Saturday, August 14, 2010

After 63 years of independence

Scenes that could have been taken straight from an apocalyptic vision of the world greet us as we mark this Independence Day. Some are almost eerily similar to those the world saw in the days leading up to August 14, 1947, when an entire sea of people began a desperate march across the border to new homes. This time there are no borders to cross. There are no homes to reach either; not even relief camps to move into. But the sense of desperation and misery on the faces of people are much the same. This time, they seek to escape from a natural disaster so terrifying in its scale that even those who lived through the traumatic events of Partition and through catastrophes of various kinds say they have never seen anything like it.

What is sad is that they have seen, through the years, so many other problems too. Most of these have refused to depart. This is unsurprising since they stem from poor governance. This arises from the constant instability and upheaval we have lived with – since the 1950s – with long periods dominated by military rule. The same sense of uncertainty hovers everywhere today, mingling with the awful stench of decay and disease left behind by floodwaters. Its impact on the national psyche is almost as devastating as the calamity we face. There is little joy on the occasion of this dark Independence Day. Only a few flags have gone up on houses and street vendors report their stocks are mostly unsold. Functions to mark the occasion have been cancelled. There can at such a time be little cheer.

But what there can be is thought. If we are to wade out of troubled waters, we need to construct the sense of unity and national coherence which is key to the ability of nations to prosper and bloom. This spirit has eluded us for over six decades; instead we have seen ethnic and lingual strife, sectarian mayhem and civil war. The unrest simmers on. Even as people cry out for food, for water for some kind of relief, politicians exchange jibes and angry words. Accusations are hurled about and attempts made to claim ‘credit’ for rescue work that is a national duty. The government of at least one province has aired a complaint that that the National Disaster Management Authority has been partial in its disbursal and transportation of relief goods, disproportionately favouring the constituency of the prime minister. This is in addition to the veritable complaints coming from those affected with hundreds of thousands yet to be reached at all.

Instead of the song and parade which traditionally mark August 14, we should be thinking this time on how we can overcome these problems. We should ask ourselves, 63 years after becoming an independent country, are we really sovereign? We should ask ourselves why after 63 years of independence we have been unable to come at a definition of national identity that is accepted by a majority of Pakistanis. We should also wonder why is it that our governments and institutions such as the military or the bureaucracy, or even the judiciary, never learn from the past, why our institutions of state have so dramatically failed in improving the lives of citizens in terms of providing them not only material amenities but also government services which are effective and reliable, and safeguard the security of citizens’ lives and properties. Since 9/11 alone, billions of dollars have poured into the country, much of them under a military dictator. Where did these billions go, especially now that we have to go around begging the world asking for money for those stricken by the floods? Why, given that we are among the poorest countries in the world, do we continue to spend more on our military than on schools, colleges, universities, teachers and hospitals, medicines and doctors? Flood or no flood, at the very least, each of us can pledge to do our bit in trying to change all of these so that, say, a decade from now we will not have to ask the same questions.

Published in The Express Tribune, August 14th, 2010.

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