New Age Islam Edit Bureau
10 November 2017
Power Struggle in the Kingdom
By Khalid Bhatti
A Rudderless Ship
By Rasul Bakhsh Rais
Human Rights Review
By Reema Omer
By Asha’ar Rehman
Can Rahul Stop The Modi Juggernaut?
By Aijaz Zaka Syed
The Pathways of Change
By Amir Hussain
After The New York Attack
By Ted Rall
No, Things Are Not Falling Apart
By Chris Cork
Compiled By New Age Islam Edit Bureau
Power Struggle In The Kingdom
November 10, 2017
What is happening in Saudi Arabia at the moment is a mere power game. A young and ambitious crown prince is trying to outmanoeuvre potential rivals and competitors. We have all read something about the kings and royals of yore – about palace coups, conspiracies, manoeuvrings and the rise of one family at the expense of others. A real game of thrones is being played out in Saudi Arabia.
The kingdom is undoubtedly at a crossroads. The kingdom is faced with multiple crises both at home and in the region. The situation is very volatile and fragile, with the economy in a serious crisis due to the low oil prices. The young crown prince wants to consolidate his position – by going after potential opponents and challengers.
The purge underscores an unprecedented restructuring of the kingdom as Crown Prince Mohammed shores up power before his eventual succession as king. Apart from the arrests, the head of the Saudi National Guard, once a leading contender to the throne, the navy chief and the economy minister were all replaced over the weekend in a series of high-profile sackings that raised alarm throughout the kingdom. The round-up also targeted Prince Mitaib bin Abdullah, who was detained and replaced as minister of the powerful National Guard, recalling a palace coup in June which ousted his elder cousin, Mohammed bin Nayef, as heir to the throne and interior minister.
Over the past year, Prince Mohammed has become the ultimate decision-maker for the kingdom’s military, foreign, economic and social policies, causing resentment among some in the Al-Saud dynasty who are frustrated by his meteoric rise. The recent arrests and purges of powerful princes, ministers and business tycoons is a well-calculated pre-emptive strike by the crown prince to strengthen his position within the royal family and Saudi Arabia’s power structure.
Let’s dig deep and examine the factors that are resulting in the young crown prince taking such drastic measures. Everyone knows that the prince is calling the shots in the kingdom – almost as the de facto king.
Prince Mohammed bin Salman is trying to fight three different fronts at the same time. He is fighting to gain complete control over the state apparatus and to remove every hurdle and obstacle that might come in his way. On this front he has an edge. His biggest challenge is the kingdom’s ailing economy, which he is trying to modernise. He desperately wants to reduce the role of the state in the running of the economy and to provide jobs to the people through the private sector. Implementation of neoliberal economic policies to liberalise the economy and to stop the further fall in the economy seems to be on the agenda. In that regard, privatisation of state-owned companies is already underway.
The prince is already supervising the biggest cuts on wages, subsidies and state spending, and has introduced many taxes – especially targeting foreign workers. Prince Mohammed has no option to fail on the economic front. If he fails to stimulate the economy then his authority will come under question. An economic meltdown can have catastrophic consequences for the young crown prince.
The crown prince’s performance on the third front is already under scrutiny. He has failed to crush the rebellion in Yemen and international criticism has increased as a result of the civilian causalities there, including women and children. The Saudi strategy failed miserably in Syria and now it is on the retreat. Saudi Arabia is also finding it difficult to contain rising Iran. The prince is pursuing a hard line and tough foreign policy towards Iran and also used strong-arm tactics to bring Qatar in line. Qatar , though, refused to bow down and forged new alliances to survive the hostile environment. Prince Mohammed is most likely to fail on the external front if he continues with the existing policies.
Prince Mohammed bin Salman is using his cards cleverly and playing to both galleries at the same time. He has mixed his personal ambitions with a reform agenda to give it a liberal face, introducing reforms, giving some rights to women, imposing restrictions on the religious police and finally using corruption as an excuse to crush his potential competitors and opponents. His strategy on corruption is resonating with the middle class. In fact, though, he is attacking one section of the ruling elite and royalty while at the same time protecting and patronising the other one. Both these sections amassed wealth using the same methods of exploitation, state patronage and cronyism. There is a very thin line between state resources and royal money – Bonapartism at its best.
The point, then, is that Prince Mohammad bin Salman is taking a massive risk. His ambitious policy agenda is already controversial; trying to implement it at the same time as imprisoning members of the royal family might provoke some kind of backlash. The only certainty is that the near-term future of Saudi Arabia – and the crown prince himself – is one of turmoil and uncertainty. Whether the crown prince succeeds or fails, one thing is certain: the kingdom will no longer be the same.
By Rasul Bakhsh Rais
November 8, 2017
For about a year or so, the country seems to have lost stability, order and a sense of direction. Since the Panama Papers leaks and names of the ruling family members in the list, the government though having a parliamentary majority, lost its legitimacy to rule effectively. The top leadership of the PML-N and even lower functionaries of the party and the government became occupied in defending the ‘honesty’ and ‘integrity’ of Nawaz Sharif.
For the majority of the party leaders, loyalty to the rulers has been more important, as it pays off, than the truth or the conscience. “We have done nothing wrong” remains the old mantra of all corrupt leaders and their paid defenders. In an age of open media and frank discussion — a big change in Pakistan — old means of politics of patronage and hiring minions with abusive tongues against the opponents has proved to be a bad business with diminishing returns.
With the passage of time, the ‘honesty’ narrative of the Sharif family has lost credibility. The more sycophants speak about their master’s ‘honesty’, the more they make a laughing stock of themselves. The public distrust of this ruling family for the last three decades has come crashing down with the damning verdict of the Supreme Court. Such a decision, after a long legal battle, would have sealed the political fate of any political leader. But this is a very different country where the rule of law is only for the poor and the marginalised. The biggest defence the corrupt Pakistani ruling party leaders have invented is this: “we are being victimised” and there are some “invisible” hands working behind the judiciary or any other department of the government that has ever placed a firm hand on any one of the culprits. Which is the party or leader when even caught red-handed, and toe-to-head in corruption, not used the state agencies, public funds, media and bribes to hush up critics, and parallel to this, employ the mythology of ‘conspiracy’?
At the moment, Pakistan is actually without effective governance, education, health, agriculture and many other vital sectors of society. Nowhere in the world, can an ailing finance minister facing corruption cases stay in office. Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, handpicked by Nawaz, has no will or authority to take any decision about the members of his cabinet, even if he wants to get rid of Ishaq Dar who by all sensible accounts has messed up Pakistan’s economy. He has failed, so far, to act independently on vital national issues, and there are no signs he would do so in the remaining period of the government.
Parliament is one institution that could theoretically pull Pakistan out of the prevailing instability and uncertainty, as the political system rests on its ‘sovereignty’. Frankly speaking, this core national institution has been a hostage in the hands of dynastic political parties. Its autonomy or sovereignty rests primarily in the autonomy and independence of its members, which is compromised by absence of democracy within the political parties. As the ruling dynasties run the parties as feudal cliques or political ‘business corporations’, the ‘parliamentarians’ prefer to align with the prospective winners, and stay with them to benefit through the political patronage with next elections in mind. A pragmatic interest in staying loyal to the one in power keeps them quiet.
The chaos in politics means chaos all around — in economy, society and governance. With popular frustration on the rise, it is bound to spill over into the streets and produce a major political crisis.
November 10, 2017
ON Nov 13, UN member states will review Pakistan’s human rights record for the third time through the Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) mechanism.
Pakistan has been reviewed twice before in 2008 and 2012, but this time around there is an important difference: Pakistan finally has an operational National Commission for Human Rights (NCHR), which has made its own submission for the UPR process.
Refreshingly, instead of glossing over the government’s dismal human rights record — as we have seen a number of other national human rights institutions do in their UPR submissions — the NCHR’s report raises serious concerns about the deteriorating human rights situation in the country, echoing those of a number of national and international human rights organisations.
The NCHR’s work has been subjected to a number of constraints.
The UPR is a unique mechanism of the UN Human Rights Council aimed at improving the human rights situation of each of the 193 UN member states. Under this mechanism, the human rights record of all UN member states is peer-reviewed every four to five years by the UPR Working Group, consisting of the 47 UN member states of the Human Rights Council; however, any UN member state can take part in the discussions during the UPR of the reviewed states. States then make recommendations to the country under review, which has the option of accepting or noting the recommendations.
In this process, civil society organisations too can submit their own assessments of the human rights record of the state being reviewed, as can the state’s national human rights institution — which in Pakistan’s case is the NCHR.
The NCHR was constituted under the National Commission for Human Rights Act, 2012, for the “protection and promotion of human rights as provided for in the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan and the various international instruments to which Pakistan is a party or shall become a party”.
Since the law was passed, however, the commission’s work has been subjected to a number of constraints, including its restrictive mandate over security and intelligence agencies, the government’s delay in appointing members to the commission, the reported lack of impartiality of certain commission members, and attempts by the government to restrict the independent functioning of the commission.
Earlier this year, for example, the UN Human Rights Committee and the UN Committee against Torture expressed concern about the government’s refusal to allow the chairperson of the NCHR to meet them and present their reports and stated that, “there are indications that the commission is not fully independent”.
The commission has itself noted that national human rights protection mechanisms, including the NCHR, “suffer from institutional weaknesses such as political interference, budgetary constraints, lack of trained personnel and restrictive power”.
Now, however, it seems that things are changing.
Take the NCHR’s submission for Pakistan’s Universal Periodic Review. Even on contentious issues like blasphemy, enforced disappearance, the death penalty, and military courts, the commission’s submission is surprisingly critical — in stark contrast to the government’s national report, which is either silent on or grossly plays down some of the most egregious human rights violations in Pakistan.
For example, the commission’s report points out that, despite accepting a number of recommendations to criminalise the practice of enforced disappearance in the previous UPR, enforced disappearance is still not recognised as a distinct criminal offence in Pakistan. The government’s report, however, does not even acknowledge the question of criminalisation of the practice.
Also, in its national report the government wrongly asserts Pakistan’s blasphemy laws are non-discriminatory, and “no one has been punished” under these laws. The commission, however, correctly highlights that blasphemy laws “remain an area of deep concern” in the country.
Similarly, while the government claims to have a “strong commitment to the promotion and protection of freedom of expression and opinion”, the commission points out that freedom of speech in the country are often curtailed in the name of national security, including through laws such as the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, 2016.
Most significantly, perhaps, the commission recommends that Pakistan abolish the death penalty and “as an immediate action reintroduce the moratorium on the death penalty”.
Despite the execution of nearly 500 people in less than three years — in many instances marred by other serious human rights violations, including of the right to a fair trial, the imposition of capital punishment on people with physical and mental disabilities, and the execution of people who were children at the time of the offence — the death penalty is not even mentioned in the government’s national report.
That the NCHR has made a critical, seemingly independent report for the UPR process is significant for a number of reasons.
Pakistan has in the past dismissed NGO reports to UN bodies as biased and driven by ‘vested interests’. It will, however, have to take the NCHR’s observations seriously, especially as it has held up the NCHR before the UN, the European Union and the international community as proof of its commitment to improving human rights.
The NCHR’s report is also an indication that after initial teething problems, the commission is now a step closer towards fulfilling its mandate, which includes more effective implementation of Pakistan’s treaty obligations. This is a key prerequisite for the NCHR to get accreditation by the international coordinating committee of national human rights institutions, which is a requirement for an NHRI to be recognised internationally.
With UN treaty-monitoring bodies, special procedures, over a dozen civil society organisations, and now also the NCHR highlighting the serious human rights issues in Pakistan today, the government seems isolated in its glorified assessment of Pakistan’s ‘deep commitment’ to human rights.
One hopes that Pakistan will drop its doublespeak and posturing to engage with the UPR mechanism in its true spirit on Monday.
THE grand handshake in Karachi on Wednesday reconfirms for the millionth time just how crazy predicting Pakistani politics is, and the risk — of being proved embarrassingly wrong — those who indulge in the difficult art expose themselves to.
It is quite clear that those who must act as fortune tellers of Pakistani politics must wear the same unshakeable look of earnestness and sincerity that was sported by Messrs Farooq Sattar and Mustafa Kamal on Wednesday evening as they pledged to take community and country out of their current woes. As if nothing unusual has happened here.
This normal exercise in the coming together of interests and personalities picks up when the politicians sense an election nearby. The PSP and MQM and their patron supporters do concede this much: they couldn’t and cannot do the job on their own in post-Altaf Karachi. This necessitates their coming together, and Gen Pervez Musharraf, who has personal reasons to be concerned about community and country, is already predicting that it is the beginning of an alliance that can defeat the PPP in Sindh.
The old victim card, the martyrs and the emotional speeches at their last resting places have not helped the party.
This statement post-haste by a general not quite renowned for his patience will be used by the PPP as evidence of a conspiracy against it. More important than this old rhetoric about the invisible and visible forces plotting against the PPP would be the Zardari camp’s ability to listen to the popular grumbling about the party’s rule.
Never since 1988 have the voices of dissent and disillusionment against the PPP been so loud as now. The plotters have been around, coming up with the unlikeliest of alliances to check any advance by the PPP. These fronts against it spearheaded by the most infamous of individuals were able to contain an obviously much more robust and less controversial PPP of the past. The cobbling together of the Mohajir elements in Karachi and the nationalists in interior Sindh could turn out to be more effective amid all this criticism that the Zardari party has come under from the people at large.
The PPP leaders would be inclined to use the restoration of the old urban front minus Altaf against it as an opportunity to intensify politics that pits rural areas in Sindh against the cities. Whereas this could be thought of as a pragmatic approach in the run-up to the election expected next year, it will in actuality be an extension of the same negative politics that has been a big factor in the PPP slip all over the country.
The old victim card, the martyrs and the emotional speeches at their last resting places have not helped the party. It is dead rhetoric amidst people who are increasingly alive to their needs. It will not bring the PPP many dividends, maybe not even in the short term. It must conjure up some scheme at the local level to face the challenge to its old grasp on Sindh by the PTI, the Sindhi nationalists, even if so-called, and the growing Mohajir front in Karachi.
Confronted by its own poll realities, Mian Shahbaz Sharif has just come up with a model of dealing with the situation. Under his scheme for wooing the voters, he is ready to spend a few billion rupees on development work to be carried out by the network of local governments in Punjab. This is about the first time the chief minister has acknowledged the presence of the local government and recognised their worth in helping PML-N garner votes in the next general election.
The Rs11.77bn development package has to be concluded by April 30, exactly a month before the current government in Punjab is to complete its term. Thus this is by no means some kind of a secret campaign at winning the support of voters. The Punjab government is very open about the purpose and the expected impact of the scheme.
The Shahbaz step is a reminder that even in a country with a history of the most shocking and surprising events, especially close to a general election, a politician in or out of power must do what he can. A politician cannot just wait for things to happen and turn in his favour — the way Mr Asif Zardari appears to be doing right now, putting all his hopes apparently in redeeming himself before the establishment and offering little else by way of politics.
The PML-N is doing its bit in Punjab to secure the party to whatever extent it can — discounting any catastrophe that may befall the party courtesy of any power. The PML-N leaders are striving to keep a positive outlook despite the fact they may have fears of the party undergoing a process of destruction and possible rebuilding before the election. They are doing what they can rather than wasting their time on thinking negatively about what disasters may be in store for them. This is the best policy for the party at the moment.
One recurrent reference in the PML-N talk these days is to the large voter base the party no doubt has come to enjoy over time. And if there is proof in history of how this base can be shaken with some engineering by the so-called real powers at the stage where electoral candidates are selected, the PML-N politicians have their own examples they would rather stick to, to keep the mood in the camp upbeat.
The example cited often is that of the 2002 election when a Musharraf-led setup failed to effectively swing the poll in favour of the king’s party led by Chaudhry Shujaat and others. It could be argued that Musharraf was rather light in his assertions at poll time 2002 and that he was assisted by people who did not quite match the guile and ambition of, say, the lieutenants Gen Zia was blessed with in the past. By comparison, Imran Khan today is a real force to reckon with.
The PML-N does obviously understand the differences. It is, of course, saying and doing what it can best in the circumstances, leaving the rest to the writers of fate.
READING is an essential element of education, and textbooks are an integral part of the curricula of formal education that can’t shrugged off. But reading books other than course texts helps children enrich their minds and makes them superior to their ‘non-reading’ peers.
Yet the general impression is that our children are not into the reading culture. This is surprising because in the last few years children’s books have flooded the market and some of them are really good. They have all the qualities a book should have to grip the readers’ interest — a lively style, strong storylines and characters with which our children can connect.
To confirm this observation, I decided to test four books by a published author, Shahbano Bilgrami, in the Munna Man and Baby Lady series on two young avid readers aged 11-12, studying in two elite English-medium schools. I chose them as the subjects because their mothers offered their full cooperation in my experiment. This explains the secret of these youngsters’ interest in books — their mothers facilitate their hobby.
Schools do not motivate their students to read books.
Age-wise the girls seemed to be appropriate for the books. This was my conjecture. Both enjoyed reading the books which they finished very fast and understood fully. They could connect with the characters. The places mentioned were familiar to them. Significantly, they said they wanted more of such books to be available to them.
Why then, one may ask, are people still lamenting poor reading habits in our children? The fact is that the love of books is inculcated in childhood. In spite of the availability of good literature, young readers are not being provided incentives by their parents and teachers.
One must remember that increasingly our society is being bifurcated — those reading English books and the ‘others’ — the latter being the underprivileged majority. The English-reading children have too many non-book-related occupations to keep them engaged. Likewise their parents also have no time for them as they are busy with their own non-literary pursuits. The children of the ‘others’ hardly read storybooks because not all are enrolled in school and most have parents who are illiterate.
The schools — even those that have libraries — do not motivate their students to read books. They are too focused on textbooks, exams and results.
Another major dividing factor is language. Take the books by Shahbano Bilgrami mentioned above. My students from The Garage School where I teach, aged 15, couldn’t cope with them. In 20 minutes they read only one page with a lot of prompting from me. It was unfamiliar to them and the language was difficult. Fatema and Ursula, the students from the English-medium school, on the other hand, finished the entire book in 20 minutes or so.
What is needed is a measure of uniformity — even though graded — in the children’s literature market and more bilingualism in our schools. The children, whose mothers start speaking to them in English soon after birth, should be more familiarised with Urdu/ their mother tongue. A lady from a purely Urdu-speaking background sarcastically informed me that she teaches Urdu in English in one of the upscale schools.
Musharraf Ali Farooqi, our renowned author, who is bilingual, is trying to change this culture through the new books and pedagogy he has developed to make Urdu more familiar to children who are losing touch with their own language. What could be very meaningful in the context of the reading habit is the new approach Musharraf has developed towards storytelling.
He firmly believes that storytelling engages children’s imagination and emotions. These faculties create a bond between the child and the spoken word. When the child reads the text, she revisits that world of imagination — created during storytelling — to relive that experience.
The ‘memorise, connect and improvise’, or MCI, method of storytelling he has developed emphasises interactive storytelling and the formation of a comfortable bond between the storyteller and his/her audience. The pleasure of storytelling is amplified both for the narrator and the audience when it becomes a group social activity. Reading out a story does not allow this bond to be formed if the narrator’s focus is on the book being read and not the audience. Musharraf has developed many such books that are profusely illustrated and serve this purpose well.
Shahbano could rewrite her lovely books in very simple language for the non-English speaking readers so that the MCI technique could be applied to them too. Any story that engages the children’s imagination or their emotions can be narrated effectively. The storyteller can exploit its elements through theatrics or drama. It is time schools tried out this approach to get children to read books for pleasure.
What’s Rahul Gandhi having these days for breakfast? The scion of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty has been on a roll after having discovered his ‘mojo’.
His stinging attacks on Narendra Modi over issues like the catastrophic demonetisation and the stillborn goods and services tax (GST) have the BJP running for cover.
Rahul Gandhi’s performance in Gujarat, Modi’s home turf, has been simply breathtaking, attracting huge crowds for a change. He has been mobbed wherever he goes in the poll-bound state, with the public eagerly lapping up his clever one-liners and no-holds-barred attacks on the government’s disastrous performance on various fronts.
It may not amount to much, but is certainly a sign of the shifting popular mood that, for the first time, the Congress leader has surged ahead of Modi in terms of Twitter retweets and talking points generated on social media. Not a small feat for someone who, unlike the media-savvy Modi, discovered the power of social media rather late in the day – in 2015.
Gone is the image of the soft-spoken, shy rookie weighed down by the legacy that he has inherited and who would rather be somewhere else than face the bloodthirsty hounds of an increasingly cocky BJP in and outside parliament.
You couldn’t blame him either given the steep fall that the Congress, haunted by a series of scams and electoral defeats, has been staring at for some time. Indeed, the second term of former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had been largely dedicated to fire-fighting on this front, with the party being perpetually on the defensive. Perhaps this is why the not-so-young Gandhi has yet to take control of th party despite the deteriorating health of Sonia Gandhi.
May of the Congress’ old guard, including his mother, seemed to believe that he is far from ready in the face of growing expectations and demands of the party faithfuls to pass the baton to the next generation. The fact that Rahul has had an uncanny habit of disappearing right in the middle of crucial electoral battles and has far from delivered in critical states like Uttar Pradesh, has not helped his case. However, that is changing.
For the first time, the BJP government and the vast and committed propagandist machinery of the Parivar and the corporate media that supports it, is beginning to look rather unsure of itself. As loyal Modi supporter Tavleen Singh has acknowledged, the façade of invincibility has cracked.
The old warhorse that is Modi looks so jaded and jarringly repetitive as he peddles the same old claims about his government’s lofty “achievements”. So much so that his characteristic ‘Mitr’ (friends) have become a butt of jokes among stand-up comedians.
This even as the economy has been steadily declining with jobs increasingly difficult to come by in a predominantly young country. Farmers have been killing themselves in their thousands as rural distress spreads. This is a country where agriculture remains the main and largest source of livelihood.
And it’s not just the farmers and rural areas that have been finding the going tough. Even the business community and the urban middle classes – the core supporters of the BJP – have not been too happy with the way things have unfolded over the past couple of years.
In a state like Gujarat, known for its powerful mercantile community and dedicated supporter of the party, popular discontent is deepening. The ground is shifting from under the BJP’s feet. It could lead to further disillusionment with the party that has been bursting with hubris over its electoral successes in states like the UP ahead of the 2019 elections. With Modi’s slogans like ‘Congress Mukt Bharat’ (the Congress-free India), the BJP’s pompous sense of entitlement may yet prove its undoing.
The saffron party could still win the assembly elections in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh, given its dedicated organisational presence and massive electoral campaign. Also, its loyal Hindu vote bank is unlikely to desert it so soon. Yet, it is undeniable that the BJP is beginning to look vulnerable and is far from invincible.
It may find the going particularly tough in 2019. However, it could still win the re-election battle largely because the opposition remains weak and divided with opportunists like Nitish Kumar, once portrayed as a challenger to Modi, jumping the ship midstream to go and sit in the lap of his imagined rival.
The only party that is still capable of offering a credible alternative is the Congress. For all its flaws and sins, it remains the only party that has a truly national presence and can claim to represent all communities and states. After all, it led the movement for India’s independence under stalwarts like Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and Maulana Azad and governed the country for nearly six decades. It used to be India’s natural party of governance. Today, this distinction has been claimed by the BJP despite all that it has been done over the years to undermine and divide the country in the name of religion and nationalism.
However, the Congress is guilty of willingly surrendering and ceding its pre-eminence in Indian politics by trying to act like the B team of the BJP and trying to mean all things to all people.
When you start playing the game of soft Hindutva – as Indira Gandhi often did and Rahul’s late father Rajiv Gandhi did over the Babri Masjid – why shouldn’t the electorate go for the original proponents of the ideology?
Today, if India is not guided by the worldview of Gandhi but by the dogma of his killers with the BJP lawmakers openly cheering for Nathuram Godse and the Congress has been reduced to a double-digit figure in parliament – its worst performance since Independence – the party has no one to blame but itself.
More disturbing is the total saffronisation of all arms and facets of the Indian establishment or the deep state. From the legislature, the bureaucracy, the judiciary and the armed forces to the police and the media, Hindutva truly rules India today in every sense of the word. Even if the Congress or any other party defeats the BJP in 2019 or 2024, it would not be easy to deal with the ideology of hate that brought it into power.
Yet, the Congress cannot afford to give up or give in. Neither can the reasonable majority of the country that still believes in an inclusive, progressive and representative democracy – as imagined by the founding fathers of the republic.
It may still not be too late to revive the grand old party and rediscover its mojo – just as Rahul has discovered his own. The Congress needs to start working with all secular and democratic forces in the country and rally the nation once again for the goal of building a healthy, progressive and inclusive democracy – as envisioned by India’s liberal constitution and its farsighted architects. It can still win back India provided it believes in itself and sincerely works for the original ideal of India – the ideal of a secular and democratic nation that represents all segments of society.
There are widespread part-rumours and part-truths about an imminent transformation in Tharparkar. This magical land of serenity, peace and creativity, which has held together a diversity of faiths and has reflected the heterogeneity of cultures for centuries, will never be the same again in a decade or so.
The fossils beneath the sandy land have become the new determinants of a better socioeconomic life in Thar and the region’s hapless idyllic life will soon be gone. Will the enduring riches of the indigenous culture and the wretchedness caused by famine and drought disappear as well? The answer is, of course, not that simple as life will continue to be shaped along a new trajectory of accelerated change – an untrodden path for locals.
The transmutation of sand into black diamond has happened over geological time and has culminated in a commodity of high economic value. The economic value of the coal deposits of Thar weighs more than all other considerations of culture, indigeneity and the eroding of the pristine environs of this beautiful land. It would not be fair to see this transformation as a process of change from the primitive era to an industrial age alone. Instead, it is more about reshaping a society punctuated by an uneven development. The unevenness stems from the powerlessness of locals who have never had a real democracy to allow their voices to be heard in the process of a top-down development.
The priorities and pathways for this impending change are being set far from Thar, whose people will be affected the most from this transformation. There is also an interesting debate underway about poverty and prosperity among a new generation of development experts. These experts, who live in the comforts of urban life, reduce the dynamism of the ongoing transformation in Thar to an economic debate. This debate is centred around the net returns on investments, the power generation and positive externalities in the form of local employment.
What has not been debated meaningfully is whether we have chosen the right path to achieve those economic outcomes. In a country with a power generation potential of more than 60,000 megawatts – which is produced as a cheap and clean energy – using obsolete, hazardous and costly coal sources is not a people-centric policy choice.
It is not only about the use of coal per se in the case of Thar, but is also about disrupting the hydrological balance and denuding the desert of its scarce water sources through coal extraction. According to some experts, there are trade-offs. These include broadening employment opportunities and improving the physical infrastructure and communication systems, which will make a dent on chronic poverty. However, the accruing benefit from this newly-emerging economy hinges on the ability of local institutions to participate in the process. In my next article, I will try to outline the locally adopted initiatives to cope with this exotically defined agenda of economic transformation.
There are many development agencies, like the Thardeep Rural Development Programme (TRDP), which are likely to play a critical role in ensuring that locals become the primary actors of change. The programme has already initiated efforts to build a platform of development agencies to channel investments into community-driven local organisations. My next article will also provide a summary of this community-based approach of empowering people as the key stakeholders of this change.
The programme organised a conference in Mithi last week where the leading national and international development agencies and representatives of the provincial government shared their perspectives on people engagement within the new economy. They also outlined their potential role in empowering the communities through smart and strategic community-based investments.
Whether fabricated or real, these stories of change in Tharparkar certainly contain an element of truth. The birth pangs of a new socioeconomic order can be seen from the rapidly transforming infrastructure, the corporate investments and the newly-emerging nationalistic political discourses.
For many living in the town centres of Mithi, Islamkot and Diplo of Tharparkar, the rumours of a mythical black diamond’s curse have become true stories. For them, these politically framed stories of shrewd leaders look like the premonitions of a bad omen. The unthinkingly devised nationalistic political narratives of a curse and a bad omen do not seem to provide alternatives or viable solutions for engaging people in the new economy. It would not suffice to regurgitate the obvious signs of the rapidly evaporating traditions, culture and local art without finding ways to cope with the new reality.
The apprehensions of locals tend to go unabated when questions are posed by self-proclaimed political leaders about a dreadful and an unbecoming future. The mantra of progress and prosperity also run side-by-side. There is more talk than action towards this rather ambiguous transformation. Some experts would argue that “it would not suffice to present a bleak future only that, at times, keeps the people of Tharparkar away from the prospects of an improved quality of life”.
Will the moisture under the sand dunes – a ray of hope for life – be gone with those extractive practices to search for this black diamond? The winds of change seem to unsettle the centuries-old tranquillity and undisrupted inner life of this land. There is fear and greed in the air and everyone vying for some fortune tends to gravitate towards this region.
The fear of losing traditions and a culture of peaceful coexistence becomes an opportunity for many of those who are out there to sell the dreams of prosperity. The dreams of prosperity are important if they become a source of motivation that help the poor with clear means and the pathways of transformation. The impending transformation of Thar is complex, messy and disruptive and must be understood within the larger perspective of the changing economic mode of production and emerging social relationships as its corollary.
This change is not only about the industrialisation of a pastoral economy with investments in coal extraction and power generation, but also about building new relationships. The change is also about the social and cultural meanings of life for a desert dweller who is unaffected by economic greed.
For some people, it becomes a simple proposition of a positive change with the advent of new technology, an improved physical infrastructure and stronger potential of employability for the youth. Some people are afraid of losing the serenity, peace and centuries-old traditions of egalitarianism and peace. Both perspectives are not mutually exclusive if we are serious about formulating an inclusive strategy for a people-centric change.
In recent times, Tharparkar has seen a huge influx of experts, venture investors, development practitioners and impact investors who seek to position themselves as the stakeholders of the new economy. The corporate world is also moved by this new mood and there are many new economic players who are hopping on the bandwagon of a promising return on investment.
All this is perhaps too ambitious and seems like an exaggeration with an unmatched political propagation of this change. There is no doubt about the poverty, marginalisation, wretchedness and the increasing vulnerabilities of climate change and weak governance in Tharparkar. No one can deny the fact that most of the recent droughts and famines in Tharparkar were aggravated due to the poor governance, lack of institutional accountability and distributional issues. Whether or not industrialisation has taken place, Tharparkar has already undergone many changes, with staggering vulnerabilities triggered by natural, institutional and human-induced disasters. The region merits more attention and people-centric investment rather than mere efforts to adore and admonish such inevitable changes.
After the New York attack
This week’s ISIS-inspired truck attack in lower Manhattan by Uzbek immigrant Sayfullo Saipov has prompted discussions on a number of fronts. There is blowback, the foreign-policy-chickens-come-home-to-roost indicated by an increasing number of radical Islamists emerging from the former Soviet republic of Uzbekistan, a Central Asian nation whose brutal dictatorship is financed and armed by our US tax dollars.
There is the ongoing verbal diarrhoea of our mentally diseased president, whose tweets that Saipov deserves the “death penalty” were overshadowed by his even more outlandish suggestion that the suspect be reclassified as an “enemy combatant” (a Bush-era phrase undefined by American law) and sent to the U.S. torture-concentration camp at Guantánamo. Always the opportunist, Trump also said the “diversity visa” program ought to be abolished because Saipov came to the U.S. under what is more commonly known as the visa lottery.
Seems to me that the biggest issue raised by the New York attack is the one we’re not talking about: the need to protect bicyclists from cars and trucks on public roadways.
Saipov drove his rented Home Depot truck down the West Side Highway onto what becomes West Street, the six-lane road that follows the Hudson River in Manhattan. At Houston Street, just south of Greenwich Village, he made a quick right and a quick left onto the joint pedestrian-bike path that runs alongside the highway. There he mowed down cyclists and pedestrians, killing eight people.
Those eight people aren’t dead solely due to Saipov. They were also killed by the City of New York and its lousy urban planning.
Though in recent years there has been considerable progress in terms of setting aside asphalt for bike paths, walkways and urban parklets, New York and many American other cities, city officials seem largely oblivious to the risks of placing soft human bodies in close proximity to speeding cars, SUVs and trucks.
New York, where I live, is one of numerous cities to report success with bike-rental programs. Ours is called Citibike; you rent a bike from a kiosk and return it to a docking station near your destination. In between you make your way down and across city streets, where cars and trucks rule.
I almost understand the city’s reluctance to dedicate a bike lane to, or to dedicate entire streets, along smaller cross-town thoroughfares. They’re too narrow; you’d have to eliminate a lot of street parking, which would create more congestion. But the way New York has handled bike lanes along big boulevards is nothing short of inexplicable.
Nothing separates the bike lane from motor vehicle traffic but a line of white paint or, in some cases, short plastic sticks. Forget terrorism – hype aside, terrorism kills so few people that the only rational way for individuals to respond to it is to ignore it and live your life. It’s the ordinary accidents that worry me: two cars collide, one or both lose control and enter the bike path. It happens all the time in New York and elsewhere.
The West Street path where Saipov murdered his victims benefits from a short jersey barrier along the automobile section. But it’s easily accessible to even a large truck driven by a person of ill will, as we saw a few days ago. And it contains yet another ridiculous design flaw: putting pedestrians and bicyclists in the same space. Cyclists weave between walkers, terrifying them. Walkers are oblivious to cyclists, creating more accidents. Both deserve two safe, discrete spaces to enjoy the outdoors.
November 9, 2017
Some poems are destined to be pillaged and WB Yeats’s, The Second Coming (1919), is one such. It is also one of the most anthologised poems in the English language and will be familiar to many who have been through the mill of English-medium education in Pakistan. The lines that get trotted out most regularly are the second and third… ‘Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.’ There is not much cheer in the rest of the poem either. Over the years, I have heard the quote in respect of Pakistan more times than I can remember. Corners of mouths downturn, heads are nodded sagely and drinks gazed into with that ‘Ah yes poor old Pakistan’ look that presupposes an imminent over-the-cliff future for the Land of the Pure.
And it just ain’t so. Two conversations over the last three weeks, one with a fellow analyst and the other with the counter staff at the money exchange I use in the city came to similar conclusions, namely that these days Pakistan is much more of a glass half full than a glass half empty.
There was also agreement in both exchanges that if there was a single thing that was broke and fixable it was the image that the state presents to the world. Pakistan is the prisoner of narratives written by everybody else and they have very little that is good to say. To a large degree this is a self-inflicted wound as the scribblers — and yes I am one — that fill the pages you read here do not have much that is good to say either. There emerges a picture built of a kind of circularity of reportage — the negativity that is the headline story internally is picked up, embellished and institutionalised by every Tom, Dick, and Harry with an investment in the perpetuation of the Pakistan stereotype as an irredeemable basket case.
Despite what you may think the Four Horsemen of a Taliban Apocalypse are not currently cantering down Constitution Avenue in Islamabad. Both the upper and lower houses of parliament at times resemble little more than a playpen with teddies flying in all directions and much bawling and hollering, but neither is actually on the verge of collapse. The institutions of state are proving remarkably durable despite the best efforts of elected members.
The military may be a tad sniffy about the shenanigans in the civvie bear-pits but they have not the slightest desire to take up the reins of power either. And if there is a khaki tinge to foreign policy I think we can live with that. There is a khaki tinge to just about every other damn thing — a bit of a pain in the democratic fundament but hardly a fatal flaw.
The bureaucracy is massively corrupt wherever you look and still manages to keep the three-wheeled wagon rolling. There is poverty and hunger and parts of the country are desperately deprived of every conceivable modern necessity — and yet they have mostly not fallen into armed revolt (…there are exceptions). You may argue that the only reason they have not is that they are too exhausted by the effort of making daily ends meet that they do not have the energy to spare for revolution and you may be right.
Large swathes of the population under five are stunted and malnourished. Karachi is not waving but drowning. Nobody is responsible or accountable for anything. Tomatoes are over-priced. Women everywhere are abused, terrorised and marginalised. See how easy it is to paint that dreadful picture? In less than 300 words the stereotype is buffed up, bolstered and chomped down as the patty in the scrofulous national burger. For years the ‘failed state’ mantra got aired as regularly as the dhobi gets done. The state did not fail and was never…ever…remotely close to failure or collapse.
There was a slow dawning on the faces of those in the currency exchange as they talked themselves through the firewall that they had been busily erecting for most of their adult lives. Even the usually glum security guard looked a bit perkier as I left. Falling apart? Naah