Wages of misgovernance

September 20, 2012


MORE than a week after the terrible blaze in Karachi and Lahore, in which some 300 workers perished, the people are still struggling to figure out the possibilities of progressing from rank misgovernance to a reasonably efficient management of public affairs.

The seriousness of the effort is open to question though. Post-disaster cogitation in Pakistan is usually a nine-day affair devoted mostly to emotional dirges and acrimonious statements against some of the easily visible culprits. The link between a disaster and poor governance is seldom addressed and often deliberately ignored.

Instead of owning their failings and shortcomings, administrators and politicians join hands to dismiss disasters as accidents and tragedies beyond human control. Remedial action is limited to writing out cheques for the victims’ families, as if money can be adequate compensation for loss of life and valued relationships, or sending some minor functionaries into the wilderness, that too for a short period.

If the Karachi and Lahore disasters of Sept 11 do persuade the rulers to tackle the issues of misgovernance it will be a welcome break from a reprehensible tradition of criminal neglect of the interests of the people, especially industrial workers.

In 1995, the Sindh inspector-general of police, Mr Afzal Shigri, told human rights activists who were probing matters relating to organised extortion: “The problem in Karachi is that no right or facility, be it an electricity connection or a permit to ply a bus, can be obtained through legal means.”

Seventeen years down the line the disease has spread to all corners of the land. Not only has the use of unlawful means to secure what is legally due become common, our genius has found ways of bypassing the law for all kinds of illegal gains. A great deal of noise is made about the corrupt practices of politicians while an issue of much greater concern is the corruption of the institutions of governance.

Whenever a factory building collapses or is destroyed by fire the first question asked is whether the premises had been built according to the rules. The answer in the case of the Lahore factory that caught fire last week as well as the chemical factory that collapsed some months ago was in the negative. Now Punjab’s smart officials are finding scores of unauthorised and irregular structures.

In Lahore, the problem of industrial units in residential localities, including those producing combustible material for fireworks, has never been solved. But in Karachi’s SITE area, the country’s first and duly planned industrial area, unauthorised construction or irregular maintenance of factories will be considered an avoidable invitation to disaster.

Who is to blame for allowing industrial activity on unsafe premises? The profit-hungry entrepreneurs or those who abolished the system of regular inspection of factories by inspectors employed by the departments of industries and labour? Nowhere does one find respect for the rules for emergency exits and preparedness for dealing with fire that once had to be approved, among others, by the civil defence authorities.

The federal government has now ordered a survey of firefighting arrangements in all factories/establishments. Why was this not done when fire destroyed land records in a Lahore office or a huge treasure of books at Ferozsons, again in Lahore, was reduced to ashes? Perhaps in today’s Pakistani culture, books are more worthless than even factory labour.

The stark reality is that the state’s inspection system has been dysfunctional for years and its revival in Punjab recently leaves much to be desired. If any official does, out of self-interest, visit an establishment to check on safety measures the owners choose insecurity by bribing the intruder.

The Karachi case has also exposed the scandal of workers’ security of tenure. The size of the workforce employed at the garments factory has not been revealed — but figures between 700 and 1,000 have been mentioned. It is said that no more than 250 workers were registered with the Employees Old-Age Benefit Institution (EOBI) and the employees paid contribution for only 200.

This form of exploitation of labour has been noticed all over the country. It has increased in Punjab after the provincial government exempted units employing less than 50 workers from trade union laws. At a large number of places, workers are not on factory rolls and do not have appointment letters. The fact is that labour laws are violated with impunity through collusion between the administration and the employers. And that doubtless amounts to misrule.

No industrial trouble or disaster in Karachi can be examined without reference to the city’s culture of extortion. Were the garments factory’s exit gates locked as protection against raids by bhatta collectors as has been indicated or was this done to imprison workers till the requirements of the export order were met?

If the owners were under extortionists’ threat, the government is responsible for failing to protect them. In the latter case, the government has a duty to ensure that in their zeal to maximise profits the employers do not put at risk the lives of their workers, in some cases their own lives too. Deficiencies in both areas fall in the category of administrative failures.

A friend has pointed out that one of the principal causes of disorder and disaster at industrial units is the suppression of the trade union movement. The government is no longer a neutral referee between employers and employees; over the years it has become more and more hostile to the working class.

Workers have been tried and sentenced under the Anti-Terrorism Act, but no employer has been made to pay for his misdeeds. Strong trade unions can help employers to maintain safety standards and also resist the pressure of corrupt officials. True, labour unions too can make mistakes or advance unfair demands but their capacity to cause harm is much less than their ability to do good.

The lesson from last week’s huge loss of life is that the long-pending task of moving towards good governance and rule of law cannot be delayed. Instead of treating the symptoms of misgovernance, it is the disease that must be attacked.