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?

Friday, March 5, 2010

Equal Rights and Equal Opportunities: Progress for All

International Women’s Day (March 8) is just a few days away. Marked as a global day for almost a century, this day is meant for celebrating the economic, political and social achievements of women. Theme for this year’s International Woman’s Day is ‘Equal Right and Equal Opportunities: Progress for All”.  Irrespective of the common women’s awareness regarding the significance of this day, civil society organizations and women’s rights activists groups will commemorate it across Pakistan. Everybody with some awareness of human rights will acknowledge the importance of this day regarding the women’s rights groups’ struggle for the emancipation of women allover Pakistan. However, on this auspicious day, there is a need to specifically analyze the progress Pakistan has made throughout last year on the gender front or the steps the Pakistani government has taken for the emancipation and progress of Pakistani women.

Let us begin with the policy matters first. The incumbent government has proved itself as progressive and has received applause and appreciation from the women’s rights groups after having passed two Bills: The Protection against Harassment of Women at the Workplace Bill and the Criminal Law Amendment Bill. Both of the Bills are meant to redress sexual intimidation faced by women at work places and would definitely play a pivotal role in making workplaces women friendly if the women folk have the awareness about the existence of such laws and if the prescribed redress mechanisms are made available for working women in letter and spirit. On the contrary, the government has been criticized for letting the Bill on domestic violence lapsed, only because of the criticism of one member of the Senate who stated that banning violence against women would increase the divorce rate in the country.

The status of those institutions responsible for dealing with policy issues concerning women was in dismal last year. Even though Pakistan has a ministry of women development  the office of the minister of women development has not yet been handed over to any member of the parliament. Likewise, there is a National Commission on the Status of Women mandated to analyze policies from a gender perspective. Nevertheless, the women’s commission, which in reality is supposed to act as a watchdog on women issues, is struggling with institutional capacity constraints, limited funding, and autonomy issues.

In respect of women’s participation in politics, Pakistan has made good progress over the years and the present provincial and national parliaments shows a good number of women parliamentarians on board. However, the level of awareness of these women parliamentarians on women issues is doubtful. To what extent our women parliamentarians believe in women emancipation can be gauged from the recent suggestions put forward by Ms Samina Khawar Hayat, a member of Punjab provincial assembly. She proposed amending the existing laws thereby allowing men to re-marry without the consent of their first wife rather than increasing 18 % job quota for women aged 30 and above. Indisputably, with such women representatives in the parliament reluctant to raise their voice in favor of women, the struggle for emancipation and gender equality is getting hampered severely in Pakistan.

Besides these legislative and institutional issues and irrespective of how strong or weak they are, let us have a look on our women’s momentary status in the economy and education sector. According to the federal bureau of statistics, women’s participation in labor force is 6.2 % in urban areas and 17.88 % in rural areas as compared to men’s labor force participation of 49.88 % and 49.08 % respectively. The average monthly income of working women both in urban and rural areas is half of the average monthly income of their male counterparts. Keeping in view the women’s labor force participation and average monthly income, it can be inferred that the percentage of women employed at decision-making level is negligible as compared to men. As part of the Gender Reform Action Plan the government had reserved a 10 % job quota for women employment in the public sector for encouraging women to join government institutions. However, the progress on this policy directive is moderate so far.

Similar tendencies can be observed in the education sector. The women literacy rate is 41.75 % and total female enrolment is 44 %, which is comparatively less than other South Asian countries. Despite such bad literacy rates insurgent groups are blowing up girls’ schools in FATA every other day where education for women and girls has a major importance. Having said that, Pakistan’s disappointing rank among the bottom ten listed countries on the 2009 Gender Equity Index doesn’t come as a surprise. A lot has yet to be done by the government to reduce gender inequality in the country. The status of women can only be improved if the government takes substantial measures. Rather than allowing women related laws to be lapsed it has to create equal opportunities for women. Otherwise, another international women’s day will come and pass without any substantial progress or even a deterioration of the women’s situation in this country. It is time to focus on the development of women since it will lead to a ‘Progress for All’.