By: Masood Hasan
Pakistan, more than ever before, is now a country where everything is programmed to ensure the comfort, affluence and well being of a very small minority. An oligarchy, in which a small group exercises control for corrupt and selfish purposes, exempts the rich from paying taxes, piles surcharge after surcharge on the middle- and lower-classes and maintains a luxurious lifestyle for itself and its supporters – in this case, the bloated rank and file of the armed forces, the most powerful players on- or off-stage. Such has been the sorry pattern since 1948, and it is now a refined science sixty-plus years later. The poor pay for the rich.
The floods – experts say such floods come once in every five years – should have given a jolt to Islamabad because of the sheer scale of the devastation. As of this month, almost 2,000 are dead, 3,000 injured and dying, two million households suffered damages, 20 million people affected, over 2.3 million cropped hectares gone, 78 districts ravaged and millions are without adequate food, shelter and medicines.
Any government with half a heart would have demonstrated a complete turnaround in its thinking. Not us. Look around. Do you see a government in the throes of agony? What we have done is stepped out in our Armani suits with our well-worn-out begging bucket – we threw the bowls away – and castigated the world for not having done enough for us. We are constantly moaning that we need more aid, but the world is wary of us and knows far too well that whatever arrives here will not find its way to the devastated and broken people. Only a trickle will get there and the rest will be consumed swiftly.
On Sept 7, the prime minister thundered that we have to “drastically” cut down expenditure which in real terms has meant that by “we” he means us, not himself and his incompetent government. So more taxes for us to pay, more tightening of belts and more miseries ahead. A promised cut-down in expenses across the board has yet to materialise. Once the floods are relegated to the inside pages of newspapers and television channels are no longer able to use the endless images of flood devastation, this cut-down will also dissipate into thin air. It’s happened before. It will happen again.
Give or take this way or that, there are 41 cabinet members, all senior ministers and 18 ministers of state. We have 342 MNAs, 100 Senators, 168 MPAs for Sindh, 367 MPAs for Punjab, 124 for Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and 65 for Balochistan. This large body of nobodies does damn-all, day in, day out. An MNA costs anywhere between Rs120,000 and Rs200,000 per month.
Travel is heavily subsidised or free – in case of those wishing to slum it in air-conditioned railway coaches, first-class, it is unlimited, free and applicable year-round. Forty free trips Business Class tickets annually on loss-making PIA, no rental applicable on government rest houses nationwide, 50,000 units of free power, 170,000 free phone calls, and so on and so on. An MNA ends up costing Rs32,000,000 per year, and you multiply that by 342 to get a little more of the picture.
The armed forces enjoy enormous benefits – the only army that has housing schemes littered around the country. But because they play a tight game, these figures are never quite made public and, being the nation’s holiest of holy cows, they cannot be questioned. God alone knows how much this is costing a nation that is flat broke on every count. So, while the masters loll about, we shall be forking out money for flood surcharges and other ingenious bloodsucking schemes.
As for taxes, while Pakistan reels with an estimated $43-billion hit, it is heartening to learn that Gilani and 25 cabinet friends haven’t paid tax for over five years, Mian Sahib has had massive losses and other national leaders have likewise had a terrible time and are barely able to keep body and soul together. Of course we have ensured that we purchase 20 F-16 jets at $40 million a pop! Well worth remembering is that in its lifetime each jet will cost one-and-a-half times to be serviced and maintained fighting-fit, just in case Bhutan should attack us.
A great deal of this has been said again and again, with predictably zero results. The wheels move on. The affluent cats get sleeker, the wretched of this land poorer, the economy more and more derelict and in a shambles and our piety and self-obsession reaching new heights. Someone was saying the other day that among the many things wrong with us, surely hypocrisy must rank as the all-time eternal national quality. We are conceited and our professed piety is sickening, even as it moves further and further away from reality. The emperor has not been wearing any clothes for a long time, but no one is quite ready to say so – well, almost no one.
Actress Angelina Jolie, who has repeatedly visited Pakistan and spent her time with first the Afghan refugees and later the earthquake victims, was here again a few weeks back.
Pictures of her sitting on a “charpoy” dressed almost like a tramp, completely nondescript, have been doing the rounds. Personally, in some I couldn’t even make out which was Ms Jolie and which was the woman who had lost it all. Yet each time she has been here, the worst traits in our society’s upper echelons, have surfaced like warts. Earlier Mr Shaukat Aziz embarrassed us as he clung to her hand, much to Ms Jolie’s embarrassment – he was showing her his Rose Garden. (Etchings?) In Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, the governor had made a fool of himself (and us) by pressurising her to cut his birthday cake (what a coincidence it was his birthday!) and her finally relenting for the sake of the UNCHR, only to find a hall full of ogling males and overdressed aunties. Some madcap photo-op ensued and, while I don’t know the details, it was all pretty hair-raising.
Now Gilani has done it. Forced to accept his invitation to a meal, a chartered flight brought in hordes of the PM’s near and dear ones from swinging Multan to meet and be pictured with the Hollywood actress. Ms Jolie was allegedly mortified by this crass show of poor taste, expensive gifts showered on her, further worsened by the groaning overloaded tables of food. She was repulsed thinking how could all these people eat – nay, waste – so much food, and how this could feed so many hungry and starving people who were fighting for a handful of salt. But no such worry seemed to afflict the PM, who with his trademark pasted grin beamed at everyone and had his seven seconds of glory.
Apparently Ms Jolie was appalled at the opulence of the Prime Minister’s House and the rows of glittering limos and has told her organisation in New York that a government which is so indifferent to its people should not be given a penny. This must do wonders for our image abroad.
On Thursday night, stuck on Lahore’s Sherpao Bridge along with hundreds of vehicles (that bridge is going to come down one of these days, but who can tell the Faujis to use their heads?), we waited, inching along for 45 minutes to the “security” check-post where two goons waved us on. What farce is this? Yes, we know the Lahore Cantonment houses the country’s elite forces and high-ranking civilians, but this check-up is utterly useless and in the wrong place. This was raised many months earlier, but now things are back to normal again. When the bridge falls, all who issue such brain-dead orders are secure that they will not be held responsible. That’s the Pakistani mantra.
The writer is a Lahore-based columnist. Email: [email protected]