Fading dream of social justice

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

IT wasn’t such a long time ago when a simple, soft-spoken man dressed in khaddar wearing dark-rimmed glasses used to be a familiar figure in Dawn’s office.

He would drop by for a chat to tell us about his social engineering experiments he was undertaking in Orangi, once described as Asia’s largest slum. Whether it was the drainage scheme, the school programme or the health plan he was dilating on excitedly, his zeal was always infectious. It compelled you to visit his projects to learn about them.

Now that Dr Akhtar Hameed Khan is no more — he died in October 1999 — I often wonder had he been around today what the internationally renowned social scientist would have said about the vanishing norms of social justice in our society. Hence it came as no surprise that the Ninth Dr Akhtar Hameed Khan Forum organised last Saturday by OPP-RTI focused on the issue of social justice.

This came at a time when the ugly forces of capitalism and the free market are gaining strength. The fact is that the market may be freer today but it actually restricts the options of the poor whose numbers are growing rapidly. According to the Islamabad-based Centre for Research and Security Studies, 49 per cent of Pakistanis fall below the absolute poverty line.

And the poor were Dr Akhtar Hameed Khan’s constituency. He was their guide, philosopher and friend. In order to see life through their prism he had given up his life of power and authority as an ICS officer in the 1940s to work as a labourer and blacksmith for sometime. Hence the theme of Saturday’s forum, social justice, was very pertinent and instructive for the community workers from far and near who had gathered for the moot.

Envisaging equal opportunities and equitable distribution of advantages, as pointed out by Dr Haroon Ahmed, a leading psychiatrist and the keynote speaker that morning, the concept of social justice seeks the realisation of every individual’s full potential. This is society’s responsibility. But with the role of the state in recession and globalisation having robbed the developing countries of their choices, there is little likelihood of the government intervening in favour of its citizens.

Which sectors but education and healthcare make the greatest impact on a person’s ability to realise his full potential? Dr Fouzia Qureshi, a paediatrician who has also worked in community health, succinctly brought out the close link between health and every aspect of human life. Disease and poverty, disease and education, disease and employment — you name it and she would be able to tell you how a person’s potential is restricted just because he is ill and has no access to affordable healthcare which should have been his birthright anyway. Dr Qureshi quoted statistics to show that of the people who fell ill more were poor, illiterate and from the lower strata. Conversely those who fell ill did badly in school and in their jobs.

Isn’t there a method by which the depressed classes could uplift themselves and come out of the indignity of dependence and improve the quality of their life? There was a time when a determined young man with a dream could go to the ends of the earth to gain knowledge that landed him a respectable job. Thereafter it was easy sailing for he could work his way up. Stories of ‘from rags to riches’ were quite common. No more today. Education which alone can open doors to new avenues has become virtually a closed shop. If you are rich and have the right connections — and the right parentage — you can gain entry into the best of educational institutions quite effortlessly. Next, with the help of an impressive degree, that doesn’t really guarantee that you have learnt anything, you can get a fantastic job for the asking.

Merit doesn’t come into the picture. Social standing does. That is why Nadia, my domestic help’s nine-year-old daughter, who has the mind of a genius, may never realise her full potential. Social justice does not form the underpinning of our society. And since good education for each and every child is not recognised as a fundamental right — regardless of what the constitution or the International Convention on the Rights of the Child, which Pakistan signed and ratified, say — Nadia may never be able to get the education she can lay claim to. She is lucky not to be one of the 400,000 children — most of them girls — of her age who are not even enrolled in school.

After being denied good education will she ever be able to get a job that fetches her enough money to allow her to leave behind the poverty she has lived with since the day she was born? Thus society will continue to be neatly divided between the rich and the poor, each living in his own separate world with a wide gulf dividing the two. They meet on the fringes because they still need each other — one for the cheap labour it provides and the other for the charity it doles out.

It is a pity that education which should have helped bridge this gulf has only deepened it. The system is so skewed that a small elite class enjoys all the privileges one can dream of. It uses its advantages to create an exclusive system that continues to benefit a small group of beneficiaries while keeping the ‘others’ out of it. The system perpetuates social injustice in education that helps perpetuate injustice in employment and health. Thus poverty is never eliminated and the vicious cycle continues.

Dr Akhtar Hameed Khan spoke of mobilising the people. He also believed that the government has to be mobilised as well. He spoke of the people’s partnership with the government. It is here that the crunch comes. So far the link with the government has not proved to be strong enough. The question to be asked is: can the commitment be created in the government to strengthen its partnership with the people?