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Why is Pakistan ill?

April 16, 2011


IN Pakistan, hope has a conjoined twin: resilience. For third-generation Pakistanis today there aren’t many reasons for optimism in a country where since independence a great deal of ruin, decay and backwardness has set in. Liberals claim their progressive way of thinking is unthreatened, that there is hope beyond the challenge of education, terrorism, and economic collapse; that the religious right is a minuscule minority unable to win an election, in a country already in the grip of non-secular proxies. Failing to resolve problems and prepare for the future places Pakistan on a tightrope stretched to its limits, with challenges requiring a post-crisis approach.

For a moment let’s digress and remind ourselves of the most pressing challenges, where political commitment to overcome has been non-existent. Pakistan has the second highest number of out-of-school children in the world with substantial gender disparity and money is not the main glitch for bringing education to all as much as political will, says a recent government-sponsored education report.

In the last four years, thousands of people have lost their lives because of terrorism, sectarian attacks and military operations as hard-line Islam takes root widening the gap between secular liberals and the rest of the country. The ambiguous relationship between religion and state isn’t as ambiguous as it once was made out to be; reaction to the recent assassination of a governor of the largest province showed how intolerance and violence are openly propagated in the name of religion.

In a Pew poll this year focused on seven Muslim countries, only 42 per cent of Pakistanis said democracy was suited to their government which is not surprising given that regular military interventions have exposed redundant governments. For most here, democracy has nothing in common with freely elected and qualified political representatives echoing partisan voices, but is sewn together with patronage politics, powerful landowning families holding key parliamentary positions and the army calling the shots in some areas of politics.

Poor governance, rule without law and short-sighted leadership has left Pakistan mired in a state of failure says Maleeha Lodhi, a former Pakistani diplomat. And because “resilience has been part of Pakistan’s story”, she states, we can rise again: bold reforms will get us back on track. But will bold reforms at this late stage overcome a national crisis? If there is no consensus, for example, on how to bring education to the masses on a national urgent-priority basis, no credible leadership and no channelling of monetary assistance in the much-needed northern areas for rapid rebuilding, how are Pakistanis going to live with this temporary hope, hoping against the odds?

When I hear talk of resistance to intolerance and hope for a better Pakistan advocated by Ivy League-educated policymakers and award-winning writers, and conflict-resolution experts I think of how solutions proposed can be adapted to our ground realities. Why challenges faced over 63 years haven’t been met and if the impediments can still be removed. And why there’s yet more talk with academia lecturing but little government money spent on rebuilding girls’ schools (many of them Taliban-destroyed carcasses) in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, or why low-income, single-financed households with women at the helm, earning as informal labourers are exploited with no labour rights and low pay scales.

The future for Pakistan would look brighter if women who worked 10 hours a day, earning a monthly average of Rs7,000 could afford to educate their children; if a new generation of youth is not frustrated, deprived and shortchanged, and is kept away from well-paid mercenary militant groups. The future would look brighter if secular thought was not slowly replaced by fundamentalism, intolerance and murder and the growth of extremism that is now incidentally a key global export. The future would look brighter if the energy sector was revived and we could rely on our national resources without suffering unprecedented energy shortages damaging economic output.

Policymakers have changed with passing governments, so the people remain shortchanged, facing mounting energy shortages at a time when political will is absent. The Thar coal deposit is said to be the fifth largest reserve of its kind in the world but no government has exploited this potential mainly because of excavation costs. Now, international drilling companies fail to come to Pakistan because of bureaucratic wrangles involving expensive drilling and security concerns.

The future would look brighter if Pakistan’s political players took a crash course in democracy 101, rooted out self-interest, (if only at first as a short-term experiment) and kept Islamist proxies at bay, by distancing themselves from the chaos in Afghanistan focusing on their internal backyard.

The future would look brighter if Pakistan was not a ‘failing state’ with vacillating intentions, at times serving the interests of its own political coterie for regional stability and during other xenophobic moments nurturing hard-core Islamists, dismissive of the ill-fated CIA-ISI-jihad nexus during Gen Zia’s time.

Historian Ayesha Jalal, in her essay titled, The Past as Present says we live in ‘Paranoidistan’. We spend so much time paranoid as a nation suspecting every move the US makes so that it can get together with India and conspire against Pakistan. Instead, maybe we should worry about the global perception of Pakistan, as the “world’s largest assembly line of terrorists” — the latter makes more sense in the present given Pakistan is ill and requires internal assessment, a long-term ‘healthcare’ plan and strength to recuperate its structural integrity and emotional will.

The writer is senior assistant editor at Herald.