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The two Pakistans

July 23, 2012

THE world of Pakistani officialdom is no place for the faint-hearted.

It is not that the system hasn’t been improved. Until fairly recently, getting any sort of document from the state — a passport, a driving license, family or child registration verification — used to entail a few days’ work in gathering long-forgotten but vital documents. Photographs had to be arranged, challan forms obtained and filled (in triplicate or more, thank you very much) and charges paid at hole-in-the-wall bank branches that appeared to open for only a few minutes a day. Then you had to make it through the shoving mass of sweaty humanity that seems to always be gathered outside such offices.

It used to feel that the government was actually going out of its way to put hurdles in your path, perhaps to save itself from the onerous tasking of setting its creaking machinery into action and actually doing some of what it is supposed to. The simplest variation from the baseline norm, the lowest common denominator, would lead to hitches that would take many more documents you’d probably never heard of to resolve, more time and more energy.

There has been a marked improvement with the computerisation of the system through the National Database Registration Authority (Nadra). Now, getting a new passport or having your identity card renewed is simply a matter of time. Pick up a token, wait for your turn, do the round of the numbered desks handling the various steps involved and walk out. Your details are on the system, so are your fingerprints — all in a day’s work, ho hum.

What hasn’t changed, however, is the pressure on such government offices which keeps the queues long and the wait, often in the sun, endless. The numbers of people resignedly waiting runs to several dozens on any given day.

For all these reasons, I was feeling resentful that it had fallen to me to obtain from the government yet another document regarding the existence of my family. It’s easier as a woman (which is why I usually get handed the short straw), because the lines — always segregated outside such government offices — are shorter, but there are also fewer counters issuing tokens to women. When a similar task had to be performed four years ago, it cost me the better part of a day when I ought to have been at work.

Not so now, though. In recent years Nadra has set up ‘executive’ branches in the more posh areas. Located in an easily accessible part of town, barely any queues, interior done up in faux wood and gleaming aluminium, you can even be offered a glass of water while you wait — all available if you’re up to paying double the charges.

I was, so I did, thankful for the convenience; and I was in and out in half an hour.

This, it seems, is an expanding trend. The last time I needed to apply for a visa to possibly mass Pakistan’s favourite destination, it took one day of waiting in futility and many hours the next, even though I joined the queue at practically the crack of dawn.

Now, it seems, the courier company that is in charge of checking and accepting visa applications runs an executive centre as well where, at a bumped-up fee, you find yourself amongst peers that are far fewer in number than those outside the ‘normal’ centre. Double the money, halve the time. Since then I’ve found that there are a number of offices that are under pressure, government and otherwise, that offer you the facility of sanity if you’re willing to pay the price.

On the face of it, this is a win-win situation. I don’t have to compete with the thousands who need the same documents, but who are not so fortunately placed. And why not? Don’t airports have business class lounges? Business class travel? The world is structured so that much more is available to those who can afford it.

Think a little further, though, and you realise that this is part of the malaise that means that there are two Pakistans: one where every facility, every imaginable commodity, is available in air-conditioned environs to those with deep pockets, and the other where reality is deprivation, a sticky mass of humanity in a polluted atmosphere competing with bared teeth over hideously few opportunities and resources.

One has private security and bottled water, the other offers the choice of having your phone snatched or getting hepatitis. The latter exists because of the former: in being able to use their resources to compensate for what the state can’t or won’t provide, the elites erode their need to build pressure on the government that would result in the improvement of services. When there are no powerful groups lobbying for reform from the bottom up, the baseline reality continues along its grim trajectory.

The wealthy and the powerful can distance themselves from the reality, in effect wonder why the multitude clamouring for bread doesn’t eat cake instead.

This complicity of the people who theoretically support improved services is one of the problems that needs to be resolved if Pakistan is going to get any better. The elites too — you and I amongst them — are among the various varieties of parasites eating away at this country. As many have lamented, how can there be a revolution if the people talking about it are the ones who stand to lose the most if it actually occurs? In some distant, glittering Pakistan where everybody is truly equal, it is not just the average citizen that will be empowered, it’ll also be the average member of the elite that is disempowered.

And how can anyone allow that?

The writer is a member of staff.