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No, not like Sri Lanka

Beyond the turbulence that is raging in the political arena, it is the economic meltdown that tugs at our heartstrings. Constantly, fears are being expressed that we could be another Sri Lanka. And the very thought is frightening, knowing what Sri Lanka’s ongoing economic collapse has meant for its citizens.

So, what would it be like for us if we, God forbid, are pushed into a similar situation? How would the ordinary citizens of this country endure the pain and the penury of a crisis of that proportion? Obviously, it is something we would not even dare to imagine.

But there is something in the very probability of an economic collapse that is Sri Lankan in its statistical context and consequences that we may not be taking into account. A similar economic debacle in two countries would likely cause different states of affairs, depending on the strengths and weaknesses of their respective societies.

With this beginning of my column, I need to clarify that I am intentionally taking a detour from the great thriller that was staged in the Punjab Assembly on Friday evening and its consequences. In fact, that entire projection of Pakistan’s Byzantine politics and the new predicament it set off is a manifestation of how political instability is exacerbating the country’s economic emergency.

It is true that what transpired on Friday with reference to the election of the leader of the house in the Punjab Assembly was high drama and its reverberations are creating a lot of heat and dust. For that matter, we are riding a political rollercoaster, unable to collect our thoughts.

Obviously, to be so distracted by the politics of confrontation and animosity is adding to the threat we face from our economic difficulties. The emerging signs in both politics and the economy are extremely grave. As a result, there is an increasing possibility of social unrest. How will Pakistani society put up with that contingency?

It is with this thought in my mind that I want to bring up the Sri Lankan experience of an economic collapse. I confess that this is a rather journalistic appraisal because I have no expertise in either economy or social sciences. However, I have had many very brief visits to Sri Lanka, with numerous opportunities to engage in serious discussions with other South Asian colleagues about social trends that exist in this region. A number of my visits were made during Sri Lanka’s exceptionally brutal civil war (1983-2009).

I have closely watched the media reports of the monumental hardships that Sri Lankan citizens are suffering. There have been massive protests against the rulers, covered live by BBC, CNN and Aljazeera. That spectacle of protesters occupying the presidential palace last week, demanding his resignation, presented images that became viral – like people jumping into the swimming pool.

Yes, there was some violence too, such as tear gassing and arrests. Besides, we do not know what can happen in the coming days. But there is a point that I want to make. Watching the live transmissions of the protests, I could imagine myself in that crowd without any fear of violent disorder. It was not a mob of the kind that we see on our streets. That crowd was formed by citizens who seemed conscious of what they were doing.

Under extreme pressure, some sort of order has prevailed. People have had to literally wait in the line for days to get fuel. Reports about shortage of medicines and food prompt forbidding thoughts. Yet, there is an impression that things function. Our cricket team is playing in Sri Lanka, and we won the opening test in Galle this week.

Comparing Sri Lankan society with ours would bring forth some truths that I need not expand on. Our mobs are easily excited into loot and plunder, even lynching someone the mob believes has committed a crime. It so happens that one foreign national lynched by a mob on a false charge of blasphemy was a Sri Lankan citizen.

Sri Lanka is a small nation of around 22 million but we are bound together in the South Asian community. It is significant that the small, tear-drop island is the most literate in South Asia. This makes a difference, as reflected in that environment of civility and moderation in human behaviour.

When you study any nation, social cohesion becomes a key indicator. It should be noted that youth literacy rates in Sri Lanka are 98.38 per cent and 99.17 per cent for men and women, respectively. The UNDP’s Human Development Index is a good measure of the social status of a country. So, if our rank is 154 out of 189 countries, Sri Lanka’s is 72. Just last week, Pakistan was placed at 145 out of 146 countries in the Global Gender Gap Report 2022. Sri Lanka’s rank was 110.

One may look at other measures, but the point here is that Pakistan socially is very fragile and if it falls on the economic ladder to the rank of Sri Lanka, its fall in terms of a societal collapse could be more severe. One of our tragedies is that our rulers have not devoted enough attention to human development. Instead, their policies have injected intolerance and even violent extremism in a society that is morally and intellectually deficient.

Actually, we are threatened with much more than an economic meltdown, though the situation on this front is dreadfully precarious. After the decision of the deputy speaker of the Punjab Assembly to not count the 10 votes of the PML-Q members and declare Hamza Sharif as the winner on Friday, the political temperature is bound to rise. The action began right after the Punjab Assembly session was concluded on Friday night, including on the streets.

Meanwhile, of course, economic disaster, led by political instability, is knocking on the door. But the political leadership is not paying heed to the sirens screaming all around us.

Email: ghazi_salahuddin@hotmail.com

Ghazi Salahuddin, "No, not like Sri Lanka," The News. 2022-07-24.
Keywords: Political science , Political issues , Political instability , Political arena , Economy , Hamza Sharif , Sri Lanka , Pakistan , UNDP , BBC