Meagre salary and job insecurity moved Barkat Ali to join his female colleagues in their protest.
But their years-long struggle for regular employment under the National Programme for Family Planning and Primary Health Care did not yield any results. Adding salt to their wounds, a ruling party parliamentarian allegedly mocked their demands and ridiculed their protests.
This insensitivity and indifference fuelled the 38-year-old driver’s desperation. The father of eight from Jacobabad on Wednesday set himself on fire as his teenage daughter watched.
Earlier on Monday, members of the All Pakistan Lady Health Workers Welfare Association (APLHWWA) had threatened to set themselves alight if their demands were not met. The organisation is fighting for the regularisation of jobs for lady health workers.
But the government did not budge. “Who said that you will be regularised,” MNA Fauzia Wahab of Pakistan Peoples Party allegedly told Bushra Arain, APLHWWA’s central chairperson, on phone on Wednesday afternoon.
Wahab’s response provoked the LHWs to march toward the Supreme Court, Arain said. Wahab could not be reached for comments despite repeated attempts.
But as they marched, their rally was cut short on Jinnah Avenue by anti-riot police. “We have instructions from the interior ministry to not allow any protesters on the Constitution Avenue and the Parade Lane,” said a policeman, adding that the lady health workers were not man-handled. Instead, they were asked to go protest in front of the National Press Club.
The protesters, however, claimed that police clashed with them.
Following the clash, a desperate small group, some women and a man, made its way to the National Press Club, with petrol bottles in hand. In the spur of the moment, Ali spilled petrol on his clothes. He ignited a lighter and turned it to his shirt.
From more than a dozen observers, a police officer and a Rescue 1122 ambulance driver immediately stepped forward to stop him. Waheed Iqbal, the ambulance driver, emptied an entire cylinder of fire extinguisher on Ali. The police officer, DSP Liaqat Niazi, burnt his hand in an effort to snatch the lighter from Ali’s hands.
Ali was taken to Polyclinic Hospital and then transferred to the burn centre of the Pakistan Institute of Medical Sciences, where he is being treated for burn wounds of over 15% on his body including shoulders, neck and chin, doctors said.
Ali’s failed suicide attempt did not move any of the observers. Though they sympathised with his plight, they were glad that it was over without the loss of life.
But why attempt suicides if they will not garner them any sympathy? Arain said they were left with no option. “We are dying any case then why not sacrifice our lives for the betterment of others,” she told The Express Tribune. “The government should know what a dire state we are in.”
Glimmer of hope
Taking notice of the incident, Goodwill Ambassador on Women Empowerment Fiza Batool Gilani invited the lady health workers for talks on Thursday.
Arain accepted the offer, but refused to end their protest or move the camp until their demands are met.
Additional reporting by Mavra Bari
Published in The Express Tribune, April 19th, 2012.
More in PakistanNATO supply: ‘Pakistan not given deadline to open routes’