Floods, dharnas and censors

Floods, dharnas and censors
Regarding floods: one solitary photograph on the inside page of a newspaper tells the story better than reams of newsprint. It shows the Punjab Chief Minister, Shahbaz Sharif, standing in immaculate gumboots in flood water, waving a finger at a clutch of forlorn officials next to him in their daily attire soaked up to their knees. This is at par with a video of Shahbaz Sharif in a Mao jacket that shows him nudging bags of flour out of a helicopter to a cluster of hapless flood victims below during the floods some years ago. Both are excellent photo-ops crafted to convey the message of a caring “son of the soil”.

But one question arises time and again. Why, when the wellbeing of Punjab depends critically on the hydrological economy of the five rivers, hasn’t any government since independence taken concrete long-term measures to stop the periodic ravages of the rivers in flood during monsoon? If water is a life and death issue, why haven’t we built and strengthened embankments, why haven’t we built dams and reservoirs so that water can be stored when the rivers are in flood and released when the canals are running dry?  Pakistan has about 140 medium and large dams for a population of about 200 million, or one dam for every 1.5 million people. India has over 3200 dams for a population of 1.2 billion, or one dam for about 500,000 people. The United States has over 75000 dams to cater for 300 million people, or one dam for every 4000 Americans.

The answer is obvious. Yellow cabs and tractors, sasti rotis, laptops and Youth Loan Schemes are visibly sexy. But dams and reservoirs are dull and opaque, they don’t provide political optics like expansive motorways, gleaming bullet trains and bright red buses on stilts. Every politician is a wannabe Shahjahan but not one can recall the names of the Commissioners of the Indian Civil Service who founded and sustained the great canal colonies network that nourishes the province. Everyone bemoans how India has grabbed the “jugular” vein of Kashmir and is building dams upstream on “Pakistan’s rivers” but no one cares to ask why Pakistan is not exercising its “first-right” to build dams and reservoirs on its own rivers in “Azad” Kashmir. Indeed, there hasn’t been a single political leader, civilian-populist or military-dictator, in the last forty years who has made any concerted effort to bridge the political-ethnic distrust that blights the Kalabagh Dam project.

Regarding dharnas: There may be a silver lining in this floods disaster. Even Imran Khan has been compelled to leave his beloved dharna in Islamabad so that he can compete with the Sharifs for photo-ops in flood-affected areas. The All Parties “Jirga” is negotiating terms and conditions with the PTI over ending the dharna. By all accounts, it seems to be inching closer to a solution that provides real gains for the electoral system while giving Imran a reasonable face saving exit from the Red Zone. But the dharna seems more like a colourful mela than a robust protest, and the crowds are thinning, so Imran Khan might be advised to call it a day. Dr Tahirul Qadri’s dharna, on the other hand, has been exposed by the BBC, which quotes students and families as saying that they were paid up to Rs 10,000 for joining the long march and were threatened with dire consequences if they deserted the dharna. This evidence shows up the Minhajul Quran in bad light and erodes Dr Qadri’s credentials as a bona fide populist.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court is seized with questions regarding the legitimacy of dharnas and their relationship with fundamental rights versus the executive’s constitutional right to exercise force to maintain law and order. It is about time such issues were settled efficiently and expeditiously.

Regarding censorship: The courts are finally endorsing the broadcasting rights of GEO by censuring cable operators and security agents who are blocking them. The judges are also inclined to restrain TV “anchors” who are openly flouting the regulatory laws of PEMRA and defaming politicians and fellow TV anchors. The free-for-all media environment is a reflection of the swing of the pendulum from one extreme position of censorship during the dark days of dictatorship to the other extreme position of anarchy in a “moth eaten” democracy. If a deal with Imran Khan can be struck over the modus operandi of transparent appointments in public sector corporations and regulatory bodies like PEMRA, we will be in good shape.

Imran Khan and Tahirul Qadri have done yeomen’s service to the cause of democracy by highlighting much that is wrong with it. But the whole exercise is in danger of becoming a farce with everyday revelations of unsavoury links to secret “third umpires” and murky conspirators. Therefore the dharnas should be called off now so that the two can live to fight a clean fight another day.

Najam Aziz Sethi is a Pakistani journalist, businessman who is also the founder of The Friday Times and Vanguard Books. Previously, as an administrator, he served as Chairman of Pakistan Cricket Board, caretaker Federal Minister of Pakistan and Chief Minister of Punjab, Pakistan.