Democracy/Governance / 16.02.2020

By Anjum Altaf Democracy has been knocked down from the lofty pedestal on which it was ensconced not so long ago as the endpoint of humankind’s search for the ideal form of governance. This has followed on Trump’s election in the most powerful democracy on earth, Modi’s in the largest democracy in the world, and Boris Johnson’s in the birthplace of democracy. How should one reassess democracy in the light of these choices by electorates, choices that would have been considered inconceivable just a decade ago? Keep in mind that one is talking of democracies that pass almost all the tests of qualification -- fair elections, rule of law, independent institutions, and civil liberties -- although India under Modi is heading in the wrong direction. Authoritarian regimes and illiberal democracies that cloak their rule in democratic garb are excluded from the analysis.  Also to be kept in mind...

Language/Meaning / 04.02.2020

By Muneeza Shamsie in Dawn, Books and Authors, Sunday, February 1, 2020. Urdu poetry is celebrated for its multi-layered resonances which transcend time and age. Whether written in the 18th century or the 21st, it can be quoted in political meetings, debates and daily conversations to make an apt comment on current events, public or personal. In recent weeks, Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s famous poem Hum Dekhein Gey [We Too Will See] — which was written as a critique of the Zia regime and rings out with its universal message of protest against tyranny, repression and injustice — has been chanted by huge crowds in India against the brutal attacks at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in Delhi. The power of Faiz’s poetry and its ability to reach out across languages, cultures and nations is central to Anjum Altaf’s unusual collection of English-language verses, titled Transgressions: Poems Inspired by Faiz Ahmed...

Analysis / 17.01.2020

By Anjum Altaf What should be the allowance for discretion in the application of rules? This ought to be a contextual determination and one can use recent events in the worlds of cricket and politics to argue where the line ought to be drawn in Pakistan. Healthy institutions rely on discretion to take advantage of unforeseen opportunities when changing rules would consume valuable time causing opportunities to be lost. But there is a huge caveat in this simple formulation: that discretion is to be employed for a higher purpose and not self-interest. The more upright the office-bearers of an institution, the more the availability of discretion can lead to gains in efficiency and achievement. But what happens when office-bearers cannot be trusted to place institutional gains over self-interest? The damage from the abuse of discretion can result in losses far outweighing any possible gains from their legitimate use....

Music / 19.12.2019

By Sakuntala Narasimhan : Two thousand nineteen marks the hundredth anniversary of the passing away of a remarkable Indian whose seminal contributions to our heritage in the classical arts merit reiterating as a new set of ministers takes charge of shaping our country’s cultural destiny in the next five years. Born in 1859, Abraham Pandithar was – as his name indicates – a Christian. He was a practitioner of traditional (Siddha) medicine in Tirunelveli and became a teacher. He studied western classical music and not only established a music organisation but also published research papers on Tamil music. His book on music, Karunamrutha sagaram, a tome of 1,356 pages, remains, according to experts, “a seminal work on music till today.” He translated kritis (which are usually in Telugu or Sanskrit ) into Tamil, which must count as an extraordinarily pioneering experiment during those days. He also composed...

Development / 13.12.2019

By Anjum Altaf The Prime Minister has praised his economic team for an ‘economic turnaround’ that comprises declines in the current account and fiscal deficits and increases in foreign direct investments and remittances. Unfortunately, all these are misleading indicators but one in particular is especially egregious and contradictory. Why is the increase in remittances considered a part of the economic turnaround and something that governments consider an achievement worthy of praise? Consider an anguished airport conversation with a Pakistani working in Italy and supporting a wife and two children in Pakistan. He used to send the equivalent of Rs. 50,000 per month in lira for family support; now the equivalent of Rs. 80,000 is needed to sustain the same expenditures. The increase in remittances is an outcome of greater economic distress in Pakistan. It is a false signal reflecting economic failure, not success. Before patting themselves on the...

Miscellaneous / 26.11.2019

By Anjum Altaf When the choice is to either cry or laugh, I prefer the latter. Therefore I am compiling a book of political jokes. I am in a rush as I don’t believe these bounteous days can last but I can’t complain because a few prolific contributors are fast filling up the pages.  I had hoped to keep this initiative secret for fear the sources would dry up if they caught on. But it seems they can’t help it even if they try, probably because they consider them profound pronouncements on the state of the world. I mean, take something like “We will never leave Kashmiris alone.” Is that a joke, or what?  I am making a full disclosure because while most other countries have moved ahead, we are still in 1984. Someone is surely reading the lines as I write and given that our governments are...

Politics / 23.11.2019

By Anjum Altaf For weeks we have not seen the sun in Lahore. There is light without sunshine, diffused as through a dull haze. And we are trudging along as if this is the norm, an inevitable part of our fate. In Lahore, nobody cares enough to even tell us what we are living through but we can get some sense from the news filtering out of Delhi -- so near and yet so far -- where the Chief Minister has labelled the city a ‘gas chamber.’ A public health emergency has been declared, five million masks are being distributed in schools which have been closed for two days, construction work has been halted for a week, an odd-even scheme imposed to cut traffic pollution, and many firms are advising their employees to stay home. The level of dangerous particulates in the air is about 20 times the...

Education / 08.10.2019

By Anjum Altaf Once again, claims are flying around about the astounding results achieved by the Higher Education Commission (HEC) in an earlier period and attempts are being made to return to that dispensation with promises of a revved-up ‘knowledge’ economy that will propel Pakistan into the future. Such claims need to be taken seriously because of the importance of education for the progress of the country.  There are many who remain deeply sceptical of these claims. While wars like those of 1965 and 1971 and incursions like Kargil have caused immense setbacks to Pakistan, it is possible for a country to recover from such disasters. But the combined havoc wreaked by the nationalization of schools by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, their Islamization by Zia ul Haq, and the quantification of higher education by the HEC under Pervez Musharraf has done damage that is well-nigh irreversible. Those who...

Development / 17.09.2019

By Faizaan Qayyum YEARS after Uber and Careem gained popularity, there is a new service in town: Airlift. Unlike existing services, which would essentially function as online marketplaces for private commute, this service links up many more people by selling seats in larger vehicles. And if you were to believe their founders, it is the answer to our people’s transit woes. Almost as if on cue, there is competition. Swvl, another startup that originated in Egypt, has entered the market, and existing services like Careem are working on similar models to retain their share of commuters. But is a surge in capitalist interest sufficient to establish the positive value of these services in our cities? One thing is certain: services like Airlift and Swvl can significantly improve the plight of urban commuters just by virtue of their operational model. Where commuters could book a car on Uber, they...