Saturday, February 2, 2008

Long Shadows

Dr. Murad Moosa Khan

‘When small men cast long shadows, the sun is going down’ - Venita Cravens

On the way to the Hawkes Bay and Sandspit beaches is the village of Grax. Many of us stop there to buy cold drinks and eatables from the small cabins present on either side of road. As part of the Community Mental Health program of my university we hold a mental health clinic there. Although by the standards of 'katchi abadis', Grax is better than many others, the village has many social, physical and civic deprivations. During one of our visits, the community health worker expressed concern about a girl who appeared 'mentally disturbed'. She lived about a mile from the centre. We went to visit her at her house.

A small cordoned off area with two small rooms, a tree in the courtyard- a buffalo tied to it, a small area for the kitchen, a toilet with open drains constituted the 'house'. Seventy five square yards, perhaps a little more. The father of the girl, was unemployed, the elder brother suffering from some sort of 'mental imbalance'. A number of semi-clad children were milling about- presumably brothers and sisters. Their only source of income was the buffalo.

The health worker was right. The girl did appear unwell. 'For the past three years', her mother told us, 'since the birth of her son'. He died a month after being born. The girl talked to imaginary voices, felt frightened of others, laughed to herself. She had run out the house many times. Unable to afford medicines or have her treated on a regular basis, the family had to keep her tied to the tree. The result- badly infected wounds with pus and blood oozing out from both ankles.

Long abandoned by her husband- older than her by many years, she now lay on a straw matting in the corner of one of the two small rooms, where she spent most of her time. She spat frequently, oblivious to her surroundings and appeared not to have had a wash in weeks. Her shaven head gave her a strange, almost alien-like look. I try to engage her in conversation but she looks past me and laughs to herself. I am unable to penetrate her secret world. I ask the mother the girl's age. 'Fifteen....', she says, and the words echo in my ears.

While we read about the fabulous growth rate of 7% and higher, the Karachi Stock Exchange breaking through the 14,000 points barrier, the Porsche showroom opening in Lahore and of the economic ‘miracle’ that is today’s Pakistan, the picture on the ground tells us a different story. The story of the girl I relate above is illustrative of the lives of millions of Pakistanis today. Officially, a third of us live below the poverty line. Another quarter probably live just above it. That makes more than half of 165 million living in poverty. That is a very large number of people. We have become a country of marginalized and disenfranchised people ruled by a small but a powerful coterie who have concentrated wealth and power around themselves.

We are a nation of huge contradictions. We are a nuclear power but cannot pick the garbage off our streets. We have one the largest standing military forces in world, yet we cannot provide security to our own people. A report in this newspaper few weeks ago informed us that Rs. 65 million was spent on the medical treatment of 18 government ‘bigwigs’. Yet there are villages in Punjab where every other man is carrying a scar on the side of his abdomen, because they had to sell their kidneys to pay off their debts. We have one of the highest rates of child mortality, hepatitis, rabies, depression and cardiovascular diseases. More than 30,000 women die in childbirth and more than 6000 people commit suicide every year. Millions of our countrymen, women and children are deprived of basic necessities like clean drinking water, housing, education and health care. They have no recourse to justice. They have no rights.

This, sadly, is state of the real Pakistan in 21st century. While many other nations of the world continue to progress in an upward direction, we- for every step forward, take two back. And underlying all our problems is a serious crisis of governance. Today, corruption in Pakistan is not only institutionalized but, more worryingly, it is internalized as well. We have no qualms in not paying taxes or breaking traffic lights or asking for bribes. Lying, cheating, cutting corners, trampling on rights of others, breaking the law and having no remorse afterwards is an accepted norm. Corruption has now become an integral part of our national and collective psyche.

This is not only obscene but unethical and immoral.

It is immoral to let young mothers die in childbirth as it is to not provide clean drinking water in every house. It is unethical to force people to sell their body parts to pay off debts, as it is to not address the social conditions that force people to commit suicide. And it is obscene to buy yet another Lear jet or another glass tinted Mercedes for the use of Ministers while hundreds and thousands live in abject poverty.

Is there a way out of this morass? Can the sinking ship of this country be saved? Can something be done to help the young girl in Grax and countless other silent sufferers like her? Yes it can be and must be. We need to declare an emergency in the education and health sector. We need to do away with the corrupt feudal system. The military must go back to the barracks. We need to have respect for the law and the constitution. Nepotism, favoritism and cronyism should attract the heaviest punishment as should corruption in any form, shape or size. And all our processes must be strongly anchored in integrity. We have no time to lose.

This country was bequeathed by the Quaid to honest, hard working, law abiding and decent Pakistanis and not to the crooked and corrupt, who trample on our rights, who have no respect for the law or the constitution and consider law unto themselves. Pakistanis deserve better than this. All we want is to live a decent and a peaceful life, where our life and property are safe, where our children can go to proper schools and if they fall sick, receive good medical care. Surely that is not asking for too much?

Let not the long shadows of small men be cast upon us. Let not the sun go down on this beautiful country that has immense natural and human resources. We have to reclaim it from the corrupt and the crooked. The time to stand on the sidelines for us has long past. We are paying the price of our own impassiveness. We have to raise our collective voice, whether we are doctors or engineers or teachers or lawyers or accountants or housewives or students or shopkeepers or businessmen. We have to respond to the immortal words of Pablo Neruda who said ‘Rise up with me----against the organisation of misery’.

The author is a Professor of Psychiatry at Aga Khan University. He can be reached at

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