The Gujrat bus tragedy: Children burnt to death in a country that just doesn’t care

Note: This article was first published in The Express Tribune Blogs on May 29, 2013

http://blogs.tribune.com.pk/story/17466/the-gujrat-bus-fire-burnt-children-in-a-country-that-just-doesnt-care/

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Glimpses of mothers wailing, the smoke from burning school bags and the funeral of at least 16 innocent angels still haunt me. They lost their precious lives when their school van caught fire – an indescribably agonising accident in Gujrat. The tragedy hasn’t left my mind since and my heart still weeps. 

We live in a country where bomb blasts and terrorist activities have made us collectively immune as a nation to the routinely-played episode of blood, terror and death. Every life is equally important, its loss, equally lamentable and its enemy equally reprehensible. But there is something immensely unsettling about watching dozens of little school children devoured in a ghastly fire, and yet having no one to blame. No closure to move on.

However, it brings some contentment to my soul as a concerned citizen to find a few news channels exhibiting newly-developed morals to discuss this heartbreaking accident. Channels are prioritising the Gujrat incident in those hours of the evening usually allocated to shameless, uncouth and unnecessary shows.

But is this much attention enough? Is it enough to paint a picture of the van driver as a criminal who intended this to happen? How can a sole person be responsible for something he wasn’t even aware of; the driver did not know the van would explode when he switched from gas to petrol.

Certainly, this accident is not an isolated event which points to the negligence of one driver. It highlights, yet again, the miserable state of affairs in a country operating without any proper enforcement of safety regulations.

A civilized country, for instance, takes prompt measures to ensure the security of its citizens above all other concerns. This might even mean launching fighter jets to escort aeroplanes perceived to have trouble onboard – these countries will do whatever it takes to ensure citizen safety. I envy their efficiency and often wonder if Pakistan will ever be able to reach even the most basic levels of such civilization.

The state is responsible when children are burnt alive. It is responsible for the helpless person who resorts to jumping out of a burning plaza in an attempt to avoid being burnt to death. 

Millions of lives lost because of negligence reflect the failure of the state’s machinery.

Instead of promising Rs 500,000 to every bereaved family each time they lose a loved one due to the state’s negligence, the powers that be should invest in building an effective crisis-management system to prevent such accidents in the first place.

How hard is it to stop wasting funds in pork-barrel gimmicks, mindless projects and extravagant campaigns, and to start putting money to good use?

How hard is it to prioritise and invest in the services that matter?

How hard is it to genuinely care?

Is Unrestrained Capitalism Really a Blessing in Disguise?

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I recently had an argument with someone who was bent upon convincing me that unrestricted capitalism is nothing but a blessing beneficial for all. The primary motive behind writing this very piece is not any sort of staunch advocacy of any economic mode of production but to challenge the assertions of unmitigated blessings of capitalism. The underlying conviction of the capitalism’s advocate is that capitalism has managed to extensively benefit the citizens of the emerging economies. But is that really correct?

People generally make use of statistics to corroborate their stance that the threefold rise in the global GDP in the past twenty years has contributed to the improvement of the state of the developing economies. If I may dare to differ, I want the readers to realize that the growth in GDP is a golden statistic that may look beautiful on paper presenting a rosy picture of the improvement in the living conditions of humanity, while in reality it might not be the case. And generally its interpretation is distorted and misleading in multiple ways. E.g. ; an increase in the production of ammunition and military equipment also forms a major chunk of the GDP hike statistic of an economy, but how does that factor contribute to the betterment of the deplorable state of poverty in a poor country is beyond the grasp of my feeble mind. The fact that most humans are not very fond of sharing their profits with the lower segments of society ensuing in the accumulation of wealth in a few hands and the constantly diverging income disparities led to the demise of the trickle-down effect principle of GDP rise a long time back. This, indeed, presents a very pessimistic view of human nature but the common sense indicates that if this view was misrepresenting then the fact that the number of people living on between $1.25 and $2 a day has nearly doubled, from 648 million in 1981 to 1.18 billion in 2008, would have been a lie.

Another benefit of capitalism highlighted is that of unconstrained capital and technology transfer between the countries. I am not, by any means, denying the effects of positive advancement brought about by technology. The mere fact that I am so conveniently able to articulate my dissent and disseminate it in a manner so prompt is indeed a blessing of technology in itself. However, there is another bleak yet thought-provoking aspect of this big picture that also needs our attention. The United States of America was so vehement in its desires of shattering USSR into smithereens because the idea of setting up unchallenged capitalism globally had been in line with its imperial ambitions of establishing a global empire by ruling through the power of ideas. This power of ideas has essentially been driven by the motivation of ruthless profit making and capitalizes on the notion that human desires are endless.

A mobile phone for example, whose sole purpose of invention, was to facilitate communication, has become a phenomenon of widespread obsession and enchantment which I tend to find ultimately irksome. This very culture of consumerism shapes our minds, in a certain way where we have started to associate our happiness to the attainment of things we do not need. The innovators and producers, driven by their absolute aspiration to make money, have gone beyond the point of just catering to our needs. They have started to create needs and design desires to make sure we get locked into the cobweb of consumption and over-consumption, unabashedly insensitive towards the social, cultural and environmental implications of their products. Unfortunately, the colossal influx of android phones in my country does not possess the ability to elevate the fifty percent of population living below the poverty line barely able to meet the minimum necessities of life required to survive.

The proponents of unadulterated capitalism claim that profits, being the propelling force, incentivize the economy into innovation and promise advancement and modernity. Another appalling viewpoint I have frequently come across is that poor people are poor because of their lack of motivation to progress and that capitalism guarantees success to anyone possessing the motivation to succeed. The comparison made with Western and European countries in this particular regard is immature and invalid at many levels. These countries have fully functioning social security systems that ensure education and equal opportunities for all segments of society including the most vulnerable. In a country like ours, where the social security system is almost non-existent, the fact that you are born in a poor family perpetuates your fate to remain deprived and underprivileged for the rest of your life. If you are too poor to gain quality education but lucky enough to get some of it, the large disparity in standards enforces unequal opportunities and hence stagnation in terms of upward mobility up the social ladder. The flimsy state of law ensures that progressively taxing the income has failed due to the unabashed culture of tax evasion, therefore regressive taxation emerges in the form of indirect taxes suppressing the poor and pushing them further in the downward spiral. In circumstances like these, if naked capitalism is allowed to flourish without implementing any sincere egalitarian measures, the ensuing results would only benefit the producers and the elites and engender discontentment among the masses.

The assertion that the impact of capitalism has manifested itself in the overall development of the world also needs to be widely analyzed by examining if the world is going in the direction of becoming a better place for everyone or not. Here, I would quote an interesting piece of observation that Dr. Adil Najam pointed out in one of the talks he delivered, though in a very dissimilar context from the one we are debating, yet very relevant to be mentioned. He expressed that if a person on another planet looking down at Earth from some other planet is required to produce a report describing the conditions of the World, considering it as one single country, the response would not be very delighting. He would find out that the Country World is an extremely poor country, with 2 billion people living on less than 1$ a day and 1 billion people living on less than 2.5$ a day. The Country is not just a poor country but it is also a divided country, with 80% of its resources being controlled by 20% of its people, and 80% of its people living on the remaining 20% resources. Moreover, it is a completely degraded country, and also rampant with insecurities such as that of food and water. The Country World would turn also turn out to be a poorly governed country and summing up all these characteristics imply that the Country World is a third world country but the idea of catching the first rocket ship and going out of it is beyond the bounds of possibility because there is nowhere else to go.

With all the good-looking global growth statistics on paper, why is the world not becoming a better place for all to live?

I do not intend to suggest abolishing the concept of free market or to associate the very idea of capitalism with Satan but I strongly believe that capitalism exists in varying forms. There are benign forms of capitalism, where it is ensured that the more the wealth is produced, the more effectively it is redistributed. And then, there is a deep-rooted kind of ‘crony’ capitalism that exists in Pakistan, that was born out of implementing theories like the ‘Social Utility of Greed’ and ‘the Functional Inequality’ during the Ayub’s era. All the facilitatory bodies established to benefit corporations ended up focusing solely on ten to fifteen top-richest households of the country, based on favoritism, leading to terrible income inequalities, accumulation of most of the resources and banks in the control of a handful of families and therefore extreme pauperization of the masses. Capitalism in Pakistan is most certainly far from being benign because of lack of structural and legal checks and restraints and the lack of sincerity when it comes to formulating and implementing pro-poor policies.

On the global level, Noam Chomsky refers to the system of predatory capitalism as “economic fascism” and observes that the impoverishment in the developing countries has mainly come about because of the third world’s compulsory economic liberalism stipulated upon them by the Western States who themselves protected their own economies from the market disciplines and developed. The gigantic corporations and the unrestrained capitalism must not be permitted, specially in a developing economy, on the mere premise of ‘free market’, to rampage around loose trampling everything that comes in the way of their pursuit of profits.

Sarah Khan

From Pakistan, With Love

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So Pakistan and Bangladesh faced each other in the Asia Cup Final and Pakistan managed to grab the victory by only 2 runs. Our nation is ecstatic and rightly so; we won this cup after 12 long years.

Yesterday, while I was flipping through the television channels, I heard some cricket expert state that it’s going to be for the first time in the history of cricket, that two Muslim countries are to face each other ever in the final of a big series. And I silently condemned him for mixing religion with sport and deemed it totally pointless and irrelevant to mention that fact.

Today, as the match progressed and reached its most crucial stage at the end, I saw the whole crowd of Bangladesh praying desperately and then I saw the people of my own country supplicating with equal anxiety. A rather strange thought crossed my mind: two nations,collectively invoking the same God, in the same way, begging for two totally opposite outcomes, I wondered if God loves us enough as a nation to favor our prayers more.

It turned out that we won. Our moments of collective pride and jubilation are indeed rare and I wish to thank Allah for giving us a reason to rejoice as a nation.

As far as my personal opinion about Bangladesh is concerned, I have never felt the general acrimony against Bangladesh as I would normally feel towards any other opponent in cricket. Now consider my behavior as inappropriate, because I decide to bring history into sports, but all I feel towards Bangladesh is a sort of affiliation covered by a feeling of remorse. Bangladesh could still have been a part of Pakistan, if we never treated them like a colony. Despite the fact that Bengalis were essentially the most prominent figures in the Movement for Pakistan (in fact even Muslim League was established in Dhaka in 1906), we shamelessly kept them deprived economically, politically and socially and to make matters worse, the rigid, condescending behavior of our politicians alienated them even further. Then our fat, flabby generals decided to hit the last nail in the coffin by launching a brutal, military operation that ended up perpetrating unspeakable atrocities. For further references to the moral lapses, see Hamood-ur-Rehman Commission Report of 1971. Anyway, in short, all I believe that Bangladesh deserves from us is a little confession and a huge apology.

See, I digressed.

My point is that I support Bangladesh in every match except if it’s against Pakistan. Me sense of being a Pakistani weighs more than the general affection that I feel for Bangladesh. Although I very well realize, that we are to Bangladesh what India is to us. I imagine that the history textbooks in schools in Bangladesh must portray us as the dirty, evil villains of their past. I am sure they hate us. And they have a right to.

As Pakistan bagged the win after a nail biting last over, I was exceptionally happy to see the people of my country rejuvenating their pride in being Pakistanis. It was equally heart-wrenching to see the faces of Shakib-al-Hassan, Mushfiq-ur-Rehman and other Bengalis players streamed with tears of disappointment, weeping, hugging and comforting each other. For a moment I found myself wishing that the pharaohs from our past hadn’t just dissected the country up. I felt sorry but I knew I would never trade it with the celebration and contentment I see across my streets because the people of my land need reasons to be united more than anyone else does.

A few months back I watched a report on television, that claimed that recently the London School of Economics conducted a survey to determine which country’s people are the happiest people on the planet. It was found out Bangladesh topped the list. I am not sure how accurate that survey might be, but it surely declared Bengalis as the happiest nation around the globe. I do not exactly recall where did Pakistan stand in the list but I have a hazy idea that it was somewhere around in the 30s or 40s. The grief-stricken, oppressed people of my country also deserve to be happy someday. You, my dear brothers, are a happy, progressing state anyway.

So Bangladesh, you guys played exceptionally well. And I want to thank you from the core of my heart for knocking India out of the series, for emerging as a tough opponent, turning the final into an interesting nail biting game and fighting hard enough not to make Pakistan’s victory look like a one-sided piece of cake, and for establishing a general example for everyone that anything small and weak is capable of rising to be mighty. Nobody is going to underestimate you ever again and that is your victory. I wish you all the very best for all your future cricket encounters.

I respect you Bangladesh.

But I love to see Pakistan win.

P.S. (added after 4 days) Now when your pleas to reverse the final on the basis of stupid allegations are sprouting all over the place, I might want to withdraw some of the respect and affection that I showered upon you earlier. Accept the defeat with dignity at least and stop whining like babies. Thanks.