Monday, May 29, 2017


Greased palms make the world go round
When members of the National Assembly gathered on Friday the 26th of May this year to hear the Finance Minister Ishaq Dar announce the Federal Budget 2017-18, the opposition walked out in protest against physical mistreatment of farmers who had gathered to protest earlier that day in D Chowk, in Islamabad. Farmers undoubtedly have much to complain about, as do people from almost every sector of life in Pakistan, but when the national budget was being read out was surely the time to focus on that important matter then at hand. This inability to organise and sort out priorities is a trait that actively lends itself to corruption, and is at the heart of the chaos that is Pakistan today.
A case that further illustrates this point is the non-payment of salaries to the employees of the National AIDS Control Program (NACP). These employees were not paid their salaries since June last year. It is only now that the Ministry of Health Services, Regulation and Coordination (NHSRC) has issued a notification for the salaries to be paid – and a very fuzzy notification it is – which could create legal problems, and further non-payment of dues. There were various reasons at different stages for the non-payment of salaries for this unconscionable period of time. The latest this year in March was the merger of three programmes, those dealing with HIV, TB and malaria into one program now called ‘Common Unit’, and a dispute as to who should head this merged program.
The three diseases mentioned (HIV, TB and malaria) are among the worst health scourges in the world. You wonder why the fourth major disease, polio, was left out of this group, but that is another matter.
The figures for these three diseases are damning.
According to a report published by one of the newspapers in Pakistan, in a comparison of the years 2005 to 2015 (ten years), there has been a 14.41% increasing in deaths due to HIV/AIDS in Pakistan. A 17.6% increase in the number of people living with HIV/AIDS in Pakistan. Compare that to a 2000 to 2015 (fifteen year) increase around the world of people living with HIV/AIDS, at just 2%.
According to the WHO, Tuberculosis (TB) is one of the major public health problems in Pakistan, which ranks fifth amongst TB high-burden countries worldwide. Approximately 420, 000 new TB cases emerge every year in Pakistan which is also estimated to have the fourth highest prevalence of multidrug-resistant TB (MDR-TB) globally.
As for Malaria, the disease has re-emerged as a major cause of morbidity in Pakistan. With an estimated burden of 1.5 million cases annually, Pakistan has been categorised by WHO in the Group 3 countries of the WHO Eastern Mediterranean Region, along with Afghanistan, Djibouti, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan and Yemen. These Group 3 countries share 95% of the total regional cases of malaria.
It is obvious that Pakistan is doing something wrong with regards to this matter. Could it be that one of those things is the non-payment of dues to persons dealing with the issue?
Obviously, it was not enough to reorganise the organisations working against these diseases or set up new ones if in the end those departments are to be rendered ineffectual, since no department can function if its workers are not paid their salary – just as no sector in the country can function if people involved in that sector are harassed.
And they are harassed.
It seems almost cheeky for a government labouring under the Panama-gate allegations to spell out details of property tax, but that is part of the government’s job, to set taxes and collect them. But at least, you wish, that those who pay their dues would not be harassed after their payments are cleared. Instead we are told that tax collected on the consumption of electricity by industrial or commercial users is adjustable, which is almost comical because it is so adjustable that if you pay a certain amount to the thugs who come around to check your meter, you will have to pay no more each month for electricity. That in fact is the offer that is made.
Nothing works unless a system of accountability exists and works as well. That people are not paid their dues, that consumers are overcharged and actually offered free electricity if they grease certain palms… and there is no recourse for justice following such events is what makes this country a third world country. If there were some accountability in this country the finance minister’s claim of Pakistan becoming ‘one of the largest economies by 2020’ would not be as laughable as it is at present.
No government can aim at any degree of success let alone a ‘large economy’ unless it makes provision for justice and a certain degree of law and order. The results of such a move would far outdo any investments, social interventions, taxation, rebates, loans or credits that any budget can promise.

Monday, May 22, 2017


Sometimes it really is black and white
One gets used to hypocrisy being a sizeable factor in politics, but sometimes things get nauseating.  Obviously, this refers to Donald Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia, a kingdom of hypocrites as big as the dignitaries visiting them this week. It is hypocrisy whichever way you look at it. Even the term ‘visit to Saudi Arabia’ might be better called an escape, taking into account the hangama the President of the United States leaves behind in the country his ancestors chose to migrate to, particularly since the firing of the FBI Director, the ‘nut job’ James Comey who is now to testify before a Senate Intelligence Committee against his former boss.
Saudi Arabia’s biggest export is not oil but Wahhabism, the extremist, intolerant, violent ideology which has nothing to do with Islam, but claims to have everything to do with it. Donald Trump, who has no clue as to what either is about, only a couple of months ago called for a total shutdown of Muslims entering the US, and claimed that ‘Islam hated Americans.’ And now this visit. And this is the man who was welcomed into the country by the King of Saudi Arabia, bent almost double…okay, okay, that’s because he is old and bent, but he was bent double in other ways as well.
The Saudis in their wisdom restrict women in many ways. Women are not allowed to drive, to work, or to dress according to the heat in that country. They are certainly not allowed to *gasp* shake hands with males. If they put a foot out of line they are punished severely, and that includes being whipped by the religious police patrolling the city of Riyadh.
And yet there was the King and everyone else shaking hands with Melania Trump when she arrived in Riyadh with her husband, and no doubt Ivanka had her hand *gasp* touched by *gasp* men as well.  It is understandable that visiting female dignitaries cannot be dictated where their clothing is concerned, but why go out and *gasp* shake hands with them when an alternative, a courteously pleasant nod would suffice, seeing as the Saudis subscribe to the ‘Look Ma! No hands!’ creed? Either you believe in not doing something, or you do.
Melania Trump, by the way was dressed in a jump suit with the most loathsome belt circling her midriff. The jumpsuit failed to conceal her *gasp* crotch. Several other visiting female dignitaries have refused to subscribe to the hijab, but have at least worn something that conceals their *gasp* crotch.
But all of this pales into insignificance when we have Mr. Trump’s Sunday speech in Saudi Arabia to look forward to. By the time this goes to print, it will have been aired. It must be obvious by now that one is no fan of the Saudis but the temerity of this President of the United States (or any other) to presume to talk to anyone about Islam is breathtaking. If it makes moderates so angry I can’t help wonder what take extremist quarters have on the matter. Let’s pray that whatever that take is includes no violent repercussions on a sickened world.
Saudi Arabia is a rich neighbour that has stumbled on a pile of riches, not acquired them in any other way, and it is well on its way to wasting the opportunity in spectacular fashion. The country is good for a sizeable bankroll when required. We give you labour, you give us cash. Thank you kindly. Let’s call a spade a spade and nothing else, unless it is something uncomplimentary, and that would be undiplomatic.  It is hard to choose the United States over the Saudis any time, given the United States’ intolerant, terrorising, bombing segment which is not small, and given the Saudi’s support of regimes that are leading to starvation and death around the world. Intolerant, terrorising, bombing segments anywhere in the world are fundamentally the same, and we do not lack our own share.
Let’s learn to recognise what is right and what is wrong, and admit that we are all, them, us, and anyone else, here to get the best for ourselves, wherever we find it. Let’s learn to live with everyone whether we go to Saudi Arabia, the US or wherever else to make a living, seeing that it is easier to make a living in countries other than the land of the pure. Undoubtedly the Saudis have some good points. Certainly the Americans have many. The Chinese are welcome to Pakistan because it is clearly profitable for them. It is certainly so for us. But let’s not bend over backwards for anyone, and definitely let no one presume to lecture anyone else about something they don’t know quack about.

Monday, May 15, 2017


The Indus Valley School for Art and Architecture

The Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture in Karachi is a singularity. It stands in the midst of Karachi, another singularity, both of them not just survivors, but vibrant survivors of neglect.
Rarely, outside of Karachi, do you encounter a woman like Anjum (not her actual name), who picked up three younger sisters out of nine and moved to Pakistan from India after the war of 1971. The sisters never saw their Indian family again, although their mother sends them home-made achar whenever she can. Anjum rebuilt their lives sweaty brow by tear until now she owns a small house, and her sisters are married and settled in their own homes.
Nor do you meet a person like Bilal (not his real name) who drives a cab, and belongs to KP. He married a girl from a rival tribe in Karachi and daren’t go back again. “Life is hard in Karachi, and I’m in danger here,” he told me. “But there,” he said, speaking of KP, “I’m dead.” Bilal has an income his family survives upon, and although he drives all day in the heat and hectic traffic of the massive metropolis with little to show for it, at least, as he says, he and his wife are alive. He is luckier than many others.
The School of Architecture too is in danger, from the salt sea air that kills the substandard construction material in the buildings around it. It is in danger from the environmental pollution that covers everything in a grey shroud. But where the building stood before, it was dead already.
The group of people who planned to build a school of art and architecture in Karachi using the National College of Art in Lahore as a model were already running a school in temporary premises, while looking for something more permanent. They had also been allotted a piece of land in Clifton.
The website of the Indus Valley School for Art and Architecture (IVS) contains a segment on the school’s history, written by Noor Jehan Bilgrami, herself a designer, and the wife of Akeel Bilgrami, a leading architect and one of the founders of the IVS. She describes the original building as a ‘Victorian style warehouse in Kharadar, built about a hundred years ago by Nusserwanjee Mehta, father of Jamshed Nusserwanjee, philanthropist, social worker and outstanding citizen, the first Mayor of Karachi. The four-story stone structure was to be demolished to make way for a concrete high riser.’ Probably another of the nightmare high rise buildings which may be seen everywhere in Karachi today, rising like malignant growths upon the landscape. ‘This Victorian style warehouse housed one of the first elevators installed in the sub-continent,’ Bilgrami mentions.
Shahid Abdulla, another well-known architect is also a member of the group responsible for IVS. He is the person who discovered the warehouse in Kharadar and realised its potential. In his words, ‘if we cannot move in here, we’ll carry it to Clifton.’
And carry it to Clifton they did.
Stone by each 26,000 stone, every single stone and ‘hundreds of pieces of timber numbered and carefully removed, cautiously transferred and stored before being re-erected at the (allotted) site’ in Clifton. And there the IVS stands today, a proud symbol of a what seemed to be an impossible vision turned into reality by a group of visionaries, with the invaluable help of a team of workers who laboured to make Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture what it is today…an exquisite building, exactly the same as the one that once stood in Kharadar now in entirely different surroundings.
The IVS stands in front of the grand barricaded home of those who do not care surrounded by a neighbourhood that is not cared for, even though it is among the wealthier neighbourhoods of the city. What would be piles of trash ignored by municipal authorities are dispersed and blown in the wind behind the building. In front is the sea into which pours the waste of an entire city and God only knows what chemicals from factories.
The IVS is a ‘registered not-for-profit, private, degree awarding institute managed by an Executive Committee through the Executive Director, under the control of an independent Board of Governors that includes distinguished educationists, artists, architects, industrialists, bankers and media persons, in addition to three members nominated by the Government of Sindh.’
The institute’s similarities to Pakistan are striking. When the group of people who set up this school went to see the original building ‘cobwebs made our entry difficult. Rotting scraps of paper, letter-heads and old photographs covered with pigeon droppings were mementos that we found. It then seemed to us quite impossible that this building could actually be transported to a new location.’ But transported it was, painstakingly and not without immense difficulty, like the people who moved from India to make Pakistan their home, like Anjum who came with her sisters, like Bilal who moved from KP to Karachi and married the girl from a rival tribe. Anjum who never got to see her family again thanks to short-sighted policies on either side, and Bilal who does not get to see his because of the lawlessness that prevails in his home territory, worse in his case than the lawlessness that prevails in his adoptive city. IVS, exists in neglected surroundings amid self-serving non-governance, and thrives despite it all.
IVS provides girls and boys a great non-profit education in a displaced building of exemplary beauty. It is a result of the vision of a few men and women who did not seek to benefit themselves and therefore truly benefited society. It is what Pakistan could have been but is not. It is what Jinnah wanted but could not achieve. It represents a displaced people who moved to a new home in search of something better. The conditions in Pakistan are testimony to their never having found it, but they were resilient enough to carry on in spite of this.
The IVS stands as a testimony to what may be achieved. Even now, given some selflessness and hard work. A good reason to support the IVS and its endeavours in every way you can.

Thursday, May 11, 2017


or in science for that matter

It is a truth universally acknowledged that any person in possession of a mind should not be wanting in education. There is a lot that is beyond sight and comprehension, a lot that exists and is waiting to be understood and discovered. To an ignorant mind however, the unseen does not exist, and it takes education and specifically science, that systematic study of the world through observation and experiment to achieve understanding and discovery, to change our day to day life.
To the common man in this country that is how it is; for him the unseen does not exist. Most people do not believe in germs, and certainly not vaccinations. A man setting up a biogas plant on his farm was mocked by his workers for his ‘silly foreign ideas’, for thinking that cow dung would light up homes and work pumps. But when the dung water slurry started generating electricity the men lined up for connections. It takes someone willing to reach over ignorance and act in ways that are informed by education, to show in practical terms that yes, such and such thing exists and works, thereby facilitating progress.
But at least these people who do not believe in what they cannot see have the excuse of being illiterate and uninformed. What excuse does the President of the United States, a man apparently educated in one of the most expensive universities in the country, have for his attitude when a few years ago for example he tweeted – as he does – that ‘The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make US manufacturing non-competitive.’ Really? So who is going to reach over the President of the United States and his colleagues who have been handpicked by him, who share his attitude, people at the pinnacle of a great nation – to support science? That is what they are doing all those men and woman carrying some very interesting signs, participating in rallies all around the world, supporting science in an attempt to reach over those ignorant minds to protest against the proposed cut of billions of dollars in funding for scientific research.
People have discovered the power of numbers. Women marched on Washington earlier this year to protest against the new administrations attitude towards women. The rally was a resounding success, with many politicians, academics and celebrities also taking part. Since then similar rallies supporting the same cause have taken place around the world. At an estimate more than 4,000,000 people participated in the US and up to 5 million worldwide. If there is one thing that mobilises politicians it is the prospect of losing votes.
So what excuse does the Pakistani leadership have for not promoting educating, for not providing even a decent level of science in schools in this country? And is it time to threaten to pull votes if this neglect does not end? How many of us, after all, believe in germs?
I have mentioned this before but in my class of students learning spoken English, only one had ever seen a magnifying glass. The one exception again was the only one to have heard of the equator or the poles. Except for two none could say where in relation to Pakistan India was located, and none knew the name of the major river that runs the length of Pakistan. These girls were students of Intermediate to Bachelors, some of them studying science.
It may sound astounding, but the common man in the US is not much better informed. Unfortunately given the level of scientific research in the US, if funding to science is cut off there, the rest of the world will feel the impact. Not funding science in Pakistan, as it is not funded now, impacts upon us and us alone. This does not make the fact any less tragic, it is mentioned only to highlight how little important research is done in this country. As reported in an English daily newspaper, ‘Pakistan was ranked at 131 out of 141 countries in the 2015 report of the Global Innovation Index — which explores the impact of innovation-oriented policies on economic growth and development. This, according to the Ministry of Science and Technology is because of a 1) Low percentage of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) for science and development, and 2) low standards of science education in our educational institutions.’
This, in spite of the fact that Pakistan possesses a large number of researchers and Academic Doctors.
It isn’t PhDs we need as much as young students with a strong sense of curiosity, who have been taught to find answers to simple questions by means of observation and research. For this Pakistan needs basic practical teaching of science in schools by teachers who, for want of a better analogy once again, believe in germs themselves.