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A common man’s obituary: The saviour of Chawkandi tombs

Published: January 21, 2016
Ali Dino Mallah wanted to take this photograph against the backdrop of the oil tankers, hoping the authorities would remove them from the vicinity. PHOTOS: EXPRESS

Ali Dino Mallah wanted to take this photograph against the backdrop of the oil tankers, hoping the authorities would remove them from the vicinity. PHOTOS: EXPRESS

KARACHI: “Big money, big tomb. Small money, small tomb. No money no tomb.”

Ali Dino Mallah, the caretaker of the Chawkandi tombs on the outskirts of Karachi, uttered these words in a thick Sindhi accent in an attempt to share the few sentences of English that he had mastered over the decades. I met him in December last year, a week before he died.

Sporting an ajrak wrapped as a turban and an oversized waistcoat worn over a sweater and shalwar kameez, Ali Dino appeared much older than what I remembered of him from our last meeting more than two years ago.

He walked around the ornately carved graves inside the Chawkandi cemetery, shooing away potential vandals with his walking stick. He would stop frequently to catch his breath and take out the tiniest possible water bottle from a gigantic but otherwise empty pocket to take measured sips, a habit he said he had learnt by observing foreigners who visited the cemetery.

“I have a pacemaker in my heart you see,” he explained. “Do you want me to request people to help with your treatment or write about it?” I had asked after he told me that his family had spent thousands on his treatment even at the National Institute of Cardiovascular Diseases (NICVD), a government-run facility that supposedly treats the poor free of charge. “Don’t waste words writing about my illness. I don’t have much time left,” he told me, before urging me to write about what really mattered to him. “Write about these tombs. Please. Maybe someone will read it and expedite the restoration.”

Exploring Sindh: King of the road

Even if his faith in the restoration work was far-fetched, Ali Dino was right when he said he did not have much time left. He died on December 29 on his way to the hospital sitting behind a relative on a motorcycle. “He was the heart of Chawkandi. I have nothing left now,” wept his widow, Rehmat Bibi. The family, comprising his widow and six children, continues to live in the small quarters adjacent to the graveyard and are in need of financial help. “He was like an angel and died an easy death. Like an angel was taken away.”

The old caretaker of the tombs hailed from Khairpur district in Sindh and was a common man. This is a common man’s obituary. And the obituary of a historic, priceless heritage site of the province of Sindh that is crumbling away.

Intricately carved sandstone tombs that are masterpieces of funerary art and rich in symbolism are now mostly half broken. Blocks and bits of these tombs have been stolen by vandals over the years, and now grace the drawing rooms of affluent art collectors in Pakistan and abroad, Ali Dino had shared.

“The commissioner [Shoaib Siddiqui] had promised me that tankers would be removed from this area, security walls would be erected around the graveyard and pickets would be established,” Ali Dino recalled his conversation with the commissioner before he got distracted by the camera. “Listen, take my photo with these oil tankers in the background. And choose an angle smartly. If there is harsh sunlight in the background, the photograph will not come out well,” he said.

After more than 30 years of service as a guide and caretaker of these tombs, Ali Dino had posed with thousands of visitors to know that the play of shadow and light was key to good photography, without ever holding a decent camera in his hands. Many of these visitors were high-ranking government officials and bureaucrats who had given hope to the old man that one day, this spectacular heritage site would get the attention it deserves.  Soon after we met, the commissioner of Karachi was transferred from the post. Perhaps, his replacement will be able to remove the gravel, sand, trucks and tankers, unwanted encroachments, and put a stop to illegal burial in the centuries-old graveyard.

Ali Dino, the man who spent his life trying to safeguard our heritage and tell us tales hidden in the carvings on those tombs, was buried in the same graveyard, among the very tombs he spent his life looking after. The restoration and protection of Chawkandi tombs should be considered a dying man’s last wish. If fulfilled, he will rest in peace.

Published in The Express Tribune, January 21st, 2016.

Pakistan’s rat race: The politics of professionals

The race begins quite early. It starts with animated discussions about which school the baby-to-be will go to. One-year-olds are sent to playschools that guarantee admissions in top-of-the-line schools offering O Levels. Before admission tests, tiny tots are taken for regular visits to familiarise them with the schools they will apply for admission to, and photos of that school’s principal are lifted off the internet and repeatedly shown to the toddlers to make sure they are relaxed during the interview.

Fast-forward eight to 10 years. Mothers (and I confess to being one of them) can be seen dropping off kids to O Level exams with zeal and enthusiasm, as if the children are literally going to fight the biggest crusade of their lives. Kids are also encouraged to take part in extracurricular activities – golfing, swimming, drama, knowing an additional language or two – all this not for the joy of it, but because it makes the Curriculum Vitae of these high-achievers more impressive. They are pushed to their limits in the name of competition. All this is a means to an end – and that end is admission into a foreign university.

For years, Pakistanis have wanted their progeny to participate in the mass exodus of brainy, bright, and brilliant youngsters who want to make something of themselves and so go abroad to face life armed with a foreign degree. But a new phenomenon has risen in recent years – the flooding of the Pakistani job market with “returnees to Pakistan,” or R2Ps as they are popularly known.

The reasons why an increasing number of youngsters who have been educated abroad are choosing to return to Pakistan are understandable. Stricter immigration laws are making work visas next to impossible to obtain. Hostility towards Muslims the world over makes living and working abroad a formidable proposition. A global recession means there are fewer jobs in the international market. Many young people also feel that no matter what they achieve abroad, they will still be considered immigrants, whereas in Pakistan they can enjoy a sense of ownership. A ‘paradise for the mediocre,’ as some call Pakistan, is an easier place to shine through and become a mini-celebrity.

More frequent homecomings mean scores of foreign graduates are now working alongside graduates from local universities, may they be from government colleges or more upscale, private institutions such as LUMS. The result? An understated but very real rivalry between foreign and local graduates in the workplace.

Local grads are more ‘with it’ in terms of local know-how and a familiarity with the Pakistani way of doing things. Employers describe such local products as street smart and comment on their well-established social and professional networks. They can often work better with people from different backgrounds and classes. Having lived in Pakistan, they are less naïve and don’t offer the retort that foreign graduates treat like a mantra, “but this is how we do it back there.”

Graduates from foreign universities, on the other hand, have better interpersonal, writing, and presentation skills, and in some cases, a stronger work ethic. Travel has made them world-wise, aware, and confident. They are often ambitious and driven in ways their compatriots are not, and are in a position to put their career above all other social or familial obligations. As a result, they are available to pull long hours, and can be handed responsibility for high-stakes projects.

In some organisations, one group is preferred, promoted, and hob-nobbed with, while in others the reverse will be true. Asha’ar Saeed, the HR director at Reckitt Benckiser Pakistan Limited, feels that, “the edge foreign graduates have is their ability to work with people from diverse backgrounds, and slightly better ethics. Local ones have the advantage of having know-how of local business dynamics. However, in terms of writing skills, presentations skills and networking, anyone can be superior to the other. I have seen some brilliant graduates of Bahauddin Zakariya University, Multan, and Bahria University, Karachi, who can compete against the best.”

With these comparisons being made by those who make hiring decisions, the rivalry between local and foreign graduates is a real issue, bringing complications and stresses for youngsters on both sides of the divide. Saadia Muslim, 23, is a strategic planner at an advertising agency who graduated from a Canadian university. She confesses that “the move back home was not exactly smooth-sailing. Even though I grew up and lived in Pakistan for most of my life, it is quite easy to become spoilt and get used to the good life.” Muslim found adjusting to the work environment and corporate culture in Pakistan to be quite tricky, as there were many office politics and a prevalent ‘seth’ culture.

Muslim admits that her boss not-so-subtly hinted that she was hired because of her foreign college education. “That worked both ways. It felt good to be given importance, but I was extremely wary of colleagues thinking that I was snobby or arrogant.” Muslim also felt that local graduates were at an advantage as it took her some time to relate what she had learnt in college to the local industry. She did not know any famous executives from multinationals who had taught her in college, like her colleagues did, so her networking was also initially poor.

On the other hand, Fahad Naveed, a student at the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture, feels that “foreign graduates get a definite and sometimes unfair edge, even if they studied at some unknown, mediocre university abroad.”

Does that lead to strained relations at work? Cyma Hasan, a business manager has been lucky. “Foreign and local grads are treated the same way [in my office]. In fact, local grads at times have an advantage, in my experience.”

As an inherent part of the culture of the Indian subcontinent, the class and caste system still prevails in Pakistan. We compartmentalise people into Punjabis and Sindhis, Sunnis and Shias, Clifton-wallahs and Nazimabad-wallahs. Diversity is not celebrated; it becomes a reason for strife and an excuse to undermine each other. Foreign versus local graduates is yet another kind of compartmentalisation in our society. Instead of learning from each other, youngsters are using this distinction to give rise to petty politics in a professional context. It is time everyone moved beyond this immaturity and saw that the two groups can be complements – not adversaries – to each other in the road to success.


Farah Zahidi Moazzam is a freelance writer.Illustration by Eefa Khalid/

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Matchmaking in the modern era

Enough bloggers have written about the weddings around which Pakistani society revolves year round. But few have considered how we get to that much sought after point of holy matrimony. Is every wedding we attend preceded by tireless efforts to match-make? How are matches being arranged nowadays? Who is the most active and instrumental match-maker? And what difference have new technologies such as iChat and Facebook made to the ancient art of rishta scouting? Or is the real game changer the fact that an increasing number of women are in jobs and meeting members of the opposite sex at their workplaces?

A recent experience of trying to match-make led me down this train of thought, and reminded me that the way we do things has altered since the bygone era. My mother continues to point out how, back then, the boy in the initial stage of choosing a prospective bride never came to see the girl; that privilege remained with his mother and sisters and aunts. Once they approved of the girl, more liberal families allowed the groom-to-be to come meet his prospective bride – at most, a fleeting glance. Otherwise, voila! Come the wedding day and the couple would first see each other’s reflections in a mirror as part of theaarsee mashaf ritual.

But let’s step back a bit – how did the bride and groom’s families come to know of each other in the first place? Enter the matchmaker. At any given time, in history, around the world, matchmakers have been social busybodies, making it their business to know who is doing what with whom. On the rare occasion, the matchmaker can also be a sincere, well-meaning person who happens to find herself (or, it is known to happen, himself) in the midst of a probable match, for which s/he acts as a liaison.

Different religions and cultures have had different types of matchmakers. Some people, for example, assigned astrologers the dual role of serving as matchmakers since they believed that stars sanctify the matches that parents arrange. No wonder then, over time, matchmaking became a respectable profession, with those who managed to arrange successful matches walking off with their fair share of gold coins (or US dollars). Now, in an age of information technology, traditional matchmakers find themselves competing against websites and online dating services. In Singapore, a government-sponsored system providing professional counsel and dating technologies is available to the public.

As the art of matchmaking evolves, one wonders if the criteria of traditional matchmaking will also be updated. Until recently, families made basic queries. The girl’s family would ask about the boy’s age, education, salary, family structure (joint or nuclear), dependants, and area of residence. The boy’s family, meanwhile, would only be interested in the girl’s looks. And if she passed certain standards, then other matters could be negotiated.

Today’s emancipated girls, however, are probably less willing to be judged on the basis of looks alone. They may argue, isn’t it equally important for the girl to approve of what the boy, or man, looks like? When will gender bias in matchmaking end? When will boys be forced to wheel in the tea trolley when the girl’s family pays a visit?

Changing gender dynamics aside, matchmaking has become trickier owing to new communications technologies. But endless trysts on Facebook, online chatting, or even dating cannot ensure that a couple truly knows each other.

The truth is, matchmaking has never been an exact science because people have the tendency to evolve. You start going out with a boy, he later transforms into a man, and over time you find yourself dealing with your father-in-law! In the meantime, you yourself begin to resemble your mother a little more with each passing day. No matter how hard a matchmaker works, s/he cannot predict how a man will react when he loses his car keys or is hungry, or how a woman will behave towards her mother-in-law. Time has already shown that an arranged marriage may carry on successfully, while a marriage of choice may not, and vice versa.

Despite the prevalence of this knowledge about the unpredictability of marriage, in today’s scientific era, genetic matchmaking is also taking place (a new high in the practice, or is it a low?). Some couple’s run a battery of tests to make sure the next generation is close to perfect.

A friend recently told  me that her family rejected a near-perfect proposal for a girl the boy’s family asked her to have her blood tested since her prospective husband was vulnerable to Thalassaemia. In another case, the girl’s side requested that the boy be screened for STDs, a request the boy’s side turned down. Indeed, marriage and matchmaking have become exceedingly complicated.

But in the end, the success of a marriage boils down to destiny and how hard the couple is willing to work on their marriage. Check out what you can, rule out the negatives, and weigh the pros and cons. Eventually, though, you realise that the future is not entirely in your hands.

(Photo illustration by Eefa Khalid)


Farah Zahidi Moazzam is a freelance writer.The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Originally published here:

Why aren’t Pakistani men given paternity leave?

Published: December 6, 2015

Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan Zuckerberg with daughter Max. PHOTO: AP

“We are pregnant.”  

That is such a wonderful way of announcing the happy news that a couple is expecting a baby. While it is by natural default that the woman is destined to bear the bigger physical brunt by carrying the child to term and going through the delivery ordeal, there is no dearth of good daddies who take pride and ownership in the role.

The more evolved men of today take the paternal instinct very seriously. They are involved in active parenting. And so many of them – like Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg – want to spend some uninterrupted time with their new-born. The purpose is multi-fold: help the mother, bond with the baby in what is perhaps the most inexplicably beautiful time of a parent’s life, and play your part in arguably the most important job life has given you. Yet, not every daddy-to-be owns Facebook, or works in companies that show such empathy.

Facebook employees are lucky; soon after Zuckerberg said he would take two months of paternity leave, the social media company announced that it is extending its parental leave policy to full-time employees outside the US.

Now that Zuckerberg’s daughter, Max, has arrived, he has given her a beautiful welcome by committing 99 per cent of the Facebook shares to charity. He even wrote a letter to his new-born baby girl where he vows to change the world by eliminating inequality and giving every child a chance at education.

While critics may call it “philanthrocapitalism” and worry about the shares currently valued at $45 billion, it is a heart-warming welcome nonetheless. But for the daughter, the two months daddy is taking off from work may go a longer way.

Looking at international labour laws, maternity leave is finally and thankfully given due importance. But paternity leave is a classic case of reverse discrimination, where we see the gender gap tilting in favour of the woman. While due to physical reasons, maternity leave is unavoidable, the paternity leave debate needs to be fuelled yet again. Zuckerberg may have given the subject the much needed impetus.

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) defines the leave as,

“A leave period – paid or unpaid – reserved for fathers in relation to childbirth or leave that can be used exclusively by fathers as paternity leave. It does not include parental leave provisions that can be used by the father or mother or parts of maternity leave entitlements that the mother can transfer to the father. It includes ‘special leave’ provisions in addition to annual leave that may be used by fathers at the time of birth, but which are not strictly ‘paternity leave’.”

An ILO study released last year shows that in addition to maternity leave legislation, many countries also have measures to support working fathers. Of 167 countries studied, 78 stipulate a statutory right to paternity leave, mostly paid. Yet, leave provisions for fathers vary country and culture wise.

On an ILO map showing paternity leave allowed by law in each country, when one swipes the cursor over Pakistan, the words “0 leaves” pop up. The government of Punjab, earlier in this decade, notified male employees that they could avail a paternity leave up to seven days for a total of two times in their entire service. Many corporate houses all over Pakistan allow leave on the same pretext.

The days of paternity leave are still too little and the subject is not discussed enough, yet there is a definitely encouraging upswing trend of more involved fatherhood. More and more fathers wholeheartedly and lovingly take part in changing diapers, preparing the baby’s feeds and walking around with the baby on their shoulder till he/she has burped. Parenting is a joy shared by two, from babyhood to your child’s adulthood. It is time that fathers get some time off legitimately when this journey starts for them.

Pakistan’s legislators and policy makers, are you listening?

Originally published here:

Dear Pakistanis, why has the #earthquake2015 not moved u like the 2005 earthquake & 2010 floods did?

Earthquake 200(1)5: Are Pakistanis mobilised best when calamities are of colossal magnitudes?

Residents walk past the rubble of a house after it was damaged by an earthquake in Mingora, Swat. PHOTO: REUTERS

A 100 plus schools and almost 9,000 houses have been demolished in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (K-P) alone, and even official figures show that the death toll is bordering on 300 people.

Calculating the number of the injured and incapacitated is not difficult to calculate. The earthquake that shook Pakistan on October 26th was not a small calamity by any means. Yet, apart from sporadic sightings of a couple of relief camps, Pakistanis are not mobilised like they were at the time of natural calamities that hit the country in the past.

The initial wave of sympathy seems to have dissipated sooner than usual. The very nation which prides itself on being charitable and unified in times of crises seems to be sitting tight on the whole, barring some exceptions.

What went wrong this time? Or did something go right?

The first reason is a no brainer. Fortunately, the numbers of casualties and people affected are much lower, though each life is precious. Comparing 80,000 deaths and 3.5 million homeless in the 2005 earthquake, and the 2,000 deaths and 20 million affected in the 2010 floods, the numbers this time are drastically less impactful. It seems, thus, that Pakistanis are mobilised best when calamities are of gargantuan proportions. The flip side of the fact that we are a nation that is resilient is that it requires something enormous to move us.

While during the 2005 earthquake Pervez Musharraf was at the helm of affairs, there was a general despondency when it came to reliance on the government, perhaps due to a merger of a leader from the armed forces into the political realm. But in all fairness, the government of the time would have tried its best to mobilise relief and rehabilitation work, yet the tragedy was too huge to grapple with, and the people of every age and from every walk of life stepped up. We saw unification like never before, and Pakistanis were at their effective best.

Comparing the scenario at the time of the 2010 floods and now, one difference is key and glares back at you. In 2010, it was Asif Ali Zardari at centre stage. While it was a democratically elected government, it was practically non-existent in terms of governance. Nothing moved Zardari and the gang it seemed, and he refused to show up even for face saving. Thus, images of the homeless, starving people standing up to their midriffs in the stagnating  flood waters, fighting water borne diseases, and people wailing and crying after their children and cattle were swept away, moved the people. The collective sentiment was that it was time that matters were taken into our own hands. ‘Abb khud kuch karna paray ga’ (now we will have to do something ourselves) was the general feeling.

The 2005 earthquake and the 2010 floods resulted in the creation of scores of small non-profit initiatives on both individual and collective levels. Many of the philanthropic organisations that were created back then are still working on ground to help those affected by the 2015 earthquake.

Fast forward to October 2015.

The times have changed, somewhat. Social media is much more mainstream than it was, and even the media as a whole does not fail to put the spotlight on any bit of news, which means the leaders have to show up or they will not be forgiven. Hence, giving credit where due, no one has really been missing in action. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has flown back from UK cutting short his trip. Imran Khan, as Chairman of the party that rules K-P, which is the most affected province, has reached.

Both the provincial and federal governments are showing up. Most of all, the armed forces are active as usual in the relief work as well, and the people, willingly or unconsciously, rely on them to take charge of the situation. Thus, while the sympathy is there, the urgency to help is missing, and a sort of complacency has set in.

But the fact remains that this is a country where the infrastructure in the mountainous northern areas is already precariously weak. Our public health facilities are not reliable enough. Winter has set in and as a result of that earthquake, thousands are out in the open in the freezing cold weather, homeless and devastated. Ownership must be taken today as well, irrespective of what the government or the armed forces are doing or not to help the helpless.

Time, yet again, to put in our share.

We owe it.

7 years later, what is BB looking down at?

“Dartay hain bandooqon walay aik nihatti larki se….”

And so it was. Those armed with weapons and the ideology of dictatorship were afraid of the frail twenty-something Benazir Bhutto who was armed with an ideology. She had on her shoulders the heavy task of taking forward the legacy of her father, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, who was, after Jinnah, a true leader this nation had been gifted with, even though there were some taints on his name. BB fought back, and she fought back well. She was received well by the people who adored her. She was not the orate speaker her father was, and often had to rely on a display of histrionics to divert attention away from her compromised Urdu and Sindhi, but she was true to her cause. She suffered for the sake of democracy and won in the end. Our dear BB, the darling of the crowds, the emblem of a movement “by the people, for the people”.
But what happened later is a horrific tale of something right going so wrong. Somewhere, her father’s beloved Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) fell prey to corruption and nepotism. The efficacy of BB’s second term as prime minister for the cause of social justice is questioned even by staunch PPP followers. Yet, with all her faults, the brave daughter of a brave father, she came back after nine years in exile, mingled with the people, and paid the ultimate price for her bravery by being martyred.
And this is where the ultimate downfall of her party began.
Seven years after her, we look back at her legacy. And when we think of BB’s PPP, we think of it till December 27 2007. What followed, and what remains, is a disfigured mutation of the ideology that once represented this populist movement. Like every 27 December since the last seven years, crowds have gone to Garhi Khuda Bukhsh and are showering flower petals on her grave and sanctifying her, and they insist that “Bhutto zinda hai”. Of these, there are those who have used her martyrdom for their own agendas. Then there are those who are there simply because they love BB and are unable to get over the romance of the Bhutto name. Also there are those, and these are many, who know well that the present PPP is not even a shadow of what it once was, yet it is too late in the day for them to change their political allegiances. The rest of Pakistanis, like myself, are disgruntled bystanders. Some of us have turned towards more promising political parties, and have hopes in another populist leader who has risen in Pakistan, while others have become political atheists. While out of respect for BB, we still listen to her young son shouting himself hoarse that Bhuttosim is alive, we sadly know all too well what the reality is. Only time will tell if Bilawal or his sisters, or preferably a non-dynastic heir to BB’s ideology can give PP the boost it desperately needs. For now it seems improbable, if not possible. While her heirs succeeded in completing their term, their inefficient governance and corruption has cost the party heavily in terms of public support.
With all her faults, I believe BB meant well, which is not what can be said for those who took over her political throne. If BB is looking down, we know that she is equally saddened by what happened to her legacy. RIP BB.

Do human rights activists hate Imran Khan because he is not a leftist?

Published: November 26, 2014

Imran may not be your typical human rights activist, but he is one all right. One of the best. PHOTO: AFP

The young girl who works as domestic help for me said,

Baji, do you know why our men don’t want Imran Khan to come into power? It is because they are scared that women in the villages will gain strength if he becomes our prime minister. Already, he supports women standing up for their rights. The jalsas are a proof of this. But we will make sure he wins. We are by his side.”

This was the morning after Imran gave an inspiring and honest talk from his container as PTI celebrated “Justice for Women Day”. I had heard that Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) would be celebrating this day a few weeks earlier from a friend who is active in PTI, and a close aid of Imran. I had asked her if the date, November 25th, had been chosen to coincide with the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.

“Really? It’s the same day? I’m not sure. You know how PTI works. We do what feels right, for the rights of the downtrodden. Doesn’t matter if it’s a special day or not.”

My default setting had taken over, and I had asked her if they had invited any known human rights’ activists for the occasion. She smiled and said,

“They don’t like us very much you know.”

As a human rights activist and a journalist who reports passionately on human rights and has friends from the field, I also support PTI’s stances on most things, if not all, and look up to Imran as a real hope for Pakistan, as a sincere leader, a philanthropist and humanist. The two things seem like opposites, which is why for a while I procrastinated writing this blog because it would mean choosing sides. Only, the traction is interesting, because I am clearly on both sides.

As for Imran, I see him as a proponent of human rights. He may not be the stereotypical human rights activist of Pakistan, and may not fit the niche group. But he stands up for the underdog, always. And that is what human rights work essentially is – to stand up for the marginalised and vulnerable communities – women, children, minorities, people in conflict zones, people suffering from injustice, people who don’t have money to pay hospital bills and send their children to good schools. The man stands up for social equality. His humanitarian work is a reflection of his belief in equal rights for all.

What then is the problem? Why won’t the human rights activists accept him and his work? They love Shaukat Khanum Hospital and Namal College, but certain things he said and did seem to have ruffled just the right (or left) feathers.

Being the advocate of both the devil and the angel (and I do not know who is who in this case), there are certain things at play here. For starters, while people like Edhi and Chiipa, and organisations like Alamgir Welfare Trust and even Jamaat-e-Islami’s (JI) social welfare wing’s efforts are lauded, they are seen as ‘humanitarian’ efforts. Human rights and their advocacy are seen as a different animal in Pakistani society, and over its history of more than six decades, a certain niche group of people have started being associated with this in the country. They are, in fact, seen as the stake holders of human rights. And with the package come certain pre-requisites. You have to be leftist, or left-off-centre, or at least completely secular, and be someone who does not bring religion into any talk of human rights.

I recall at a recent moot about women-friendly legislation where I was a panellist, a suggestion was floated that following the example of Indonesia, local Imams and clergy members be sensitised to women’s rights, and this be made a part of primary education. At this point, a very known and respected human rights activist who has contributed much to the country stood up in rage,

“What has religion got to do with this? Why must we bring God into everything?”

As much as we tried to explain that this could be done for all religious sects and leaders of minority communities could also be brought on board to fight evils like domestic violence, her reaction remained angry, till the organisers promised that the idea would be dropped.

Imran, in comparison, is clearly centrist in his approach. He cites examples from the life of the second righteous Caliph, Hazrat Umar (RA) and is clear that his dream is that “Pakistan should be an Islamic welfare state with equal rights for all”. In October this year, he dared to question the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) regarding where their funding comes from. Imran’s take is that anyone and everyone should be open to being questioned. But the reaction, not surprisingly, was “how dare he”, given the truly amazing work that has come out of HRCP for the people of Pakistan. This came as a retort to the HRCP saying that Imran and his party’s sit-ins are distracting from more important human rights issues. Add to it the very open issues between the Imran Khan camp and the Asma Jahangir camp. There is a history here, which I wish to leave aside. But the fact remains that this situation has added yet another dimension to the polarisation in Pakistani society.

The human rights camp remains unforgiving of Imran’s earlier stances on many issues, for example his earlier take on certain women-friendly legislations, or his openness to the idea of talking with the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). His present softer stances are seemingly not enough for them to give him a chance and work hand in hand for a better future for Pakistanis.

This leaves people like me in a predicament, people who see sincerity on both sides; people who feel bridges should be built between both sides.

It is ironic that I am writing this a day after my paper published a report by human rights group Reprieve, stating that the CIA killed a whopping 221 people, including 103 children, in Pakistan in the hunt for just four men, and that 24 men were reported killed or targeted multiple times; missed strikes on these men killed 874 other people, and account for the 35% of all confirmed civilian casualties in Pakistani drone strikes. The humanist in me cannot write-off Imran as a humanitarian as well as a human rights activist, knowing that he took the strongest stance against “collateral damage” in drone attacks, which is a gross violation of human rights, and his work in the field of public health, education and his stand against injustice.

We live in times where things are neither simplistic nor black and white. If Pakistan has any hopes of uplifting the downtrodden in our society, the thing to do is to appreciate whatever good is being done by any one, whether from the left, the right or the centre. Imran has and is doing a lot of good for our people and stands up for their rights. He may not be your typical human rights activist, but he is one all right. One of the best.

Forsaken?: In Thar, depression claims what drought spares

Published: October 29, 2014

Dozens of children have reportedly died of malnutrition in this drought-stricken desert district of Sindh this year alone. PHOTO: AFP

KARACHI: “Dhia Bheel was a beautiful young woman but always looked gloomy and frail. She couldn’t put up with hunger and domestic violence. She jumped into a well with her six-month-old child. I’ve witnessed two suicide cases in the last two months in my tiny village,” says Lado Meghwar, resident of village Meghi Jo Tar in Tharparkar.

Dozens of children have reportedly died of malnutrition in this drought-stricken desert district of Sindh this year alone. And psychiatrists believe the persisting famine is creating psychological disorders among the Tharis, leading to suicidal tendencies.

In the past 10 months, 40 people have committed suicide in Tharparkar, including two cases of mothers killing themselves along with their children, according to a report prepared by a local NGO, AWARE.

More worrisome are the two cases of minors committing suicide. Thirteen-year-old shepherd Savaee Ghazi Meghwar of Kasbo village, district Nagarparkar, killed himself when his parents did not give him his pocket money.

The second case narrated by Marro Meghwar, a resident of Chapar Din village, is of a boy called Raimal, son of Chaman, aged 12, who threw himself into a well some 20 days back. “The child was mentally challenged. With such poverty how could they have even considered treatment?”

Psychiatrist Dr Lakesh Kumar Khatri confirms that suicide cases are on the rise in Tharparkar, and he links it mainly to depression. With the drought in Tharparkar prevailing for a third consecutive year, there is much to be depressed about.

This affects women and children the most, according to Khatri. Seventy-five per cent of patients of mental illnesses here are females, he claims.

“Problems overlap. Abject poverty leads to malnutrition, which affects sanity. Even if I do try to counsel a patient, it’s useless because malnutrition will lead to mental challenges. Such cases are more prone to suicide,” says Khatri. “They laugh when doctors suggest they eat fruits. ‘Our standard diet is dried red chilies with roti’, they say.”

Because of poverty, most depression cases go undiagnosed. “They don’t have money to feed themselves. How can they commute to Umerkot where we hold our free clinics?”

Thari women are malnourished. Their average hemoglobin level is eight to 10, which means they are also anemic. And their problems keep multiplying. More and more Thari men are moving to cities to try and earn a living, leaving their women lonelier and sadder.

Conversion Disorder, a mental illness in which psychological illness starts producing physical symptoms, is also common among Thari women. The realisation of their plight is equally painful. “While this awakening is a good thing, it is also painful, because the Thari people are realising how far behind they are,” says one doctor.

The state, however, is in a state of denial. Dr Lekhraj, who works at the state-run hospital in Chachro, denies any of these deaths were due to suicide. MPA Mahesh Kumar endorses Dr Lekhraj: “Maybe the women slipped and fell” into the wells.

That is because many blame the government for the depressing state of affairs in Tharparkar. Defending his government’s report card, Sindh Chief Minister Syed Qaim Ali Shah this week claimed in a speech in the provincial assembly that his administration has recently arranged wheat worth Rs2 billion for the drought-hit areas of Tharparkar.

Ironically, he denied anyone had died of hunger over the past five years, and also contradicted reports of an unusual increase in child deaths in Tharparkar. Unofficially, more than 100 drought-affected children reportedly died in the region this year – 32 in the month of February alone.

MPA Mahesh Kumar concedes the drought situation this year ‘is worse’ than 2013, but he denies poverty could be blamed for the deaths and depression. “Other reasons like illicit affairs and family feuds can also be a reason,” claims Kumar. “Malnourishment is not just a problem of Tharparkar. It exists in other parts of Sindh and in Balochistan too. But now the media magnifies even the smallest incidences.”

Officials say they are giving 50 kg of wheat, free of cost, to every family. But local NGO’s insist very few families ever received the entire 50kg allotted to them. With the government insisting all problems will be solved with a 50kg bag of flour, the future looks bleak for the people of this neglected part of Pakistan.

Suicide in numbers

• 40 is the number of cases of suicide in Tharparkar district in the first ten months of 2014.

• A tehsil-wise ratio of suicides shows that 42% of the cases were in Mithi, 23% were in Nagarparkar, 20% in Chachro and 12% in Islamkot.

• 50% of the cases were men and 50% were women and children.

(Source: AWARE)

The reasons for suicide in order of most cases to least

• Poverty and unemployment

• Family feuds

• Domestic violence

• Mental disorders

• Mismatched marriages

(Source: AWARE.)

Published in The Express Tribune, October 29th, 2014.

Taxation: One of Pakistan’s weakest links

Published: October 23, 2014

Out of a total workforce of 58 million, less than 2 million are registered taxpayers. CREATIVE COMMONS

KARACHI: The index might offend the overly patriotic but is hardly surprising.

Pakistan is one of the weakest countries in the world, and now has an index assigned to it — fragile state. Pakistan ranks 10th in the Fragile States Index released by the Peace Fund earlier this year. India ranks 81.

According to another report, “Fragile States 2014: Domestic Revenue Mobilisation” produced by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in February, the cause is a non-functional domestic revenue system — the failing tax system.

“For almost 68 years, no one has gone to jail in Pakistan for not paying their taxes,” said Dr Vaqar Ahmed, deputy executive director at the Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI). “Our people have a tendency to not pay them. The informal sector doesn’t get itself registered. There is no mechanism to keep a tab on the income of micro-retail. Salons, private tuition centres, tax solicitors, software developers – how many of them pay taxes?”

With a narrow tax base, development continues to suffer. “With a continuously declining GDP, our development relies solely on loans,” said economist Khurram Shehzad. “The country, therefore, continues to be under heavy debt. One of the most charitable nations in the world refuses to pay taxes due to a trust deficit on the government.”

Bleak future 

The Pakistani government spends a meagre 0.7% of its GDP on health, which is less than half of what other governments in lower middle-income countries spend. National expenditure on elementary education is less than 2%. The OECD reports that progress towards the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in fragile states is expected to be much slower compared to other countries, and in five years, extreme poverty is expected to be concentrated mainly in fragile states. Pakistan, thus, has much to worry about.

Money matters

Accountable tax systems are of greater importance in fragile states compared to other countries. While domestic revenues help countries get rid of aid dependency and building mutual accountability between citizen and state, as the report states, Pakistan’s Federal Board of Revenue (FBR) collects a mere 9% of Pakistan’s GDP. This is among the lowest rates of tax collection by a federal government in the world, excluding oil-producing countries, according to a study of tax reforms in Pakistan by the SDPI.

“With a non-trustworthy system, people have no incentive to pay taxes. There are too many loopholes in the system due to which the richest end up paying the least tax,” explained Shehzad.

Preferential treatment

Exemptions made by the government to certain taxpayers are provided in the tax laws, and through a ‘Statutory Regulatory Order’ (SRO) issued by the FBR. To date, the FBR has issued 1,920 SROs. An estimated revenue leakage of 3 to 4% of GDP is due to taxpayers not paying taxes on time, and revenue loss resulting from preferential treatment.

These losses, in 2012, were estimated at between Rs600 and Rs800 billion, and if tax evasion is added, total loss roughly equals the total government borrowing each year.

The business community also seems to disagree with how the SROs are used. Recently, the business community of Rawalpindi unanimously rejected SRO 608, demanding that the government withdraw it within a week. The demand came a day after the Directorate of Customs Intelligence and Investigation unearthed evasion of duties and taxes of Rs775 million by importers who misused SRO-1125 of 2011.

The tax net

“There is immense discrepancy in sources of taxes. Tax we earn from the agriculture industry is non-existent,” said Shehzad. If Dr Vaqar is to be believed, this situation is not going to change anytime soon. “In a country where a quarter or more of our national income comes from agriculture, its income is outside the tax net. The feudal benefits from this – the same feudal who is sitting in parliament. Therefore, every time this matter is taken up in parliament, it is silenced,” said Dr Vaqar.

A narrow tax base

• Out of a total workforce of 58 million, less than 2 million are registered taxpayers

• In 2012, only 0.7 million people actually paid income tax. This comes to 2 per 100 employed

• Of all the lawmakers in the National and Provincial Assemblies, 61% did not pay taxes in the year they contested elections (2013)

• 51% of senators and 62% of cabinet ministers did not file tax returns

(Source: SDPI)

Fragile states – the vulnerability factors

•  A fragile region or state has weak capacity to carry out basic governance functions and lacks the ability to develop mutually constructive relations with society

•  Fragile states are more vulnerable to internal or external shocks such as economic crises or natural disasters

•  The proportion of young people in these states is approximately twice that in non-fragile countries

•  The populations of these states are growing roughly twice as fast

(Source: OECD)

Published in The Express Tribune, October 23rd, 2014.

Imran Khan’s Followers — His Weakness or His Strength?

Posted: 09/09/2014 5:00 pm EDT Updated: 09/10/2014 12:59 pm EDT

Pakistan’s political frenzy is continuing as the world looks on. It is almost a month since the wave of protests began in Pakistan’s Federal Capital Islamabad. Thousands have left their homes at the call of Pakistan’s most popular political figure, Imran Khan, and the relatively progressive cleric Dr. Tahirul Qadri. The demonstrators have camped outside the Prime Minister House and Pakistan National Assembly, demanding their voices be heard. The protests are in essence against Pakistan Muslim League-N’s elected government and the Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who both Khan’s party Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) and Pakistan Awaami Tehreek (PAT) wish to oust. Their reasons differ, but the end goal of both parties seems the same: “Go Nawaz Go” is the resounding chant in Islamabad, reverberating across Pakistan. Whether Sharif goes or not remains to be seen, as for now, democratic forces have saved him from a forced resignation. Khan and his followers believe that Sharif came into power through heavily rigged elections, and so it is not a democratically elected government in principle. Evidence supports Khan’s claims, but heated debates continue whether democracy should be “derailed” or should Sharif be allowed to complete his term.

Through it all, Khan, already the nation’s “national hero” has emerged as a populist leader. Cricketer and philanthropist, Khan is undoubtedly one of the most followed leaders Pakistan has seen. His integrity because of his past record is unquestioned. Pakistan’s disgruntled masses love him even more for being non-political and non-dynastic. Khan’ s charismatic good looks and his image as one who leads from the front has added to it. He gives his supporters the much-needed hope of freedom from the clutches of dynastic politics, nepotism and corruption. His followers believe he will eventually be the prime minister of Pakistan and solve all of Pakistan’s problems and create a just, fair and secure Pakistan, which he calls the Naya (new) Pakistan.

It is natural then that parables are drawn between Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and Khan. Bhutto was a revolutionary and mobilized Pakistan’s masses politically. His daughter, Benazir Bhutto (BB), carried the torch of democracy after her father was assassinated, and was eventually killed at the hands of extremists. Yet their political party, the PPP (Pakistan People’s Party) remains a major political force in the country.

While the mass appeal is similar, Bhutto and Khan have many differences. If the Bhuttos were leftist in their ideology, Khan is considered right off centre. His ideology, his background and his political prowess differ from the Bhuttos. But there are, ironically, jarring similarities.

Let us take a look at Bhutto. Some 35 years later, Pakistanis still remember Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto in an awe-struck manner. They never got over Bhutto, whether they agreed with him or not. Bhutto was charismatic, a visionary, one of the proverbial leaders who “come along in centuries”. He connected to the awaam (masses) and his voice resonated with them. His manifesto addressed the pains of the people. He seemed God sent. The way he was snatched away from this country made him an even bigger hero. And Bhutto is that point in the history of Pakistan where the Jiyalas (staunch loyalists) were born. Infact, the term so effectively described the state of mind of Bhutto’s followers that the word became synonymous with his loyalists. His were a breed of loyalists who were ready to protect their leader and to die for him because they believed in him blindly. Rich and poor, urban and rural, illiterate and from the intelligentsia, these loyalists were varied in many ways but common in their reverence for Bhutto.

Till this point, it was all good, and natural. Except for one thing. These staunch supporters, somewhere, left their sense of judgment buried behind their admiration for the messiah. The purpose and the vision of democracy and equal rights to all citizens of Pakistan became packaged in one and only one package. Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. Without him, they were lost.

Fortunately for Pakistan, the reigns of the PPP were taken over by the defiant, strong, politically groomed and well-meaning BB as her father’s political heir. The military dictator General Ziaul Haq’s era of oppression and the fact that BB was a woman fighting a dictator further brought out the protectiveness in people. What came out of it was not just a belief in Bhutto’s ideology, but also a belief in the Bhutto dynasty being saviors and almost infallible. They, and not the vision, became the focus.
Sadly, this is what was exploited by those with hidden agendas. Absolute adulation corrupts. This is what many good leaders have fallen prey to in human history. Their followers stopped seeing their leaders’ shortcomings. What remained of a brilliant ideology were slogans and a reactionary brand of personality-worship.

BB’s widower Asif Ali Zardari made an entrance as a non-Bhutto yet the closest in line after BB. He may have successfully completed five years of a democratically elected government, and is today being lauded for his political wisdom, yet his very advent into politics was dependent on this unquestioned adulation. BB’s son Bilawal Bhutto Zardari is the coveted political heir of the dynasty, ultimately expected to take over, whether he is deserving or not.

Let us come back to Imran Khan. People either follow him with absolute conviction or are against his fiery, often agitational brand of politics. But undisputedly, Khan’s biggest strength, like the Bhuttos, is supporters who are ready to lay down their lives for him. They believe in his sincerity of intention and his integrity when it comes to money matters. He has proven his persistence. And he is the one man who has the guts to challenge the status quo to the point of dismantling it. This is all good and all true.

However, the flip side is that the pitfall is ironically the same as what the Bhuttos faced. While the PTI is a completely non-violent party, members are known be hasty and reactionary if anything against Khan is pointed out.

As one who believes that Khan is well-meaning and can do a lot for Pakistan, the one thing I wish I can say to him would be, “O captain, my captain, the last thing you need is blind following. What you do need is a sincere following.”

The state of mind being pointed out here is not just limited to followers of Bhuttos or Khan. We see the same in other political parties in Pakistan as well, where a hushed silence ensues when the leader speaks, and there is no allowance for disagreement with the leaders who are seen as saints. Till now Khan has done well, because his followers love him despite knowing his shortcomings. The “human-ness” owing to these shortcomings either increases people in his love or his opposition.

For Khan, it is just the beginning. While he does need the sincere support of his followers, he needs, as a part of that sincerity, that they point out where he goes wrong. He needs to develop a culture in his party where the people who are his support are tenacious enough to stand by him, but awake enough to alert him to his mistakes. This will help Khan be the change he promises. A welcome fact is that Khan has repeatedly said that if hypothetically he were to be Pakistan’s prime minister, he would want that his faults be pointed out. Will that actually happen remains to be seen.

The hope is that the great Khan remains under check and balance. Only then we can hope for great things from him. Otherwise, it will be de ja vu all over again, where a good leader would fall prey to being idolized.