Of some utility still

February 14, 2020

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The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.
The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.

SADAQAT, who is from the areas adjacent to Azad Kashmir, has been working at a Utility Stores Corporation outlet in Lahore for the last 30 years. His village underwent a mini-revolution the last time he went there to vote. He says that this was the first time the folks back home did not vote for the PPP. The consensus was that Imran Khan ought to be given a chance.

All of them had their own reasons. Generally, the PPP’s current image does not require too deep an inquiry to understand the change of heart on the part of a group large enough for a poll aspirant to try and earnestly cultivate.

In the middle-aged Sadaqat’s book, the one-off concession was justified by a single consideration: being a new party in power, the PTI had no bias to show against the organisation that had been the source of succour for him all these years.

The gentleman says he was to be embarrassed for his justification being so off the mark. A year into the new government, his utility store had little extra to offer to its brave customers. Let alone the variety, the discounts on a few items were negligible. The store was consistent with the quality, which was bad without too many exceptions.

A year into the new government, Sadaqat’s utility store had little extra to offer to its brave customers.

This added to its long-collapsed reputation. The utility store has come to be considered as one place in the neighbourhood where respectable people did not want to be seen, lest they were mistaken for hapless paupers.

The quality, or lack of it, the occasional queues that formed outside these blue headlined shops every time a privileged soul wanted to remind their ordinary subjects of their true place in the system, gave this so-called utility store a bad name. It could be easily likened to the areas inside public hospitals that blatantly and disrespectfully beckoned those eligible for treatment under zakat provisions. Everyone knew that only really desperate consumers would be forced to go to a place which allegedly sold lots of brands unheard of elsewhere.

Whatever an under-duress customer would buy from here, he would pick with a pinch of salt. I know someone who always asked whether the sugar in her tea is from a mill in Sindh or Punjab — her assertion is that sugar made in Punjab tasted much less sweet in comparison to the variety from Sindh. The utility stores helped establish this difference in standards perhaps like no one else.

These stores specialised in providing ‘meethi kamm’ variant of the commodity. The same held true for other items. Your office administration knew where to look for the cheapest possible soap for staffers afflicted with the handwashing fetish. These habits that ordinary Pakistanis had come to associate with utility stores resulted in a gradual retreat of the facility from the map. Running into many thousands countrywide, the utility stores lost the prominence they must have once enjoyed as one of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s pet schemes.

For many, these origins raised suspicions. They were rooted in the whims and blundering logic of the misguided who committed the ultimate sin of nationalising industry. How could they have been capable of doing something good, even by mistake?

The utility store employees would complain that despite the size of their network and all the bad vibes they were accused of creating, the issues they were faced with as workers were seldom highlighted. Instead, they were made to live and deliver within their limited, compromised capacity under the fear of being discarded.

There are so many news items that speak of lifting the standards of the fare in utility stores. There must indeed be files of expert opinion, arguing for their closure or their ‘true’ revival. It is quite strange that a comprehensive rescue attempt has been delayed for so long, especially when the rulers’ desire to provide relief to the people through very visible special initiatives that circumvent the usual supply chain is on prominent display. There are Sunday bazaars and the likes, the special Ramzan markets, etc.

At one point when a government put some stress on providing fresh items in utility stores, the move was well-received by the people. And this lifted Sadaqat’s spirits and the hope of survival was rekindled.

Sadaqat may have selfishly and rightly favoured the PPP for creating an organisation that gave him his livelihood. As a proud inventor, perhaps the PPP had tried to turn around the organisation with more purpose than others. Whatever the reasons for political preferences here, even the rather disappointing history of the Utility Stores Corporation would offer examples of how some good work is always possible in the worst of situations.

A few years before he lent — or was forced to lend — unheard of value to the chair of speaker of the Punjab Assembly, Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi lifted the profile of the utility stores. He was then a member of the cabinet in a PPP-led government, enjoying the status of deputy prime minister, no less, suggesting a high-powered intervention the old awami store was in need of. As the minister in charge of utility stores, he did briefly promise a change in fortunes. That was a fleeting moment. Despair set in quickly again.

Sadaqat was not quite convinced by the measures pledged by the current government — the government he had helped bring to power to save his organisation. Maybe, the new task that the government is entrusting the utility stores with — of selling hopefully good quality merchandise at fair prices — will have him review his decision to not vote for the PTI the next time.

Be that as it may, it is quite remarkable how a largely out-of-favour organisation — a 1971 relic from the dark anti-market days of ZAB and his ‘fake socialism’ — is being restored in order to save a government. Ideally, the utility store workers would have wanted it the other way around, with the government bailing it out. Still, let us see what benefits the avowed large-scale exercise could bring for utility stores staffers. May their golden jubilee year prove to be a good one for them.

The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.

Published in Dawn, February 14th, 2020