Times have changed and now we cannot stop at roti, kapra aur makan
By Shahid Husain
Taj Haider, General Secretary, Pakistan People's Party, Sindh, and a stalwart of the PPP, has seen the party through its ups and downs since it was founded in 1967. A flag-bearer of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto's political philosophy of social democracy, Taj has been an inspirational spirit behind a party that has faced one crisis after the other, the more recent being the assassination of Benazir Bhutto and the ensuing chaos.
In his capacity as the party's senior member and policy maker, Taj has advanced the cause of the poor through his vision for the party and his writings, including plays for Pakistan Television during 1978 to 1985. Besides, Taj is a former senator and son of eminent educationist and intellectual Prof. Karrar Hussain.
TNS had the occasion to speak with him on several issues, including the PPP's future, democracy, ethnicity, peace process with India, and the perceived threat of military's intervention in the nascent political process. Excerpts follow:
The News on Sunday: How do you view the speculations that there is a rift between the democratic government led by the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) and the army, what steps should be adopted to keep the army at bay?
Taj Haider (TH): The armed forces of Pakistan are working strictly under the elected government and carrying out its instructions. The propaganda by certain quarters is simply aimed at creating a rift or creating a perception that a rift exists. The armed forces have realised that they have to adhere to the constitution and the people of Pakistan shall not allow a repeat of the adventurism that we have seen in the past.
The attacks on the PPP and its leadership, in fact, have further united and consolidated the party. The PPP works best when it is under attack by the reactionaries and today there is greater determination to carry forward the programme of Shaheed Benazir Bhutto and divert the resources of the state towards eradicating poverty, illiteracy and disease. The methods tried by our adversaries have always failed in the past.
These people are not capable of innovative thinking and they are merely repeating once again what has failed many a time in the past. When they are attacking the person of President, they are in fact attacking the party, its programme and policies, and the benefits it is providing to the working classes. We have seen in the past that whenever a PPP government has been dissolved, all those who were provided jobs during our tenure are dismissed and the process of privatisation and retrenchment begins and development schemes are stopped. The new wave of attack against the party also has the same objectives.
TNS: People are complaining about inflation, loadshedding, unemployment, and non-availability of essential commodities. How can the PPP call itself a party of the masses if it has failed to deliver the goods?
TH: Procurement of essential items is being looked after by the government. Support prices of agricultural products have been raised substantially. The government is buying about 40 percent of the crop. As a result, about 400-500 billion rupees are being diverted towards rural areas where real poverty existed. The Benazir Income Support Programme and the recent programme undertaken by the government of Sindh to provide similar support to half a million women in Sindh have been designed to provide a safety net to the poorest of the poor. Privatisation and retrenchment has been stopped. Thousands of people have been given jobs in the public sector but in Sindh we need 500,000 employment opportunities whereas the public sector has been able to provide about 70,000 jobs.
With more money in circulation, business and production is picking up. The government revenues are going up.
A lot more money as compared to the past has been given to provinces which they will use it in the social sector and development projects. The high prices of commodities in the market are due to the fact that the public sector is not controlling the distribution side and it is not in an active competition in the market. A system has to be devised through which the government can supply commodities directly to retail shops in mohallas. This system is known as social marketing and the shops can register themselves in the network and perform the task of selling the commodities at reasonable prices and earn profits. The profits being earned through black marketing and hoarding and by manipulating the market can only be checked if public sector enters the market as a competitor.
We are thinking on these lines and examining if the utility stores corporations can expand its area of activity and include hundreds and thousands of retail shops in the expanded network. Regarding the power shortage, besides increasing generation since as many as nine power units are coming on line, the most important part remains -- to cut down energy losses. Unfortunately, no investments were made in upgrading and maintenance of transmission and distribution lines in the country over the last 10 years.
Karachi Coordination Committee is, for the last one month, regularly monitoring the work of Karachi Electric Supply Corporation (KESC) in installing new feeders and enhancing the capacity of grid stations. About 50 percent work has been completed and energy losses in certain areas have come down from 40 percent to less than 20 percent. Further improvement can be brought about by checking theft and reducing the losses to 8-10 percent which are internationally accepted levels. Such measures will not only increase availability but improve profitability and help reduce electricity tariffs. Old generation plants are working at an efficiency of 25-30 percent. The new plants based on combined cycles would be working at 60 percent plus efficiency and that would change the entire tariff scenario.
If things improve in Karachi and we stop buying 700 megawatts from Wapda, the rest of the country would have more electricity. New projects are also going to start in the province of Sindh based on Thar coal. You will recall that our last government had finalised all paper and planning work on 5,000 megawatts coal plant at Keti Bunder. That plant was to come on line in 2001. Unfortunately, the project was scrapped and we are facing a crisis today.
TNS: Prime Minister Syed Yousuf Raza Gilani has offered the Balochistan package but don't you think the trial of Nawab Akbar Bugti's killers and recovery of missing people should have been the top priority of the government?
TH: The package is "Aghaz-e-Huqooq-e-Balochistan". The trial of murderers of Nawab Akbar Bugti is a part of the package. So, work on all the points contained in the package has to start simultaneously and it would be unwise to withhold action on all the points until some action is taken on specific points. Action on the missing people continues. Many people have been recovered. The Supreme Court of Pakistan would be having a daily hearing on missing people and that should also help the government in recovering these people.
TNS: Do you agree that Karachi carnage was an attempt to destabilise democracy? Who in your opinion were the culprits?
TH: It would be premature to say anything on this issue. One should approach the investigation with an open mind. Options should not be closed and conclusions should be made in the light of evidence that is available. It is the investigation agencies that have to reach conclusions. At present, our first priority is to furnish such information to the authorities and this holds true for anyone who has any information or evidence about this tragedy. The smallest information to the authorities is important because it can lead to something big.
TNS: People have recently celebrated the birthday of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Don't you think the PPP has undergone a metamorphosis after the judicial murder of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto?
TH: Times have changed and now we cannot stop at roti, kapra aur makan. The PPP's manifesto of 2008 envisioned by Benazir Bhutto Shaheed is based on five Es -- employment, education, electricity, environment, and equality. This is the programme now and people will judge in the next elections as to what degree we have been able to achieve the goals set by Benazir Bhutto.
TNS: Why is it that the PPP has not been able to make inroads in urban centres such as Karachi?
TH: The PPP is a representative party in all urban centres. Everyone knows that there was large scale rigging in 2008 elections and the PPP was deprived of many seats that it had actually won. Our endeavour is to provide identity cards, free of cost, to the poor working classes; to have a fresh census which is overdue; and prepare through the Election Commission of Pakistan genuine voters' lists. If free and fair elections are held in the country, the PPP would come out as the majority party in urban centres because it has very big support among working classes and katchi abadis which do not vote on ethnic or religious lines.
TNS: You acknowledge that ethnicity is a big problem. What steps should be taken to solve this problem?
TH: The government and the party are discouraging all parochial prejudices that are divisive. We are making sure that the laws and policies are applied uniformly across the ethnic and sectarian divide with the result that on the smallest PPP platform one finds participation of people belonging to all ethnic groups and sects. The divide is ideological. The oppressors belong to every ethnicity and belief and so are the oppressed. So, the real issue is exploitation and not ethnicity or belief.
TNS: How can suspicions between Pakistan and India be overcome?
TH: People do not want war. A lot of ground has been covered through people-to-people contacts. Our defence preparations are due to our threat perceptions and due to the unresolved questions in the region. There is a need to have better understanding at government-to-government level and a firm commitment that large scale reductions would be made by SAARC countries in their defence budgets. This does not seem to work until the right wing of Indian politics controls the state. We can look forward to real peace with the left wing of Indian politics, with the Communist Party of India playing an active role in Indian policy making.
I must put it on record that we have had very positive meetings on the directions of Benazir Bhutto Shaheed with the Indian left and several agreements have been reached on issues such as Kashmir and water scarcity because the Indian left is taking a principled stand and is not giving up to pressures of religious extremism and imperialism. We certainly look forward to that day when those in India who advocate the cause of working classes are in power. It is the poor who need peace and only their genuine representatives and not those who work for capitalists.
TNS: What are the impediments in a substantial bilateral trade between Pakistan and India?
TH: Trade relations are always good. We must encourage regular trade. Unfortunately, a lot of smuggling is taking place across the borders that is causing lots of revenue losses and destabilising market structures. There should be regular trade with India and there should be a balance of trade between the two countries so that it does not result in unnecessary outflow of foreign exchange from Pakistan.
TNS: What is the logic in that books and magazines cannot be imported from India?
TH: There is no logic. Books and magazines should be freely exchanged and promoted. This will help us in disseminating our views to the Indian public and making visible cracks in the information walls that have been erected by the governments of the two countries. The perception gap has to be bridged.