Robbing the poor
LIGHTS, camera, action and pack up - the make-believe world of cinema revolves around these words. The real-life drama that goes on in the lives of Pakistanis can also be summed up by these words. Any calamity ranging from floods to earthquakes is bound to get maximum attention as long as the media is present. As soon as media teams pack up from the site the victims are forgotten, and just like the movie-making business, the focus shifts to a new location.
The story of Awaran, the district in Balochistan that was hit by a 7.1 magnitude earthquake in 2013, seemed a bit different. Work on the post-earthquake Housing Reconstruction Awaran (HRA) project was well under way when the inevitable happened. Optimism generated by the work of a few dedicated individuals has been marred by the opportunism of a few self-serving individuals.
Initially no officer with adequate experience was willing to take up the assignment, for Awaran is at the heart of the insurgency in the province and one can sense fear in the air even today. Then, Aziz Jamali, a civil servant who served for five years in the affected areas of Azad Kashmir and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa after the 2005 earthquake, volunteered for the job. His experience in rehabilitation and reconstruction projects made him an obvious choice as the project director of HRA.
A housing project in Awaran falls prey to political meddling. The said gentleman began his work, mobilising 10,000 families in Awaran to become self-builders and rebuild their lives after the devastating earthquake. Things started to move at a swift pace with the help of a meticulously raised team. A few housing units were completed in record time, but then the inevitable happened. As soon as the procurement of solar panels for the completed housing units was tendered, the project director was transferred. Why? Because the project caught the eye of an influential political figure from Balochistan and procurement provided an opportunity for some 'speed money'. After all, many contractors would be ready to grease palms to land an overpriced tender; even launching a dummy corporation would provide a great 'business opportunity'.
However, the only problem in this flawless plan was the project director, who being an upright man would not agree to be part of the racket. He was asked to postpone hiring of staff and ten- ders for procurement so that things could be manipulated to accommodate personal choices. When the officer resisted such moves he was made officer on special duty without any reason given for his unceremonious removal.
Had I been in place of the officer I would have packed my bag, and come back to Islamabad or Lahore and lived selfishly ever after; but this gentleman decided to offer resistance.
He was issued a stay order by the Balochistan High Court (BHC) against being transferred but it hardly made any difference because now the commissioner Kalat has been given the additional charge as project director HRA. The incumbent officer has thus effectively been removed in clear contempt of the BHC order. The step has also made a mockery of the Supreme Court judgement on constitutional petition No 23/2012 (filed by Ms Anita Turab for the protection of civil servants) promising tenure protection for civil servants.
It is pertinent to mention that Kalat is 350 kilometres from Awaran; it would be virtually impossible for an already busy officer to oversee such a critical project. Soon a new project director would be appointed and the sole criterion for selection would be servitude to the political mafia - sadly, the civil service has many elements that are at their beck and call. I dare not name the politicians interested in this project because I can neither afford to be roughed up by their well-kept bullies nor can I afford personal bodyguards.
It is ironic that the province's chief minister and chief secretary had applauded the performance of the project director who has been transferred and expressed deep satisfaction at the pace of work. Needless to say, they will never take a stand against the political influence that has led to the mishandling of the HRA project because the poor people who would suffer can do them no harm - in this life at least.
Debate on judicial activism aside, one feels that had former chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry - who hails from Balochistan - been around, he would have definitely taken notice of this robbery from the poor.
Seeing the fearlessness, initiative and drive shown by the team involved in the HRA, one thought the project director might even be considered for a national award but what is happening is the exact opposite. Pablo Neruda, the Chilean poet, once wrote: "You can cut all the flowers but you cannot keep spring from coming." Little did he know about Pakistan in general and Balochistan in particular.