Dr. Haider Shah

Opinion is the medium between knowledge and ignorance (Plato).


Migratory birds and elections, Daily Times, 29/12/12

OVER A COFFEE: Migratory birds and elections —Dr Haider Shah

While it has stressed upon timely elections, the ANP has called for a comprehensive national strategy on dealing with the spectre of ever-growing militant extremism

Nature scientists tell us that migrating birds are excellent forecasters of changing weather. Using their sensitivity to air pressure, they can time their migratory flights to favourable weather conditions. In Pakistan, certain writers in the popular media, a few political, non-political groups and characters also help us in predicting what the ‘gods’ of political weathers want. 
In Pakistan, the gods of political weather choose influential people that have some nuisance value for the prophetic role. Lesser ambitious men do not fit the bill though. For instance, when Maulana Edhi was approached for this purpose, he preferred leaving the country instead of becoming someone’s henchman. As per Maulana Edhi’s public statement, Imran Khan had already been tasked to do the role. Now just as a wizard brings out a rabbit from his black hat, Dr Tahir ul Qadri has suddenly appeared on the national scene threatening to upset the applecart if not taken seriously.
Professional orators, like Sophists of the ancient Greece, make a living out of windy speeches. It was not, however, difficult to decipher the main import of the harangue delivered amid great fanfare by Dr Qadri. Stating that the state should be preferred over politics rings a familiar bell, as this has remained one of the most frequently recurring lines in the speeches of military dictators. A very meaningful reference was also made to the Italian model. In fact, in one of my earlier articles, I had also referred to the Italian government’s replacement by a technocrat, Mario Monti, 13 months ago. The underlying intent is however important when an example is quoted. When I referred to the example, I was underlying the importance of fiscal management as even a European country like Italy could not prevent interference of external donor agencies when its finances were in a state of mess, but the change in government was effected within the constitutional framework. I have no problem if Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz and Pakistan People’s Party jointly support any gatecrasher to be the next prime minister but no solution other than democratic continuity can guarantee our deliverance.
Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) is a very special political institution, which can run with the hare and hunt with the hounds. Perpetually remaining in government, it does not feel tired of raising revolutionary slogans as well. While it seeks sympathy by presenting itself as the victim of establishment, it is also one of the first parties to follow any pied piper wearing military boots. The duet sung by Dr Qadri and MQM is therefore not without some coded messages. It seems that iron is being made red hot by the discourse of these programmed facilitators before the real hit is launched by those who have the big hammer.
Of all political parties, the Awami National Party (ANP) has the strongest case for postponement of elections, if any. One of its senior ministers, Bashir Ahmed Bilour has been martyred besides a number of other killings of its leaders and workers in the past. The party, however, has categorically dismissed any suggestions of delay in the forthcoming elections. While it has stressed upon timely elections, the ANP has also rightly called for a comprehensive national strategy on dealing with the spectre of ever-growing militant extremism. We need to take a break from our self-comforting idealism. We must realise that the tribal belt of our country is occupied by some groups that do not accept our state’s authority. From history, we learn that whenever a militant group becomes rebellious, there are three options left to the state. One, it crushes the militant groups and establishes its writ in the troubled area, just as Abraham Lincoln did in the Southern States or China did in its Muslim region or Sri Lanka did with Tamil Tigers. Second, it accepts the inevitable and hands over sovereignty of the troubled region to the militant groups, just as Britain accepted the Republic of Ireland or Pakistan accepted the emergence of Bangladesh. Third, it negotiates peace by giving more autonomy to the warring groups and in return those groups accept living within the constitutional framework peacefully, just as Britain and the warring groups did in Northern Ireland through the Good Friday agreement. Pakistan’s FATA is a unique case. On one hand, we are not ready to accept our defeat and hence, withdraw our claim to the troubled region so that those who are occupying the region have an opportunity to establish a social structure that they deem fit. On the other hand, we are also not doing anything to reclaim the areas lost to the militants so that they do not have sanctuaries where they can plan deadly attacks on innocent civilians of Pakistan and our neighbours. Those who call for the third option of negotiating peace may better listen to Ghalib’s line, “Hum hain mushtaaq aur woh bazaar” (We are keen and he/she is repulsively indifferent). Perhaps it makes sense to pay heed to the ANP’s advice that the negotiations must take place at the highest level but with a defined purpose. I believe timely elections and a clear strategy on militants are both equally important. It is, therefore, proposed that an all party conference be convened, which should form a committee to offer peace to militants on a single condition that they acknowledge Pakistan’s sovereignty and after renouncing militancy seek approval from the electorate for any kind of legal reforms they want. The deadline of the offer period should run up to the elections. After elections, whoever forms the government will have the backing of all stakeholders to consider either regaining control from militant groups or accepting their demands as doing nothing will no longer be a policy option.

The writer teaches public policy in the UK and is the founding member of the Rationalist Society of Pakistan. He can be reached at hashah9@yahoo.com

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Violent delights have violent ends, Daily Times, 22/12/12

OVER A COFFEE: Violent delights have violent ends —Dr Haider Shah

If we rear Rottweiler dogs to terrify our neighbours and the neighbours learn the art of controlling our ferocious dogs, why should we blame them?

Apologists of extremists, from e-jihadis to naïve patriots, take great delight and consolation when some incident of violence happens in a western country. They were jubilant when Anders Breivik, a rightwing Norwegian extremist, shocked Europe by carrying out a massacre of 77 innocent people to show his contempt for supporters of ‘multiculturalism’ in Europe. Similarly, when 27 lives, including those of very young children, were lost after a mentally ill man went berserk in a primary school of Connecticut, the news item was splashed on social media networks with a self-comforting message: “Look, even in these countries violent incidents happen.” No one can contest their claim that there are similarities in the incidents of violence that occur in Pakistan and in other countries of the world. Those who take part in these activities, irrespective of their location, suffer from some kind of mental disorder. No section of society, however, condones such acts in these countries while we invent justifications through an anti-US rhetorical discourse.
Recently, a case of the seven-year-old cancer-suffering child, Neon Roberts, grabbed headlines in the British media as he went missing along with his mother. After a nationwide manhunt, both were found safe and well. The mother had taken her son into hiding because she did not want doctors to carry out a brain tumour removal surgery and related radiotherapy treatment. The distraught mother was apprehensive of invasive surgery and wanted to rely on natural remedies. She therefore was not ready to give her consent to the surgery and the case finally went to a High Court judge who ruled that the doctors’ decision should be honoured and implemented. I am sharing this case to show that when individuals go astray and make whimsical decisions, it is the job of the state to step in and ensure that sanity prevails.
Remaining in a state of denial is our favourite pastime. Despite the fact that the chief of the Pakistani Taliban in a recorded video speech vowed to attack Jamaat-e-Islami for supporting democracy, and despite the fact that at least two major bomb attacks have been made on the processions of the party, its leaders offer verbal support to the extremist outfit. While under Prime Minister Erdogan, Turkey has emerged as a leading partner of NATO against its enemies, Imran Khan wishes to open a dialogue with the Taliban. Despite the fact that Mian Nawaz Sharif has been consistently promoting the discourse of a new Pakistan built on regional trade, Chaudhry Nisar still is unable to condemn categorically those forces that have the ability to sabotage such a dream. What is conspicuously missing from our national discourse is the grand strategic consensus over our response to those who challenge the writ of the state. A few days ago, militants carried out a meticulously planned attack on Peshawar Airport to damage the Pakistan Air Force’s planes parked there. Thanks to the premature bomb explosion, all five attackers were killed in the first act, thus preventing the intended havoc on the scale of Mehran base Karachi. But, owing to the imprudent and ill-judged publicity given by the information minister of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa to the fact that some tattoo designs were found on the body of a killed militant, the media lost no time in weaving the conspiracy theory of a foreign hand.
We lit candles in Malala’s name, wrote articles in her favour and sang a few songs of praise. And then it was business as usual again. We refrained from recognising the enemy within. A sizeable section of our media and public opinion continues harping on an ‘external hand’ explanation for our situation. If we rear Rottweiler dogs to terrify our neighbours and the neighbours learn the art of controlling our ferocious dogs, why should we blame them? All militants arrested and interrogated so far are found to be homegrown, who are motivated by the rhetoric of pan-Islamic jihad. Some of our commentators, led by some political leaders, opine that if we come out of our cooperation with the NATO forces the Taliban will be pacified, as the source of complaint will cease to exist. What these commentators are essentially telling us is that one of the main purposes of our foreign and domestic policies should be to please the Taliban. What if tomorrow they make a demand that since India is a country ruled by infidels we should sever our relations with her? Policies are made for the overall welfare and interest of the country. If any group thinks that it has a better solution it should seek the support of the electorate and after getting a two-thirds majority may change the constitution as it wants to. But no group should be allowed to impose its will, just because it can shoot girls in their heads
Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria are the only three countries where polio still remains endemic. The shooting of polio workers tells us that the virus of extremism is much deadlier than the poliovirus and we, therefore, should run a concerted campaign of vaccination against the virus of extremism that has plagued the country. “These violent delights have violent ends.” The friar’s quote from Romeo and Juliet aptly describes our national scene. We have long been putting up with the violent delights of jihadi groups. It is high time we let sanity prevail, as the current situation is not sustainable for long.

The writer teaches public policy in the UK and is the founding member of the Rationalist Society of Pakistan. He can be reached at hashah9@yahoo.com

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When journalists can become assassins, Daily Times, 15/12/12

OVER A COFFEE : When journalists can become assassins — Dr Haider Shah

Nowhere in the world has one seen TV stations running malicious campaigns against national politicians on a round the clock basis

She was found dead in her room
at staff accommodation near the Edward VII Hospital in Central London where she had worked as a nurse for four years. Jacintha Saldanha, a loving mother of two, is believed to have committed suicide by hanging herself after the Indian-born nurse was duped by Aussie radio stars pretending to be the Queen and Prince Charles. What the radio pranksters believed to be their journalistic scoop ended up as a shot that put a working woman down. The case is still under investigation and the questionable role of the hospital administration after the incident may have contributed to the fatal decision by the wretched health worker. The incident, however, has renewed the calls for greater scrutiny of the conduct of journalists. The unfettered obsession to improve their radio station’s ratings by faking a call to get confidential and private information about the health of pregnant Princess Kate Middleton has caused so much anguish that the two radio presenters are now put in a safe house for their own security.

The tragic incident occurred while the Leveson report was still piping hot in the British media. Established in the wake of the phone-hacking scandal, Leveson’s commission recommended a tougher regulatory regime for the print media after an eight-month long inquiry to examine the culture, practice and ethics of the press. The commission concluded that since press behaviour at times had been ‘outrageous’, a new self-regulating body was needed that should be independent of serving editors, government and business interests. Prime Minister (PM) David Cameron expressed his hesitation to use statutory law for establishing the regulatory body recommended by Leveson though he backed the essence of Leveson’s recommendation. The British PM advocates giving the print media a “limited period of time” to put a new and tougher self-regulatory system in place. His coalition partner, Deputy PM Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democratic Party and the opposition leader Ed Miliband both disagree with the hesitant PM and have called for implementation of all recommendations so that the print media could be made answerable to a regulating body with some teeth.

It is worth mentioning that in Britain, Ofcom is a powerful regulator for the broadcast media but the press is self-regulated voluntarily through the Press Complaints Commission (PCC). The chairman of the PCC, Lord Hunt, also backs the Leveson commission’s recommendation for a “fresh start and a new body” based on legally-enforceable contracts between publishers and the new body. The Free Speech Network, on the other hand, representing the voice of editors and publishers, is against any state involvement in regulation of the print media. Challenging their view, the alleged victims of phone-hacking have launched the Hacked Off campaign and are calling for implementation of the Leveson proposals as, they contend, the voluntary self-regulation through PCC had completely failed.

In the US, the investigative journalism-led Muckrakerism movement in the early 20th century is often credited with exposing corruption and arousing social concerns about much needed reform. Pakistani media has also played an important role in sensitising public opinion on many issues of public interest. The media is not a monolithic institution and unfortunately, it has some sections that play the part of Mr Hyde. The hoax call that triggered the suicide incident and the Leveson report have a direct relevance for Pakistan as well because over the past decade, electronic media has grown in size and power and its teeth have become menacingly sharp.

There are some very good professional analysts in the popular media, but the mushrooming industry of TV talk shows has gradually grown disproportionately too big. Run as cash cows, the shows appear to be driven by the profitability motive of private media houses. This is clearly noticeable from infinite commercial breaks during a talk show. Comparing to talk shows on British TV, one finds the hosts to be highly qualified and experienced journalists. The analysts invited in British programmes are also renowned experts in their fields, either university professors or people from the relevant industry. In our case, every channel telecasts almost a dozen talk shows in a week. The problem of overtrading is obvious, with its well-recognised consequences. The small market has a finite demand so the pressure for enlarging market share becomes crushingly obsessive. The hosts appear to be conducting the programme without any homework and the frequently appearing participants have become boringly predictable in their comments. The unruly incidents of mudslinging are broadcast unethically to create an artificial demand for such shows.

Lack of respect shown to privacy of individuals still plagues the whole media industry. Victims of crimes, whether lying wounded in the street or on a hospital bed, are shown indiscriminately in a mad race for breaking news. The excessive use of satirical comedy is becoming quite distasteful. While exposing corrupt practices and maladministration is a role that the media must pursue without any fear, it has failed to distinguish between humour and license to ridicule individuals. Nowhere in the world has one seen TV stations running malicious campaigns against national politicians on a round the clock basis. Sugar and salt, when used in small quantities add taste to our food items, but when excessively used they threaten our lives. Our TV channels seem to have forgotten this realisation when it uses comedy to lure the viewers. As media has so far failed to come up with a self-policing system, calls for a tougher regulatory authority are not wholly unreasonable.


The ‘blasphemy’ of Kalabagh Dam, Daily Times, 8/12/12

OVER A COFFEE: The ‘blasphemy’ of Kalabagh Dam — Dr Haider Shah

Kalabagh dam is a technical issue and the discourse about it should not be based on political beliefs alone

Angry protests over perceived blasphemy are generally believed to be the exclusive domain of Pakistan’s overbearing religious circles. Among the nationalist circles, however, Kalabagh Dam is a topic where the risk of ‘blasphemy’ runs very high. Like a resurrected beast, the controversy has again risen from its grave with the familiar rhetoric making the rounds in the popular media as the Lahore High Court’s verdict seems to have opened old wounds.
A hydroelectric power project, being a mega project, is often accompanied by controversies. Environmentalists point out the detrimental consequences on the local ecosystem while human rights activists raise concerns about the displacement of a large section of the population. Water conservation projects also strain relations with the neighbouring countries in many cases. It is not surprising to find that many large-scale hydropower projects attracted controversies of all sorts. Let us consider a few mega projects for the purpose of illustration.
The Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River in China is the world’s largest power station in terms of installed capacity of 22,500 MW, and it was completed in July 2012. Conceived in 1919, the project was completed after almost a century. Beset with many controversies, the dam aims at increasing the Yangtze River’s shipping capacity and reducing the potential for floods downstream. While the Chinese government declares the project as an engineering miracle, the critics of the project kept opposing the proposed plan as they charged the dam with flooding archaeological and cultural sites, displacing more than a million people and causing significant ecological changes. 
The Ilisu Dam is being constructed as an embankment dam on the Tigris River in Turkey for hydroelectric power production, flood control and water storage. The idea was first floated in 1954 but it was in 2006 that the construction of the dam commenced and is expected to be completed by 2015. The Turkish government’s resolve of completing the project has not softened despite loss of international funding in 2008 and continued criticism of opponents who accuse the dam of flooding portions of the ancient region and forcing the relocation of people living in the region.
The Lesotho Highlands Water Project is Africa’s largest water transfer scheme and has been launched in partnership between landlocked Lesotho and South Africa. It comprises a system of several large dams and tunnels throughout Lesotho and South Africa. The project would not only meet all the hydroelectric power needs of Lesotho but is also expected to provide the poor country with a source of income in exchange for the provision of water to the central Gauteng province of South Africa, which is a major centre of industrial and mining activity in that country. The project was originally conceived in the 1950s but finally got underway in 1986 with multiple stages of completion. From its inception, the project has drawn criticism from various quarters ranging from ecological concerns to corruption.
Another megaproject, Belo Monte Dam on the Xingu River in Brazil, began in 1975 but was soon discontinued due to severe controversy. Addressing the concerns of critics, the dam was redesigned in the 2000s though the controversies proved relentless. As Brazil has a huge demand for energy owing to its rapid economic growth, it has been pursuing the project despite much domestic and international controversies and legal challenges.
The list of controversies-ridden hydropower projects is a long one and one conclusion is common to most of them. Difficult decisions can be delayed but they cannot be permanently postponed. 
Pakistan’s current demand is 15,000 megawatts but production is just 9,000 megawatts, resulting in a shortfall of 6,000 megawatts. The situation is simply unsustainable for industrial growth as well as meeting domestic users’ needs. Different experts in the fields of the energy sector and economics make different suggestions to resolve the national energy problems. Some call for turning to coal while others advocate tapping renewable sources of energy. Provisional solutions such as rental power stations have stalled because of allegations of corruption rather than remedying the grave situation. The energy sector is notoriously prone to mythology, which is embraced and promoted by experts and politicians alike. Let us be honest and humble in appreciation of the magnitude of the problem and its solution. No single source of energy can fill the ever-widening gap between demand and supply of energy. Better management and law enforcement can no doubt help in reducing the size of the gap but this should not deter us from investments in mega projects.
When the former governor of Punjab, the late Salmaan Taseer raised the issue of the abuse of blasphemy laws, he was gunned down and silenced. Endorsing this act of lunacy, the religious lobby has declared the blasphemy laws passed by Ziaul Haq a ‘no-go’ area for anyone including members of parliament. Listening to the inflammatory speeches of various leaders of nationalist parties, one feels that religious faith alone is not an area of blasphemy in Pakistan. Kalabagh dam is a technical issue and the discourse about it should not be based on political beliefs alone. Like all major megaprojects, it is also controversies-stricken and needs dispassionate and serious deliberations on the part of all stakeholders. It is suggested that the issue is reconsidered by the CCI and referred to a committee comprising international experts who have never remained associated with the project in the past. If the technical experts find the concerns of critics of the dam genuine then this project must be shelved forever. However, if the committee does not find justification for such concerns then we must go ahead with the project. If our liberal nationalists still oppose its construction then they will hardly be acting differently from their counterparts in radical groups of Pakistan who oppose all rational discourses when it comes to anything related to the laws related to blasphemy.

The writer teaches public policy in the UK and is the founding member of the Rationalist Society of Pakistan. He can be reached at hashah9@yahoo.com