Hunting Dragon-Slayers

My article for ARY Blogs:

Hunting Dragon-Slayers

The war on doctors in Pakistan and how we can end it.

Once upon a time, in a city by the sea, there lived a people haunted by dragons. These great beasts would pour forth fire and brimstone, leaving those touched by their wrath either dead or disabled. In time – as often happens in such stories – there arose an elite band of braves who rejected the status quo and travelled far and wide, sleeping little by day and studying much by night, in their ceaseless quest to discover the secret to the dragons’ destruction.

These scholar-soldiers called themselves ‘dragon-slayers’ (‘Dr.’, for short) and set up academies to train new heroes from the populace. They built strange, white castles called ‘hospitals’ to defeat the creatures and opened the gates to all who had been troubled by the foul beasts. They worked hard to perfect new potions and to test those potions rigorously before use. And, in contrast to all those who had claimed to be heroes before them, they used the immense power of the ancient magic of ‘science’ .

Through many years of trial and error, the heroes’ hard work paid off. Soon, many of the beasts had been quelled – the monster known as ‘small-pox’ was the first to be dispatched and soon others such as ‘TB’, ‘polio’ and ‘malaria’ were driven back to their caves – though they proved much harder to kill. The people rejoiced, for a time, but soon they took for granted the doings of these men of science and, while they respected them, they were ignorant of the ‘hows’ and the ‘whys’ behind the successes of these clean, white castles.

Eventually, a time came when some of them took to murdering the dragon-slayers who belonged to tribes different from theirs and, after each such killing, they would proudly proclaim their heinous crimes in the blood-drenched streets of that city by the sea. And all the while, the dragons grew stronger.

The heroes – disgusted at the unfairness of it all – packed up their families and potions and, wiping a small tear from the corner of their eyes, took one last, long look at their beloved motherland before pushing off into the stormy sea for distant lands. And with their passing, that strange, distant Land of the Pure sank deeper into a new dark age.

This fable is our reality.

Our doctors are leaving Pakistan.

Polio is on the rise.

Here’s what we can do about it:

· Learn how to use the mosque. A national, pan-sectarian consensus exists on the unlawfulness of the murder of innocents and the promise of hellfire for those who dare to do so. Proclaim it from the pulpit. Every pulpit. In every mosque. Repeat ad infinitum.

· Devolve, devolve, devolve. Have a small clinic attached to one mosque in every UC. It will be staffed by one doctor and will employ people of the same UC to promote the concept of ownership and to have transparency. Major roundabouts will have one ambulance – stationed at all times with a paramedic – donated by philanthropists of the same area who can see their money put to good, noble use. At the town level, there will be a larger trauma centre equipped with an X-ray machine and an ultrasound and the truama centres will, in turn, report to tertiary care facilities (e.g. Abbasi Shaheed). Most patients will be dealt with on the smaller levels to avoid swamping the tertiary care centre and to promote preventative, public health at the grassroots level.

· Educate. Make it mandatory for every madressah to have time devoted to basic scientific principles. Teach them about Avicenna and Rhazes, Avenzoar and Geber. It’s our fault for not reaching out to them and sitting in our white castles. It’s time we changed that.

This prescription is provided gratis with the hope that some version of it may one day be implemented, that our heroes may return and the dragons banished forevermore. 


Bangladesh: Slums

My article for SouthAsia Magazine:

Bangladesh: Slums

Access to clean, drinkable water makes the difference between life and death in the sewage-infested slums of Bangladesh.

AS THE SUN rises over the narrow streets, a cacophony of sound heralds the new day. Armies of workers in small factories are busy making everything from salt to bricks and balloons. Yet one glance at their weary faces and ragged clothes makes it clear that no one here earns much money.

Welcome to Kamrangirchar, Dhaka’s largest slum – a grimy product of the mass urban migration that has transformed Bangladesh’s capital into the world’s fastest growing city. Here, over 400,000 people live within a space of just three-square kilometres. Once a dumping ground for the city’s waste, its ramshackle huts and sewage-infested streets are home to dwellers who constitute between a quarter and a third of Dhaka’s population.

While poverty and food crises are typical of developing nations, the extremity of squalor in the slums is beyond belief. Images of starving children are cliché but the psychological impact of malnutrition on children is less visible. Few realise how stunted children become when they go through life hungry, devoid of the necessities for growth and advancement. “A child’s world can be influenced by a plethora of aspects that shape his or her physical, cognitive, social and emotional development and maturation,” says Professor Varuni Ganepola, a psychologist at the Department of Social Sciences, Asian University for Women, Chittagong. “Children can suffer a loss of self-esteem and develop a poor self concept. Loss and depravation can affect the way he or she develops a sense of who they are in the way that they relate to their social world,” Ganepola says. Academics and policymakers alike have concluded that given adequate opportunities, the children of the slums could be a great asset to Bangladesh. However, they become liabilities faced with bleak futures when deprived of the basic human rights of food, education and healthcare.

In the slums, even giving a child a glass of water requires an act of faith. Far too many mothers have seen their young children taken away from them by diarrhea, dysentery and other water-borne diseases. Water lies at the heart of the complex web of problems facing residents. Slums spring up overnight, usually on landfills owned by no one. Since there is no owner of record, Dhaka’s municipal water company refuses to lay down pipes – leaving millions of slum dwellers without recourse to the city’s water supply. Enter the black marketers. Found in almost every slum, these middlemen provide, for a price, water illegally procured from the municipal supply. The quality of their water, however, is another matter entirely. Leaky hoses, held together by duct tape and spit, snake their way through ditches filled with raw sewage. Tests have shown the presence of E. coli, a potentially deadly bacterium. The middlemen freely admit that people get sick from the water, “We can’t help it because the water is contaminated with sewage.”

For adults with greater immunity, tainted water is not necessarily fatal. Young children, though, with weak immune systems ravaged by malnutrition can die within a matter of hours – the result of extreme dehydration and loss of electrolytes.

Occasionally, the state will undertake clearance drives, ostensibly to reduce crime rates. But these evictions deprive slum dwellers of homes and jobs and, ironically, may make them more susceptible to participation in criminal activities. Dr Rita Afsar of the Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies (BIDS) has conducted surveys, which show that 80% of criminals active in the city reside in middle-class areas, enjoying political backing from both incumbents and the opposition. She agrees that some squatters are involved in drug trafficking and prostitution, but says that most are honest labourers who have contributed to the growth rates of major sections of the urban economy – construction, transport and small businesses.

There is some cause for hope. In some slums, residents have banded together with NGOs to demand their right to safe, clean potable water. Dr. Diablok Singha lobbied Dhaka’s water authority to provide water links to slum dwellers. Though reluctant at first, they accepted on the condition that the NGO assumed the risk of non-payment of water bills. Dr. Singha agreed. “A win-win situation occurred”, he says. The mastaans, local slum barons who specialize in ripping off the poor, charge 15 times more than municipal authorities for water. Dr. Singha knew that the residents would happily accept cheaper, cleaner water. Only the mastaans lose out. Thanks to this ingenious project, many more connections have been established.

However, every week thousands more arrive at the gates of the city. Treating merely the symptoms will not affect a cure. For Bangladesh, the answer lies in providing better services and job opportunities in rural areas to stem the tide of urban migration. Adequate housing facilities and the provision of affordable healthcare and education is exactly what is needed to transform the county’s greatest liability into its greatest asset.  


Bhutan: Behind the Curtain

My article for SouthAsia Magazine:

Bhutan: Behind the Curtain

BEHIND its scenic beauty and Gross National Happiness, Bhutan hides a dark secret. It is the land of the Thunder Dragon; an ancient realm where the rice is red, buying cigarettes is illegal and ghosts and witches stalk the history books. This is the Bhutan that tourists know — one of the most expensive destinations in the world. But behind the catchy phrases, such as Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross National Product, and the country’s obvious rugged beauty, lies a dark secret of oppression, persecution and forced expulsion.

Like most modern nation-states, the Kingdom of Bhutan’s 670,000 people contain a patchwork of ethnic groups. The Ngalongs of the western mountains and the central Bhutanese, with whom they have intermarried, form the elite of this landlocked nation. They are a minority alongside the Sharchhops (Easterners) and the Lhotshampas (Southerners). The Lhotshampas are the last group which, according to Michael Hutt, Professor of Nepali and Himalayan Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies, has borne the brunt of the state’s persecution and, before the crisis, constituted one-third to one-half of the total population of Bhutan.

But why the Lhotshampas? The answer lies in a confluence of religion and language. In this deeply Buddhist nation, the presence of a large group of Nepali-speaking Hindus was seen as a threat to the dominant political order. The Lhotshampas originally settled in what were, during the late 19th century, uninhabited southern reaches of Bhutan. They came on the invitation of Bhutanese contractors, keen to open up the region for cultivation. By the 1930s, according to records kept by British colonial officials, the population of Nepali origin had reached a respectable 60,000.

In 1958, the Citizenship Act was passed, granting for the very first time, full citizenship to the entire population of Southern Bhutan. Development programs, modernisation drives and hydro-electric power projects were implemented across the nation. However, the law prohibited southern Bhutanese to permanently settle north of certain latitudes, effectively reducing interaction between the northerners and southerners to a bare minimum. On the other hand, social services, education and the development of the economy meant that by the 1970s, many Lhotshampas has risen to occupy influential posts in the bureaucracy.

By the 1980s, the government of Bhutan, seeing the rise of the Southerners as a threat to the status quo, struck back. The Citizenship Act of 1985 was used as the basis of a census exercise in the southern districts of the kingdom. Lhotshampas who could not produce evidence of legal residence since 1958, were stripped of their nationality. Another law was passed, forcing all who ventured out to wear the northern traditional dress, or risk fines and imprisonment. The Nepali language was banned from school curricula.

Predictably, public demonstrations took place against these measures. In response, the government branded all who took part as ‘anti-nationals.’ It is estimated that up to two thousand of the many arbitrarily arrested were tortured. Only a handful were actually charged or stood trial; the vast majority languished for months in primitive conditions. Eventually, the King of Bhutan declared an amnesty and most were released, but they discovered to their horror that their houses had been demolished and their families had fled the kingdom.

The first refugees arrived in India to find that they were not permitted to set up permanent camps and were subsequently shuttled off to eastern Nepal. Repressive measures continued, resulting in a steady stream of refugees. It is estimated that 80,000 are currently living in UNHCR-administered camps. None of those who lost their homes, citizenship and livelihood have been allowed back. Many claim that they were coerced into signing ‘voluntary migration’ certificates. Nepal and Bhutan have met sixteen times to discuss a resolution to the crisis, without making any headway. India, the third party in this dispute, maintains that this is purely a bilateral issue between the two nations, effectively siding with Bhutan, which rejects Nepal’s call for international engagement in the talks.

Lhotshampas who didn’t leave the kingdom, face heightened discrimination today. Many have lost their lands to a resettling campaign that gives southern land to landless northerners. Relatives of ‘anti-nationals’ have been dismissed from the civil service and annual census activities continue, reclassifying Lhotshampas from F1 (full Bhutanese) to F7 (non-nationals). Often, members of the same household are placed in different categories. To access school, healthcare and obtain business licenses, a ‘No Objection Certificate’ is required, stating that neither the bearer, nor their family, were involved in the democracy movement or other ‘anti-national’ activities.

Recently, the King abdicated in favor of his son, Jigme Wangchuck. It is unknown what, if any, impact this will have on the situation. 35,000 refugees reside outside the camps, without any UNHCR protection or status in the countries where they live. Southern Bhutanese, who remain in Bhutan, face an uncertain future with continuing persecution and the possible exclusion from the emerging democratic process offered in the new constitution.  


Maldives: New Arena

My article for SouthAsia Magazine:

Maldives: New Arena

FROM a land that was virtually terra incognita before the 1970s to one of the most popular spots on the global tourist map, the Maldives has come a long way from its humble origins. Though it is no longer the world’s source of cowries, it has completed a transition to democracy, it has emerged as one of the most prominent voices on climate change and has been named as one of the seven most important countries on the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHCR). Such feats are impressive for Asia’s smallest country with a population of just 350,000 and an average land level of only 1.5 metres above sea level.

Not too long ago, Maldives was considered “a human rights pariah,” says Minister of Foreign Affairs, Dr Ahmed Shaheed. “Today, our bid to secure a [UN Human Rights] Council seat has won almost universal support.” And he is right. The Maldives received the highest number of votes ever won by any state, gaining an impressive 185 votes from the 192 member states.

This may be the first time the island nation is on a major UN body, but that hasn’t stopped it from making its stance clear on a number of controversial issues. Along with the European Union (EU), the United States (US) and the Arab League, the tiny country has condemned the “violations [by Syria] that amount to crimes against humanity.” Foreign Minister Ahmed Nassem firmly declared that “the time for promises is over — it is now time for action.”

Interestingly, while it supports the pressure on Syria, the Maldives has remained silent amidst rising demand for an international investigation into alleged human rights violations committed by neighboring Sri Lanka at the end of its brutal civil war.
The Maldives is the first country in the world that has pledged to become carbon-neutral by 2020. It is the first in the world to establish a national trust fund to pay for evacuation to a new homeland. It has also begun to flex its muscles in international forums, in an attempt to create some sort of consensus on climate change.

The Maldives led a group of 80 member states (from all regions) which adopted the UN Human Rights Council Resolution 7/23 that for the first time in an official UN resolution linked global warming to an infringement of human rights. It established the Climate Vulnerable Forum – a group of the world’s most vulnerable countries, dedicated to taking moral lead in combating climate change. The tiny country was also crucial in helping to formulate a South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) Declaration on Climate Change in Delhi, India which stated that climate change impacts the right to development.

The consultative approach taken during the lead up to the final draft of the UNHCR resolution was commended by SAARC compatriots, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, showing that the Maldives believes in an inclusive, consensus-fostering approach. It seems to have learnt much from the failed Inuit petition of 2005, which endeavoured to obtain mandatory measures against greenhouse emissions of the US, preferring a more non-confrontational and, ultimately, more successful process. Instead of attempting to alter the climate change policies of a particular state, the Maldives has tried to influence the ongoing negotiation of a new climate agreement.

Global warming represents an existential threat to the island state. New studies indicate that sea levels will rise between 0.5 and 1 metre by 2100 (Economist, March 14, 2009). A rise of just under 0.5 metres would inundate 15% of Male, the capital and home to a third of the population. Four in ten people live within 100 metres of the ocean. Rising waters would contaminate the Maldives’ limited freshwater reserves, render its land unsuitable for agriculture and erode the beaches that tourists flock to; an attraction that the entire economy depends on. Eventually, increased flooding would make the islands inhospitable, even before the tempestuous seas inundate them completely (Harvard Environmental Law Review, Vol. 33).

Meanwhile, the country prepares for the worst. “For the sake of the Maldives and the rest of the world,” said the newly elected President Mohamed Nasheed in 2008, on establishing a sovereign wealth fund in the event of relocation, “I hope this fund never needs to be used for its ultimate purpose. If we are unable to save a country like the Maldives, it may be too late to save the rest of the world from the apocalyptic effects of self-reinforcing, runaway global warming.” Though wise words in difficult times, how long can the international community afford to spurn this Maldivian Cassandra?  


Why You And I Are Not Civilised (Yet)

WE have vanquished slavery, sexism and racism or, at the very least, reached a near universal consensus on how bad they are and why they have no place in a civilised society.

The next great frontier isn’t space; it’s class. As long as the vast majority of humanity can be denied the opportunity to realise their untapped potential — reduced to mere shells of men, vying for scraps dished out by fickle gods — we cannot call ourselves civilised.

We are the same savages of old; forced to sell every second of every minute of our brutish, short, insignificant lives; forced to fight in the gigantic coliseum called society for the chance to extend our suffering by another day.

And all the while, we are watched —indifferently — by those who make the laws; pay the wages; and own the land, factories and faceless corporations.

Labour produces marvels, palaces, beauty, technology and skill, but only for the select few. The worker is left with the world of animal function — personal adornment, eating, drinking and sex — to give meaning to his pitiful existence.

What can one say about a society where profits are privatised and losses socialised?

What does one say about a world where the three richest individuals possess more financial assets than the lowest 48 nations combined? A world where some countries throw excess wheat into the sea while others struggle to feed masses of malnourished men.

Perhaps one day, many thousands of years hence, when everyone reading this will have long since turned to dust, and our words and thoughts and emotions will be as ancient as the sun: people will look back at us and denounce the homo sapiens of the 21st century as thugs, little better than the slave owners, racists and misogynists of ages past for they failed to see that — though man can be reduced to a savage, competitive, selfish brute — he has the potential to be so much more, if only given the chance to express himself creatively.

Inequality is the last great battle before we can embark on the next stage of our evolution as a species.

Civilisation has yet to arrive.

But we’ll get there.

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Afghanistan: Land of Opportunity

My article for SouthAsia Magazine:

Afghanistan: Land of Opportunity

WAR-RAVAGED. That’s how most people would describe Afghanistan. But for the two hundred odd men who throng the Afghan Consulate in Peshawar every day, the land is full of opportunity.

They are tailors, carpenters and unskilled manual laborers. And they’re not just Pashtuns. Many Punjabis are in the line too. Why would they leave their homes and journey into a land that has no viable central government, an armed insurgency and NATO forces renowned for their accurate friendly fire?

Cash. When you’re being paid double for your troubles, why wouldn’t you seize the opportunity? The economy at home is in free fall. Karachi, the economic hub and a microcosm of Pakistan, is being dragged back to the internecine warfare days of the ‘90s. Foreign investors have pulled out of the Karachi Stock Exchange; a barometer of the nation’s fiscal health. The population continues to grow at an exponential rate which translates into fewer jobs and more people fighting for those few jobs. Frankly, things at home don’t look too good.

And then, like a gift from above: Afghanistan. The infrastructure has been destroyed. Dollars are being pumped in by the USAIDs of the world. They need cheap, unskilled labor. That’s our specialty. It’s a marriage made in heaven.

Pakistanis are in high demand in the Afghan market. They ask for less money than the natives and work day and night. Everyone’s happy; except, of course, the natives. Many Afghanis are resentful of the influx of workers and want the government to formulate a policy to stop them from coming in. But that is unlikely to change the status quo as most of those who cross the border do so illegally. Those who follow the rules complain that they are interrogated by intelligence agencies at the border about alleged links to Indians and Americans working in Afghanistan (The News, May 13, 2011). The expats say they’ve complained to the Pakistani Consulate in Kabul but it hasn’t stopped ‘intelligence inspectors’ from harassing them. Ironically, the thousands who cross illegally aren’t asked a single question.

Afghanistan’s popularity is also due to ease of getting visit visas. Free of charge and obtained within three days, Pakistani workers resort to visit visas because the Afghan Embassy does not issue work permits. Haji Meraj, First Secretary at the Afghan Consulate in Peshawar claims the rejection rate of visas is zero (Dawn, Feb 26, 2011). For Pashtun workers, there’s also the added advantage of a shared culture across the arbitrarily drawn Durand Line. When the food and language are similar, it’s home away from home.

Where does this leave Pakistan? Ghulam Sarwar Khan Mohamand, former president of the Sarhad Chamber of Commerce and Industry believes that a vacuum has been created by the migration of workers. This shortage has led to an increase in the cost of labor in Pakistan. He puts Afghan reliance on Pakistani workers at 70% (Dawn, Feb 26, 2011). The irony is not missed by Afghans who see this tide of workers as a sort of pay back for the refugee camps of the ‘80s.

A porous border and stagnating economy are the premium ingredients of this tragic recipe. Policies made by both governments to stem the tide of migrants will be utterly useless unless Pakistan can create jobs for its rapidly increasing population and get its economy back on track. That will require strong political will to curb the urban war in Karachi, increase the tax base and reduce the defense budget. Unless Pakistan begins to see its people as its greatest strength, it will be unable to stop those who can from running away to greener pastures.  


The Dark Side

First published in ‘The Ism’, the newspaper of the Karachi Grammar School World Affairs Society. 

OSLO was once a far away city, synonymous with the welfare state, aurora borealis and fjords. And then Anders Breivik went on a murderous rampage, and Oslo became as real as the violent, tempestuous Karachi outside my window.

It’s tragic enough that over sixty human beings were massacred, but the reality really hits home when you see them as the idealistic young men and women they were, the same age as you, with similar political convictions, united by a burning desire to serve their nation. And their dreams were shattered by a madman, who fed off of conspiracy theories and an Islamophobic discourse constructed by disgruntled, fringe elements of the right.

But the real reason this was so shockingly personal was that I knew Breivik. We all do. We’ve all come across people in our lives who hate entire communities for no rational reason, who write off entire nations on the basis of the actions of a single person. Many such individuals live in my country. The India-hating uncle, the Jew-hating cousin, and the colleague who is adamant that America is behind every bomb blast in Pakistan. They generalise that all people belonging to certain sects or races must all behave in the same way. But mankind isn’t like that. Time and time again, painstaking research has proven that there is more diversity in intelligence, behaviour and personality between people of the same community than people living on different continents. The idea of ‘race’, —that people with the same physical characteristics all behave the same way— has long been proven to be throughly unscientific nonsense.

Then why do enmities, grudges and stereotypes continue to exist? Because people are afraid of change, of anyone who is different. Xenophobia persists precisely because it is the easy way out. You’ve never been to a country, never roamed it’s streets, or spoken to it’s people. It’s safe to assume that all must be terrorists, who hate you and your way of life.

But if humanity is to embark on the next stage in it’s evolution as a species, we must be willing to put aside the superficial differences between us and embrace each other as fellow human beings. Only by letting go of prejudice can we open our eyes to the rich, diverse world around us. Every man is a story, a piece of that great jigsaw puzzle that is our history. It is precisely in these Manichean times that we must defeat the Breivik in us all and learn to truly see our vibrant, diverse world as a source of strength, not weakness. It is our differences, once we get around them that lead us to discover that people really aren’t so different after all. They may, at first, be scared, or wary of anyone who doesn’t look like them, but deep down all they want is to be accepted, and loved for who they are.