Wednesday, March 24, 2010

In a dark tunnel

Do we still have light at the end of the tunnel? Yes, I am alluding to this week’s incredibly painful breakdown in the electric supply in Karachi, in the wake of last weekend’s heavy downpour. Elsewhere in the country, load-shedding and outages continued and sporadic powers riots were highlighted by a dramatic event in Jhang when protesters set a train ablaze on Tuesday.

But this sense of powerlessness has much wider dimensions. In fact, I am invoking an SMS sent by a friend over a year ago. It said, in effect, that because of shortage of electricity, “the light at the end of the tunnel has been switched off.” A dark thought this surely is, though the message strikes you like lightning. And lightning, literally, is a feature of the present meteorological developments. It comes when there are dark clouds on the horizon. So, do our dark clouds still have a silver lining?

Many of us who suffered the ordeal in Karachi – and it continues in many ways – may not be inclined to see light at the end of the tunnel or a silver lining on the horizon. My column last week was titled “Sorrows of Karachi.” Yet, it did not refer to the rain havoc or the sustained power breakdown. I was talking about social disorder, mainly with reference to targeted killings. This was so because my deadline is around noon on Saturday. The rains came in the afternoon and the deluge after that. What came later can be split into a million personal experiences, most of them quite tearful.

Indeed, recounting one’s own encounter with a collective calamity was a kind of a parlour game all this week. Actually, this rain emergency was really unusual because the downpour was the heaviest in thirty-two years and was bound to create major disruptions. Those of us who still have memories of the flooding of Karachi on June 30, 1977, would concede that the damage done this time was less severe. But Karachi now has a larger population and many of its systems are more dilapidated. The real story is that while there were more casualties, going into three digits, in 1977, the power breakdown this time was unprecedented in both its range and duration.

For example, we were without power for more than 80 hours and this deprivation was aggravated by many other sources of grief. But the story of my family and my apartment complex is not at all exceptional. Some accounts of suffering that I have heard are simply heartbreaking. The pity is that most of these tragedies could be avoided with better precautions and flood-control arrangement. In some areas, yes, lessons were learnt and the newly-built rainwater drains worked. But how does one explain the blockage of the road to the airport for long hours?

During the power crisis and how it affected the lives of the people, I had a few friends arguing that this, too, was a measure of Pakistan becoming a failed state. What really mattered was not that there was no electricity and that its restoration remained uncertain for not just hours but days. These things can happen for valid reasons. But there was generally no trust in the administration and no communication between the authorities and the people on how to deal with the emergency situation. A touch of anarchy was evident in the popular response to this calamity.

In a wider context, this is becoming the norm in a society that seems out of joint. We see people coming out in frustration, without any leadership that could channel their grievances into meaningful social action. More and more evidence is available on how the society is being fragmented. And while the ordinary citizens live in a state of distress, the rulers reflect no concern about the plight of the people. On the contrary, their craving for more privileges and comforts is manifest in their wayward lifestyles. Stories about corruption that is sometimes certified by investigative reports remain in circulation.

Finally, Shumaila Rana tendered her resignation from the Punjab Assembly on Friday in the wake of that shameful credit-card scandal. That something like this was possible and that Shumaila had the guts to plead not guilty in the face of such damning visual and audio evidence is seen as an example of how wayward our politicians can be when it comes to morality and personal integrity. The lady MPA of the PML-N had seemingly indulged in a downright criminal activity but the general state of behaviour at that level almost universally smacks of moral and financial discrepancies.

What we are witnessing perhaps is a deadly tussle between the yearning for change on the part of the people and the desire to preserve the status quo on the part of the rulers. What is truly incredible is that the national emergencies have not been able to persuade our present rulers to mend their ways. At least the size of the cabinet could have been reduced and decisive cuts made in non-development expenditures.

If there had been some way of matching the quality of their governance with the wages and privileges that our high functionaries receive, they may have to reimburse large amounts to the state exchequer from their manifestly robust personal fortunes. Ah, the obvious fact is that these fortunes only grow when they are in power and they tend to become more reckless when they have reasons to feel insecure. Naturally, they feel more insecure in times of crisis.

Coming back to Karachi’s prolonged blackout this week, it is significant that the citizens had a similar experience last month, though it was not attended by a rain emergency. It was possible, then, for the people to come out of their congested abodes and sleep on the pavements and open spaces. This week, the streets were flooded with rain water that was mixed with sewage. Hence, the misery of the people had multiplied.

Writing about the June blackout in this space, I had mentioned three major blackouts in New York, including one in 1977 that led to widespread looting and disorder. But the blackout in August 2003, after the traumatic experience of 9/11, was brightened by the collaborative spirit of the New Yorkers. The point I was making was that “a blackout can be a very instructive experience in terms of promoting civic sense and collaboration.” I had added that blackouts give us time to reflect on the state of affairs.

Well, we have had enough time to reflect on the state of affairs. The two blackouts in Karachi are instructive. The second time, it was much longer and much more disquieting in terms of how it made the ordinary people feel more helpless and more powerless in coping with the emergency. Is this an indicator of the national drift?

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