A tedious track

Published July 9, 2012

AT a hair and makeup salon in Islamabad recently, conversation amongst the women present — mainly strangers — turned to the usual favourites.

The problem with the country was corruption on part of the leaders who milked the system for everything it was worth and cared not a jot for the worries of the common man.

One lady referred to the well-known assets of various political leaders, quoting her husband as having seen proof in this regard. Another chimed in with a tale about a visit she had made to the opulent residence of a senior official in government and the fabulous jewels that, she said, he had bought his wife.

As the electricity cut out yet again and a generator roared into life, the owner of the salon pointed out that in addition to corruption, there was also blatant irresponsibility and mismanagement.

The electricity crisis being faced in the country was a case in point, she said, talking about the manner in which it affected her business and raised the costs of overheads. “What does the government do with all the taxes it collects?” she asked. In her view, those monies ought to be spent towards building infrastructure that could turn the situation around. I listened in fascination, a fish out of water as I was in such an environment. This was not amongst the top-end of the many salons in the city; this was a middling-level enterprise that, by virtue of keeping its prices comparatively lower, counted amongst its well-established clientele the wives and daughters of many of the city’s mid-level bureaucracy and professional class, tied as such families are to fixed incomes and the subsequent need for budgeting.

Nevertheless, it was not cheap. A bride who happened to be there at the same time, having her hair and make-up done, was charged upwards of Rs30,000 for the two-hour procedure.

My own hair having being cut for a modest sum of money, I wanted to pay by credit card. But, it seemed, the enterprise worked on a cash-only basis, no receipt provided. Whether or not, or how honestly, the owner of the salon pays her taxes so that money can be contributed towards the infrastructure she wanted, only she would know.

It occurs to me, though, that one of the things setting up a credit card system would entail would be starting the process of a paper trail and, potentially, a documentation of the earnings and profits made by this business.

This is a pattern that is repeated by enterprises of various levels across the country. At a restaurant later for lunch, I was offered the choice of paying the bill in dollars, euros or rupees, but not by credit card. Everyone reading this will have often faced a similar situation.

The problems presented as a result of such informal or undocumented economic activity have been discussed at great length by writers and analysts who are experts in this regard.

A great deal of economic activity goes undocumented, it seems, never seeing the inside of a banking institution or being pinned down by being recorded on paper. Similarly, the problem of getting people to pay their taxes honestly, and levying taxes where they ought to be levied, is also much discussed.

What I find curious about this is the manner in which most of us are able to totally turn a blind eye to the blatant hypocrisy inherent in the position taken by the ladies in that salon.

From talking to many if not most of the citizenry, it would appear that there are a whole lot of self-evident ‘realities’ about Pakistan, none of which they had a hand in shaping. The leaders are corrupt and bleed the country’s resources dry, but we had no part in it, seems to be the thinking, for example. It is amazing how, as a citizenry, we fail to see our own roles in corrupting the system.

Amongst the elites, the urban professional and business classes, there is a culpability based in the fact that these sections of society have the power, influence and ability to change things — if they wanted to.

How many of the people whose hearts bleed over tea and cakes for the predicament in which the common man finds himself pay the legally set minimum wage to the people who work at their homes, I wonder. How many of the people lamenting that the state ‘do something’ about the power crisis do their bit to help the process along, such as paying taxes or using resources responsibly?

Which of the people decrying the purported corruption of political leaders has not played the system to his advantage when he saw the opportunity of getting away with it?

It is not just the elites that are afflicted with this malaise. The so-called common man too will not miss the opportunity to get ahead by hook or by crook when the opportunity presents itself — and why not, for that is what the system dictates.

When there are too many people fighting over too small a slice of the pie, a harshness of outlook and the lack of concern for ethics are inevitable. If the choice lies in trampling on the weak to get to that last bag of subsidised flour or facing your family with empty hands, who would choose the latter course?

In my view, then, the greater part of the blame must be put on the shoulders of the middling elites of the country: those who can afford private schooling, security, healthcare, etc. and thus reduce the stakes they have in improving the system; those who can afford to decry the shenanigans of the fewer-in-number figures who are in the public eye, and take the most flak for being corrupt, because they are relatively comfortably ensconced in privilege.

That means, I’m afraid, people such as you or I. Fashionable though it may be to blame our leaders for the mess the country is in, the fact is that any society’s leaders will only reflect the societal character. Until we stop lying to ourselves about the intellectual corruption of which most of us are guilty, it is simply hypocritical (to say nothing of tedious) to point fingers at others.

The writer is a member of staff.




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