Unveiling myths

This is a book of essays, dedicated to Omar Asghar Khan, based on research conducted between 1999-2002 while the author was at the Sustainable Development Policy Institute in Islamabad. It is not quite a scholarly book but simply a book of essays written for the general reading public. However, these essays are based on scholarly research that is slowly but surely making its way into the public domain.

Khan, without taking up cudgels against the Musharraf government’s policies, nonetheless gives an objective assessment of these policies and provides more often than not, positive criticism where necessary. The intrinsic worth of the book is enhanced by the fact that there is such an abundance of government and other documents/literature floating around lauding the present government’s policies that this comes like a breath of fresh air. For that matter it is not easy to fault it on any score as such, making the task of a critical appraisal of the book all that much more problematic.

At the outset is a reference for Omar Asghar Khan where the author rightly states he was a “prince among men”, a “gem of a person” and a “civil society leader”. One cannot underestimate the importance of this reference since aside from a select section of society, the tragic demise of Omar and the case surrounding it, is slowly fading into the past as is wont with most such incidents, sadly, in our part of the world.

In the preface, Khan candidly states that he and his colleagues at SPDI opposed the military take over, no matter how far the existing democratic governance deviated from a democratic ideal. They essentially felt that since the people had voted in a government that had taken on the trappings of a “rogue”, it was up to the people again to vote them out.

The book comprises eight sections, the first of which presents a case for land reforms, “the mother of all reforms”. The second is on devolution, the much-talked about and debated reform of the military government. Following this is a valuable section on education, with the emphasis on rural basic education. The author next discusses the interface between sustainable development and the environment, the basic ingredients of structural adjustment reform policies such as trade and other liberalizations. The last section is an amalgam of essays on various issues such as Islamic finance, child labour, Kashmir and peace, etc.

The case the author makes for land reform, and one couldn’t agree with him more, is that they create sustainable livelihoods as a means to alleviate poverty. Aside from this vital role, they combat social injustice while simultaneously achieving sustained economic growth. Further, research reveals the crucial fact that educational attainment is inversely associated with absolute landed power so apart from directly affecting poverty by providing a sustainable means of livelihood, indirectly land reforms do away with impediments to educational attainment. On corporatization of agriculture, that Budget 2000-2001 was replete with, the author points out the danger that this might lead to more concentration of land holdings.

The bottom line of what the author has to say concerning devolution is that there is a fundamental flaw in the reform in that the plan proposed an elaborate structure of councils and committees which albeit for the lowest fundamental tier, according to Khan, committees are no substitute for an authentic devolution of power to the grassroots level. He in no uncertain terms opposes educational qualifications for candidates, the reason being that there is no empirical evidence that the educated are better representatives and also on the grounds of the democratic principle of equal right to represent.

The focus of the chapter on education is rural primary schooling. The military government’s commitment to reform in this sphere appears to be only superficial at best as is indicated by the figures. Expenditures on education as a percentage of GNP slid to 2.0 per cent in 2001-2002, having peaked at 2.5 per cent in 1995-96, over the last year of the first phase of the Social Action Plan. Khan continues to say, and this is a most valid point, that the link established by the human capital model of education with economic returns, in the form of the carrot of better paying jobs, given that the labour market is not universally fair and competitive and the prevailing high unemployment levels in many occupational categories, there is no automatic link between education and higher paying employment. This has unfortunately led to a widespread disillusionment amongst people and the author therefore suggests that strategies for popularizing basic education disassociate education with economic motives and focus instead on the several other reasons for pursuing it.

The author adds that one of the major hitches of higher education in Pakistan is that professors function like bureaucrats since the service rules provide tenure with little if any show of competence, with the end result that promotion depends largely on seniority and being in the good books of superiors. Khan quite rightly says the job of professors should be excellence in research and teaching.

In discussing the current policy mix and the environment, the author argues that while the current economic paradigm has asserted the role of markets as being critical to efficiency criteria, there are limitations galore with markets when considering the environment. There is an interesting diversion on Mahboob ul Haq and Amartya Sen’s philosophies of human development. Also presented is a critical account of the Environmental Protection Acts, government policies and pollution arising from fuel emissions.

In the next chapter on structural adjustment and the economy, budgets and the “letters of intent” to the IMF are analyzed. Lest anyone ever doubted, Khan states that the military government, right from the word go, was committed to an IMF/World Bank reform agenda. Thus, the reforms were old wine in new bottles with the rider that the military government was able to adhere more successfully to its reform commitments than any government preceding it. This chapter is perhaps the most interesting for the sole reason that many a myth is unveiled and plaudits accorded and flak given to the policies where called for.

Finally, we come to the important political issue of Kashmir. The author highlights the fact that the right of self determination could and does mean entirely different things to the people of Kashmir and Pakistan. The book concludes on a note of hope, that the thaw of mid 2003 will last and if not, then there needs to be some serious talking to clear the fog.

As an aside, the only flaw that I for one could see in the book was the irritating typos. Vanguard publishes so many delectable books, but I only wish they would employ a good proof reader as that I, for one, am sure would tremendously enhance the quality of their very valuable publications. Any takers?

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