The latter-day hunter-gatherer

November 13, 2011

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FOR hundreds of thousands of years the ancestors of today's man were hunter-gatherers. They were spread all over Earth and wandered around in mobile family bands, foraging for food as their chief occupation.

They lived on wild plants and animals that they picked or trapped. It was an egalitarian system, as each had to find his/her own food: if one didn't, he/she starved. The surviving Aborigines of Australia and Bushmen of the Kalahari are prime examples. There were no kings, presidents, parliamentarians, ministers, court officials, soldiers or other parasites that we have today.

The discovery and development of agriculture and animal domestication, which started some 12,000 years ago, has been the raison d'être for the extraordinary progress of our species, the explosion in worldwide population from five million (10,000BC) to seven billion (2,011AD), the gigantic development of art and science, the progressive establishment of villages, towns and cities — and the overexploitation of the planet's resources and decimation of its environment, accelerating over the past 250 years with the advent of the Industrial Revolution.

But many modern men, especially in societies such as in Pakistan, have, in numerous complex ways, remained hunter-gatherers. And it is these new 'hunter-gatherer' breeds that are slowly, but surely, destroying the fabric and peace of life in our society.

Criminal gangs, sponsored by political parties, make urban areas their hunting grounds, gathering kidnap ransoms, extorting from industries and business houses, looting from armed burglaries, hold-ups, snatching vehicles, cellphones, watches and wallets from the general public.

Corrupt 'leaders' (in and out of uniform) and their cronies are hunters of a comparable kind, gathering kickbacks and commissions from licences and contracts, grabbing land and amenity plots, and robbing public banks, financial bodies and government-run institutions (PIA, Steel Mills, Railways, Wapda, etc).

Not to be left behind are hunters of a different ilk, the industrialists and businessmen and others, gathering evaded taxes and duties, monies that should have been spent on compliance with various laws, and the benefit of fair wages not paid to employees. All seem determined to empty the national exchequer.

The latest struggle over 'spoils' of the hunt involves the nature of the local government system. With a large proportion of the province's population and financial budget (and consequently its power), Karachi and Hyderabad are the 'plums' in the 'pudding' that is Sindh.

For the past six months, the partners in the province's coalition government have been quarrelling over the form that the local government (LG) should take. The MQM wishes to retain the 2001 Musharraf version which gave maximum autonomy to the city district government, while the PPP and ANP are rooting for the 1979 Ziaul Haq version (incorporating the commissioner structure) where the provincial government called the shots.

For a brief while in August 2011, a compromise solution (Musharraf's in the larger cities, Zia's in the rural areas) was legislated, but quickly amended when the nationalist parties objected.

These hunter-gatherers of all persuasions are not really interested in which system actually better serves the citizens: the MQM wants the 2001 system so that they can effectively control Karachi and Hyderabad, the PPP/ANP want the 1979 system for the opposite reason — so that the MQM cannot have complete control. Public service is virtually of no consequence.

Dr Kaiser Bengali, sound economist and former adviser/minister to the Sindh government, has recently proposed an LG system combining elements of the previous two laws in order for it to be acceptable to all major parties, to create a balance between province and the districts, and promote improved service delivery to the citizens.

He floated the initiative through the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, and later debated it during a workshop hosted by Shehri.

Dr Bengali, using census data, clarified why the MQM is severely distressed about the changing linguistic demographics of Karachi, and its perception that votes/seats are slipping out of its hand. From a low of about six per cent of the city inhabitants in 1941, the Urdu-speaking population skyrocketed to 50 per cent in 1951 and 54 per cent in 1981, and is now reducing (48 per cent in 1998) to a projected 29 per cent in 2045.

The Pakhtuns, on the other hand, who were only three per cent in 1941, rose to 11 per cent in 1998, and, if the earthquake and war-on-terror migration trends of the past five years continue, will exceed 31 per cent in 2045. The Sindhis (61 per cent in 1941) reached a low of six per cent by 1981, but are likely to rise to 13 per cent by 2045.

Sindh's coalition parties are allegedly trying to find a middle ground, critical for the future of the province and its cities. But all of this presupposes that every participant wishes to 'play the game', not merely 'win at all costs', and realises that its team will lose, win or draw various matches.

In a cricket match, if a side cannot tolerate defeat and uses all means, fair or foul, to emerge victorious, it scarcely matters if an over has eight (instead of six) balls, or whether the pitch is 30 yards (instead of 22). Compromise formulas only work for sane parties of goodwill, for sportsmen.

The spoils and benefits of the Karachi government are manifold. The building control authority sponsors lucrative unauthorised construction (now all over the province), the master-plan department unlawfully converts land-use to commercial use, illegal water connections are in great demand, construction of roads, over/under-passes and government buildings involves graft, and even the health, education and social welfare departments generate pelf. Time will tell who will become the chief hunter- gatherer.

arfc@cyber.net.pk