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The year through the haze

This year that has almost gone by has brought with it many events which are seen as insignificant in the eyes of websites and organizations that document these events. In Punjab, the smog which has descended over many parts of the province leaves people looking out into a permanent sea of grey which sometimes allows in small rays of sunshine but there is nothing to end the pollution that has already become a major health hazard in the province.

But as we move beyond the central Punjab, and particularly beyond Lahore and Sheikhupura, the smog lifts to let us think back on events of various kinds in 2023.

The most significant of these is perhaps the lead-up to the next election, the appointment of Anwaarul Haq Kakar as caretaker prime minister, and the taking over by Justice Qazi Faez Isa as the chief justice of the Supreme Court. But with these events, we have others such as the many audio recordings that have surfaced this year and left judges asking who is making these invasions into the privacy of homes and sometimes bedrooms. We also have a series of cases against Imran Khan who for now almost stands ousted from the next election and whose party has effectively been disbanded by the very forces which first created it. The situation is a strange one. Many can predict who the next prime minister would be, but few, if any, know if an election will take place at all.

These for Pakistan are perhaps mundane events. In the long history of the country, where dictators have ruled the majority of years, elections seem to be only ceremonial. However, it will be important to see if an election does take place in early 2024. And if so, quite how it is conducted and how it is handled by the powers that be. The interest in the agenda of major parties has already been expressed and there are already some positive signs with a woman given a ticket for the Buner seat for the very first time, Buner being a district where the Pakistani Taliban had previously banned women from participation in any political or other public activity.

At the same time, the TTP is back killing military officers and police officers, notably in the former tribal areas of the country. This has been a notable issue during the year and shows that the TTP has neither lost venom nor force. Along with this, the driving out of Afghans, some of whom have lived in Pakistan for three generations, is a measure that depicts the kind of state Pakistan has become, with humanity at an all-time low. And this is a concern for the fact that we allowed in the Afghans after 1979 and used them against Soviets and for our own purposes. It is quite obvious that, as is the rule in most countries, at the very least, Afghans born in Pakistan should be allowed to stay and the entire community should not be vilified as is currently happening.

Of immense significance was the burning of churches and homes belonging to Christians in Jaranwala in August this year. The event has been covered somewhat hesitantly in the national media, but is of enormous importance to the community and indeed the country. Children aged even three years old can remember the events that took place, and even today, while many churches have been rebuilt, often as a result of the work of private agencies and NGOs, there are families that live without homes, either in rented quarters or in the cramped dwellings offered up by relatives. The horrifying nature of the event has left a mark on a community. But whether it has shaken the country enough to bring change is difficult to say.

The same can hold true for other events. In Balochistan, the protest by women from a traditionally conservative community has had an impact. But again, it is difficult to know if this is enough to bring about the kind of change we need. The manner in which the women were treated by the CTD in Islamabad has been felt by many. But what comes beyond this, we still do not know.

We also saw, during the year, the death of a former autocrat, Pervez Musharraf, reminding us of the damage he had inflicted on the country much like previous dictators. The drone attacks on allegedly militant targets, the handing over of persons to US troops to be sent to Guantanamo Bay or other places sometimes in exchange for money further added to the divide within the country. And so did the remark by Pervez Musharraf about the Pakistani constitution being nothing more than a few pieces of paper, which could be tossed into the dustbin. If this is the thinking of its top command, a country is clearly in trouble.

The economy is also a matter to consider in a great deal of depth. The inflation that has hit the country affects everyone and all class groups from those at the lowest of income tier to those higher up the ladder. The answer as to how to solve the problem is obviously not an easy one. Suggestions have come in from top economists but whether or not these will be adopted is difficult to say. This then is a challenge that lies before us as unemployment continues to grow and Pakistan is left with more people unable to eat even one decent meal in a day.

There has also been a great deal of talk during the year on why countries like Bangladesh are doing better than Pakistan on so many tables. The success of Bangladesh seems to lie in its ability to have controlled its population, which is now lower than that of the previous West Pakistan, and the schooling of girls. Pakistan has failed miserably on both these fronts. The fact that in parts of the country, the literacy rate for women is below 20 per cent simply marks just how grave our situation is. The schooling of women of course allows more women into the labour force.

At the same time, we also need to build the skill sets of people so that those working overseas can send in larger amounts of money. Right now, most of these remittances come from labourers or low level workers in areas such as the sanitary industry, dishwashing, taxi driving etc. If we could provide the techniques needed to develop good-level electricians, IT experts and those who excel in other fields, the volume of remittances would obviously increase and allow a slightly better economic outlook for a country which has badly lost direction in this field. At the same time, we must consider the demand that land be taxed and that more taxes be brought in from the wealthy rather than the method of indirect taxation which punishes everyone regardless of their income and regardless of what is already deducted from their wages at source.

The question of schooling is imperative. It has to be considered very seriously and in a great deal of depth. At present, we are simply schooling and not educating our children. This has to change if there is to be any hope for the future. We must offer an education which has some meaning to lives and which can add quality to the kind of work people do. Vocational training is a good idea given the current situation that we face. The World Bank notes that Pakistan lacks quality labour. And this is also among the many tasks that lie before us as we move towards the next year.

Kamila Hyat, "The year through the haze," The News. 2023-12-28.
Keywords: Political science , Political issues , Political activity , Elections , Militancy , Pervez Musharraf , PM Kakar , Pakistan , CTD , TTP