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Behind the scenes

January 09, 2012

AS a person who lives immersed in the news media, every now and again I find myself reacting with surprise to the fact that Pakistan, such as it is, continues to work in some very basic ways.

These days, for example, one has to create the space to be able to come up for air from the flood of information and/or speculation about a hundred points of concern that include general elections, Senate elections, the rather self-aggrandisingly named ‘memogate’ affair, judicial overreach, contempt of court notices, Swiss cases — and that’s only this fortnight.

Is Pakistan a failed state, a sponsor of international terrorism, is it a country on a suicide mission? Are the people starving, the industries and essential infrastructure in the process of shutdown, the long arm of the law proving hardly capable of facing the multifarious — many would argue self-created — challenges? Yes, it would certainly appear so.

And yet … the poor souls on traffic policing duty, that most difficult and thankless of urban jobs, are still there every day, trying to create a modicum of order out of the chaos; I don’t have electricity or gas or CNG for significant periods of time, but the choked sewer on my street did get fixed when I called the KWSB helpline; food prices may be higher than I remember having ever been, but the vegetable vendor is still happy to make a home delivery and throw in some choonga.

It’s a predictable and clutching-at-straws paean to a country that seems to be collapsing under the weight of its own sins; and yet, it must be noted. Behind the scenes, beyond the sound and the unspeakable fury that constitutes life in this country, there are things that continue to function as they should, as well as they can in spite of the very considerable hurdles.

If there’s anything that the Pakistani experience teaches, it is perspective. If there is a lesson to be learnt, it is to read between the lines and look beyond the headlines. If most of us live with the impression that in Pakistan, everything can change and yet nothing changes, there is a shred of hope to be found in the idea of behind-the-scenes shifts.

So it was with an emotion not unlike surprise that I reacted when an advertisement that appeared in the press on Jan 3 was pointed out to me.

The public notice by the Sindh government informed us that it had vigorously been trying to implement a December Supreme Court (SC) order, as a result of which “the Commissioners of all Divisions in Sindh have been directed to located the descendents property [sic] both movable and immovable belonging to the eunuchs and transfer entries in the relevant record of rights. Despite incessant efforts of the Deputy Commissioners, such properties are still untraceable.

“However, CNICs have reportedly been issued to many eunuchs with the help of District Social Welfare Officers. Under the circumstances, the Government of Sindh has decided to publish the issue in daily newspapers … with the directions to eunuchs to approach the concerned Deputy Commissioners and District Social Welfare Officers to help in spotting their descendent property and settlement of their fundamental rights.”

Rights of identity and inheritance for ‘eunuchs’ (a lump-together term that Pakistan tends to apply indiscriminately to anyone from transvestites to hermaphrodites) is at first glance surprising for a country where the rights of women, children or, for that matter, any ordinary mortal, have proved notoriously hard to secure. And yet, beyond the first reaction, is the fact that people are people, regardless of age or gender.

If the battle for women’s rights or against child labour is to be meaningful in any fashion, it has to of course be accompanied by equal efforts on the behalf of a numerically smaller but far more discriminated-against and even more marginalised and abused population. And that actually seems to be happening.

That this little notice was no mere flash in the pan is borne out by a couple of other news items. On Jan 5, a newspaper reported that the Punjab government had asked all its administrative departments to submit reports about suitable posts to employ ‘eunuchs’, with the service rules of such positions being modified to give preference to the targeted community. This circular, too, was prompted by the need to present a report at the next SC hearing of the relevant case. The court had, concurrently, heard the joint secretary of the Election Commission of Pakistan say that field staff had been directed to register votes as well. At the hearing that took place in Islamabad the same day, the SC asked the relevant authorities to provide records of the issuance of identity cards to ‘eunuchs’ and their enrolment on the voters’ list.

(This being Pakistan, though, no story can be complete without an element of the bizarre. The advocate general of Balochistan informed the SC on Jan 5 that a community centre was being established to provide “entertainment” to ‘eunuchs’. This centre, the construction of which is to start shortly, is to costRs87m.

Clarification on this point is required: will the community centre provide entertainment which, though necessary, need not be provided by the government? Or will it meet more urgent needs, such as vocational and skills’ training, which ought indeed be provided by the government? We can only hope that it won’t turn out to be another monument reminding us of the sporadic — what-were-they-thinking? — madness of the country’s policymakers, of which sufficient examples are already available.)

One can argue about how much actual benefit will accrue through such reforms. Much would depend on making members of the community aware of rights that have been recognised by the state, and even more on how far they are able to pursue such rights. Yet it cannot be contested that all of this depends on the availability and recognition of rights, that first point from where all others would follow.

To draw a parallel, the real-life situation of ‘eunuchs’ with regard to inheritance and voting rights is no different from that of many women who are similarly deprived. But under the eyes of the state and the law, women can inherit and vote.

Through such changes, relatively behind the scenes since they do not attract the media spotlight that the political circus, for example, does, can greater gains be netted.

The writer is a member of staff.