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‘Ex-factor’ on Lahore streets

September 04, 2012

THERE is a government in Pakistan that only promises. Fortunately, there is another in Punjab that is alive to ideas around and willing to execute them.

‘You may sleep without fear. The government is watching.’ This is a typical Rehman Malik statement that has lost whatever sleep-inducing effect it might once have had on people.

With terrorism, sectarian violence and gang wars hogging attention, Pakistanis are exposed to all kinds of crimes and Lahore has had its share of murder and robbery and extremely worried citizens.

The Lahoris may soon regain their sound slumber of old though. Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif has approved the induction of 4,000 ex-soldiers for security duty to “further improve the law and order” in the city.

These soldiers will be hired on contract and will fill the gap created by the deployment of a large number of policemen on guard duty. Police officials say the demand for guard duty, mostly by well-known people faced with threats, has been increasing. Correspondingly, the force’s strength for combating street crime has been declining.

This gap could well have been highlighted as the crime rate peaks around Eid every year. The decision to hire 4,000 ex-army men has come after the Lahore-based newspapers printed around Eid read like never-ending crime bulletins.

Having ex-army for security is not a novel idea that the Punjab government has come up with. It is just a case of keeping your eyes open to the happenings around and learning from the experience of others. Ex-soldiers working as security is the preference in Lahore, even though men with non-army backgrounds can also sometimes be seen masquerading as guards.

The experienced former soldiers are there to impart a smart, efficient look to the receptions of various private organisations. They may be the biggest target group for Kala Kola here, but under the firm title of jawans they have been providing good service at affordable — cheap — rates to those looking for a bit of security.

Actually, all these security guards, a large number of them ex-army, are underpaid, and often made to work with old weapons and in dark blue uniforms that have been sewn in anticipation of their expanding presence. At an average Rs6,000 a month, they get a pittance for performing a very dangerous duty. The firms which recruit them for their clients take their share out of the salary, just like middlemen make money from outsourcing tasks. Since these shooters have a lot of time to kill, they will tell you they could do with a bit of improvement in what they get out of their labour.

The Punjab government’s decision about employing ex-soldiers could well turn out to be the stone that kills two birds. It will restore peace on the streets and could set a trend guaranteeing the security guards better pay and perks all over the city. The government will surely pay them well and that could lead to a hike in the salary of security guards all around.

Obviously there will be those who must remain cramped inside their democratic boxes and criticise the most necessary military interventions as a blow to civilian authority.

The ex-soldiers’ reassuring march on the streets of Lahore may elicit a response from the democrats similar to their reaction to the past Sharif government’s decision to have soldiers accompany Wapda meter readers.

The all-too-proud civilians would be inclined to mention other instances, such as the one where ex-soldiers were given motorcycles by the Punjab government and posted as roving monitors of schools.

Monitoring and Evaluation Assistants, they are called, and Punjab has some 800 of them currently. There have been complaints, and one by female teachers that these MEAs’ way of observing work was too brusque for their own delicate disposition.

Such dissimilarities in perceptions may arise again — but then if you can expect one thing from Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif, you can expect him to stand by the right decision. No one can contest the fact that Lahore could do with some security. Now when the chief minister has finally taken notice of a situation the media was crying hoarse about, some appreciation would be in order.

The policemen are not idle either. Even when they do not want to do it by themselves, the senior policemen are best placed to know who they want to assign security duty.

One of them who spoke to Dawn last week justified the ex-soldiers’ recruitment on the basis of the time hiring of new policemen would have taken.

What clinched the argument though was his view that the decision was inevitable when the police were told they could not be immediately handed back thousands of their men reduced by the security demands of the time to playing bodyguard.

He also showed his preference for ex-commandos — Shahbaz would be all too happy to hire all but one of them. The commandos are more equipped than others to handle a security emergency while all soldiers without doubt inspire greater confidence in people than the ever-suspect policeman.

In order of importance, if the choice is between military and police, the more sensitive jobs would go to the army men. The middle solution thus lies in hiring these ex-army men and using them to replace all the policemen minding the VIPs as guards.

What’s more, released from long boring guard duty, the policemen who are restored to their original work under the proposed scheme will be expected to return reinvigorated. They may turn out to be souls willing and desirous of combating crime.

The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.