ms Hafizova “celebrated her birthday at her home on Dec 12 from eight to 11pm, her girlfriends and acquaintances arrived to congratulate her. […]”. Birthdays should be celebrated “in the family circle only”, it specified.

To put that into perspective, the fine she is faced with is worth more than two months’ wages for the average Tajik. Critics of the applicable law say that instead of curbing ostentation, what it has in practice achieved is helping corrupt officials extort money from the public.

Does the state have the right to regulate the private lives of citizens?

This is not the first time, of course, that the law has been trotted out. In 2015, a man was fined a similarly hefty sum for celebrating his birthday in a bar with friends, after being caught out online when he posted a picture on Facebook. As reported, Tajik authorities “regularly upbraid pop stars for petty misdemeanours and state control over the local scene ensures that many artists stick to pro-government and patriotic themes” — so much so that Tajikistan President Emomali Rakhmon in February called on them to stop being so slavishly loyal in their songs to the long-reigning ruler.

We in Pakistan are, of course, no stranger to ‘austerity drives’ aimed at reducing the distance between the rich and the poor, and curbing ostentation and private and public spending.

From the PML-N government’s decision in the late ’90s that only one dish may be served at wedding celebrations to schemes such as those the current PTI government has come up with — eg opening up Prime Minister House to the public and converting it into a university premises (until the Saudi crown prince arrived, when the building was miraculously resurrected to receive him and the doors thrown open to receive a royal donor) — there are numerous examples.

Some have been partially effective, others not so much, because perhaps it is a part of human nature to try and escape the long arm of the law. This is especially true if, as in a country such as Pakistan, that long arm is often ineffectual, the state has limited prosecution and evidence-collecting capacities, and it is the wealthy and the well connected that are both framing law or policy, and then being guilty of bypassing it, aware that they are hardly likely to be called out, let alone face the wrath of the courts.

The interesting question all this throws up is, does a state have the right (or can it appropriate the ‘right’) to regulate even the private lives of citizens? Part of the answer can be found in the hackneyed theory of social contract, where the state (and by extension the government that represents it) and citizens tacitly mutually agree for one to provide basics such as security or right (to an extent), while the other party submits to a certain level of control and oversight, agreeing, for example, to follow the law or pay tax, etc.

That is all fitting and proper, yet in the context of austerity measures such as the case in Tajikistan, there are a couple of basics to bring into consideration over the debate. First, it is fact that in every society on the planet, there is a disparity between the rich and the poor or not so well off, with regulatory rules often being faced disproportionately by the latter — the former get by often on the basis of their privilege.

Second, what if a state is not holding up its end of the bargain of the social contract? In Pakistan, security and economic opportunity, or access to affordable and decent healthcare or education, are amongst the issues that are foremost on the citizenry’s mind. The state of these sectors, and several others, is clear for all to see. What then?

Some academics present an argument that, paraphrased, basically says that hope springs eternal. With each election, people have a chance to choose whom they believe may deliver best on the contract, the PTI’s victory last year being a case in point. Even so, there are no guarantees to be found anywhere.

The writer is a member of staff.

Published in Dawn, April 8th, 2019