Wednesday, January 23, 2008

The Feb 18 Elections: What is to be expected the day after

F S AIJAZUDDIN, Dawn, January 23, 2008

Anyone who expects to wake up on the morning of 19th February and to find themselves languishing on a bed of roses needs a refresher course in political floriculture.

Whatever may the outcome of the unequal contest for the seats in the national and provincial assemblies, that post-election morning the realities that will confront any government – regardless of its political complexion or composition – are far graver than even the present contenders might perhaps realise at the moment.

There are some obvious ones that everyone acknowledges – the creeping cancer of terrorism, the nose-diving economy, the abrasive civil-military partnership. There are others, more long-term, that no-one wishes to recognise: education, energy, and evolution.

Take education – if you can get it. The only Pakistanis who can afford to be complacent about the state of education in the country are those who are either a few years away from their birth, or from their death. No-one in-between should dare to, and no prospective government should be allowed to.

Less than ten years ago, in 1999-2000, the enrolment of our next generation of voters in all types of schools was 25 million. Out of them, 8 million could pay for their education in private schools. The remaining 17 million went to public schools where the state paid for their education and they themselves paid for their state-sponsored ignorance. In that same year, an equal number - 25 million - of our children never went to school.

Less than three years ago, in 2004-5, the comparable enrolment figure was 33 million, of whom 12 million went to private schools and 21 million to public institutions. The number who could not go to any school decreased to 19 million. Optimists used to viewing a half-filled glass will see this as a sign of social improvement; pessimists will cavil about its vacuous half-emptiness.

Realists though will concern themselves with the quality of its contents and the speed of its evaporation. An indication of both is startlingly obvious when one is told by government functionaries that the drop-outs in 1999-2000 were almost 8 million children and in 2004-5, about 5.5 million. More than half in each year dropped out during their primary, formative years. Can any nation take pride in being a nuclear power when almost 20 million of its youth will never have the opportunity to learn how to spell the word nuclear , in any national language or in any regional dialect?

Take energy – if you can get it. Forecasts show a broadening gap between inexorable demand and attainable availability. Each organisation involved in the management of our energy needs and resources – whether at the government or at the corporate level, whether in the generation, transmission or the distribution sectors – realises that the future can never be better than the past. The panic in the late 1990s that led to indiscriminate alliances with IPPs is likely to be repeated again shortly. This time the situation is grimmer. Countries like China and India are already ahead of us in the queue for power plants. Book now, if you want to avoid disappointment seven years from now.

Responsible officials in the Planning Commission have been advising past governments (as they will undoubtedly the next one) that the present power generation capability in the country can be increased almost eight fold in the next 20 years, that our power generation capacity can make a giant leap from an existing 20,000 or so MW to over 160,000 MW by 2030. This is the kind of impossible target pen-pushing planners leave as a curse for their successors.

Take water – if you can find it. Environmentalists, used to serving mineral water in bottles at seminars they organise to lament the depletion our water resources, will not tell you that the per capita availability is now one fifth of what it was fifty years ago, nor that by 2025 it will be less than the level at which other nations declare drought conditions.

Take evolution. As human beings we may have learned how to walk but we have not yet learned how to walk upright, as socially responsible citizens. We bend with every breeze and genuflect at the sound of every noise. On the 18 th February we will vote in a government that – if it is to succeed – must be accepted by all as the nation's government. That is easier said than ordered.

In December 1970, the morning after the elections conducted by President Yahya Khan, the results were accepted by all the political contestants, particularly the Awami League and the Pakistan People's Party. None of them questioned the results; their quibble was over the disturbing consequences those results held out for them, in East or West Pakistan or at the Federal level.

On 19 th February, the true laurels therefore should be awarded not to the victor but to those contestants who accept the general election results and then agree to sit in the opposition benches. At the same time, those expecting the seat of government should prepare themselves not for a bed of roses but for a treasury bench of thorns.

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