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In their wholly remarkable book The narrow corridor, Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson bring up a Congolese joke. It is said that since its independence from Belgium Congo has had six constitutions. But they all have one thing in common — Article 15. And it reads Débrouillez-vous (Fend for yourself). Obviously, it is a joke and there is no such article in the Congolese constitution.

Nor does such an article appear in the Pakistani constitution. In ours, Article 15 pertains to the freedom of movement, etc. But you will agree with me that the inherent sense of abandonment in the given joke feels increasingly germane to our harsh realities. From law and order to the economic exigencies you are bound to feel at bay when the tragedy befalls. All alone and without a clue. The state that was supposed to hold your hand and guide you through all thick and thin seems to have developed troubles of its own and is too busy to care.

I have said it elsewhere too and will say it again. If you create a linear regression model of the state of Pakistan’s capacity to offer good governance from 1947 to this day it would be a solid and consistent downward slide. Not a downward-facing dog for yoga enthusiasts but a slide that keeps descending from the start to finish. That doesn’t mean (forgive the double negative), that the government never had the capacity to tackle the needs of its citizenry. It did at the start. When there were more opportunities, less population and liabilities, and highly trained state machinery. But it has been steadily declining. And if you concentrate you might be able to hear it declining further as you read these lines. That is why senior leaders like former prime minister Imran Khan can be heard often eulogising the sixties. Because the state was still more unencumbered. But the fact that the decisions made then invariably led to today is often missed by our national discourse. Can’t be good decisions, can they? Ayesha Jalal in her book, The struggle for Pakistan, brilliantly documents how every decision from tax collection to resource allocation was killing the federation at that time. Nostalgia just plays strange tricks on our minds.

But this consistent weakening of the state conjures up the image of an ailing father who once enjoyed great power and prestige among you but is now ineffectual and in many ways helpless. This image, I grant you, is utterly soul-crushing. Even if you did not agree with many of his decisions a father is a father.

When Covid struck Pakistan and people you knew started dying this helplessness could not be more palpable. To our horror, we learned that there were only a few thousand ventilators for a population of hundreds of millions. Then the sudden spike in the prices of life-saving drugs and implements further revealed the hapless state of affairs in the Islamic Republic. Given that it was Donald Trump’s time in America who would casually toss around names of random medicines as the potential cure of Covid one had to pray that he wouldn’t name any medicine one regularly used or else the rackets in our dear society would either make them extinct or cost-prohibitive. The state, of course, for a long time was no show. Naturally, things changed the day the army was mobilised and we later witnessed the creation of NCOC which did its job really well.

Another case study would be the provision of safe drinking water. And the collection of sewage. In these two departments like many others, the state just seems to have given up. I understand that this is a large territory to cover and being a libertarian I do not believe in big government. But shouldn’t the government as a regulator introduce policies and frameworks to ensure investment in such sectors where it can improve the living standards? Likewise, public transport. Cities are supposed to have the most powerful pull for such projects and even there we could not witness ample breakthroughs. In the rural parts with sparsely populated regions trains are supposed to cater to the needs. But that element is also rapidly decaying. So, in the end, what is the state saying? Fend for yourself. And this message is problematic because as a post-colonial economy that grew like wild shrubs a key component is missing — imagination. Because of that the investors and the moneyed classes are prone to the attacks of the herd instinct. Ergo so much investment in probably one of the few most inefficient sectors — real estate — which hardly creates any jobs or delivers useful goods and services to the consumers.

Mind you this trend is not unique to this nation in the region. In India, the common man was abandoned long ago even as the state made all the necessary noises about socialism. A road trip that I took from New Delhi to Agra a decade ago revealed to me that shining or incredible India’s good governance disappeared 30 miles outside the union capital. But even then India has done a fairly decent job of ensuring that its Panchayati (local government) system is there to cater to the needs at the grassroots level, unlike Pakistan where the absence of this tier of the elected government and the presence of a centralised unrepresentative bureaucracy gives the system shape of a proto-colonial set-up.

So what do you do when the state has no capacity and the market has no sense? In his book, The third pillar: how markets and the state leave the community behind, former Indian RBI chief, former IMF chief economist, and the Katherine Dusak Miller Distinguished Service Professor of Finance at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, Raghuram Rajan proposes community as the third pillar of the society. Sadly, the sense of community in our dear nation is also trapped in a downward spiral. Here and there when it exists it moves mountains. The excellent work done by the Aga Khan Foundation in the northern parts of the country is an impressive example. But elsewhere the absence of such miracles proves that they are exceptions, not a rule.

These woes are further exacerbated by the recent tough economic decisions that the state was forced to take due to the IMF’s insistence. While these steps were critical to avoid default, to the working class they spell doom. While the rich may survive it without much trouble and the state introduces targeted subsidies for the poor the middle class that has not seen any serious increase in income is already feeling the heat.

And in the middle of all this, the reaction of our ruling elite and the political class? One video by the name of coffin dance comes to mind. Look it up. Until something changes, Article 15 it is then.

Published in The Express Tribune, June 4th, 2022.

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