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Opinion

October 4, 2018
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Cosmetic cover

Opinion

October 4, 2018

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Imran Khan and his PTI government’s promise of strict austerity after coming to power is welcome in a country where heads of state and government indulge in opulent lifestyles. In a country starved of resources, money that could be used for far better purposes to improve the welfare of its people is callously squandered. As such, austerity was and is a welcome plan of action.

But what we have seen of the manner in which this austerity is being enacted at present gives cause for a little concern. Opening up governor’s houses to the public is after all a purely cosmetic measure. It is perhaps a democratic one, and welcome as a measure against elitism, but we need drastic change in a country where a third of the people live below the poverty line and nearly 50 percent of children are stunted. Mere cosmetic tinkering will not help. We need a carefully-thought-out policy, perhaps devised over a longer period of time, which can offer genuine change by altering economic policies and governmental priorities.

Reports that some of the austerity is being used as a display of self-righteousness by some government ministers are also disturbing. Recently, a senior minister is understood to have brought a barrage of TV crews into the airport to film him lining up in a queue while scores of security guards stood on duty around him. This could hardly have helped save the country much money.

There are also other things to think about. Whereas a prestigious research university in the ridiculously ornate Prime Minister’s House may in principle sound like a good idea, the real need is to open up institutes of learning genuinely able to deliver education to young people. It is hard for this to occur in a surreally turreted mansion set in a high-security zone. Instead, we need educational institutions with highly qualified faculty members and research amenities, even if they are set in more suitable surroundings.

The current measures seem to be something of a farce. Already, the colonial-era Governor’s House in Lahore has been destroyed in parts because people were let in by the governor before the committee set up to determine how this was to be handled could devise a policy. As a result, a bridge has caved in, shrubbery has been pulled out of the turf and parts of the lavish lawns used as public toilets. In Karachi, the entry of the public seems to have however been more sensibly handled and conducted in an orderly fashion.

Turning governors’ houses into museums or art galleries open to the public is also in principle a good idea. But from where are the artefacts to be conjured up? A committee set up under the first Benazir Bhutto government in 1988 to purchase art has long since fallen into disuse; museums too require a lot of money, a lot of expertise, a lot of care.

We do not need measures meant only to make an impact in headlines or act as cover for everything else that needs to be fixed. There are countries in the world, for example Holland or New Zealand, where prime ministers and ministers use bicycles to commute. Given our security problems, this is quite obviously not practical. But then using a helicopter to be transferred from Islamabad to Bani Gala is also perhaps not the best way to demonstrate austerity.

Some positive measures have indeed been taken such as cutting down on the cavalcade of cars owned by leaders. It is obviously quite unnecessary for one man or woman to be in command of 23 or more luxury vehicles. But perhaps things should be taken further. Promoting Pakistani industry by using Pakistani cars, such as Suzukis, may serve a bigger purpose. This has happened in India, where Marutis made and manufactured in that country have been used by successive prime ministers for decades. Pakistani leaders who have attended state receptions in that country have also reported back with some element of astonishment that only a few dishes were served at the banquets rather than the extravagant and unending array of food that appears to be a compulsory part of official entertainment in our country.

Justin Trudeau in Canada has been known to host simple dinners for other heads of state on his back lawn as children play in the background and the leaders serve themselves from a small buffet table on which only a few dishes and a salad are laid out. This has done nothing to reduce Trudeau’s standing, it appears. We need to set such examples, although it is obvious that most of PTI’s ministers are reluctant to take the first step.

Most importantly the slogan of a ‘Naya Pakistan’ cannot consist merely of measures which exist only on the surface. Far deeper change is required. We must find a way to feed people who are hungry, whose children cannot receive the food they need to reach normal growth. We must set up school and healthcare systems which can reach everyone in need of them across the country. Yes, this is far more difficult than throwing open the gates of governor’s houses. But it is the only thing that would make a difference. It is good to see motorcyclists wearing helmets. But even this will not change the true vices of a country where people come last and too many other items stand before them on the list of priorities.

Economic, social and political policies that put people first must be chalked out. In fact, this should already have happened. After all, the PTI has been preparing to assume power for the last two decades. Now that it has done so, it should have a clear vision of precisely what it wishes to achieve and how. Building a new country requires a huge amount of dedication and radical measures such as those taken by the Sandinistas in Nicaragua after they overthrew the government of the much-hated dictator Anastasio Somoza in 1979.

The Sandinistas under Daniel Ortega, who has once again risen from the ashes in a somewhat different form to rule Nicaragua once again today, immediately set up schools on every piece of land they could find. This they did using volunteers to teach children and ending expenditure on the presidential palace which was turned into offices with even the bathrooms converted into working places. The money saved from cutting staff and maintenance expenditures was used to set up teams of healthcare workers who visited peasants everywhere and offered them basic care. Of course this was easier in a tiny country. It also only lasted till 1990, with the US playing a huge role in overthrowing a government it saw as an ideological threat.

Drastic changes of a similar nature are required. They need not be the same or follow the same ideology. But merely tinkering with the working of the state will not help. We need commitment, ideas, a new vision and then the drive and good sense to implement them. This means sacrifices on the part of the government and also the bureaucracy, which at present is reported to be taking every advantage it can of an inexperienced set of ministers.

This is not a good omen for Imran Khan. He must build around him an army of good advisors and recognise that change in a country facing as many problems as Pakistan will need to reach deep down under the surface and touch people all over the country so that their lives can change for the better.

The writer is a freelance columnist and former newspaper editor.

Email: [email protected]

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