Flood of questions

Published October 4, 2022
The writer is the author of Thinking with Ghalib (Folio Books 2021) and Pakistan Ka Matlab Kya (Aks Publications 2022).
The writer is the author of Thinking with Ghalib (Folio Books 2021) and Pakistan Ka Matlab Kya (Aks Publications 2022).

WATER submerges the land but throws up questions. We are paying the price for ignoring them in 2010. We can ignore them again and pay an even higher price later. Why we do so repeatedly is itself one of the questions to be asked by those who pay the price.

The damage inflicted by a disaster is a function of its severity, the number of people exposed to it, and the extent of their vulnerability. Even though Pakistan is not responsible for the severity of rainfall, we have known for years that it is increasing. But we have done little to manage the extent of exposure or to reduce the vulnerability of the exposed. On the contrary, the former has been exacerbated by land grabbers building on floodplains and choking the natural drainage of water. We have also done little to ensure that people can afford durable houses or are healthy enough to resist the infections that follow disasters. Who will stand up to take responsibility for these acts of commission and omission?

Instead of preparing for disasters, why have we chosen the easier modality of relying on bailouts? Once a disaster strikes, governments provide handouts to the afflicted, often dropping them from helicopters, while simultaneously appealing to be bailed out by other countries? The lukewarm external response suggests a weariness with this non-serious attitude towards domestic preparedness. Who will take responsibility for this negligence?

The enthusiasm and generosity of the affluent to help the poor is commendable. But have they asked why so many fellow citizens remain so poor and vulnerable 75 years after the country was made to end their poverty? Who will answer for this preference for charity over self-sufficiency?

We need an economic model empathetic to the poor’s needs.

What should one say of our officials who ‘congratulate’ the nation on the approval of an IMF package? Isn’t it an occasion to apologise for the 23rd recourse to a bailout without any lasting gain? IMF packages do not come free. By accepting their conditions, the country locks itself into an economic model in which expenditures on social welfare are drastically curtailed because the rich do not tax themselves. The vulnerabilities of the majority cannot be addressed as a result. At the same time, it escalates the cost of essential goods and services which further squeezes the poor and, increasingly, the not-so-poor. Who will answer for this choice?

And what of the decision to make the victims pay the price of ceremonial chest-beating by refusing to import cheaper necessities from across the border? It is true the BJP government was flagrant in Kashmir but how is a trade embargo a sensible response? What objective has it achieved? Has it helped the Kashmiris or the majority of Pakistanis in any way? Has it hurt India if that was the intention? Have the poor been asked if they are willing to starve their children to uphold the honour of the rich unaffected by the impact? Who will answer for this ineffective defiance and to whom?

It is revealing to be told that Pakistanis can afford such defiance of the ‘enemy’ because of their characteristic ‘resilience’. Does it mean that the poor will survive at the bare minimum and can be denied affordable alternatives? Cockroaches are resilient because nothing can exterminate them. Are poor Pakistanis no better than cockroaches for those who are entrusted with their welfare? And, if we can’t buy lentils from the ‘enemy’, how does it become kosher to play cricket with it? Who will explain the queer logic of this enmity that extends only as far as the welfare of the poor is concerned and is likely to be washed away once the textile magnates need cotton for their mills?

What we need is an economic model empathetic to the needs of the poor and centred around their welfare; an economy that creates employment for them and increases their incomes so that they can invest in themselves to reduce their vulnerabilities. By way of a pictorial analogy, we need a model that prioritises footpaths not signal-free corridors. A model obsessed with real estate and dependent on IMF bailouts and global charity will not allow us to move in that direction. An attitude in which responsibility for misgovernance is hidden behind accusations of external responsibility and pleas for debt forgiveness will leave the poor crippled forever while the rich get richer. Who will account for all the debts incurred till now? Where did all that money go?

Ghalib gave us an evocative phrase — ‘tamasha-i-ahl-i-karam’ (the spectacle of generous people). The generous people will revel in their generosity and ignore these questions. Not just that. They will prevent the rest from raising them by mandating an education in which critical thinking is reduced to asking the age at which a caliph accepted Islam.

The writer is the author of Thinking with Ghalib (Folio Books 2021) and Pakistan Ka Matlab Kya (Aks Publications 2022).

Published in Dawn, October 4th, 2022

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