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Bias against the poor

April 13, 2011

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NOTHING demonstrates the establishment's bias against the poor and the underprivileged more than its studied indifference to their protests and demands while it is often ready to accommodate the affluent sections of society even at a high cost.

The government's anxiety to placate the vested interests that are trying to block the devolution of power to the federating units, something on which the future of Pakistan as a state depends, is in line with its tradition of retreating under pressure from the privileged. Equally in accordance with the tradition is the government's policy of disregarding the entreaties of the underprivileged and even denying them space for interaction. Only a few examples will be enough to prove the point.

Even before the 18th Amendment was adopted, labour representatives had called upon the government to expedite the making of the key law on industrial relations and trade unions as the stop-gap legislation of 2008 was going to expire in April 2010. This plea went unheeded; one reason could be the decision to transfer the subject of labour to the provinces vide the 18th Amendment. For more than a year, the country's leading trade unions have been demanding the removal of difficulties caused by the change, and they have also taken the matter to the Supreme Court.

The workers do not challenge devolution of power to the provinces; indeed they support the process. They only want to be satisfied regarding the ways the national-level trade unions will be protected under the law, who will carry out the functions of the National Industrial Relations Commission, who will monitor the implementation of the ILO conventions, and how smaller provinces will get a fair share of the social security and welfare funds. Meanwhile, the workers' anxieties about an erosion of their rights and facilities have been accentuated by the Punjab government's decision to clip their rights under the new provincial law.

Parliament has powers till April 18, 2011, under Act 267, to sort out these matters through a resolution. One doubts if the authorities concerned are aware of the urgency of the matter or of the wrong they are doing to the country's working class. Most probably they are not worried because they think the workers cannot bring the government down. Their anti-labour inclinations are clear.

Take the case of the strike by young doctors in Punjab. Many patients, including children, are reported to have died for want of medical attention. The exact number of casualties is not easy to find as the figures mentioned in the media relate only to cases recorded at hospitals and presumably do not include those that never came there in view of the doctors' absence from their posts.

The provincial government was apparently not moved by the plight of the sick and took more than a month to intervene decisively. Before that it tried all the tactics written in the colonial-dictatorial manual for suppression of public agitations, namely, use of force to disperse and arrest the demonstrators, application of the essential services law, dismissal of protest leaders and the hiring of replacements. It is possible the doctors were not wholly in the right but the government lost the right to use this argument by failing to talk to them and to explain matters to the people.

At one stage it was said that the matter could not be resolved because the chief minister was out of the country. Making allowances for valid reasons for the provincial chief executive's foreign trip, which in any case was a brief one, two questions arise. Firstly, since Punjab is not supposed to be ruled by one man alone, what happened to the system?

Secondly, why was contact with the chief minister impossible wherever he was, when he is supposed to be informed if his cat stops taking milk or matters as trivial as that? Nobody will buy the proposition that the chief minister (or the prime minister, if the matter concerns the federation) cannot be bothered while abroad about the problems faced by the citizens under their charge.

Sadly enough, the ordeal of the people caused by the absence of doctors received due attention neither from their elected representatives nor their defenders in civil society. The only explanation can be that the elite and its hangers-on were not affected by the strike as the private clinics they patronise were working as usual. Those affected by the doctors' agitation were mostly poor and underprivileged people who could only afford to go to public hospitals.

Then there was the recent case of use of force by the law-enforcement agencies to prevent a large number of Khanewal tenants from going to Lahore to voice their demands. Soon afterwards, the tenants working on military farms in the Okara-Renala Khurd region observed the anniversary of the killing of three peasant activists and held a huge rally.

The case of the Okara and Khanewal tenants has been hanging fire for over a decade and the government has often been indicted for lack of respect for and indifference to the tenants' legitimate aspirations to own the fields they have been cultivating for two to three generations. Whatever the arguments used to counter the peasants' demands, their claim is backed by the principle of equity and natural justice. The federal and the provincial governments have no good reason to delay granting the tenants' their entitlements.

Over the recent weeks, the other victims of state functionaries' violence or indifference have included clerks (who have been protesting for many months now), school teachers and lady health visitors. The flood-affected people are also protesting against the lack of relief.

Although it would be unfair to deny a certain improvement in the government's tolerance of dissent, the underprivileged still do not receive the hearing they deserve as of right. As a result, feelings of disappointment and frustration among the victims of official neglect are being replaced with those of alienation from the state and hatred for all those perceived to be benefiting from the system. The consequences of this dangerous trend can easily be imagined.

It is absolutely essential that the state adopt a convention that obliges it to listen to people who have any grievance and to engage them in friendly negotiations as early as possible. This is necessary also because democracy cannot be established unless workers, peasants, low-paid employees, professionals, women and members of minority communities et al, are treated equal to the most privileged citizens by the administration and, if one may be allowed to say so, by the courts.