The mighty cavalcade of Sindh Chief Minister Qaim Ali Shah roars into Thar with a relaxed sense of urgency. Bulky Land Cruisers growl at the gawking barefoot inhabitants of Mithi as they wind their way through dusty streets towards a cabinet meeting called here to express solidarity with the dying babies of this land.
The tragedy of Thar is a story of the Pakistani State eating its own children. It is a story of why we are where we are, still mired in dirt, poverty and neglect nearly seven decades after independence. Do we deserve this? Are we Pakistanis really that pathetic? Have we lost all our self-esteem and reconciled to existing in this shameful state?
Resolve is step one. Step two is where we want to go. In other words, what do we want this country to be when it grows up? Have our leaders mapped a future for Pakistan? No, I do not mean a dreamy future where everything will be milk and honey. I mean specifics: well-argued and properly-reasoned plans that paint a mental picture of this country well into the future. Yes, not months or years, but decades.
So let’s write off Qaim Ali Shah, and let’s talk Future-istan. In this global village, what role do we see for Pakistan? Do we want to be a rich, efficient, peaceful, welfare state like Norway? Think about it. Norway is reputed to be the most educated, most humane, most nurturing and gentle country on the planet. But when it comes to global power play, it’s also rather irrelevant.
Do we want to be like a rich Gulf country (pick any)? These sheikhdoms and kingdoms know how to dig wealth, but have little idea of how to create it. Yes, their wealth and well-oiled prosperity is a big attraction for many Pakistanis, but is that what we want our country to become?
Do we want to be like England? Yes, it’s a shadow of its past, but it’s still a fairly rich country with strong institutions, solid rule of law, a caring state, and an educated, aware and active citizenry. Unlike Norway, England is still an influential player on the global stage and practises the art of hard power politics. It’s also a nuclear weapon state.
Or should we dream of becoming a superpower like the United States and China? That’s the dream that India dreams. The grand arc of history is in many ways shaped by the will of the great powers of the day. American historian Paul Kennedy traced this evolution in his seminal book, The Rise and Fall of Great Powers, and listed many features that were common between great powers through the centuries. A detailed discussion on the qualities of great powers shall adorn another column, but for now, the key question for us is: should we dream these dreams and plan accordingly?
The cynics among us — there are too many — would scoff at such thoughts and say such dreams are a waste of time, and that we should just focus on setting our house in order. Yes, absolutely we should. But then what? So forget the cynics and let them stew in their own sarcasm.
Now imagine a future-perfect Pakistan in 2050. The population could be as high as 390 million or perhaps, 300 million depending on how much we curtail the rate. That’s a lot of people. Now imagine a literacy rate of 100 per cent. Every child is in school and every adult is fully literate. Let’s project more: imagine a booming economy with low unemployment rates and tremendous growth in the service and knowledge sectors. Yes, this means the very large, very literate, and very skilled population of Pakistan that has transitioned out of menial, unproductive jobs and is creating value through top-end services and high-tech industrial output. So many people, with so many skills and so many opportunities can create so much wealth and so much prosperity. That’s a fact.
It’s also a fact that wealth alone does not make you happy. Sure it helps, but it’s not the only ingredient that carves a glorious future. Being content with a prosperous population is like being a wealthy family that feels no responsibility towards the rest of society. True, great powers contribute to the evolution of the world in every field: science and technology, medicine, social sciences, culture, academic research, etc. In other words, great powers help make the world a better place. Or they should.
Great powers also have muscle. They have to. That’s how the world has always worked, and still does. But muscle comes with prosperity, not at the expense of it. Pacifism does not work, and should not be a goal for us. Pakistan can be a big, rich and powerful country. It can groom big minds and build big bombs at the same time. China and the US can volunteer to reduce their defence budgets, but they don’t have to. They can afford to make the best schools and universities, the best hospitals, and at the same time, the best tanks and aircraft. That’s what wealth does. It gives you options.
And options are what we do not have. This is precisely why we need leaders who can map the future and then build it brick by brick. Future-perfect Pakistan can be as mighty, wealthy and glorious as we can imagine it. But here’s where the tragedy strikes home: you look at leaders like Qaim Ali Shah and his minions, and you see the crime they are committing in Thar, and you hold your head in your hand and shed tears of blood. These leaders and their parties are not just ravaging this land today; they are depriving us of the future we can carve for ourselves and our generations. These pygmies cannot think beyond their thana-katchery issues. They cannot visualise the future beyond their next elections. They are unable to grasp the enormity of the challenge that is needed to sculpt a future.
Future-istan awaits a man with the right plan.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 13th, 2014.
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