Over the top

Sunday, July 05, 2009
By Masood Hasan

My friend Dr Khan, who doesn’t have the answers to all the mysteries of life, is nevertheless confident that, at last, he has managed to put his finger on the very essence of what ails Pakistan. He is of the opinion that every single Pakistani awakens every morning with one intention: how to shaft the next Pakistani. This sweeping philosophy applies equally to the man who is proceeding to clean the street gutter after it has remained blocked for over a month to the president. Thus a burgeoning nation of 170 million is transformed daily into a lethal body of sharks, crooks, liars, extortionists, cheats, hypocrites and frauds. Dr Khan’s solution may be simplistic, but can any one of us recall the last time somebody did a good deed or went out of his or her way to be helpful? Of course there are exceptions but in the case of Pakistan, this line is getting thinner by the day.

So why should it surprise anyone that ex-President Musharraf had a dodgy meter at his farm villa in that entirely illegal entity called Chak Shehzad, or that Uriah Heep of a finance minister and later prime minister, Shaukat Aziz, followed suit, or that over thirty other leading lights of this society hoodwinked the power authorities gaining financial advantage by breaking the few precarious rules we have? The common folk know far too well what happens when they delay payments. For them, the rules are strong and crystal clear.
As for dodgy meters or ones that run slowly, my office was hit recently by some very efficient officials of Lahore’s off-on power system. Apparently, the meter was running "slow," although when pointed out, the persons admitted that all the seals of the meter were fully intact. Asked was it not their job to notice if the average bills of an establishment were declining, they had no answer. The solution provided was to install a temporary meter (Rs80,000) and observe. Who is to pay for this? Of course the consumer. Why? No answer.

Sure enough, based on the "evidence" provided by the officials a month and more later, the installed meter was indeed "slow." A new meter was to be installed. Cost? Rs65,000. We paid. As the meter had been running "slow" we now had to pay "arrears" of Rs150,000, but because we were such good and law-abiding people, we could pay in two instalments. What about the Rs80,000 we had paid for the temporary meter? No refund. Sorry. Rules. We coughed up all the required "fines" because the staff, while sipping our tea, had casually informed us that were we to "default" they would cut the power off.

Yet in Chak Shehzad and hundreds of establishments and offices, no such problems ever arise. An entire network of greasy palms keeps things turning over.
Were one to obtain the list of Wapda’s defaulters–those who have consumed power and not paid their dues–the sums would be astronomical. A list was published some months ago and just about every institution, led by the governments of all the provinces, featured here as huge defaulters. Were these sums to be realised, we could probably ask the IMF to take a hike, but who is going to extract this money from the thieves?
What has been unleashing in Karachi is horrific, yet KESC thought nothing of blowing a wad of notes on a full-page ad following Pakistan’s T20 win. The ad insultingly informed the readers that they could perhaps now understand what power is all about! Not surprising in a country where the finance advisor tells the people to use the hallucinatory public transport and stop complaining about rising oil prices. Citizens of Karachi are gathering to sue KESC but no one is willing to donate any money – small amounts even to pay for the suit and related expenses, although the lawyers have offered free services.

The hopelessness that pervades has afflicted everyone because people genuinely believe that nothing they do will make a difference or change anything. That is why this week’s astronomical rise in oil prices (rejoice; it will have no corresponding effect on inflation), instead of a countrywide spate of protests and shutdowns, is not showing up on the radar screen. A few protests are planned, but the surge of humanity that can send corrupt and inept governments packing, is missing. Somehow the people of Pakistan have been so badly bludgeoned that no one really has the strength to stand up to any excess of any kind.

It is in this same blithe spirit that the government and its various bodies have chosen to shower our erratic cricket team with huge gifts and wads of notes. This is a very questionable point. Professional cricketers are paid to perform. It’s a job like jobs go. On the average an outing nets the players hundreds of thousands of rupees and the central contracts alone average about Rs250,000 per player. So why is the government using the taxpayer’s money to reward guys whose job it is to perform as best they can? What does this kind of thinking imply? Are doctors to be paid a bonus every time they save a life — a far nobler venture than a six over midwicket? Are officials doing an excellent job rewarded with perks above and beyond what they are already making? The answer is, of course, a flat no, but because there are good brownie points to be made here, the customary photo-op with the "boyzz," both the president and the prime minister, followed by the usual gaggle of thieves and layabouts, have gone to town showering gifts on the jocks. We are all thrilled at winning the T20–it’s the one single piece of good news we have had for years, but the reaction by the government is lamentable, in poor taste and insulting to the people whose money is used to this end. I would like to see how generous Mr President, Mr Prime Minister and the fat toads that slither about in the assemblies and Senate would be with their own money. No prizes for getting the right answer.

This is a country in serious crisis, rocked by civil war, an erosion of all its few tattered value systems, bankrupt, powerless, running on huge credit bills, without shame going around begging for alms and unable to provide even a semblance of good governance to its poor wretched citizens. Yet does anyone spot this crisis, looking at the suited-booted gents and empty-headed ladies who strut about the national and provincial stages? Not a worry on their face, not a crease of anxiety on their mugs. Beyond shame and beyond caring, only waiting to milk the system and fatten the purse.

The answer to this severe crisis comes in such tasteless and hypocritical gestures such as the serving of one dish at the Prime Minister’s House. My God, that is really going to send our fortunes spiralling through the planets. What kind of inanity is this? Another bad joke on the people? What about the motorcades, the limos, the fancy planes, the security apparatus, the armies of paid flunkies crowding about, the daily exorbitant and shameless squandering of funds on the royal styles of living that they all have adopted faster than fish adopt water? The entire system reeks of dead fish and the stench is unbearable, but, then, when was it any different? This is a decline. It’s not T20.

The writer is a Lahore-based columnist. Email: masoodhasan66@gmail.com

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