By Arshed H. Bhatti
This essay offers some food for thought on the occasion of Pakistan’s Independence Day, primarily to the political leadership and the media. The government functionaries responsible for informing and implementing public policy could also benefit from it only if they are taking a break from their routine I-know-all approach.
The core function of a democratic government is to come up with imaginative solutions to complex problems that afflict vulnerable individuals and weaker groups in a country. Various solutions doing the rounds fail on two grounds: they don’t incorporate the wisdom and learning of the sufferer of a problem; and, they do not relate to the socially-shared memory and the cultural metaphor of the people, and failing to seep in peoples’ minds, succumb to the so called ‘lack of ownership’.
The proposed measures spring from locally familiar metaphors and could attain quick currency like Z. A. Bhutto’s roti, kapda aur makan. They are: har shajar ba samar (every tree bears fruit); harkat mein barkat (moving about is auspicious) & safar vaseela e zafar (mobility empowers); Ilm-o-hunar den kasab (knowledge & skills ensure gainful work); khel or mael-jol se sehat or ulfat (sports & interaction add to health & healthy bonding); and, apna ghar to kya fikr (shelter keeps away stress)!
The potential popularity notwithstanding, these steps articulate new promise by the State to its people and have multiple, crosscutting benefits to individuals, economy, society, culture and ecology. There is apparent, and by design bias for the disadvantaged women and young of Pakistan, who have dreams and potential but not avenues and opportunities.
These steps are not likely to be easy bite for the dominant interests who have ruled the roost without accountability. But the government can reinvent its image by taking them up to prove it is genuinely peoples’ government with foresight, passion for progress, commitment to the prosperity and well-being of people. Their implementation is possible with available resources and ‘new allocations’ are not required as private sector would be delighted to invest in these transformative opportunities.
The idea is to use trees to alleviate poverty, change the economic dynamics and take the green cover to 30 percent in a decade. A set of dozen trees, allotted to women and men below the poverty line, who using them as ‘trade-able entitlements’ could access micro-credit at favourable terms and enter in a well-designed loop of medium enterprises based on newly acquired skills. It will also be tangible instrument of social security and bankable collateral for the poorest of Pakistan.
The set of trees will have a prudent mix of fruit, timber, medicinal and ornamental trees. Planted in conducive commons, these will be managed like collectives by skilled gardeners, trained from the hitherto excluded labour force. The banking institutions, on the pattern of future buying, can offer credits in lieu of the anticipated future yield to the virtual owners. One has worked out the details according to which in 10 to 15 years, we shall have bagh bahar Pakistan with positive implications for energy, environment, climate change, livelihoods, reduced import of green products (vegetable oil, tea, coffee etc), and beauty of the urban and rural landscapes of poor-less Pakistan.
Women in particular and poor in general fail to fulfill aspirations and realize potential to contribute to national produce because of no, low, limited, restricted or denied mobility, both in soft and hard terms. Soft hurdles in mobility comprise social & cultural barriers present in the name of custom, tradition or honour; whereas the hard hurdles to mobility imply absence or lack of physical facilities that enable movement, travel and transportation of people and goods from home to work and market place.
National Mobility Plan, with unfaltering resolve to ease and increase mobility in all aspects for youth, women, and physically challenged is the answer. Late Z A Bhutto introduced nominal rent from students, starting with a token 10 paisas for travel within 20 km, which enabled many to seek education (one is beneficiary of that initiative). The NMP entails integrated sub-initiatives that encourage families to allow mobility to those who have traditionally been denied in culturally sensitive and socially supportive manner.
This can start with small steps like the provision of bicycles and motorcycles to women and footpaths that encourage people to walk by choice and with comfort. In mega steps, like mass transit in big cities, private investments can be mobilised in due course. Such infrastructure will increase economic activity, trading and invite foreign investments.
It will increase peoples` chances and choices to participate in societal and economic spheres more meaningfully, and will positively influence country’s oil import bill, traffic congestions, accidents, pollution, labour participation, social mobility, urban migration, and many more.
Meet the youth
Public policy tends to view youth as problem that needs to be fixed; not as promise that needs to be fulfilled. Plenty of raw energies of youth do not find productive, playful and positive outlets. Investments enabling creative and productive channelising of their energies are the answer and will have far reaching social and economic benefits.
Well thought out, adequately regulated and duly facilitated participation in local, cultural, and socially celebrated adventures and sports will dissuade the young from street crimes and militancy. Similarly, this will allow young women to put their energies and lives to more fulfilling use.
The in-country tourism through adventure, sports & holidays will contribute to improved understanding of ‘the other’ compatriots and lead to increased national harmony.
Every town in Pakistan can be encouraged to build Adventure-Sports-Tourism (AST) plans and corporate entities with business roots and interests in respective localities can be encouraged to support and sponsors such plans. In the long term, the adventure and sports strands will contribute to Pakistan`s emerging as leader on the Olympic results’ table. The increased tourism would wash away threats of terrorism and generate economic activities for young who otherwise may drift to dangerous elements and paths.
Offering opportunities to young persons without providing them requisite skills and abilities is like offering the hungry persons half-baked, half burnt breads: they have it, but can`t eat it! That is how many official projects end up like.
This initiative entails that ability to take part in economic activity is provided to every deserving citizen through national movement for Skilled Pakistan, whereby all the youth (15-29) in Pakistan must be imparted with essential literacy, and locally tradable skills. The results will turn the colossal challenge of unemployment on its head.
Areas of skill provision can be in i) creative industries (film, music, theatre: production, management, marketing); ii) agribusiness (value addition in cultivation, processing, and trading of exportable commodities); iii) productive use of information/ web based technologies; iv) urban affairs (construction, maintenance; caretaking); v) volunteerism; vi) community rooted policing and dispute resolution.
Private enterprise can be encouraged to invest in lieu of tax incentives. There have been isolated efforts and remarkable failures; the new initiative must learn from those.
Housing for all
This is the most revolutionary step, will require firm political resolve as this will ruffle established, institutional, dominant and hitherto unchallenged interests (read Army -:); but it could single handedly help realize makan part of PPP’s original slogan while generating needed resources also.
The initiative will provide dignified & affordable housing to all families through integrated strategies that will require a) redesigning & realigning of construction & living patterns; b) public interest, efficient use of public lands in urban & rural areas; and, c) terminating the award of public lands as part of perks & privileges to retiring civil & military officials (i.e., no more DHAs). These steps will jointly yield physical space and financial resources to do it well.
As first step, a popular campaign is needed to encourage shared & efficient use of space, energy friendly, light on earth, community housing; as well as persuading people to break away from conspicuous consumption for prudent dwelling. The second step, Reclaiming of Public Lands Act by the Parliament, will put Cantonments under civilian control and allow buying back of the agriculture lands allotted as parting gifts. The third step will encourage public-private partnership with specific standards to ensure the benefits reach across classes and government provides housing to all equitably, without spending single rupee from the exchequer. This step will help break the builders’ cartels and introduce new players and innovative construction technologies.
Taking cities to suburbs
The rural-urban migration and urban slums result from absence of city like facilities in the urban fringes and rural areas, such as cafés, public parks, community centres, libraries, cinemas, shopping malls, health clubs: and that is the solution. This, in combination with increased mobility will help spread the populations away from cities.
The modernized fringes will keep potential migrants locally engaged and positively impact health, education and other social sectors. That is my vision of a benazir (unprecedented) Pakistan.