Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Karachi bridge disaster

Dr. Umar Khan
Dr. Khan heads a Lahore based Think Tank. 3-09-07

What next after the Karachi bridge?

Mr. Zheng Xiaoyu, the head of Chinese State Food and Drug Administration was convicted and executed on corruption charges recently. He had taken bribe to approve an unsafe antibiotic found responsible for at least ten deaths. Lives of Chinese citizens were considered valuable by the state, which felt responsible, and the culprit who was a senior state functionary was dealt as a murderer and condemned. The late Mr. Zheng whose rank can be compared to a grade 22 officer in Pakistan, was not the first Chinese government officer to be executed for corruption neither is he expected to be the last one. State of China respects the lives of its citizens and tries to protect them even from itself, exactly how self respecting states behave. In Pakistan a newly built billion-rupee bridge collapsed killing many. So much for the good governance we were promised in October 99. 160 million people would be keenly watching how the state of Pakistan deals with its functionaries responsible for deaths of its citizens. Can the Government of Pakistan protect its citizens from its own unscrupulous functionaries?

If the past experience is any guide to future predictions then the outcome might be like this. The matter would be allowed to cool down with token suspensions and inquiries. Confusion would be created about the cause and responsibility of the tragedy. Number of deaths would be wrongly downplayed and transporters would be blamed for speeding and over loading. All these would be partially correct but unable to answer many questions like why this bridge and not the thousands of others across the country. Bridges built during the colonial days are very old but still hold on. There can be only 2 reasons for this tragedy, either the design was faulty or the construction was not according to the specifications. Both reasons suggest either corruption or extreme incompetence, in short unpardonable.

In the earthquake of 2005 we observed a very interesting but painful pattern. The government buildings were the first to collapse. This made the government schools a big graveyard for the thousands of young innocent children. Hospitals and other government buildings also crumpled causing further loss of valuable lives while many private buildings survived. These and other government buildings were weak because of shoddy construction due to the prevalent culture of corruption in which much of our state is deeply involved. This all too obvious observation was remarkably missed by many, specially the different government departments and agencies.

This resulted in loss of thousands of Pakistani lives unnecessarily. We can equate these corrupt officials responsible for such tragedies as the worst kind of mass murderers who should not be allowed to get away with their heinous crimes. And they got away free when we blamed everything on the earthquake conveniently. Unnecessary deaths of tens of thousands of innocent children went uninvestigated, maybe a tragedy worse than the earthquake itself.

The society’s acceptance of corruption and its complacency has become dangerously high. Corruption is no more a negative allegation but a kind of achievement that many like to brag about. Stories of corruption in nearly all government departments abound and are known to every one. Although there was hardly any doubt about its prevalence, international agencies routinely labeled us among the most corrupt countries in the world. Cost of doing things in the government sector has reached five to ten folds as compared to the private sector. Still we did not take any steps to counter this problem and in the last 60 years we have hardly punished any government functionaries for corruption. This situation has made the government sector jobs very attractive and despite low salaries most Pakistanis prefer them. Some cynics even argue that government service in Pakistan has become a license to corruption and that also with impunity.

This situation is doubly dangerous. First it causes loss of lives and meager resources; second it discourages and disheartens the many honest government servants. According to all management principles accountability is the most potent tool in the hands of a manager. It is accountability that allows us to find the people at fault, so that we can help improve them and also the good workers so that we can reward them. Now we have a strange situation; there is serious lack of accountability with the good and the bad workers destined to be treated identically. The corrupt really do not care for the official salaries while the honest survive on it, so can get very dissatisfied due to very low and unreasonable salary structure. Colonial bureaucracies were sometimes intentionally kept unaccountable to maintain its aura but the sovereign nations must take solid steps to make them subservient to the people and real public servants. We are yet to respond after 60 years of independence.

In Pakistan we have done many things strangely and wrongly. A close study of our history reveals many follies bringing Pakistan to this sorry state. When we wanted to take Kashmir by force we ended up barely saving Lahore, trying to bring socialism we elected one of the biggest feudal and then arguably the worst folly, trying to implement Islam we tolerated a dictator who could not be trusted for anything. Continuing with our tradition of follies for fighting corruption we made anti corruption department and NAB. We are never informed how much has been spent on it or how many have been convicted but stories about corruption in these departments are common. The recent government negotiations with BB are clearly indicative of the effectiveness of NAB as a bargaining tool in the hands of the unelected rulers suggesting that the purpose behind its creation was not fighting corruption but strengthening the rulers. It is about time we end these costly and counterproductive endeavors.

Pakistan has faced many tragedies due to corruption in the government and must act immediately without waiting for another disaster. We should start treating Pakistani lives as important as other countries treat their citizens. Any one responsible for the bridge tragedy must be held accountable irrespective of his attachments to uniformed or other departments. Punishing a couple of high profile corrupt officials openly might work wonders. To begin with we can give the responsibility of investigating the causes of the bridge failure to a reputed third party. The unhelpful habit of letting the accused department investigate the incidence must end. We must correctly find the guilty people responsible for these deaths and destruction and then treat them as ordinary criminals, exactly what they are. We must learn from our Chinese friends who gained independence after us but are now far ahead, how to respect our own people. The state must act before the active and mobilized civil society reacts, as that can be excessive and undesirable. Government of Pakistan must acknowledge its responsibility towards its citizenry and show deference towards them because the world does not respect the people who are not respected by their own governments. This might explain the treatment Pakistanis get abroad.

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