Monday, November 30, 2015


A convicted person may well be innocent in Pakistan

As we await the ultimate fate of Abdul Basit, a paralysed man, to know whether or not he is to be hanged, the question arises: Should the death punishment exist, most particularly in Pakistan?
Abdul Basit was convicted of murder and sentenced to death in 2009. While in prison he contracted tubercular meningitis and lost the use of both legs due to a lack of proper medical attention and care. Such neglect is common in prisons in Pakistan. A report put together by the organisation Death Penalty Worldwide says, ‘Prison doctors (in Pakistan) are incompetent and uninterested state employees, and prisoners are given severely substandard care.’
Abdul Basit’s execution has been delayed a couple of times, once only minutes before he was to be hanged because it was raining at the time of execution, and again just this month when the President of Pakistan ordered a two-month delay in execution only a few hours before the event.
Another prisoner Shafqat Hussain was hanged in Karachi in August this year. He had been in prison since the age of fourteen, a minor convicted of murdering another minor. Hussain confessed to the crime but maintained that the confession was tortured out of him. An excerpt from a statement made by him earlier this year describes what it was like to be on death row: ‘I have been told I am going to be executed seven times. The first time was in 2013. I am alone in my cell now. Both my cellmates were hanged. I had shared a cell with them for six or seven years. I cannot even begin to explain what I went through when they were executed because I myself was scheduled to be executed the next day.’
Hussain was hanged just a few days after this statement was recorded. At the time of his death he was just twenty four. He had been in prison for ten years.
These are only two examples but together they serve to highlight several things about the death punishment in Pakistan: That prisoners suffer neglect and their physical condition makes little difference to their sentence as in the case of Abdul Basit whose execution has only been postponed now, not commuted. It highlights the fact that although the law does not allow the death sentence for minors, this law is broken as in the case of Shafqat Hussain. Overall it highlights the fact that the adage ‘justice delayed is justice denied’ holds little meaning in Pakistan. Both these men have been imprisoned for several years and have had their date of execution pushed around arbitrarily, thereby suffering the torture of everything but execution itself several times over.
Not that living on death row is much better, physically speaking. That report put together by Death Penalty Worldwide also describes conditions inside a typical death cell in Pakistan: ‘The norm is for seven prisoners to be confined in one death cell, which also contains the prisoners’ toilet. In some cells, inmates must take turns sleeping for want of space to lie down. Families are allowed to bring food for loved ones but prison officials often withhold food intended for prisoners, and prisoners are given watered-down rations. Mentally ill prisoners are often kept together in one cell. In one jail in Punjab, there are forty of them and they all have one arm chained to the wall. Only one hand is free. They are kept like this all day. In some prisons the gallows can be seen by the prisoners from their death cells.’
The report notes that as always, wealthy people are able to buy better conditions, even in prison, but almost all death row inmates are “extremely poor and helpless”.
The report goes on to say that ‘some officials abuse prisoners in custody. Female prisoners may be subjected to abuse including custodial rape. Condemned prisoners can walk outside for only about an hour a day, are subjected to lengthy periods of shackling—a practice the UN has concluded as torture — may be excluded from social or recreational activities, and have severely restricted visitation rights. A condemned prisoner may face impending death while under these conditions for more than 10 years.’
The fact is that even outside of prison living conditions in Pakistan are good only for the select few. For prisoners in daily expectation of death, they are pitiful. No human deserves to live this way, not even convicted murderers for whom civil and religious norms both prescribe justice and humane treatment, and neither justice nor humanity may be found in any of these cases. It is time we re-examined the very existence of the death penalty everywhere but most particularly in Pakistan where even more than in other places a person convicted of murder may well be innocent.
Persons who would otherwise be awarded the death penalty should be sentenced to life in confinement without a chance of parole, yes. But if there is any doubt as to their guilt they should not receive the death punishment and their case should be investigated immediately rather than being allowed to drag on for years. Living conditions in prison should be humane. Unfortunately, practical concerns make it necessary to consider finances when evaluating death vs life under confinement. Feeding and housing a person with any semblance of humanity is difficult to afford particularly for a poor country like Pakistan. But with a little ingenuity and some organisation an alternative can be managed tailored to the particular requirements of this country. Long term prisoners could perhaps be confined in a place similar to a commune where they could grow their own food and work at a cottage industry to pay for their keep.
Citizens of any country and all humans everywhere have rights in life, and in death, as well as when they are under sentence of death. We have been instructed in this in the best of ways: ‘Be just, for this is closest to righteousness….’ (Quran 5:8)

Wednesday, November 25, 2015


This article was printed in the WWF quarterly magazine Natura (vol 39)

The air over Pakistan is polluted and often unhealthy for its population which is about three percent of the total population of the world. In October and November this pollution and its effects become worse due to a practice known as crop residue burning that takes place in many places but particularly in the agricultural region of the Punjab of both India and Pakistan.
October - November is the period when rice is harvested and the harvested fields prepared for the planting of wheat, the next major crop. The wheat is in turn harvested April-May. When a crop is harvested (cut), a stubble remains. The next crop in the recently harvested field either incorporates this stubble or is planted after removing it, in a clear field.  The quickest way of removing the stubble is to set fire to it. In October –November due to the recent monsoons and other meteorological reasons smoke is slow to disperse.  The smoke from these fires lingers over the region like a noxious blanket affecting both health and visibility. 
In more leisurely days it was the practice to allow stubble to remain in the field for a while before another crop was planted.  This allowed the stubble to degrade and pass its nutrients back into the soil. The next crop was nourished by both the old and fresh nutrients.
A few decades ago however, farmers decided to waste less time and started burning the stubble to remove it.  This is now common practice in Pakistan. 
Burning leaves a layer of ash over the field, which may be useful depending on several factors.  Not all plants produce nutritious ash for a start. Then, burning removes the nitrogen and sulfur depriving the soil of these nutrients, while calcium, potassium and magnesium remain.  The carbonates and oxides present in the ash raise the soil’s pH balance, which is good only if the soil is acidic and if the crop being planted appreciates alkaline soil.  Not all crops do. Alkaline soil is outright harmful for a crop of potatoes for example because it creates a favourable environment for a kind of potato scab.
Burning stubble is useful if the soil contains termites and ants because the fire gets rid of these insects quite effectively. 
In the final analysis though the burning stubble method of soil preparation appears to do more harm than good.  Crop residue burning has significantly raised greenhouse gas levels. Satellite data reveals high levels of these gases over many regions of the world, including over the Indian Ocean region. Smoke travels surprisingly long distances. The smoke produced in the Indo Gangetic Plains sometimes carries over and across the Himalayas. People breathe in this smoke and fumes and suffer from respiratory disease, particularly the young and the elderly.  In addition to humans, small wildlife living, nesting and feeding off the area also suffers.  Their food sources and nesting sites are destroyed.  These fires can be particularly disastrous for animals that nest on or close to the ground, and for those animals whose young are less mobile.  Other harmless creatures such as bees and some rodents that are ecologically valuable also suffer. 
The old method of preparing fields for harvesting is therefore preferable, the one that allows the stubble to remain while the new seeds are planted around it. This method which does not require the field to be tilled is called ‘zero till’.
Today crop residue is also being converted into bio-energy in many countries.  In Zimbabwe in fact almost half the power used is provided by plant residue.
Pakistan, with its huge energy crisis needs to explore this source of energy. Manufacturing plants could be constructed close to agricultural sites and farmers supplied with the means of transporting plant residue to collection centers. Animal waste such as dung can also be collected in the same way. Together this waste material can be used to produce both kinds of bio-energy, electricity and gas.  
Natural resources that would otherwise go waste used to make clean fuel, produced in a way that is friendly to plants, humans and animals… that is definitely something to work towards. We have the raw material in abundance. Three other things are required to make this work: The will to make it happen, planning and investment.
How about it?

Monday, November 23, 2015


What are we doing about it?

We’re in the midst of a war described by Pope Francis as a ‘piecemeal Third World War’ because it is so scattered over time and place. It is not always obvious in this war who the aggressors are. Are the so-called ‘Islamic’ extremists solely responsible for the aggression or does everyone share the blame, since these terrorists have been fostered by deprivation, and lack of education, by the atrocities committed by the Jewish state, the mad Western scramble for oil, the terrible governance in countries like Pakistan? The end result either way is death and destruction.
The First World War began in 1914. The German, Austro-Hungarian, Russian and Ottoman Empires fell. The League of Nations was created in 1920 specifically to maintain international peace and security and prevent another such war, but it failed. With its economy in tatters, burdened with legal and military sanctions, an embittered Germany became an easy prey to the National Socialist ideology, or Nazism. Nazism’s claim that the Germanic races were the purest of the Aryan race resonated with the recently humiliated Germans by instilling in them a sense of superiority. This contributed to the Jewish Holocaust, and Germany’s invasion of others’ territory.
Another war took place in 1939. East Germany came into being in 1949 and it is said that by the 1950s every fifth West German was a refugee from the East. In 1948 Israel was created followed by another refugee crisis.
The United Nations was founded with the Declaration of Human Rights as its charter. Perhaps the world needed to wash itself free of the large scale massacre of civilians, the Jewish Holocaust, use of biological and chemical weapons, and ultimately the two nuclear bombs dropped over teeming cities in Japan that ended the war in 1945.
Yet humans possess short memories. Every new generation that has not lived through the horrors of the one before is willing to resort to violence once again, producing its own Hitlers, Mussolinis and Trumans… the man who signed off on the atomic bombs. There is always a reason. That the nuclear bombs ended the war was Truman’s.
The German humiliation is reflected several times over in the poorer segment of society in Pakistan, one of the prime breeding grounds for extremism. Its people are marginalised, humiliated, economically subjugated and deprived. Their lives are unimportant, their grievances unheard. Extremism breeds best under these conditions as Nazism did following the First World War. With the better private schooling restricted to the wealthy, a majority of the population in Pakistan can only afford government schools where the standard of education is terrible. A large percentage of this poorer segmentof Pakistan’s population is educated in madrassas where their economically deprived background lays them open to extremist indoctrination, the teaching that Muslims are somehow superior to others. The idea meets with sympathy, as the idea of the Germans being best of the Aryan race found support at a time when the Germans were beaten. Graduates of madrassasspread their message of superiority and violence, and succeed in drawing in others, some of whom may not belong to the same background such as the brothers implicated in the attack on Paris. There can be many reasons for these affiliations including force, adventure, blackmail…
Javed Ghamidi, the Islamic scholar, says the reason groups like ISIS exist is the particular interpretation of religion being preached at madrassas and propagated via religio-political movements. According to their interpretation, he says, polytheism or apostasy is punishable by death, and every Muslim has the right to implement the punishment. The interpretation also considers all non-Muslim governments illegitimate and calls for overthrowing them because it says the modern nation state is a form of kufr. It prescribes a single Islamic government called the Caliphate.
Mr Ghamidi suggests educating Muslim civil society, teaching them the counter-narrative, stressing the need to abandon the system of madrassas because the religion centred teaching at madrassas violates the basic human rights of children by denying them the initial twelve years of broad based education. He also says that the Friday pulpit belongs to the state not to religious scholars and Muslim governments should reclaim it. Unless these measures are taken, says Mr Ghamidi, extremists will continue to emerge and the Middle East will become a living hell for the rest of the world.
As it has. The world is witness to another refugee crisis. Killing sprees by groups that are as Nazi as they come — the ISIS, the Taliban, Boko Haram, Daesh and others — have become commonplace. This is not a crisis that can be dealt with by means of war. It requires a concerted effort by the entire community of nations which must work for the uplift of all segments of society everywhere, and this includes the provision of education and other basic facilities to every single man, woman and child. That is the only way to combat extremism and take away its appeal. Meantime, for all the violence committed, terrorists are immediately responsible, yes, but not alone. We also share the blame. What are we doing about it?

Monday, November 16, 2015


The Building Code of Pakistan contains a waiver which ends with the caution that only qualified persons must be employed for construction but adds that eventually: ‘the power to ensure compliance vests only with the Government of Pakistan.’ That bald statement was not meant to be applied generally to the role of the government but it does, since whatever goes on in the country it does eventually rest with the government and no one else to ensure that everything comes together and works. An effective government will ensure this, an ineffective one will not. No one else can step in and make it do its job. It’s as simple as that.
The reason I quote the building code is that I read it following the collapse of the plastic bag manufacturing factory at Sunder Estate in Lahore following the earthquake in October.
A report summarising the investigation into the Sunder Estate factory collapse holds the owners of the factory responsible for the tragedy. It was, however, the overarching responsibility of the relevant government body to confirm that this building which contained machinery and workers complied with the building code and was safe following the strong tremors on the 26th of October this year. The government body failed to do so.
It was also the responsibility of the relevant government body to check the ages of the workers employed by the factory, which, again, it failed to do so. After the collapse it was reported that several children, some as young as 12, had lived and worked at the factory, and some were said to be trapped in the rubble.
A ‘child’ is defined by the Employment of Children Act 1991 and the Constitution of Pakistan as a ‘person below 14 years of age. Article 25(A) says that the state must provide compulsory education to all children between five and sixteen which implies that a child may not work until the age of sixteen, unless he or she works in a business run by his own family or in any training school run and recognised by the government. It also stipulates that that no occupation that a child indulges in must be hazardous for children. The government has failed to comply with all these stipulations. The number of children at school constitutes a minority in Pakistan while the number of children working, many under hazardous conditions, is incalculable.
The same earthquake that weakened the factory destroyed many homes in the north of the country. Now, several weeks after the earthquake, the snows have arrived to find the affected people still waiting for government aid that should have arrived within the week. The locals report that it is mainly non-government organisations that have stepped in and provided aid since the earthquake.
The best thing you can say about this government is that it appears to be consistent. As much as any previous ones has, it proved its disinterest and incapability in looking after the interests of the people it was elected to serve. So why has there been such an uproar following the ISPR’s recent statement? If it did cast a slur on the government’s performance, wasn’t it only stating the obvious?
In the ISPR’s press release on 10th November, the COAS acknowledges the support the army’s ongoing operation to eliminate terrorism and extremism has received from the people of Pakistan and the government. It however ‘underlined the need for matching/complimentary governance initiatives for long term gains of operation and enduring peace across the country. Progress of National Action Plan’s implementation, finalisation of FATA reforms, and concluding all ongoing JITs at priority, were highlighted as issues, which could undermine the effects of operations. (The) COAS also directed to expedite return of TDPs, overcoming all obstacles for development works in affected areas and rehabilitation of all displaced families.’
Language is clearly not the ISPR’s strong point, but more than this the statement tells you less that the government was being reprimanded and more that it was being told what to do. Here are the armed forces of Pakistan stepping out of line once again… but when have the armed forces of Pakistan ever toed the line?
This inability to comprehend the roles allotted to different government bodies extends to the general public which appears to think it does not matter who does what since we are all in this together. That’s the attitude which has resulted in martial law over and over again.
There is a clearly defined role for every arm of government laid out in the constitution which explicitly states that ‘The Federal Government shall have control and command of the Armed Forces’. It is not the other way around. We possess a dedicated army which nevertheless needs to remember that protocol does not permit it to speak down to the government in a formal statement however much the government may deserve it. The best place to offer its suggestions would have been at the meeting that took place prior to the statement. Having said that it is time that the government sat up and did something to deserve this protocol.
Aristotle said, so many years ago, that ‘dignity does not consist in possessing honours, but in deserving them’. Perhaps he too heard the sirens and fanfare that accompanies our government officials, and snorted.

Thursday, November 12, 2015



In 2009 the Population Reference Bureau estimated that on average every woman in Pakistan gives birth to four children. That’s four children per family to be raised in a suitable manner to adulthood. Can this be achieved in a country where basic facilities are scarce and where the cost of living, although low compared to many other countries, is still beyond the reach of the average family?
The answer is that the average Pakistani family cannot and does not achieve this goal. Pakistan has high infant and maternal mortality rate due to inadequate health and sanitation facilities and a dearth of safe drinking water. It possesses a low literacy rate and, where available, particularly in the public sector, an extremely poor standard of education. To work on providing basic facilities is an obvious solution but even if current levels of corruption and disinterestedness permit, Pakistan cannot afford this option unless its population is reduced.
Several countries have controlled their population growth, some over generations and others more arbitrarily and rapidly. Europe is an example of the first and China of the second.
Prior to the 1970s the Chinese people were encouraged to have several children. As a result China’s population became too large. So in 1978 the government promulgated the ‘One Child Policy’ which was amended this year in October allowing couples to have two instead of the one child only. China claims to have prevented about 400 million births as a result of the one child policy, allowing citizens who complied with it the benefit of increased access to education, childcare and healthcare. This is what we need, but there is as always another side to the coin.
An aging population means that fewer people work to support the many. In China’s case it is feared that this will impact the Chinese economy in the near future. Giving in to the same fear France, with no population growth, came up with policies to encourage families to have three children. It offered financial incentives, a sum close to the minimum wage to mothers during a one year maternity leave following the birth of the third child, reductions on train fares and income tax, three years of paid leave for either parent, and government subsidised daycare for children under three. As a result France now has the highest population growth in Europe.
Population planning may lead to a skewed gender balance. According to a planning report there will be 30 million more men than women in China ten years from now. Traditionally, the Chinese, like some Pashtun tribes do in Pakistan, paid a ‘bride price’, which now that Chinese women are able to choose between several men has risen to include real estate, which is often out of reach of a man and his family.
And then there is the question of aged care.
At the age of sixty Sheng Hailin underwent fertility treatment and became the oldest Chinese woman to give birth when she had twins. Previously, Mrs Hailin had a daughter who died in her late twenties. It was this daughter’s death that prompted Mrs Hailin and her husband to resort to fertility treatment because, as Mrs Hailin said, she wanted another child to ‘survive and free myself from loneliness’. Mrs Hailin had had the one child in compliance with the ‘One Child Policy’.
An estimated one million Chinese families are reported to have lost their sole descendant as a result of the one child policy, and another four to seven million are expected to do so in the next 20 to 30 years. ‘Such families face uncertain futures with no one to help them through old age in a country which emphasises family life,’ says the report.
Because of the one child policy the burden of looking after aged parents and both sets of grandparents now rests with the one child in China. If even this child dies or was never born, there will be no one to care for old parents.
This is not an issue in China alone. We all look to our children to care for us in our old age, more in some societies, less in others, which makes this the most important and poignant issue of all. To make up for a lack of carers within the family the Chinese government gives financial compensation to childless couples. In Europe where the rate of population growth is low there are homes for the elderly. But in Pakistan and other poor countries where the government cannot afford such measures and where most people have inadequate savings for retirement, the elderly are extremely vulnerable.
Care for the elderly is a major reason behind Pakistan’s inflated population. In a poor country with a high rate of infant mortality it is prudent to have several children so that even if two or three die, some remain to look after the parents.
But even several children will not do if they are all daughters since in Pakistan parents traditionally live with the sons, not the daughters. Therefore, those without sons have child after child until they produce sons.
Also, in the poorer segment of the society, burdened as it is with the tradition of dowry, sons are valued as the bread earners while daughters are viewed as liabilities.
For all these reasons and because misguided religious leaders consider birth control to be an irreligious practice, Pakistan has the population figures it does. To raise living standards and eradicate poverty Pakistan must educate its public in the difference between preventing conception and infanticide. This, in addition to providing greater access to birth control, will result in a reduction of the population but only if the people of Pakistan feel they will be adequately looked after in their old age. A drastic one child policy is unnecessary. A two or even an average of three would make a difference. For this it is vital to spend heavily on nursing homes and on care within individual homes. Carers must be trained and agencies set up to provide them, and both carers and agencies must be supervised. This is vital for the elderly, also for those increasing number of persons whose children have left the country.
But first the government of Pakistan has to accept where its priorities lie and be willing to act. These measures are not tangible and are not as visible as others but it is these that will take people within reach of education, health and progress. Metro buses, underpasses and bridges are all very convenient and flashy and they appear to take people somewhere but in reality they leave them standing exactly where they are: on the brink of annihilation. It is time we took a good look at the elephant in the room that is overpopulation, an elephant consuming everything in sight but so far studiously ignored.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015


The country’s already struggling to survive

Do we really need the Council of Islamic Ideology?
At a time when what Pakistan needs most is unity the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII), along with many of our other religious institutions and personalities, is focused on promoting divisiveness, and negativity.
The chairperson of the CII, Maulana Muhammad Khan Sherani, can be found on Facebook where he expresses in particularly vituperative terms his displeasure with the media and political analysts, accusing the “munafiq” media of distorting his words, and the “liberal” “mulhideen” analysts for presuming to comment on Islam “although” he says “they do not even know how to perform ablutions.”
In a similar vein, he singles out Hassan Nisar and Dr Pervez Hoodbhoy, dismissing Nisar with an adjective which I will not repeat and Dr Hoodbhoy with the term ‘Pervezi’, which has come to mean a person who attempts to rationalise religion.
It is interesting how the word ‘liberal’ and the concept of a rational religion hold such derogatory connotations for people like the Maulana, whose comments are reproduced here, translated from Urdu:
“Are all religious scholars dead in Pakistan that you (the media) invite such persons to debate upon religion? Has it ever happened that you have sought an opinion on medical or scientific matters from a religious scholar? No! Then why do you subject deen to such injustice?”
The chairperson of the CII has clearly forgotten the occasions on which the CII offered opinions on medical and scientific matters. An example is when the CII ruled that DNA results cannot be used as primary evidence in rape, adding that they could be used as supporting evidence alone.
For the purpose of debating the above point let’s examine the word ‘deen’ which is defined as ‘submission, following and worship by man for the Creator, in a comprehensive system of life with all its belief, intellectual, moral and practical aspects.’ Given this definition, any person has a right to speak on any sphere of life and to be heard with due respect.
Islam leaves it to Allah to judge each individual’s intentions, recommending ‘beautiful preaching’ not disdain and abusive labels. (‘Invite all to the Way of thy Lord with wisdom and beautiful preaching; and argue with them in ways that are best and most gracious: for the Lord knoweth best who have strayed from His path, and who receive guidance. ‘ Sura 16, The Bee, verse 125).
Our ulema tend to forget this, lost as they are amongst questions regarding women.
The CII currently has three items on its agenda which its chairperson is seeking to debate if supported by the other members of the council. These items are: 1) The question of Ahmadis and whether they should be classified as non-Muslims as they are at present, or as those who have left the fold (murtad) 2) Jizya, whether this tax which was once levied on non-Muslims should now be levied on non-Muslims in Pakistan 3) Determination of which sects come within the umbrella of Islamic ideology and which fall outside.
In an unstable atmosphere such as exists in Pakistan today is there scope for deliberation over such volatile matters? Should we not instead concentrate on strengthening our values and institutions paying attention to education, tolerance, patience, peace, peace and peace again? Ahmadis, already labelled ‘non-Muslim’, continue to endure discrimination and violence. The mind boggles at the consequences if they are now labelled as murtad since according to the anti-rationalist mindset the punishment for leaving the religion is death. In any case they cannot be murtad since they call themselves Muslim. Besides who are we to judge otherwise? Remember the words of the Quran quoted above.
We are already witnessing a mass migration of people around the world, refugees who have been driven out by those in whose creation we have a hand. Do we really wish to add to that? Do we really wish to add to the murders that already weigh on our conscience?
Jizya is levied on the non-Muslim population of an Islamic country, which segment is then guaranteed protection. We are neither an Islamic country, nor are we capable of guaranteeing protection to anyone, Muslim or otherwise, nor can the poverty stricken people of this country afford more taxation.
The question of who falls within the jurisdiction of Islamic ideology and who falls outside it has no bearing on the problems currently being faced by this country. What we should really be pondering is: How can we, all the people of Pakistan together, best work towards peace and progress in this country and around the world?
Should our legislature be advised by a body such as the CII, a body that was brought into being by a man who became head of state without constitutional sanction? Are we willing to debate matters which will undermine a country already struggling to survive?