Even as elections approach, the people’s will to demand what they need most of all appears to be largely absent. Amidst the smog that holds Lahore in a perpetual haze of brown and creates major health hazards for all the citizens of the country’s second-largest city, ordinary people’s thoughts seem lost in time and the darkness which has descended over the city.
Some ask how factories or brick kilns can be closed down given that this would mean a loss of jobs and livelihoods. Of course they are not incorrect but what people seem to find difficult to understand is the need for perpetual good governance and good policies. Nothing can change overnight. It will take decades of sensible management of air quality to improve the terrible numbers on the AQI that Lahore and other cities in the region record every day.
It is true that Pakistan’s history of agitation led by civilians is somewhat limited. But there are examples of people coming out to demand rights and move towards their goals. The MRD movement of the 1980s was an example of how mass gatherings could create some impact on leadership. We also have the peasants uprising in Okara, the civil rights movement in the former tribal areas, and the Haq Do Tehreek in Gwadar. There are many other examples from across the country and through time. But people must realize that it is they who suffer when governments do not deliver, and it is they who must make a difference.
Their ability to do so has been largely curtailed by the ban on student unions and the collapse of labour unions. But even so groups must join hands to make movements more effective and make voices louder. Parties need to put forward agendas that can be taken up by people. At the same time, ordinary voters need to recognize that they are voting not for an individual, but for a policy and an agenda that can change their lives and improve the quality of the manner in which they live.
This has become particularly important given the kind of inflation and other problems we currently face. It seems inevitable that at some point people will rise up against the hike in prices that has deprived so many households of even their most basic needs. But when this will happen, we do not know. We do know that it will; there is simply no other way forward. And it must happen in order to make the state realize that only by protecting the welfare of people can it protect national security.
People meanwhile need to be clear about what they need and demand of their governments that they deliver on these needs which range from basic education to healthcare. There was a time when parties such as the MQM and also for a short period the PPP organized committees at the mohalla (neighbourhood) level to talk to people and highlight their needs by allowing local representatives to collect the demands of people in a particular area and put it before the leadership. The MQM was particularly efficient in this and realized that the top leadership of the party did not need to wear rainboots and show itself cleaning out streets filled with water but instead organize local governments which could do this. The same needs to happen again.
As we move towards elections, there must be some effort to politicize the people who have lost their sense of politics. There must be an effort to persuade them that it is they who are the key players in any election, even if the posters put forward pictures of leaders from various parts of the country and from various political ideologies. The people must make their demands and they must make them collectively. It is true that there have been varied attempts to put forward ideas and thoughts, with the Students Collective and other groups somewhat successful in doing this. But a scattered demand for rights cannot work. The various groups that are currently attempting to represent the people need to do so collectively. They also need to stop criticizing each other and work together on at least a basic agenda.
This basic agenda must be led by the rights of the people to live – and to live a life which contains some quality. This ranges from offering employment and a reduction in inflation to other needs such as clean air and clean drinking water for the masses. At the present time, most people in the country have no access to potable water with most of what people drink polluted in many different ways. Right now, even the air we breathe in Lahore and neighbouring cities brings with it new dangers that can create sickness and major health problems as is visible in the emergency rooms of almost every hospital in the city.
We know that the problem of air pollution has continued year after year. We also know that the inflation rate we see at the present time makes life virtually impossible for people. The challenge then is to change this. People must understand how to use their vote and how to put forward their needs. They can do this only by laying out what is required and agitating for this through the right of peaceful association guaranteed to them by the constitution of Pakistan. It is true that this constitution has been largely ignored and trampled on again and again. But the rights it gives people must be protected and people must rise up to claim these rights themselves. Nobody is going to hand these to them on a platter.
Perhaps people should be looking towards the socialist democracies of Scandinavia and more realistically the governance in neighbouring countries such as Bangladesh to understand how to move forward. We must read up on Bangladesh’s success in decreasing its population and offering quality education notably to its girls. India too is well ahead of us as are most countries in the region. People need to ask why they have been left behind and given the wrong cards by their political leaders.
We must also understand that we need powerful local governments for anything to work. People must be able to approach leaders and demand help in various areas. If they are not able to do so, nothing will move forward or change will not occur as is desirable. But beyond local governments, people need to make sure parties put forward policies that are workable and that can change their lives. After all, laws which lay down the hours of a working day and set the time of 9 to 5 for it in most workplaces came fairly late in the day in Europe and other countries. It needs to be implemented now here where too many people still work far longer hours than the law allows. They must also be given the protection of the law in other matters and people who understand the law must help them demand what are their most basic rights at a time when the country once again finds itself in crisis.Kamila Hyat, "People and governance," The News. 2023-11-09.
Keywords: Political science , Political issues , Political leaders , Democracies , Elections , Pakistan , MQM , PPP