Gut reaction - Lubna Jerar Naqvi - Saturday, March 05, 2011

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The virtual bomb attack to hit Pakistan just recently has claimed 170 million casualties – minus, of course, the few hundred “rulers” running the country. This bomb attack, like the kind that took place before it, was not detonated by terrorists but by the government, in the form of a rise in petroleum prices. Every increase in the prices of petroleum products increases the prices of everything else, making the already miserable lives of the people of Pakistan still worse. This time around, and in tune with the mood in the Arab world, people in Pakistan reacted against this rise, causing what can be called revolutionary ripples in many parts of the country. Protestors came out on the streets in large numbers to protest against this decision – even if it was only for a day. To their credit, they did block roads, disrupt traffic and scuffle with security personnel, and there was the predictable strike. However, afterwards they all went home, filling their cars and motorcycles with fuel they had bought at the marked up price, and got back to their mundane existence, as if nothing had happened.

The majority of Pakistan’s population lives under the poverty line, with a large number of people earning, in international terms, less than two dollars a day, the globally recognised poverty baseline. These people are already crushed under increasing prices of all commodities, including bare necessities like food and clothing, and the “luxuries” like healthcare and education.

With the regular increases in the prices of petroleum products, more and more people find themselves unable to provide for their families. The rising unemployment and the recent floods that devastated the lives of millions, have only added to this inability. And unemployment never comes without a rise in crime. But, although there is a lot of frustration and anger, there is little resistance. You can hardly expect a revolution on the lines of the radical changes in Tunisia and in Egypt, where millions of suppressed, frustrated and starving masses stood up and said “Kefayah!” (Enough!)

Revolutions are for societies containing an igniting spark. Not for countries like Pakistan, which has a large number of starving people who quietly bear everything from price hikes to political, moral and social degeneration. Pakistan is a country where peasants are still kept in chains in the personal jails of landlords.

The majority of Pakistanis seems resigned to their existence, probably because of a fatalistic certainty that they are unable to do anything about their lives. They are resigned to the daily routine of merely trying to make ends meet. They do get frustrated, but then do nothing. Not even when things get so bad that the poorest of the poor end up selling their children, to say nothing of the growing number of suicides. It’s as if all this makes little impression on anyone – the politicians least of all.

Sometimes it seems as if this social numbness is a new phenomenon, at a time when things are arguably at their worst in Pakistan. Gone are the days when a rise in the price of sugar could threaten a government, such was the power of the streets. In the early 1980s a college student, Bushra Zaidi, was crushed under the wheels of a speeding bus in Karachi. Gen Zia’s government was forced to clamp curfew in the city when a multitude of students descended onto the streets to protest the tragedy and clashed with the dictator’s police.

This flashback to the past holds out hope for the present. If only Pakistan’s hungry and deprived rediscovered defiance.

The writer is a staff member

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