Peoples Violent Reactions (March 29, 2010) Business Recorder

Seething anger of the public is displayed now quite often on the streets of major cities of Pakistan. People’s reaction is seen on mundane issues like power shortage, rising transportation prices, unemployment and police excesses. All these issues have been there in the past but why there are more spontaneous processions with convulsed violence now? This is the question that was asked by all and sundry last week. The replies by the politicians and analysts did cover some grounds but a little more in-depth probe is in order.

The first and foremost reason for eruption of public anger is that peoples’ nerves are tense because of a number of things that irritate them in everyday life. Urban population of big cities that have seen eruption of public anger is feeling insecure because of a number of terrorist attacks in public places. People don’t feel secure while going out. Even the schools are not safe and one can see sharp-shooters sitting on the roofs of some. As if this is not enough, the struggle for claiming more space among various institutions of the country that includes parliament, judiciary, army and media has created instability. Every person you meet has a big question mark written on their face. This uncertainty again is taking a toll on people’s nerves. Add to this hours of electricity load-shedding, shortage of gas and rising prices and you have the urban population living in a combustion chamber. I wish some education institution would undertake a sociological and a psychological study on this subject. However, the empirical evidence explains the reaction of urban Pakistan.

This does not mean that the opposition parties which are always waiting for such outbursts do not play any role in such processions and the violence that follows. What they do is their natural role in any democratic polity. That is the reason that democracy is noisy and messy no matter where it is in the developing countries.

The Islamabad outburst was against the substantial rise in the transport fares. The other twin brother Rawalpindi also followed suit. In the first place the mass transport system in major cities has been completely neglected by all governments. But Islamabad is the worst example where the public transport system is also inadequate. Somewhere in the eighties, the provincial governments working under  General Ziaul Haq’s dictatorial regime decided to wrap up the little public sector mass transport companies in the country. The common excuse in those days was that all public sector transport companies are running in losses so the people should be left at the mercy of the private transporters. Loyal to the kings of free market than the king himself, the policy makers abdicated the public transport to the private sector. They never cared to find out that mass transit system is being provided in almost all the developed capitalist countries by the government at subsidised fares. Way back in 1980’s when the Karachi Transport Company was being closed on the grounds that it was making small losses, I had written that the London tube system was being subsidised by over 330 million pounds a year. Even Mumbai public transport system was subsidised by the BEST (Bombay Electric Supply & Transport Company) which was managed by the city government.

The subsidy given for the commuters in any city is transparent and goes to the deserving low income classes, as those who can afford even a motor bike usually do not use the mass transit system. However, indirectly an efficient public transport system also subsidises the employers as it is compensating their employees and commuting to the place of work with ease increases their productivity. So if the government is really sincere to ease the pressure on the low income people it should not play in the hands of private sector transport mafia, which tries to fail the public sector system. Transport fares are not the only issue: Consider this, we have around 200,000 registered buses and mini-buses to cater to over 90% of the population. This shows a shortage of public transport which is also visible on the roads when you see people traveling dangerously on the roofs of mini-buses in rush hours.

As far as the shortage of electricity is concerned I have written a few times on this issue in this space. No short term solution is in sight. The country needs to add almost 5000 MW to its system of which about 1000 MW is expected to come on line by the end of the year. Some relief may also come from the expensive rental power option. People are also agitated on the rising electricity rates. NEPRA has just asked one WAPDA agency not to pass the cost of interest to the consumers. Sounds sympathetic, but the issue is who is going to pay the financial cost of the heavy circular debt? The immediate relief can be provided to the consumers in electricity prices if all the electricity bills defaulters which include government departments, mosques and madaris clear billion of rupees of their dues to electricity companies; if the electricity companies can bring down the theft which is over 20%; and if huge circular debt is wiped out as it’s heavy financial cost adds substantially to the electricity tariff.

Though the government has been able to bring down inflation substantially, it is still in two digits and has resulted in pushing back, below the poverty line, those people who had just moved up to the surface in the last decade. The urban population is reacting to it more because in the last two years the flow of money has been to the agricultural economy. The neglected agriculture sector has been stimulated by the government by raising the support prices of the cash crops. The consumer goods companies are readjusting the products for the people of rural areas where consumption pattern they say is changing because now they have some dispensable income.

Lastly let’s look at security and instability issues which are the most nerve-racking for the people. Though the government is fighting the terrorists now there is no hope for immediate solution. My fear is that there will be more blood, as the government would have to tighten the noose around the militant organisations. They have no other option now as the flirtation time with the Jihadis is over.

However, the only good news in sight was that the 18th Amendment would be passed in this blessed March has also faded out for the time being thanks to PML(N) somersaults.  For the time being hapless  Pakistanis would have to live a political uncertainty because of the  impasse on constitutional reforms. The appointment or extension of the army chief is due in a couple of months, this phase has always been important in Pakistan’s politics given the dominating role played by the army in this country. A modicum of political stability would be established in the country only when the government would get through these two major political hurdles.

This does not mean that we would not see more processions and disputes between the various political institutions. People are impatient in all developing countries and “poor are short-termist” to borrow the Economist’s phrase. But then that should be reported and commented on as a part of the democratic process by the media and not as if heaven is going to fall. The perspective should not be lost. The adventurists in judiciary and army should also fall back and refrain from destablising the political system of the country. Let’s assure the people that there would be no change till the government completes its term and put political instability to rest. (ayazbabar@gmail.com)

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