Pakistan: the land of contrasts

By Zafar Bangash

Despite its immense potential, corruption, environmental pollution and religious divisions are tearing the country’s social and political fabric.

Pakistan is one of the few countries in the world where one encounters every kind of geography, topography, and weather. In the north lies the great Himalayan mountain range towering thousands of feet above sea level and in some regions the snow never melts. In the south lie the great deserts where temperatures soar to 50 ˚C in summer and people die of heat. In between are the great plains of the Punjab with its alluvial soil that produces — or is capable of producing — grain that can feed every one of the 1.5 billion mouths in the subcontinent.

It is, however, neither the geography nor topography of Pakistan that present the greatest contrasts. Besides, these are natural phenomena over which human beings have little or no control. The real contrast is noticeable in the attitude of people. Here, one is not referring to the various ethnic groups that reside within the borders of Pakistan: the proud Pathans in the northwest; Punjabis in the centre, Balochis and Sindhis in the southwest and south. Rather, it is the behavioral pattern of Pakistanis that is most noticeable for visitors even of Pakistani origin, especially those who have been absent for a prolonged period.

This article is, therefore, based on the author’s personal observations while visiting Pakistan after an absence of more than 16 years. The last time this scribe was in Pakistan was in June 2000 after returning from an International Sirah Conference in Colombo, Sri Lanka.

One thing clearly noticeable is the level of infrastructure development. There are now modern airports, motorways and bridges, office towers, and huge shopping malls in most major cities. There is also a change in people’s attitude and behavioral pattern but sadly in a negative way.

Intolerance, especially in matters religious, has increased, as has traffic congestion. An acute observer once jokingly remarked: “if you want to determine the level of progress in a Muslim country, just observe people’s driving habits.” On this score, Pakistanis present a dismal picture.

Let us consider some examples. On a two-lane road, four or more vehicles compete for space. These include cars, the three-wheelers imported from China belching out thick black smoke, trucks, buses, and motorbikes. Everybody seems to be in a hurry for some unknown reason although considering the level of productivity, or lack thereof, the rush appears totally pointless.

One evening in Lahore, as we were heading for a dinner appointment with some old friends from school days, we suddenly noticed a traffic jam, but in the opposite direction. We were relieved that it was not on our side of the two-lane road. This, however, proved a temporary respite. Since traffic was blocked on the other side, without any regard for traffic rules, vehicles of all kind rushed onto our side of the road against us. Naturally, this created a traffic jam on this side as well. Interestingly, police constables stood by nonchalantly without intervening to prevent the illegal entry of traffic from the opposite direction or even direct traffic in some orderly manner. It appeared to be the norm. Irate drivers hurled expletives at each other but that did little to ease the traffic jam.

In addition to vehicles, horse, and donkey-drawn carts also ply the roads. These can be lethal. They are often overloaded with steel bars that stick out in every direction. Drivers of cars and other vehicles have to protect themselves since these animal-driven carts observe no traffic rules. Shopkeepers add to the road congestion problem by spreading their baskets of wares onto the area that properly and legally constitutes the road.

In such conditions when everyone is competing for limited space, tempers flare. Most people suffer from high blood pressure. Heart attacks are one of the most common causes of death in Pakistan. Add to these the problem of environmental pollution. The historic city of Lahore, one of the crown jewels in the Indo-Pak subcontinent, is today among the most polluted cities in the world. Beijing and Delhi are much worse but that is of little consolation.

Lahore’s environmental problem is not entirely indigenous. True, factories burn rubber tires to produce heat thus belching out poisonous fumes into the atmosphere together with smoke from vehicles, but India is also adding to Lahore’s pollution problem. Environmental pollution does not respect national boundaries. Across the border in India, coal-fired factories produce their own pollution that drifts across the border into Pakistan. Respiratory problems have increased alarmingly in Pakistan, especially in Lahore.

Modernity has exacted its own price. Together with huge shopping malls, there have also sprung up fast food chains. McDonald’s, KFC, Burger King, Pizza Hut, and other Western junk food outlets are everywhere. Woe to those Pakistanis who suffer from an acute sense of inferiority. Pakistan has one of the best cuisines in the world. Nothing can compete in taste, fragrance, and texture with biryani (of numerous varieties), chicken tikka, karahi gosht, and seekh or chapli kebab and a host of other dishes. The Western-doting Pakistanis abandon their own delicious food and rush to have junk food that is absolute poison. Numerous studies in the West have demonstrated the ill effects of fast food on health, especially but not limited to cancer, diabetes, arthritis and heart disease. Yet, some Pakistanis flock to these junk food outlets as if there is no tomorrow. Or perhaps they think that by eating this rubbish, they become American or Western!

In 1998, when KFC opened its first outlet in Karachi, it was the month of Ramadan. On the first day, there was a queue that stretched more than a mile outside! The sanctity of the Ramadan fast was not important; the nightly tarawih prayers meant little. The only thing on their minds was to sink their teeth into a greasy KFC chicken leg or thigh. That was their ticket to heaven!

There are also problems of other kind. Poverty amid pockets of affluence is clearly visible everywhere. There are people that live in palatial homes. These constitute a tiny minority; the vast majority languishes in poverty and cannot afford even two square meals a day. Beggars can be seen at virtually every street corner. In fact, begging has become a profession. There is a well-organized mafia behind it. Children—boys and girls—are kidnapped and forced into begging. Different mafias control different street corners. There appears little effort by the authorities to find out why children are forced to beg or who they are.

It is, however, corruption that has reached dizzying heights, becoming institutionalized and deeply en-trenched in every facet of life. True, corruption is present in every country of the world but Pakistan appears to be in a class of its own.

In order to get a glimpse of what is underway, this writer decided to go to one of the land registry offices called katchehries. The local patwari — a petty official who makes land ownership entries into huge registers — is the bane of all landowners. He can do whatever he likes. A person may be holding perfectly legal papers for a plot of land but the patwari can turn this upside down by scribbling something into his register and allotting it to someone else — for a price, of course. Lands have been transferred illegally through the agency patwaris taking bribes.

Then there are the land mafias. Asif Ali Zardari — a notorious crook who made it to the presidency in Pakistan upon the murder of his wife, Benazir Bhutto. He and his late wife have pilfered billions of dollars out of Pakistan. Not surprisingly, the Zardari/Bhutto combine own billions of dollars’ worth of properties in Dubai, England, and Europe.

It is no different with the Sharif family. As of this writing, the Supreme Court of Pakistan is hearing the case that has come to be called the Panamagate. This refers to leaked documents revealing that Nawaz Sharif’s children own properties in London when on their tax return forms, they showed no income. Sharif family lawyers are refusing to answer questions in court.

The Park Lane properties, admittedly in a very expensive neighborhood of London, are peanuts compared to the billions they have pilfered in other ways. Politics has become a moneymaking racket. Since the Sharif family is entrenched in Punjab — Pakistan’s most populous province that accounts for 60% of the population and hence the largest number of seats in the National Assembly — they have a stranglehold on politics. Candidates vying for provincial or national assembly seats have to pay millions of rupees to the Sharif family to get a ticket. Given this situation, those who are elected indulge in massive corruption in order to acquire enough cash for the next election.

It was widely expected that the Supreme Court would deliver its judgement in the Panamagate case after hearing closing remarks from both the prosecution and defence on February 23rd, but the apex court reserved its verdict. Instead, the head of the five-member bench, Justice Asif Saeed Khosa issued a statement that seems to suggest not all is well. The verdict when it comes is likely to be more political than legal. Here is why.

“It seems ‘justice’ is whatever serves [each party’s] interests,” Justice Khosa said in his closing remarks before the court was adjourned. “If a judgement is not in someone’s interest, they [will] say the judiciary is corrupt, or that maybe the judges aren’t fit to handle such cases,” he commented. “And if a judgement benefits their own stand [on the issue], they will say there can be no better judge,” he added.

“We will decide this case only by the law; such that people will say, 20 years down the line, that this judgement was made by the book,” concluded Justice Khosa. Why it was necessary for him to make such statements is not difficult to fathom. Unfortunately, Pakistani judges are not known for making sound legal judgements; they are vulnerable to political pressure and deliver verdicts that suit the powers that be. Justice Khosa’s remarks have rekindled these fears. One hopes these are unfounded but it will become clear only when the verdict is delivered.

Had such allegations been leveled against the leader of another country, he would have promptly resigned. This happened in Iceland in 2015 when the prime minister’s wife was found to have indulged in some questionable dealings. Not so in the “land of the pure.” Nawaz Sharif and his children have, through their counsels, indulged in acrobatics leaving the court and the country exasperated. They have refused to answer even simple questions about the source of their wealth. There are no bank transactions available; none exist.

The culture of corruption seems to have spread to every area of life. There is adulteration in food, petrol, and even medicines. Pharmacies sell medicines of all kinds. They ask customers upfront whether they want pure medicine — which is naturally much more expensive — or the adulterated type. Poor people cannot afford to pay high prices; thus they are forced to buy cheap but dangerous medicines. The number of people that has died of using adulterated medicines is anybody’s guess because in Pakistan, no statistics are kept. Besides, the people have a fatalistic attitude. When a person dies, even if it is the result of taking adulterated medicine or, because of the doctor’s fault, it is always considered “Allah’s Will.”

The same applies to food. For years, butchers were selling donkey meat as lamb or goat meat. In restaurants, kitchens have been shown to be extremely filthy and unhygienic. Raccoon-size rats crawl all over the place. Television crews have recorded such scenes and reported them on their programs but few punitive measures have been taken to correct such obviously impertinent behavior.

There is also the flip side of the coin. In the past, the police department was considered to be the most corrupt. It still is, but now a competitor has emerged in the form of media. As a result of proliferation of television stations and newspapers, thanks to the “liberalization” policy during General Pervez Musharraf’s military rule, thousands of journalists have emerged on the scene. Not all are genuine. People have printed visiting cards pretending to be journalists.

On any given day, there are a host of programs in every city. They find out where these programs are being held and just before lunch or dinner, they show up pretending to be journalists by flashing their ID card. They are there only for the food. Even this would be tolerable; after all, people are trying to partake of a free meal despite its being a daily occurrence but there are other, more serious problems.

Some “journalists” abuse their position by blackmailing people. Here are two among many such examples. A leading doctor at a hospital was doing the rounds with his students. A nurse called to say he had an urgent phone call. He left the students to attend to the phone call.

While returning to the ward where his students were waiting, a person approached the doctor in the corridor asking him to see his sick mother. The doctor politely advised him to go to the OPD (outpatient department) because he (the doctor) was busy with his students’ class. The person insisted so the doctor told him to wait until he finished the class and would then attend to his sick mother. The person was a “journalist.” The following day, there was a banner headline in his newspaper, “Leading doctor at hospital refuses to treat elderly lady patient”!

Other cases have been worse. A “journalist” approached the vice chancellor of a university showing him a positive write up about the university in his newspaper. The journalist asked for money; the vice chancellor thanked the journalist for the positive write-up but told him that neither he nor any of his staff had requested such a write-up. Besides, the university did not have any budget to pay journalists. The next day, scandalous allegations against the vice chancellor appeared in the newspaper!

Undignified as these practices are, they pale into insignificance compared to the manner in which leading television stations and newspapers have been bought by the Americans, Indians, and even the Zionists. The amount of nonsense one hears on Pakistani television programs or reads in newspapers is mindboggling. Often, it is difficult to tell whether these TV stations are Indian, Israeli, American, or Pakistani. The same goes for newspapers, some of them considered to be leading voices in the industry.

These agents of imperialism, Zionism, and Hinduism are undermining Pakistan from within. Regrettably, there appears little action against their anti-state activities. The noble profession of journalism has been brought down to the level of prostitution.

Courtesy:  Crescent International.

Disclaimer: The Asia Watch has sought prior editorial approval from the Crescent International to republish some of its opinion pieces. After selection, opinion pieces go through an editorial process and necessary changes, especial pertaining to the language, are brought in.

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