Reporting from Pakistan, Mahmood Iqbal highlights the eroding of citizens’ trust in public institutions in this preview from the Global Integrity Report: 2008, to be released Feb. 18. The prevalence of militant attacks in Pakistan serves as an undeniably jarring example of the ineffectiveness of government agencies (especially the police). Suicide bombings not only destroy families and communities, but also leave citizens with the perception that government agencies lack the strategy and incentives to address the violence and the petty corruption that now pervade Pakistan’s social fabric.
Reporter’s Notebook: Pakistan
By Mahmood Iqbal
Fourteen-year-old Hedayatullah sobs his heart out, along with his mother and five sisters. Recently, his father, Noor Sher Khan, a driver by profession, was killed by a suicide car bomber. He had been riding in a friend’s truck near a security force base camp outside the gun-manufacturing town of Darra Adamkhel. They were on the Indus Highway, which links Pakistan’s northern territory to the central Punjab province and the coastal provinces of Sindh and Balochistan.
Hedayatullah is only one among thousands of children orphaned by recent man-made disasters, which have deprived families all across Pakistan of their breadwinners — disasters that have struck for reasons the grieving survivors will perhaps never understand.
Tidal Waves of Trouble
Today, ordinary Pakistanis are beset with seemingly overwhelming problems: growing discontent with state institutions; mounting extremism and insecurity; rising prices; worsening food shortages; deepening fuel and power crises; increasing unemployment; lackluster social development; escalating political instability; increasing inequity; endemic corruption; and, above all, the Pakistani government’s inability to cope with few, if any, of these crises.
The steady spillover of militancy from the tribal areas along the border with Afghanistan into the mainland and the continuing military operations in different parts of the country have taken a heavy toll on social and economic activities. A sense of uncertainty blankets the entire country as most state institutions seem to have failed in their duty to protect the lives and property of their citizens.
A handful of militants have destroyed educational institutions and health care facilities, forcing people to abandon their homes. They blow up innocent people and target government installations with impunity, even in the face of a supposedly highly professional and well-equipped army and law enforcement agencies.
These attacks have raised doubts in the hearts and minds of citizens about the effectiveness of the institutional mechanisms in place in the country, complained Sayeed Gul, a small trader from Kurram tribal region, who migrated to Kohat for security reasons.
Security forces’ counteroffensives to stem growing Talibanization have, so far, proven counterproductive. They trigger mass migrations from different parts of Frontier province, tribal belt and Balochistan to relatively safe areas, leaving the most vulnerable to bear the brunt of a catastrophic situation. The government has yet to devise a feasible strategy to eliminate the monster of militancy and corruption, which is more abominable than ever before.
One area of Pakistani society that has suffered grievously is education. Approximately 15,000 schools throughout the country, including 7,500 in Sindh, have been closed due to ongoing militant activities, military operations, facilities and staff shortages, and tribal feuds.
Bombs and arson attacks destroyed at least 118 schools in different parts of the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and its adjacent tribal belt during the past year. An unspecified number of educational institutions, particularly those in the rural and remote areas, have been turned into private guest houses, warehouses and cattle pens by a few influential people.
To make matters worse, about 1,000 contract teachers were fired after serving more than a year. “The government plans to recruit fresh employees for these posts while those who were already serving, and had both the experience and the required qualifications, have been thrown out,” one teacher said.
Government for the Well Connected?
“The government seems to be doing nothing for those people who have lost all hope because of the ongoing unrest and the natural calamities, except for putting up temporary settlements where hunger and disease afflict the internally displaced people,” a junior police officer said. “We can see relief assistance steadily trickling in from donor organizations, but only for those who have some link to the elected representatives or for those in the upper echelons of the government. The remaining multitudes have to run from pillar to post to find shelter.” This officer, like many others he knows, lost his home to flash floods that took place in July.
“Trucks loaded with relief items have gone unaccounted for after reaching the affected localities,” he continued, adding that stashes of relief goods have been recovered from the hujras (private guest houses) and warehouses of some influential people.
Government acts as a benefit for the well-connected. Much legislation in Pakistan is written to favor specific individuals, as is evident from the National Reconciliation Ordinance of 2007, which, according to some lawyers, was introduced mainly to protect corrupt politicians and bureaucrats and others involved in corruption cases.
A People Burdened by Bribery
The Punjab province, which produces the bulk of the country’s food staples, restricts inter-province shipments of wheat and flour. As a result, organized crime and corrupt officials squeeze even more from needy people already reeling from the surging prices of living essentials. “Every vehicle heading out of Punjab is subjected to a search for flour, and if someone is fortunate enough to have bought a present for his family, he will have to pay bribes lest the officials confiscate it,” said a passenger coach driver, who had been waved over to be searched at the checkpoint set up on the road that runs from Rawalpindi to the Kohat district of the NWFP.
Truckers contend that food officials and law enforcement officials are making millions from the illegal sale of flour and wheat inside the country, and by smuggling these commodities across the border. Paying bribes at checkpoints can keep the wheels turning, but if a trucker can’t pay up, even a single sack of flour is enough to send him to jail: “You have to pay bribes to the officials, whether you have flour on you or not, but if you are not prepared, your truck can get impounded for checking, which will involve long delays.”
The Pakistani government, instead of creating and enforcing effective legislation to resolve the crisis, only proposes to open more outlets of the Utility Stores Corporation (USC) where everyday commodities are sold at subsidized rates. But, at the same time, the government removed consumer subsidies for fuel and power, triggering a price hike.
Today, many districts in Sindh, Balochistan and the NWFP are facing an acute wheat shortage, and flour mills are not able to operate at full grinding capacity. The Federal Food Committee warns that the crisis will persist and urges provincial food departments to maintain a certain level of supply to the mills, but no other action is being taken to rectify the situation.
The “Unhealthy” Care System
Corruption is also prevalent in the health sector. Doctors and owners of clinical laboratories subject poor patients to expensive medicines and specialized lab tests — including cumbersome bone marrow examinations — for minor ailments, such as fevers and sore throats. “It is highly unprofessional for a doctor to order a specialized test for a patient without cause and also without consultation. But this is how the doctors do business with pharmaceutical companies and laboratory owners,” a senior doctor said.
The Pakistani government is unwilling to formulate or enforce legislation to check unethical and corrupt practices in the health sector. It also has failed to promulgate the Transplantation of Human Organs and Tissues Ordinance of 2007, already approved by the cabinet, which regulates commercial dealings in organs. Instead, it introduced a bill in the National Assembly, ostensibly under pressure from the industry lobby, which promotes trade in human organs.
Ignoring the People
As the struggle for survival becomes more arduous with every passing day, the government’s incompetence in resolving the country’s multitude of crises has triggered protest demonstrations throughout Pakistan. In fact, 2007 and 2008 will go down in history as years dominated by civilian protest demonstrations regarding bomb attacks, shortages of wheat and flour, and severe inflation across the board.
It is clear that Pakistan does not suffer from terrorism alone. A dearth of equitable social development coupled with high unemployment rates ail the country. But despite all these problems, the central government and the four provincial capitals remain preoccupied with consolidating their grip on their illusory power.
[Editor’s Note: Sources interviewed throughout this report are unnamed to protect their personal and job security.]