Monday, July 12, 2010

She is still there, still waiting

He left her there, all alone
She is still there, still waiting
Drifting memories keep coming back to her
Acceding her rave with divergence of her past and present
The past carries the cherished days

The days when he loved to be lost in her eyes
There were fights and sorrows
But every fight or pain never lasted longer
As it dissipated in hugs, laughter and joy
Love was life and freedom
Now he is gone with a promise to return
She is alone there, still waiting
Asleep, awake, by night or day

Hours flying by, days pass into months
Waiting for him is a special affair
Reminiscence is her best refuge
A source of happiness for her un-satiated soul
A Reminder of being alive
A hope for her desperate heart
That there will be a day when they will meet again

She awaits for him all day and night
But in her heart, also abode her fears
The fear which is her worst nightmare
What if he does not come back?
Like all those promised phone calls he never made
What if all her wait goes in vain?
Her fear and hope, her past and present
She is still there, still waiting

Friday, June 18, 2010

Traffic Chaos in Lahore– a public policy failure

Traffic in Lahore city is chaotic, unruly and roads are often jam packed with both motorized and non-motorized vehicles fleet. Due to its magnanimity, rising ‘traffic’ poses a big challenge for all those institutes responsible for planning, devising and implementing transport policies.

Traffic is chaotic because drivers, whether of a bus, a wagon, a car, a rickshaw or a motorcyclist, like driving in their own peculiar way. They are always in such a hurry that most of the time they forget whether they intended to turn left or right. They don’t mind parking their vehicles on sides of congested roads without realizing that their parked vehicle may end up blocking the entire traffic flow. In case of a traffic jam, almost everyone on road, rather than waiting in vain, would worsen the traffic jam by self assuming the responsibility of the traffic wardens and devising a way out for their vehicle only. They also love honking on roads where government has advertised in Urdu “honking is prohibited on this road’.

Perhaps, following no rule is the new rule on roads. Dr. Shabih-ul-Hassan Zaidi thinks that driving license issuing authority is also to be blamed for the behavior of drivers on roads. “Currently, bribing is the standard operating procedure to obtain a driving license. Wanna-be drivers or car owners, who seek a driving license through bribe, do not have to go through the standard test and their driving licenses are delivered at their doorsteps. It is a governance failure”, he added.

Besides people’s behavior on road, there are other multiple issues which are adding up and pointing toward a public policy failure. Firstly, private vehicles (including cars and motorcycles) are increasing at an alarming rate of 12.2% per annum. Dr. Shabih-ul-Hassan Zaidi, a senior town planner was of the view that, for the past six years, the car ownership rate is growing at least five times more than the population growth rate of the country. We have also witnessed the widening of roads to accommodate the increasing number of motorized traffic. “This rapid increase in number of cars is straining the capacity of the existing road infrastructure in Lahore. But widening of roads by reducing the size of green belts is not a viable solution”, pronounced Dr. Shabih-ul-Hassan Zaidi.

One major reason for increase in number of vehicles (cars or motorcycles) is the absence of an efficient public transport system. According to the Lahore Rapid Mass Transit study 2006, there are only 1053 buses for approximately 200,000 regular commuters. In addition to buses, there are 518 mini buses, 475 mini wagons, 34156 rickshaws plying on Lahore roads but still the supply side of the existing public transport system does not match the growing public demand. Secondly, the condition of all public buses, mini buses or wagons is very terrible. Bus services such as New Khan and Daewoo, which started some ten years back, have increased their fare many times but apparently maintenance of these buses is the least priority.

Thirdly, is the role of the corporate sector which has exploited the existing gap created due to the wretched public transport system, by offering easy car leasing options to people. Now anyone with a few months of job experience can lease out a car. Neither the corporate sector nor buyers think for a second the environmental consequences of selling or buying cars. Of course, the former is aiming at more profit and the later their own convenience.  

Fourthly, there is the issue of governance or the lack of it, which is exacerbating the problem. For instance, there are number of government bodies responsible for managing and planning traffic and transport issues of the city. Some of these departments include Punjab Transport Department, Traffic Engineering and Planning Authority, City district government, Urban Unit of Planning and Development Department, City Traffic Police etc. “roles and responsibilities of all these departments’ overlap. Additionally, they work in isolation and coordination is completely missing”, says Dr. Ghulam Abbas Anjum, Chairman of City and Regional Planning Department.

A joint-up government is the new approach, which requires involvement of all relevant government departments, has been employed in countries like Australia to solve wicked problems such as traffic congestion. Nevertheless, such an approach is completely missing in case of city Lahore. Here, the Transport Department of the Government of Punjab is developing a transport plan of the city but unfortunately, Traffic Engineering and Planning Authority has not been taken on board prior to embarking on any future transport plan. It appears that the introduction of joint-up government concept would take some time in countries like Pakistan.

Similarly, the knowledge of experts, working in various government departments of Lahore, about existing national framework for transport is also a matter of great concern. I talked to Mr. Mohammad Ozair, Senior Transport Specialist of the Urban Unit, Planning and development department and asked whether Pakistan has any national transport policy. Mr. Ozair was completely ignorant about any such policy at the national level even though such a national level policy was formulated through assistance of Asian Development Bank.

But what experts say to resolve the traffic congestion issue in Lahore. Dr. Shabih-ul-Hassan Zaidi thinks that policy planners should adopt the multi-nuclei concept of town planning. This concept entails decentralization of town centers by developing new town centers. This will reduce the traffic congestion by distributing traffic to multiple town centers. By doing so, the average travel time would also be reduced. On the contrary, Dr. Ghulam Abbas Anjum, Chairman of City and Regional Planning Department, was of the viewpoint that the only viable option is to provide an efficient public transport system to the city dwellers. “Traffic congestion would be reduced to a great extent if government considers the option of rapid mass transit bus or rapid mass transit rail system. Lahore Rapid Mass Transit Rail Project (LRMT) is already on the table but there were serious delays due to unavailability of funds”, pronounced Dr. Ghulam Abbas Anjum.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Hate Speech, Our actions and Inactions

Today, I came across couple of pictures on twitter which was a clear enough evidence of how minorities are treated in Pakistan. The first picture tweeted by Beena Sarwar, a veteran Pakistani journalist, captured a banner displayed outside Lahore High Court with the slogan “Jews, Christians and Ahmedis are enemies of Islam”. The second picture, tweeted by Shahid Saeed, was of a billboard with the logo of Auqaf Department Punjab, stating “Friendship with Ahmedis is a revolt against Prophet Muhammad (PBUH)”. This kind of provocative banners and billboards perpetuate nothing but sheer hatred against minorities such as Ahmedis.

We have already witnessed the resultant effect of this hate speech on May 28th, in a massacre of two worship places of Ahmedis, which killed at least 100 civilians and left many injured. Ironically, despite such a massive bloodshed of a minority community, the reluctance of the Government of Punjab to order removal of all such provocative banners is outrageous. Rather, Government of Punjab is allowing Auqaf Department to continue sponsoring provocative billboards to win support and avoid wrath of religious parties. By doing so, Punjab government is not only neglecting its constitutional responsibility of protecting minorities but it is also fanning hate speech against Ahmedis. Should not it be called a ‘state sponsored terrorism” against Ahmedis community?

Similarly, there are our so called leaders of religious parties who have been campaigning against Ahmedis for so many years. Recently, these religious leaders have condemned the attacks on Ahmedis but they have also declared  these attacks as a western ‘conspiracy’ to build pressure on Pakistan to amend blasphemy laws, to do more for the US led war on terror and to create justification for a possible attack on southern Punjab. It is pertinent to note that these religious parties have been infusing people’s minds with such ‘conspiracy theories’ since ages. Subsequently, what they have accomplished is support from masses to spread the hate speech and also religious bigotry.

But leaders of religious parties did not limit themselves by highlighting the so called conspiracies, some of them pronounced blanket statements on minorities protection. For instance, the attention-grabbing statement by Syed Munawar Hassan, Ameer Jaamat-i-Islami, also surfaced in the media, who said that “minorities are secure in Pakistan”. Such statement seems inane if we look at the history of persecution, indiscrimination, intimidation and gross atrocities faced not only by Ahmedis but also other minorities such as Christians. Pakistan’s treatment of minorities has been called ‘worse’ time and again by the Human Rights Watch and Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. There are innumerable examples of gross atrocities committed against monitories in our country. For instance, Gojra massacre, May 28th carnage etc. Similarly, displaying anti-Ahmedis banners and hoardings at public places and the inaction of our provincial government is a reflection for us to acknowledge that minorities are neither respected nor secure in Pakistan.

How many people protested against and condemned the May 28th massacre on Ahmedis’ community? Well, there were only 40 people who turned-up at Islamabad press club to attend the protest and same goes with other cities of Pakistan. On the contrary, on May 31, country wide protests were arranged in Pakistan to condemn Israel’s attack on a flotilla of aid ships going to Gaza. Does not this attitude elucidate our double standards? We are in a state of denial and live with our own prejudices. We are intolerant toward minorities (whether Ahmedis, Christians or Hindus); we disrespect them and deny their fundamental rights. We don’t reflect upon our own actions and inactions and blame others for hatching conspiracies against us.  

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Rehman Malik on Twitter - Is it a news worth reporting???

Across the world politicians use popular social networking sites such as facebook and twitter not only to mobilize people (particularly younger generation) but also to win their hearts and minds. It is very much normal considering the modern age's information and communication revolution and the advent of technology. Nevertheless, why is it such a surprise if Pakistani politicians, following footprints of their western counterparts, also join such social networking sites? Recently, Interior Minister Rehman Malik has joined twitter after the facebook ban in the country. Surprisingly, ‘Rehman Malik's Joining the Twitter bandwagon” is big news in Pakistan as both print and electronic media reporters have consumed their energies yesterday in reporting this unprecedented holy event. It is pertinent to note that all the news reports, highlighting Rehman Malik’s joining the twitter, point out the same thing such as : Why Rehman Malik joined twitter, how many people are following him at present, what sort of questions followers are asking from him and what replies our Interior Minister has furnished so far.

This news, first reported by Chris Allbritton of Reuter, was also filed by Pakistani journalists with the same vigor (and a little bit of editing as the contents remains more or less same as that of Chris Allbritton’s report). But this raises few questions:

  • Firstly, Rehman Malik Joining Twitter is really some news worth publishing particularly when there are hundreds of stories (worth publishing) being ignored by Pakistani media. For instance, there was no coverage of PC hotel workers strike in Karachi though it was actively covered by Pakistani bloggers like Dr. Awab Alvi. Similarly, there was no media coverage of Mai Jori Jamali’s election campaign, a peasant woman who contested bi-elections in Balochistan. Likewise, press conference of Dr Awab Alvi and other activists on facebook ban and consequent manhandling of Dr. Awab Alvi by angry mobsters (including some journalists) was also not covered by the media?? Why? Only because all (the cases which I mentioned above) were raising their voice against status quo?
  • Secondly, why media exert their energies on reporting on non-issues when there is a plethora of real issues? We have always been hearing by our politicians and development workers that media could play a role of a change agent because of its level of influence and reach to common people. In that regard, why women issues are given less coverage? Why corruption in society is not highlighted the way it should be?? Why gross human rights violations are never surfaced?? 
  • Thirdly, why media has such an ambiguous stand on certain issues, for instance facebook ban?? Is not this ban anti ‘freedom of speech’ and if yes then why media is not very vocal and express what is rational???
I don’t have any answer to these questions but I would request my readers to shed some light on questions, I underlined above, and enlighten me with their responses. Besides, if  you guys would like to read the news of Rehman Malik joining twitter and want to get amused then you can find it herehere and here….

Note: originally posted at 

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Women Employment in Public Sector in Pakistan

In Pakistan, the popular aphorism is that the concentration of women workforce is higher in education and health sectors compared to other sectors such as engineering, telecommunication etc.  Perhaps, women would be working more as teachers, doctors or nurses but at large, proportion of women working at administrative or decision-making posts in education and health departments also present a very dismal picture particularly when the government’s initiative of increasing women’s employment in public sector is concerned.

Women’s meagre participation in the public sector is not specific to one province or locality, but all provincial departments are by large male dominated. In one of the discussion fora in Karachi, I heard Mehtab Akbar Rashidi, former secretary culture, government of Sindh, saying that “out of 28 government departments in Karachi, only two women are working at the decision making level”. Experts quote gender stereo-typing as one main reason for the prevalent gender gap in government offices.

The recently accumulated statistics by the Ministry of Labor and Manpower confirm that a significant gender-gap exists in Pakistan’s public sector. At present, women constitute only 10.7% of the total workforce in the country and their proportion in public sector is even less than 2%.  Another study commissioned by the National Commission on the Status of Women reveals the absence of women from decision-making positions in the public sector. In lieu of the situation, NCSW had recommended the government to allocate a 50% quota for women in all public sector jobs. Nevertheless, NCSW’s recommendation has never been adopted by the government due to a lack of political will.

Later on, the Government of Pakistan, as a pre-condition of availing technical assistance from the Asian Development Bank, introduced the Gender Reform Action Plan with women employment in the public sector as being one of the key reform areas. As per the GRAP policy, the government aims to take measures at both pre and post induction stages in order to engender the entire induction process. Proposed with an intention to encourage more women to join public sector, these measures include:
“Establishment of career development centers for young female graduates; affirmative advertisement of public sector vacancies; reservation of employment quota for women in all public sector jobs; inclusion of at least one woman member on every selection or departmental promotion committee; appointing at least 3 women members on the Federal Services Commission and enforcement of code of ethics to protect women from sexual harassment at workplace and so on and so froth”.

The overall picture of achievements of policy measures to enhance women’s participation in the public sector is still very murky. Recent findings of a research study conducted by the Citizens Commission on Human Development highlights that the GRAP has not achieved its key policy objective of increasing women employment in public sector both at the federal and provincial levels. Instead of the proposed 25% quota a meagre 10% quota has been introduced through a directive from the Establishment Division at the federal level.  While in key departments women friendly infrastructure( rest rooms, toilets, day care centres) has either been up-graded or developed, where found missing.

In case of Punjab, career development centres in four public sector universities have been established and an internship program is underway too. Even though there is no scientific data available on the success of initiatives being taken, an ADB representative from Punjab opined that career development initiatives have no visible impact so far due to delays in implementation.  While in the remaining three provinces (Sindh, Balochistan and Pakhtoon Khawa) the progress is almost negligible due to multiple reasons such as lack of ownership, issues of capacities, inadequate planning and gender partial policy framework.

There is a realization among key government functionaries and parliamentarians about the slow progress in increasing the proportion of women employees in all government offices. For instance, Ms. Tauqir Fatima Bhutto, Minister of Women Development Sindh, in a public debate organized by the CCHD, pronounced that  

“Women development department had conducted an assessment of all departments to check whether women employees make-up at least 10% of total workforce and we find out that women were even less than 2%. The women development department has also apprised the Chief Minister time and again about the progress made so far. All departments have been  requested to send reports specifying percentage of women but the response is very luke- warm. We can not achieve our policy objective without full cooperation of all relevant departments”.

But this realization is not enough for bringing a transformation in our society. What is needed is a change of men’s mindset, who are responsible for policymaking in majority of cases. If this doesn’t happen, then GRAP and its accompanying set of reforms will be reminiscent of all previously envisaged policies, concerning women empowerment and equality, which were only words and no actions. Women rights activists believe that with a large number of women parliamentarians in national and provincial assemblies, this is the right time to make headways to mainstreaming gender in public institutions, process and policies. 

Monday, May 24, 2010

As I let myself sink

Walking on this never ending dark alley
Do I Know Where I am?
And where are you?

Weren’t you there a while ago?
Standing besides me, holding my hand
Smiling and crying
Promising me to never leave me alone
Or was it just a dream?

What am I doing in this dark alley?
Looking for those lost moments?
Searching for you, your smile and your promises
Drowning myself in my own tears
Where are you? I look again

I close my eyes
I see some light
And I saw you standing there
Saying good-bye
You turned around with apathy, Ah, and I saw you go

Don’t leave me, I hear myself crying
You did not hear that
You are too hurriedly walking away; yes away from me
Something breaks inside me with a bang
Something bleeds too
And I stand like a stone while you disappeared in the dark

Yes, it is dark inside too; I don’t know why
I open my eyes to find hope outside
Ah, I am in that purgatory dark lane again
Guarded by my own tears,  and my own sorrow
Numbness creeps inside me

I succumb myself to water 
Letting myself sink deep down there
Remembering (Ah, memory)
Once you said
“I am water and you are fire”,
I let myself sink in water
Because water is you…..

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

No Water Conservation Drive??

Today, on my way to the office, I had a short conversation with my office driver on hot weather in Lahore and the ‘brilliant’ coping strategy adopted by him for dealing with the heat waves during nights. The driver apprised me that at night he leaves a running water pipe in his room cooler so that water in the room cooler does not finish off in the middle of night. Surprised at his inane approach, I asked him that is not he contributing toward wasting our already ‘depleting’ water resources. My office driver gave an outstanding reply to me saying “No, water is available in abundance in Pakistan. I have installed a water boring machine and a big water storage tank in my house. Every day, I pump water through that boring machine in the water storage tank. The stored water is sufficient enough for my family even if I leave one tap running the whole night”. The bottom line of his message was:  My water tank is full and it belongs to me. I have the full authority to use it the way I want .Even I can leave one tap open at night for my own convenience and it is no wastage”.

Whether call this attitude ignorance or lack of civic responsibility but wasting water is widespread in Pakistan, a country which is declared as ‘water scarce’ in 2009 research conducted by the Woodrow Wilson Centre. In urban centers like Lahore, People would leave their taps running for hours in their houses, or they would wash their houses and streets everyday (though after washing streets they do not mind littering the streets with the same fervor, hence wasting not only water but also their own effort of cleaning the street) or they would wash their cars everyday for hours besides cursing the government for not providing them electricity for 24 hours everyday. Contrarily to this, in remote part of the country people do not get clean water to drink and there women have to cover a long distance to fetch water for drinking and other household uses. But do we know and do we care that water resources are not easily accessible to many Pakistanis.

But do they know that Pakistan has scarce water resources and the rapidly growing population of the country is further exhausting the limited water resources. Or that only 10% of available water resources have been allocated for consumption (for drinking and sanitation purposes) at the household level for the entire population of the country. Or that besides wastage of water by them, there are also system losses or leakages in municipal water supply system. Perhaps they also do not know about the very recent prediction by the Water and Development Authority that the per capita availability of water in Pakistan will further decrease from 1,038 cubic meters in 2010 to 809 cubic meters in 2025. Or that in wake of current water crisis, some responsibility also fall on their shoulders to discontinue old practices of wasting of water.

And why the common masses do not know all these facts? Because, our national media (both print and electronic) is busy in selling products ( beverages, shampoos etc) but its role in spreading awareness pertaining to water conservation to the general public is completely non-existent. Meanwhile, in developed countries such as Australia (which is also a water deficient country), electronic media (television) is actively engaged in spreading water conservation awareness (including recycling of rain water) to Australian population. Similarly, our government is also silent on this issue and same goes with the non-state actors or civil society organizations, whose efforts on promoting water conservation in the country are not very visible. In short, a collective approach for water conservation is altogether missing, which requires all stakeholders including policy-makers, civil society organizations, media and common people to strive toward one goal of using water rationally and responsibly.

Pakistan commemorates World Water Day every year; on this year’s water day, the participating organizations (government and non-government) vowed to raise awareness across the country on water conservation. But that pledge, like many more pledges, has not yet materialized in concrete actions.  Perhaps, government and non-government actors are waiting for the next year World Water Day to make the same pledge again of ‘awareness pertaining to water conservation’. 

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Gift in Kind : A case of 1 MillionShirts

For the past few days, many international aid workers were tweeting on Twitter about 1 MillionShirts. With an interest in ‘Aid Effectiveness’, I also re-tweeted whatever information I received from the people I follow on twitter. Like my fellow tweepls, my aim was to generate public awareness on effectiveness of ill-thought out gift-in-kind aid projects such as the 1 MillionShirts.

So what is this 1 MillionShirts? Well, a lot has already been written about this specific project by international aid workers which can be found here. But to update readers of this blog, let me provide you a succinct brief on 1 MillionShirts: A guy @iwearyourshirt aka Jason, with no prior experience or knowledge of international development work, one day , came up with the idea of helping poor people living in Africa. He assumed providing clothes to poor people is one of their urgent needs so he should collect used shirts along with US$ 1 (the shipment cost for single shirt) which later on will be sent to Africa for subsequent distribution to people in dire need of clothes. Considering it a novel idea, the guy also applied for registration of his organization as non-profit under 501C3 (simply to avoid taxes as his website suggests) in Colorado and initiated his campaign (on twitter) of collecting used shirts. He also entered into partnership with two relief organizations ‘H.E.L.P. International’ and ‘Water is life’. It is pertinent to note here that these afore mentioned organizations despite their experience of working in international development and relief work, agreed to 1 MillionShirts idea.

What went wrong here?? Well, the guy @iwearyourshirt aka Jason did not bother researching on internet about what sort of aid ideas are worth doing and what sort of aid ( in-kind or cash) would foster what kind of positive or negative impact.

What went well here? A quick response from international aid workers was surfaced, thanks to the advent of technology and internet due to which, these days, information travels as faster and quicker as the speed of light. Some of the development workers (@texasinafrica; @TalesFromthHood; @saundra_s; @Katrinskaya;@Michael_Keizer; @morealitude; @tmsruge; @alanna_shaikh; @meowtree;@IdealistNYC) learnt about this shirt idea and hence a debate began about the issue. International aid workers not only criticize 1 MillionShirts idea but they also furnished some recommendations. And what did they discuss: 1 MillionShirts idea is bad.

And why did international aid worker think it was a bad idea to send 1 millionshirts to Africa. Aid workers furnished a number of reasons: Firstly, according to them providing clothing to needy people in Africa or elsewhere is a noble act but it is not one of the urgent or immediate needs (such as medicine, food etc) that are to be met in the short run. Secondly, Africa has cloth manufacturers and if somebody is that interested in providing clothing to Africans then those clothes which are produced in local markets should be procured rather than the second hand imported clothes. From experience of international development workers, one thing is evident that such a supply of second hand cloths is definitely going to affect the African cloth manufacturers, this has already happened in case of Zambia in 1991(discussed here in detail). Thirdly, there are huge logistics / shipping costs involved which can be avoided if aid commodities are procured locally.

Is 1 MillionShirts idea really that bad? The criticism of development workers is to the point and timely. I will add some thing from my experience of volunteering for October 8 Earthquake in Pakistan, because it somehow relates to this 1 Million Shirts idea. I tell you, many voluntary groups had appealed to people of Pakistan to donate clothes for earthquake victims. People responded generously to the request of voluntary groups and even they had donated their ‘wedding clothes’ which were completely unfit in severe cold weather, hence, majority of such clothes were dumped in heaps despite the fact some shipping cost also incurred on them.

Then question arises, if gift in kind ( such as clothes, shoes etc) are not the right kind of donation then what people can give to help the needy people living in their own country or in some other country. The answer to that question is ‘cash’ because development workers normally conducts need assessments after every disaster (it had happened in case of October 8 Earthquake in Pakistan) and prioritize the needs requiring immediate attention. If donations are given in ‘cash’ rather than in kind than it not only makes the work of development/relief workers much easier but it also contributes in addressing the immediate needs.

Getting back to 1 MillionShirts Idea, when I first heard about this, the first thing which came to my mind was the Paris Declaration on ‘Aid’s Effectiveness’ and I thought since USA is one of the party of the Paris Declaration and the Accra Agenda for Action, then perhaps there would be a proper channel in the USA to streamline or keep a check on private aid flows of non-profits such as 1 MillionShirts. I raised the same question here and got a response from @saundra_s, who is trying to create awareness on ‘donor education and impact of aid’. According to @saundra_s, registering as a non-profit is quite an easy task in the USA; it’s not obligatory on non-profits to follow good aid practices and standards, principles or practices imposed on non-profits are voluntary”.

Now this is another dimension of how bad aid ideas are usually generated [kindly note that 1 MillionShirts is not the first project of this nature, there have been other such as projects as sole for souls]. Should it be mandatory on non-profits to follow certain procedures, practices or standards while planning their projects, then perhaps ideas such as 1 MillionShirts would have been tackled from the very beginning. This reflects the need for more rigorous regulations on non-profits in the USA in order to contribute toward effectiveness of aid and fulfilling the commitment made under Accra Agenda for Action. It also requires educating donors (people who give donations) about in-kind or cash aid and its impact, something which @saundra_s and many other international aid workers are advocating for. 

Friday, April 30, 2010

Where is my teacher?

" I am in school today to study but our teacher is absent for the last two days", says this beautiful little girl who was playing in the school with other girls because their teacher was absent . True, many teachers in remote villages of Punjab either arrive at least two-hours late to school or remain absent without any prior information simply because there is no check and balance in place. Teachers' frequent absenteeism in schools definitely have serious repercussions not only on delivery of education but also on the objective of keeping these girls' students in schools. Currently, poor parents, in remote areas such as Rohjan Tehsil, District Rajanpur, despite their poverty are sending these girls' to school only because they want their daughters to be educated. But teachers' absenteeism could let parents think otherwise. Are we going to achieve the Millennium Development Goal of Universal Primary Education by 2015 with frequent teacher absenteeism in schools of remote areas? Who is accountable here?? Government? School Teachers? 

Energy Conservation Drive: Is passing of orders good enough to bring behavioral change??

Recently the incumbent government, as part of its energy conservation drive, has announced two weekly holidays and 9:00am-8:00pm market timings across Pakistan. The logic behind this hasty policy decision is that by implementing these steps the government will be able to reduce consumption of electricity / fuel and overcome the worsening power shortage in the country. Some people (of course government officials) are cherishing this decision while others (traders and common consumers) are criticizing it. This made me think: are we civilized enough that we will change our behavior by mere governmental orders?

I was in Multan the day when this decision was notified by the government. The next day (Saturday), I had a visit scheduled to few basic health units in Muzaffargarh. At around 8:30 pm on April 23rd, I received a telephone call from a district officer informing me “Please plan your visit on some other day as Saturday’ is an official holiday and hence all the basic health units would be closed on April 24th “.

The district officer appeared quiet excited on the prospect of getting two days off each week and simply said ‘We have to follow the government’s decision government” when I asked him perhaps there is some misunderstanding in interpreting the government’s order as how the government could order closing down of health facilities for two days each week?

I was amazed at how swiftly this decision was implemented by the government officials, despite the fact that their source of information was TV and they had not received anything in written.  It is also pertinent to note that these government officials do not work the whole day and their normal practice every day is arriving one hour late and leaving one hour early. I asked the district official why all the government officials don’t follow government’s timings with the same enthusiasm. In response, I heard ‘laughter’ and I felt as if I was hitting my head against a wall. Let me add something ironic here, health centers remain closed on April 24th and later on I read in the newspaper this ‘Saturday’ holiday was not meant to be implemented in government hospitals and health centers.

The same night, I received many telephone calls from the government officials (health and education departments) I liaison with on daily basis. The crux of all such telephone calls was ‘Woohoo, we’ve also got two weekly holidays’. I was utterly amazed at the welcoming of the ‘two weekly’ holidays by the government officials particularly when we all know the productivity of these government officials.

Let me give you an example of how serious they are when it is about ‘work’/ or to what extent work is their prime priority. Yesterday, I had a meeting scheduled with two of the government officials, X and Y, of the education department in my office. Mr. X did not attend the meeting and continued furnishing one lame excuse after another when I called him to inquire whether he is going to attend the meeting or not. Later on Mr. Y informed me that Mr X was busy dealing with his ‘family’ issue during office hours. Mr Y had shown up for the meeting but he was completely un-prepared. Consequently, I had to push him to agree on certain deadlines and apprise me by Friday of the progress. Before leaving my office, Mr Y informed me that he would be visiting his sister now instead of going back to office. Well, yes one meeting a day is too much of a work for the government officials and despite getting one more holiday they will not deliver what is expected from them.

On the other hand, traders and consumers appear very concerned on new market timings of 9:00am-8:00pm. Traders have shown their reservations quiet blatantly and have demanded the government to take remove this time limit. I know from my experience of living in Australia the normal market timings are 9:00am-6:00pm and there I never saw neither traders nor customers complaining about narrow market timings simply because they are organized and follow rules and regulations.

Nevertheless, here in Pakistan 9:00am – 8:00pm market timing limit has made both traders and consumers unhappy. Traders are not following the newly introduced timings and small market shops remain open as late as 11:00 pm. I talked to few working class women to get their views on early closure of markets and get their response as “After office, it is too hot to go outside and shop.

The option of shopping at night suits us more and also we are used to it now. Why government is making such a ‘stupid’ decision’. Irony is that neither the traders are willing to logically think that if they open their shops at sharp 9:00 and close them at sharp 8:00pm then by hook or by crook their customers will get used to it and hence it won’t have any impact on their sale. Similarly, the working class also fails to see that they are already getting ‘ Saturday’ as a holiday which they can utilize for ‘shopping’ and  it is only that they have to organize their daily routine .

Certainly, behavioral change is not that easy.  Introduction of two weekly holidays for government officials does not mean that government will do away with their other ill habits such as not following official timings and not delivering when it is required. Similarly, we are not sure whether the new market timings will be implemented in true spirit because people who are responsible for getting them enforced are themselves ‘government officials’.

At the end I really would like to ask a question from the government: Should we expect three days off per week next year if the power crisis continues at the same frequency?

Monday, March 29, 2010

Struggling Below the Poverty Line

Life is not easy for millions of people living in urban and rural areas of Pakistan. The country is witnessing a worse energy crisis of all times, which has resulted in low industrial productivity, down turned economy, high inflation rate and high incidence of poverty. Similarly, unemployment is on the rise and more and more people find themselves trapped in a vicious cycle of poverty.  

According to the State Bank of Pakistan’s Annual Report 2009, approximately 70 million people live below the poverty line in Pakistan. This implies that their daily earning is less than one dollar a day (80 Pakistani Rupees). This incidence of poverty is at least six times higher than that of 1999. This is also reflective of the fact that Pakistan is far behind in accomplishing the millennium development goal of reducing the proportion of people whose income is less than one dollar a day.

Less rainfall and the continuous drought like situation in the country is also adding to this high occurrence of poverty. The aftermath of less rainfall is the reduction in the yield of the agricultural produce such as wheat, which is the main staple food of the country. Consequently, this year the price of essential commodities, such as flour and sugar, has increased at least 80 % and 152 % respectively.

Despite this price hike, there is no rise in people’s monthly income. The escalated food prices have a severe impact on people’s buying capacity of essential food items. People’s purchasing capacity has decreased manifold as compared to the past. According to an estimate; today people spend more than 50 % of their monthly income on buying essential food commodities. As a result of sky rocketing food prices and low buying capacity of people, the food insecurity is also on rise.

Based on the prevalent food insecurity in Pakistan, the International Food Policy Research Institute has ranked Pakistan at number 61, out of 88 countries, on Global Hunger Index 2009.  This ranking suggests that in Pakistan, the number of malnourished children, calorie deficient people and child mortality are ‘alarming’ with widespread food insecurity problems ( hunger, poverty, malnourishment, undernourishment etc)  prevalent in 95 districts ( 79 % of total 121 districts) of Pakistan.

In such a scenario where people spend a major portion of their meager income on buying food items or when they do not have enough money to feed themselves and their families, other basic necessities such as education and health needs of the family, particularly of girls and women, are completely ignored. Instead of investing more on food insecurity, health and education; the government has downsized its Public Sector Development programs by 40 % to address its growing security needs resulting from the spread of terrorism in the country.

Rather than cutting down Public Sector Development Programs, the Government of Pakistan needs to invest more on programs and projects with a focus on poverty reduction, food insecurity, health and education. Additionally government should also provide appropriate safety-nets to the poor and vulnerable to help them mitigate the negative impacts of soaring food prices and poverty.

Given the grim picture of state of affairs pertaining to increase in poverty and food insecurity, the role of organizations such as World Food Programme becomes crucial. In partnership with the government and its various other cooperating partners (NGOs), WFP is not only addressing the short-term hunger needs of the poor and vulnerable communities but its food assistance is also contributing toward increasing girls’ primary schools enrollment as well as promoting safe motherhood across Pakistan.

However, to help those struggling below the poverty line in Pakistan and across the world, WFP needs your support and action. To find out how you can help WFP, please click here..

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Pakistan’s Poli-tricking (Reality) Show

The political arena of Pakistan mocks all Pakistanis in their faces, for their decision of electing and giving power to all the incumbent politicians, who these days are busy showing ridiculous poli-tricking to all ordinary Pakistanis. Pakistani citizens have witnessed numerous stints of our elected politicians since the day of the first session of the incumbent parliament. This poli-tricking show is like the famous reality show, True Man Show , which is broadcasted live 24 hours a day. We, the ordinary citizens, can not escape any of its episodes, no matter wherever we go, whatever we do, and how bad are the performing politicians.

Most of the time, this live poli-tricking show also gives us a taste of Indian Soap Dramas, where various political parties would be either in some love-hate relationship or seen as playing roles of ‘Saas and Bahu’ . Audience (we, the people) can easily guess who is ‘Saas(mother-in-law)’ and who is ‘Bahu(sister-in-law)’. Let us not forget that in making this poli-tricking show a ‘reality’, ‘Establishment’ worked untiringly and provided back the stage support to all the elected cast, and also continued adding various spices and missing ingredients to it.

To recall, the very first episode of the poli-tricking show was a love-love relationship when the major political parties, for the first time in Pakistani history, formed an alliance to run this country which is now considered as one of the most dangerous state of the world. Though appreciated by the general audience, this love-love relationship was very short lived and as said and written time and again by both the print and electronic journalists, ‘came to its logical conclusion’. The bone of contention between various political actors was the issue of reinstatement of deposed judges and the repeal of the notorious 17th Amendment.

In the next episode of this famous reality show, deposed Judges were reinstated and this action was commemorated as the ‘Independence of judiciary’. The Judiciary became so ‘independent’ that our reinstated Chief Justice had taken ‘Sou Motu Notice’ many times including that of the National Reconciliation Ordinance. The much ‘applauded’ step of our Herculean Chief Justice was of making the National Reconciliation Ordinance null and void.

The Chief Justice also had a tough wrestling match with the presidency on the issue of appointment of judges, which by the grace of Establishment and the PML-N was won again by our Herculean Chief Justice and ‘independent’ judiciary. Till-to-date, the Chief Justice has got his own ‘wanted’ judges appointed to the Supreme Court and yes as goes the saying ‘ Judiciary is more Independent now as compared to the past in the history of Pakistan’. But ironically, despite its touted ‘independence’ the judiciary has not yet been able to clear the backlog and pending cases, consequently, ordinary citizens are still denied the due ‘justice’. But, it does not matter if the judiciary is inept and lazy but let us not forget that it is ‘Independent’.

And coming to the current episode, the political stage is all set for the ‘Constitutional Reforms’ package. Besides, our two heroes, General Ashfaq Kiyani and Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, have recently been to Uncle Sam’s land for playing a ‘strategic dialogue’ with their shopping basket / wish list in their hands. Though our heroes have returned back home with a few carrots but how many sticks they have received is yet to be seen. In the next episode of ‘strategic dialogue, game play will be resumed again in coming months in Islamabad (perhaps not from the very beginning).

Nevertheless, the current episode is equally entertaining with ‘Constitutional Reforms’ taking a new twist. When a couple of days back, Nawaz Sharif of PML-N in one of his (foolish) stunts , has surprised everyone by expressing his reservations on the Constitutional Reforms package prepared by the Raza Rabbani’s Constitutional Reforms Committee. The hallmark of Nawaz Sharif’s action was two hurriedly called press conferences to express his ‘principled stand’ and show his love for ‘democracy’.

But throughout this whole two years poli-tricking show, the general audiences were comfortably numbed by the suicide blasts, the electricity and water shortage and the rising food prices. We, the people still do not know the future of this ‘reality show’ as some ‘hidden hand’ is busy in planning and staging the next episode for us. Yet, this reality show has confirmed the notion that ‘democracy is the best revenge’ and all the political actors of our reality show are busy taking revenge from each other in their own defined ‘(un)democratic way’.  

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Violence, fraudulent voting, rigging –Elections and Pakistan

In 2008, I got an opportunity to work with the Victorian Election Commission, Australia. The task assigned to me (and many other hundreds like me) was to enter the votes casted in various constituencies in a specifically designed database for the 2008 Local Government Elections of Victoria, one of the states of Australia. Let me describe here a few things which I observed while feeding the ballot papers’ results into the computer database.  Firstly, candidates and their authorized campaigners were present in the building to oversee the whole election results compilation process.

Secondly, to my surprise, neither the candidates nor their supporters chanted slogans, or had a fight or exchange of bad words with each other. Thirdly, the whole process was very smooth and transparent for the reason that each candidate’s authorized campaigners were allowed to stand beside each data entry operator to better gauge the vote entry process. Fourthly, the Election Commission’ staff was treating all candidates equally. The election results were accepted by all candidates and no complaint of unfairness or rigging were heard from the losing candidates. To me as an outsider to Australian system of governance and voting, the whole process seemed very democratic, free and fair. But then the question arises what is free and fair election process?

An election process is termed as ‘free’ if it does not breach fundamental rights and freedoms such as: freedom of speech, expression, association; freedom to register as a voter/candidate; freedom from violence and freedom of access to the polls by electors, party agents and accredited observers etc. Similarly, the electoral process will be ‘fair’ if all parties, elector and candidates are provided with a level playing field. Other important components which are needed to organize ‘fair’ elections include: a non-partisan electoral commission / organization, equitable treatment of electors, candidates and parties by elections officials, the government, the police, the military and the judiciary, an open and transparent ballot counting process. As a matter of fact, the Australian election process reflects what I have already described as ‘free and fair’.

Since ‘free and fair’ has become an international yard stick to judge the quality of elections anywhere in the world, let us discuss whether the election process in Pakistan is free and fair? Not really, elections in Pakistan are always hallmarked by fraudulent voting and unfairness. The losing political party / groups are always alleging the winning party/group of rigging in elections. Violence and intimidation are common tactics employed to harass the opposing political parties and their electors. Police is deployed to tackle incidents of violence at the polling stations but still due to intolerant culture of political parties such incidents are unavoidable. For counting votes and compilation of results, the same outdated manual counting system is used which lacks transparency. To cite as an example, the case in point is the yesterday’s by-election of PP-111 in Gujrat, where there was a tough contest between PML-N (the ruling party of Punjab) and PML-Q.

As reported in today’s Dawn, The PML-N’s candidate has won the by-election in PP-111 with a very thin margin (3000 votes only). Nevertheless, PML-Q leadership is accusing the ruling party of attacking the women’s polling stations, torturing the presiding officers and also of damaging the polling material. A preliminary report issued by the Free and Fair Election Network (FAFEN), an independent election observer group comprising 30 leading civil society organizations, also confirms that Gujrat by-election was marked by fraudulent voting and interference by unauthorized persons particularly police officers appointed at the polling stations. FAFEN observers have also highlighted that the supporters of the contesting candidates were sloganeering and canvassing within the limits of the polling stations, which in reality is a sheer violation of the rules set under the election laws.

FAFEN observers have also pointed out other important shortcomings particularly pertaining to the electoral rolls and use of CNIC for voting. According to the observer group, the same 2008 general elections’ electoral rolls were used in Gujrat by-election. Additionally, voters were allowed to cast vote without the CNIC. It is pertinent to note that this is not the first time FAFEN has underlined massive anomalies involved in elections in Pakistan. The question is whether the responsible government institutions i.e. election commission ever took notice of the observations and recommendations of independent election observer groups such as FAFEN to further improve the electoral process?

A number of reasons can be pronounced about inability of the election commission of Pakistan to take into consideration the recommendations of the independent election observant groups. For instance capacity constraint issues, bureaucratic sluggishness which is the hallmark characteristics of all government departments and impartiality of the election commission itself. Certainly, Election Commission is suffering from capacity constraints issue as most of the funding provided by the international bilateral organizations such as USAID, focuses on providing material support (ballot boxes, security seals) and raising public awareness on vote casting etc. 

Similarly, Election Commission’s impartiality has also been questioned time and again by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. In a situation like ours where Election Commission is not independent and impartial, should we assume that real democracy or democratic values can be promoted in Pakistan? Critics such as Jennifer Windsor argues that elections alone cannot promote democracy when the existing institutions lack transparency. In such a situation elections in fact become the vehicle for politicians who seek to protect their position and gain access to power. This has happened very frequently in Pakistan in almost all elections. The question is should the government or its institutions or key political parties continue doing business as usual or is this the time that we adopt democratic values of free and fairness and develop a culture to promote real democracy in our country?