Monthly Archives: December 2005

Balochistan in turmoil again

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

THE war in Balochistan is once again making headlines. 2005 was a troubled year for the province with the insurgency simmering throughout the year interspersed with military action by the Frontier Constabulary from time to time. It is a pity that as the year draws to a close the army has stepped up its operations and there are reports of casualties that include women and children.

This time the provocation has ostensibly been a rocket attack on the president while he was visiting Kohlu on December 14. It was described as an assassination attempt, and thereafter, the government launched an operation in the Kohlu district. Officially it is said that the army is trying to root out the ‘miscreants’ and ‘saboteurs’ who are accused of creating trouble in different regions of Balochistan. These are the terms we are quite familiar with in Pakistan. It was bandied about a lot in 1970 during the civil strife in East Pakistan and the province was the target of army action. Again in 1974, when Balochistan was under attack, the rulers dug out these labels from their vocabulary. They are again doing the rounds.
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Islands of excellence

By Zubeida Mustafa

In this age of cutthroat competition in the marketplace when excellence — at a price — appears to have become the exclusive preserve of the private sector, the impression has been created that everything in the public sector is destined to be shoddy, inefficient, inept and in a state of decay. A government bank, it is assumed, will not function satisfactorily. A government school will not impart any education to its students. A government hospital will not provide good treatment to an ill person.

This may be true partially. But the standards of institutions are determined not by their ownership but by the individuals who man (woman?) them. You may have visited an organization owned by the government but would have found its efficiency at par with any private institution in the same field. True it may not have the same expensive ambience as the office of a multinational but it may be rendering better service. And isn’t that what really matters?

How do you explain this seeming anomaly? The fact is that even in the public sector it is the individual worker, especially the head of the organization, who sets his own standards of efficiency and performance. In the good old days when government institutions performed as well as any other, the integrity and commitment of the staff were the norms. This doesn’t hold true anymore. Only one in a thousand turns out to be efficient, dedicated and honest at a time when everyone else has forgotten to raise the bar. That explains why some government institutions are unexpectedly so good.

Take the National Savings Centre DHA branch in the Khadda Market in Karachi. When I first went there I expected it to be like the other savings centres. Although it has the appearance of any government office — crowded and not exactly elegant — this centre actually works. True there is generally a long queue of people, mostly senior citizens, waiting to be served, they can at least sit comfortably and the wait is not all that intolerable. Hats off to Syed Ejaz Ali who manages this centre in his kind and affable but efficient style. He had been hoping for the National Savings Scheme to be converted into a corporation as had been promised by the finance minister not too long ago. He is still waiting, though last week he said it would be unkind of him to ask for computers at a time when the money was needed for earthquake relief. But all this has not affected the working of his centre.

Then there is the Sindh Education Foundation headed by the redoubtable Prof Anita Ghulam Ali. The foundation is sponsoring an adoption scheme for schools, publishes a magazine on education and is overseeing many other school projects. Above all, Ms Ghulam Ali monitors the happenings in education in the public sector.

Take the case of the Sindh Kachchi Abadi Authority (SKAA) headed until recently by the renowned Tasneem Siddiqi. Though housed in modest premises, the SKAA functioned as a model institution under the Magsaysay Award winning Siddiqi until his retirement.

After observing the state of our government hospitals, it is difficult to believe that any one of them would compare favourably with the best health institutions in the world. There is one and it performs the most expensive surgeries free of cost. That is the Sindh Institute of Urology and Transplantation (SIUT) headed by the legendary Dr Adib Rizvi, another Magsaysay Award laureate.

Recently, SIUT held three international conferences one after another, which set new standards for the medical academia. What is more it put Karachi firmly back on the world map as a city of professional conferences. The 200 or so foreign delegates — many of them renowned experts in the field of urology and transplantation — by gracing the long shunned Sindh capital by their presence — made a political statement: Karachi is as safe as any other city in the world.

We can well be proud of these institutions and their heads. How sad that the government itself which should be grateful to them for their reputation and their willingness to identify themselves with the public sector, should try to distance itself from its protégé. How else would one describe the prime minister’s decision not to attend the SIUT conference while putting in his appearance in the city at three other functions organized by private sector institutions. Is it what we say in Urdu, Ghar ki murghee daal barabar? (What is your own is taken for granted.)

It is time our rulers learnt to take pride in these individuals and the institutions they head. By mobilizing and motivating more such exemplary leaders in their fields, it is possible to create a large number of model institutions in the public sector. When these are linked up in a nationwide network, Pakistan will definitely become a better place to live in.

Source: Dawn

The death of science

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

IT IS a pity that science which is the antidote to irrational thinking and obscurantist behaviour is being slowly strangled to death in Pakistan, that is if we presume that it had a modestly glorious existence in the past in this country.

One cannot brush aside the giants this country has produced in the years bygone — the names of Nobel laureate Prof Abdus Salam and our genius of chemistry Prof Salimuzzaman Siddiqui come to mind immediately. As the grip of religion tightens on society, science is receding further and further in the backwaters.
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Scourge of bonded labour

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

MOST of us erroneously believe that slavery has never existed in Pakistan and bonded labour ended 13 years ago when the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1992 was adopted by the National Assembly. But the fact is that this law abolished bonded labour only on paper, and not in reality.

Had it been so, you would not have been reading in the press today about cases such as Munno Bheel’s, who was released from bonded labour by the HRCP in 1996 to have eight of his family members allegedly kidnapped two years later by the powerful landlord in Mirpurkhas in whose service Mr Bheel had been bonded before his release.
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Pakistan’s Changing Images of India: A Personal View

By Zubeida Mustafa

I was six years old when Pakistan was so turbulently born. Six obviously is a difficult age to try to comprehend major national and international events even when they create extreme upheavals in a child’s life. Still, I could sense the rising tensions around me. We already had just moved to Delhi when it was decided in June 1947 that India was to be partitioned. Continue reading Pakistan’s Changing Images of India: A Personal View

Is it really health for all?

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

THE Alma Ata message of ‘health for all’ has at long last reached the policy planners in Islamabad. Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz has said that the government’s health strategy was focused on the prevention and control of diseases, provision of maternal and child health care and ensuring nationwide outreach of public health facilities. These are indeed laudable goals and have been demanded by health professionals for decades now.

At a time when there has been a palpable shift in the government’s policy from the public to the private sectors in the areas of health and education, social justice demands that the basic health and education needs of the people should be met because that is the fundamental human right of all.

In the health sector, this should pose less of a challenge if the government undertakes its responsibilities conscientiously and with integrity. But regrettably, this has not been done — the prime minister’s statement notwithstanding — and the failure to follow a vigorous preventive approach while withdrawing support to the curative side of medicine has inflicted enormous suffering on the people.
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REVIEWS: Circle of life

Reviewed by Zubeida Mustafa

Pakistan’s only Nobel laureate, Prof Abdus Salam, would always lament that this country does not have a science culture. Not many would dispute that. By its very nature science teaches people to reason logically and understand various phenomena by thinking and questioning. Regrettably this is what we are not taught in our society and even some of the supposedly highly educated people at times are quite irrational.

How else would one explain the strange beliefs of people — handicapped children are God’s punishment for the parents’ sins, mental illness is caused by evil spirits or earthquakes are the manifestation of God’s wrath on a nation gone astray? Dr Viqar Zaman, a medical doctor by education, who chose to go into research and teaching in microbiology (notably at the AKUH and the University of Singapore), has made it his life mission to spread some enlightenment about biological phenomena to dispel the ignorance and superstition that otherwise characterize many people’s perception of life.

He writes in the Preface to the second edition, “We must not think that science has only provided material benefits to mankind. Science has been a powerful ally in the struggle against racism, social injustice and religious bigotry. It has drawn people away from superstition, quackery witchcraft, black magic, demons and devils Above all, it has made us more respectful towards all forms of life in existence on the Earth.” For him, a scientist is a citizen of the world who seeks to understand the great mystery of existence and liberates one from man-made ideologies and self-imposed shackles.

Dr Zaman’s is a daunting task. Given his sense of commitment and vigour, he has produced a book for the lay reader which explains various aspects of life sciences in a simple and readable style. One is actually riveted by this book which educates and informs a person about many of the doings of Mother Nature and the human role in the universe of which we are vaguely aware but have little knowledge of their cause and effects. The best thing about this book is that you don’t have to be a scientist to read and understand it. Besides, it is reader-friendly — there is relevant poetry or quotes at the end of each section, all the chapters are brief and the language is not too technical.

Without doubts a person does not question, and without questioning there can be no science. Since science undermines established beliefs it comes in conflict with orthodox elements. That is why Socrates, Copernicus and Galileo had to pay a heavy price for their scientific teachings. Science is based on the belief that the human senses cannot always be relied upon to give accurate information. Moreover science is always evolving as it questions its own hypothesis and what is accepted as correct one day might be questioned and overturned the following day. It is the “falsifiability” of science, to use Dr Zaman’s words, that gives it strength. By constantly weeding out wrong theories, science goes closer to the truth. That is why science flourishes only in an atmosphere of intellectual freedom. That would explain why science has never been Pakistan’s forte.

In 24 chapters, this book takes the readers on a journey from birth to death. In this process, he will acquire a comprehension of all the major scientific issues that flood newspapers and television screens because they are making news today. He will learn about the stem cells — President Bush refused to finance research into them — transplantation of organ, brain death and many other terms.

Not many lay people in Pakistan would know that stem cells form the embryo and generate many other cell types and are expected to hold the key to cell therapy and offer hope for millions of sufferers from Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, and retinal degeneration disorders. Transplantation is the grafting of an organ from the donor to the recipient. It was Peter Medawar, a British immunologist, who first explained why organs are rejected if they are not properly matched with the recipient’s tissues. Brain death is another term that figures in the media. Dr Zaman explains that it is “irreversible cessation of all functions of the entire brain, including the brainstem”. When oxygen in all body tissues falls below a certain level all vital functions cease and death occurs. But brain death can occur on its own with all the other organs functioning.

One learns about viruses, bacteria, fungus, parasites and so on which are quite distinct though the layperson tends to use them interchangeably. But a little knowledge about them would certainly help us understand these minute creatures and how they affect our universe. How many of us know that all bacteria are not bad? Many of them are our friends too. Some produce enzymes in our intestinal tracts, others are scavengers that break down all organic matter and others are basic to the nitrogen cycle essential for life.

“Reproduction is the ultimate objective of all life on earth,” the author writes and it is the female which plays a key role in the sustenance of life. In some species the male ratio is kept low in the “pro-female drama of nature”. This should provide some food for thought for our patriarchal society which show no respect for women and relegates them to a subordinate position.

Life Sciences for the Non-Scientist is a treasure trove of information about chronobiology (our internal clocks), the long march of evolution which proves that all living beings have a shared descent because they use a common gene — the Hox gene — to establish their development pattern, changes in environment determine the changes in characteristics that are evolved with the changing needs, and how the process of ageing is determined by a person’s genetic make-up.

Birth and death are the most important events in a person’s life and one can’t take place without the other. The most profound fact to be remembered is that all activities in the universe are of a cyclic nature. Death is necessary for sustaining life. When an organism dies, it replenishes the earth and new life forms arise. Thus death is not the end but the beginning of life in another form. Although the author has touched on ethical questions wherever their relevance arises, one wishes he had given more comprehensive treatment to it — may be a separate chapter should have been devoted to bioethics. As medical technology grows by leaps and bounds many ethical issues keep coming up. It would be instructive to read about Dr Viqar Zaman’s views on them, especially because he is so rational and sensible about what he writes.

Hopefully this book will be read by all educated people — not just the laypeople but also the health scientists. This is the second revised and enlarged edition — each chapter has been revised and two new chapters added (heredity and transplantation). We look forward to the third enlarged edition.

Life Sciences for the Non-Scientist (second, revised and enlarged edition)
By Viqar Zaman
World Scientific Publishing Co. Pte. Ltd., 5 Toh Tuck Link, Singapore 596224.
ISBN 981-256-282-6
239pp. Price not listed

Source: Dawn

Circle of life

Reviewed By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

Pakistan’s only Nobel laureate, Prof Abdus Salam, would always lament that this country does not have a science culture. Not many would dispute that. By its very nature science teaches people to reason logically and understand various phenomena by thinking and questioning. Regrettably this is what we are not taught in our society and even some of the supposedly highly educated people at times are quite irrational.
Continue reading Circle of life