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Playing politics with polio

February 03, 2012

JUDGES and politicians in Pakistan appear to have an endless capacity to bring a smile to your lips and at the same time can drive you to despair, to make you want to pull your hair out.

The context here isn’t the high politics of Islamabad where the superior judiciary, the executive and the military continue to take part in a nerve-wracking game of chicken while the resultant paralysis in the country is compelling millions of dispossessed to look skywards for relief.

The furore in parliament over the fuel price hike and the tragic deaths in Lahore due to contaminated medicines may have dominated the front page of this newspaper with the remaining few column inches taken up by regional-global stories but hidden on an inside page was good news.

Great news, in fact. Huge gratitude to Mr Justice Manzoor Ahmad Malik of the Lahore High Court for that. He “took notice of police raids on guest houses and observed that nobody had the right to interfere in the personal lives of citizens”.

In our society where religion, tribal custom, culture and tradition have all been used to deny individual liberty and for someone or the other to appoint themselves the keeper of your conscience and morality, the judge’s words were like music to the ears.

Appearing before the court, the Dawn report also said, a senior police officer told the judge that a police team had raided the guest house of the petitioner to arrest proclaimed offenders but failed. Instead, they rounded up 17 men and 19 women for ‘immoral activities’. The judge didn’t agree.

Kudos to his lordship. One hopes more on the bench and in society as a whole can display such common sense. Surely, the police and everyone else need to focus on rampant crime, terrorism and sectarian violence to mention just a few priorities more pressing than ‘immoral activities’.

Just as the judge’s words filled one with immense optimism, a politician who can often make one smile, even laugh, triggered near insane rage. Normally, his persona has been colourful and his words full of street slang and humour, making him a fun politician to follow. Sadly, of late his humour is being replaced by bitterness, much bitterness. The answer perhaps may be found in his constituency in Rawalpindi where he was once unbeatable. Then in the last election his façade of invincibility crumbled in the face of a PML-N onslaught.

Shaikh Rasheed Ahmad makes no bones about his proximity to the military and its security apparatus so who knows if the bitterness one witnesses in all his statement these days also reflects the frustration of those whose point of view he owns and articulates with much gusto.

But, dare I point out to Shaikh Sahib, polio immunisation is serious business, so please don’t mess with that. I don’t even know if there is a connection between his statement and the US SEALs’ OBL raid for which the target had been reconnoitered by a team masquerading as polio eradication workers.

Here is what the Shaikh told a TV programme earlier this week. “Unicef (WHO) is involved in bringing dodgy Indian polio drops, changing their labels and administering them here … they use even expired drugs”. He also said this had happened in thousands of cases.

If this statement was not outrageous enough, he also said he was looking for evidence and if he got his hands on it, he would present it in court. In other words, he made this shocking allegation without proof. India produces some of the best quality drugs in the world and at a fraction of the cost elsewhere.

India is a billion-plus country. Its economic growth rate is often just shy of double digits. Depending on whose statistics you believe, its middle class is anywhere between a quarter of a billion to half a billion people.

The most generous of estimates still leave half a billion people steeped in utter and abject poverty and in the high-risk group vulnerable to communicable diseases such as polio. The country’s immunisation programme has had huge impact. There was not single case reported in 2011.

Pakistan had 172 registered cases in the same period. In fact, some claims suggest Pakistan’s polio cases surpassed those in Nigeria and war-torn Afghanistan where immunisation would be significantly more difficult than in our case.

There have been a number of instances in the past few years where clergymen have used the mosque to propagate that polio drops are, in fact, a secret sterilisation drug which is being administered here by the West to make generations of Pakistanis impotent.

This was poppycock of course but the influence of these so-called men of God in some areas is so strong that many parents started to refuse to get their children immunised. That and the disruption to the programme in some of strife-torn tribal areas meant additional challenges.

We didn’t need Shaikh Rasheed to make his rash and senseless statement for there are thousands of those who stay glued to their TV sets each evening and lay great store by what Shaikh Sahib and others of his ilk have to say about the issue.

You may have your reservations about some of the NGOs operating in the country as I do, but let it be clear in our minds that agencies involved in running the polio immunisation programme are above board.

I have personally seen the passion of some of the UN functionaries associated with that. They have done more good for our children than perhaps we ourselves could ever and definitely more than that Rawalpindi politician.

Does he realise the devastation caused by polio, especially to poor families where a robust physique and functioning limbs are so vital to survival, to earning a living as manual labour? He clearly doesn’t. Till he improves his understanding, can he please stay silent on the issue?

The writer is a former editor of Dawn.