What is to be done?

Published February 3, 2023
The writer is the author of Pakistan ka matlab kya? (Aks Publications 2022) and Plain Truths About Primary School Education in Pakistan (Folio Books 2022).
The writer is the author of Pakistan ka matlab kya? (Aks Publications 2022) and Plain Truths About Primary School Education in Pakistan (Folio Books 2022).

THERE have always been gaps in Pakistan between appearance and reality, between theory and practice. They have widened now to the point that the structure is wobbling. Attempts to paper them over have set off vicious feedback effects narrowing the pathways to recovery. The land, being inanimate, will survive; the present order is endangered.

Take democracy. Everyone is aware that the facade has masked authoritarian rule. Leave that aside and consider what classical liberal democracy implies in theory: Sovereignty resting with citizens who authorise representatives to act in accordance with their wishes and be answerable to them. But look at the practice. The Pakistani state is more answerable to external patrons and creditors, implementing their demands quite contrary to the wishes of citizens to whom it owes its authorisation.

This inversion of accountability, upending the traditional social contract of reciprocity between nation and state, has split the nation-state. The monopoly on violence, that citizens ceded to the state in return for the guarantee of liberties and fulfilment of needs, is being used instead to dominate citizens. In dealing with external agents, however, the state commits the entire nation to deals and arrangements without transparency. In effect, the state is existing to oppress citizens while the nation exists to be pawned to creditors.

The replacement of the social contract between citizens and state with a politico-economic contract between the state and outsiders has significant consequences. Consider first the political aspect and recall the single phone call to Musharraf who stood the country’s Afghanistan policy on its head without consulting either parliament or the people. In response to citizen demands, however, he threatened they would not know what hit them or from where. The different responses illustrate well the real locus of power.

The impoverishment of citizens has cascading downstream effects.

Turn to the economic aspect and consider the invitation to creditors to come and tell us what they want. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with debt as long as it is used productively but without accountability to citizens there is no mechanism to ensure that. As a result, the profligate state is reduced to borrowing from one to pay the other to the point that there are no more takers. Not surprisingly, the major concern of creditors is to ensure repayment of their loans.

Inevitably, this calls for prioritisation of exports to generate the foreign exchange for repayment which implies reallocating money from social expenditures to boosting exports, ie, austerity for the people and concessions for exporters. The squeeze on social services means, 75 years on, no clean water, no safe sanitation, no decent education, no effective health access, no flood- or quake-proof housing.

Prioritisation of exports also means devaluing the currency even though that raises the prices of the most basic items of daily use that are now imported. Raising competitiveness of exports that rely on cost not productivity also means suppression of wages and benefits of the very people making the goods to be exported. That is ensured by crushing unions and closing eyes to the depredations of contract labour. Consider, for example, that workers stitching soccer balls for export earn less than Rs10,000 per month for full-time work. In every possible way, money is transferred from workers who would spend it mostly on locally made goods and services to exporters who, given the insecurity in the country, are more than likely to park it in some safe haven.

The impoverishment of citizens has cascading downstream effects that buy short-term relief while incubating long-term damage. Whoever can find a way to escape the country wants to leave often risking their lives. Desperate human beings have become the country’s biggest export and major contributors to foreign exchange earnings. This is lauded as an achievement to be augmented.

Those unable to leave need to be prevented from seeing through the causes of their sufferings lest they ask questions. Hence the peculiar nature of the school curriculum designed to disable critical thinking, the surfeit of moral teachings extolling obedience to authority, and the propagation of narratives that project enemies in every corner.

The loss of skills and miseducation keeps productivity so low that exports remain stagnant despite rock-bottom wages and huge currency depreciation. There is virtually no prospect of Pakistani exports graduating up the value-added chain. Those who claim otherwise have to point to one example of a country developing without providing a sound education to its children.

The fundamentalist ethos being propagated militates against the advancement of women and again there is no example of a country developing, or its fertility rate declining, without integrating women in the labour force.

The national narrative, in order to be reinforced, requires continuous low-level turbulence which means tense relations with all neighbouring countries. Once again, one would be hard-pressed to identify a country developing without leveraging its regional market. It is odd that there can be serious talk of increasing exports while remaining completely silent about the extreme insecurity that is pushing even local industrialists to relocate investments to more stable locales or shift from manufacturing to trade.

More importantly, insecurity blocks foreign direct investment as an alternative to debt-driven development. The few foreign workers in the country need to be protected by army battalions while foreign managers run the risk of being lynched.

One comparison should suffice to illustrate the costs of insecurity and confirm the reality of how scared people are to enter Pakistan even when offered VIP-level security. In 2018, Vietnam, with less than half Pakistan’s population, repor­ted 15.5 million international tourists; Pakistan reported 17,800. This statistic encapsulates all the negative feedback effects that have converged to cripple Pakistan — fundamentalism, gender discrimination, the bleeding of skills, poorly educated workforce, rampant insecurity, the disregard for democracy, and debt peonage.

Escaping the impending crisis is a tall order but the many hybrid experiments have severely dented the capability to undo the damage. We are not even sure who should do what, in what order, and how. The light is blinking red.

The writer is the author of Pakistan ka matlab kya? (Aks Publications 2022) and Plain Truths About Primary School Education in Pakistan (Folio Books 2022).

Published in Dawn, February 3rd, 2023

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