January 20, 2008

In search of bread — and hope

Filed under: DOMESTIC — civilsocietypakistan @ 3:30 am
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JANUARY 20, 2008

Ghazi Salahuddin

A bag of flour � ‘atta’ � is not an election symbol, we know. Perhaps an ear of wheat should have been, if you look at the vast range of symbols that celebrate the shame of an illiterate society. An ear of wheat that the present rulers have metaphorically stuck in their cap makes a neat and recognisable image. And voters could have identified with this symbol in a personal sense. After all, the lives of the multitude have deeply been impacted by the shortage of ‘atta’ and consequently its exorbitant price.

Talking of election symbols, their number boggles the mind. That is why they had to think of all things that can be recognised by an ordinary, unlettered person. We have, yes, one hundred and forty-seven election symbols. As many as forty-nine parties have their separate symbols. In addition, there are ninety-eight for the independents to choose from. They do have a ‘lota’, though I wonder if any one has gone for it. Also appropriate for some politicians would be the symbol of ‘ostrich’ because it also means “a person who prefers to ignore problems rather than try and deal with them”.

I could go on and share with you some very interesting symbols. But I have mentioned them only as an aside. It is the ‘atta’ crisis that has been a serious distraction in recent days � something that is not at all amusing or frivolous. In fact, the issue has not really been adequately covered in our media because of the flaming headlines that flow from our political and security-related crises. A suicide bombing, for instance, can readily agitate our minds. Also, we have to suffer the inexplicable disasters of militants storming and taking over a fort in South Waziristan.

Meanwhile, of course, we have to contend with a collective depression that has resulted from the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, an event that we still find difficult to absorb or understand. Then, there is the energy crisis. Power shortages have afflicted our industry and have interfered with our routines. All this has cumulatively generated a condition that has dulled our senses and has left us in a state of torpor. We can only imagine what the rigours of their daily lives have done to the psyche of a vast number of the poor and the underprivileged in a country that has the capability of building nuclear weapons.

Come to think of it, the shortage of wheat, leading to the ‘atta’ crisis and the struggle of the poor to get their daily bread, is a mirror that reflects the state of our governance. The contradictions that are embedded in this situation bear testimony to the utter failure of the present dispensation that is a continuation of the coup of October 1999. Until a short time ago, a serving chief of the army was at the helm and had represented the might of the military in his unchallenged exercise of power. The argument has always been that the politicians tend to bungle their job and that a military ruler is inherently capable of enforcing order and delivering good governance.

That Pakistan’s history has repeatedly invalidated this argument is not what I need to emphasise. At present, we have to deal with somewhat peculiar circumstances. At one level, there is this war against terror and against religious militancy, irrespective of the fact that terrorists have flourished in recent years. At another, our constitutional and democratic institutions have wilfully been attacked � and not by the militants. Rule of law has become a casualty in the rulers’ pursuit of power.

These and other derelictions are fully illustrated in the wheat crisis. How could this happen? How could it continue for so long? I am not going into any details. There has to be an explanation for everything and I am sure economists who study agriculture and food security will have a lot to explore in this remarkable phenomenon. Social scientists, too, have a difficult task to interpret the crisis in the context of its societal and political consequences.

Bread, or ‘roti’, has always been a measure of human survival. The promise of ‘roti, kapra aur makan’ has been the most appealing slogan in our politics, reminding one of the rise of the Bhutto charisma. It did initially generate a passionate awakening among the masses. Romans were well aware of the imperative of keeping the people diverted with ‘bread and circuses’. The trick was to ensure the daily bread for the people and amuse them with games and entertainment at public expense and then you could deny them freedom or democracy. In our times, though, people who go hungry would still aspire for their rights.

And what about the ‘circus’? No, television can hardly serve this purpose because it also has the news. We know why they blocked the independent news channels with the imposition of emergency and then sought to enforce their own code of conduct. If you remember, they suddenly allowed some Indian entertainment channels that had earlier been banned. But can family soaps in florid presentations serve as a narcotic for the masses? Apparently not, when the daily lives of the people remain so grim and gruelling.

Finally, I must invoke the astounding irony that the way to this severe shortage of wheat was paved by the highest wheat production in our history, the 2006-07 crop having crossed the target of 22.5 million tonnes. In May last year, the government allowed the export of 50,000 tonnes of wheat in the hope of making inroads into the lucrative Indian market. Later, naturally, we had to import wheat. The pity of all this is that the huge profits that were made did not go to the growers. Remember Iqbal: ‘jis khait sey dehqan ko�.’?

As I have said, we have not had many investigative reports about this crisis in the media. At the other end of the spectrum, there were also no heartfelt explorations into individual lives of the poor, who have to bear a prohibitive cost for their bread. I am reminded of a quotation that “hope is the poor man’s bread”. This situation is surely stealing hope from the hearts of the poor. A glimpse of how people without hope can behave was available during the three days of violent protest after Benazir’s assassination.

Early this week, I was watching television with a friend. There was some footage of a crowd gathered outside a Utility Store to buy flour at the official price. There were some close-ups of harassed faces, of wrinkled old women and young men who looked so forlorn. My friend turned towards me and said: “Is this not evidence of a failed country?” I just kept quiet.


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