Profiting from the status quo

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

ASGHAR Ali Engineer, a well-known social scientist and activist who heads the Institute of Islamic Studies and the Centre for Study of Society and Secularism in Mumbai, has studied the dynamics of many communal riots in India. His observation based on personal first hand knowledge is that most incidents of violence have an underlying economic cause. There are vested interests at work trying to change the situation in such a way that they profit from it.

Conversely and more often, when various elements act to resist change, the phenomenon can be traced to some vested interests that benefit from the status quo and do not want to lose the personal advantage they enjoy from the given state of affairs. So powerful is their motivation to prevent change that they preserve it even if it is gravely damaging to the wider interest of society. The selfish gain of a few individuals assumes more importance than the welfare and common good of the majority.

This is a worldwide phenomenon that plagues all societies. It has now been clearly established without doubt that America’s attack on Iraq was motivated by the oil interests of the Bush/Cheney combine in the administration in Washington.

The arm manufacturers who constitute a powerful vested interest in all countries are known to influence foreign policy especially decisions on war and peace. Their interest in war is inherent in the nature of their product. They are known to test new weapons on the battlefield. Even otherwise when the pot is kept boiling and tensions run high, defence spendings escalate and the demand for weapons is sustained in a volatile arms market.

This holds true in every country of the world. One has only to scratch the surface to discover the vested interests at work. They operate so insidiously and in such a subtle manner that it is not always possible to discern them. Since they are so powerful it is difficult to break their hold.

In Pakistan vested interests have been created over the years in various areas of national life and they ensure that they perpetuate their privileges. The armed forces are one good example of how vested interests operate in this country.

Since the fifties the army has enjoyed a role in Pakistan’s politics. This has enabled the men in uniform to use their position in national politics and economy to make laws that safeguard their economic privileges. They have emerged as a major corporate entity that owns housing estates, industries and even agricultural lands. As such they have a vested interest in clinging to power to ensure that they do not lose the advantages they have gained over the years. It is therefore unrealistic to expect the military generals to bow out of power to please some starry-eyed idealists championing the cause of democracy or some expediency-loving politicians.

There is yet another example of how vested interests distort policymaking priorities. The Transplantation of Human Organs and Tissues Bill, which has been lying before the Senate since 1994, has had a rough sailing in Islamabad.

It is no extraordinary piece of legislation – it legalises cadaveric organ donation while banning the sale of human organs and providing the infrastructure for a national organ transplantation programme – and has been adopted by all countries that have transplant services including a large number of Muslim states. The bill has, however, met with stiff resistance from the vested interests which benefit from the present unregulated conditions.

On account of the unscrupulous commercialisation that is taking place a horrendous market for the sale of human organs has emerged in Punjab. With the help of unethical surgeons who have forgotten the Hippocratic Oath they took at the time of graduation, the organ trade has reached massive proportions by exploiting the poor and the desperation of those suffering from endstage kidney failure. Minting millions, the urologists and the middlemen involved in this racket now have a vested interest in obstructing any change in the status quo. They have co-opted policymakers to prevent the government from changing the law.

The ordinance which, it is now reported, will be promulgated is an eyewash. It will not change the situation in any way at all because it gives legal cover for payment which is made ostensibly for “defraying and reimbursing” the cost of removing, transporting or preserving the human organ and the loss of earnings incurred by the donor. It also makes an exception in cases where a related donor is not available and an evaluation committee, which is so empowered, “allows donation by a non-relative”. A fine example of vested interests at work!

There are vested interests at work in the education sector as well. There are teachers who set up coaching centres to earn hefty sums from students whom these same teachers don’t teach in school and college. Naturally enough the teachers develop an interest in keeping the standard of teaching in school and college abysmally low so that the poor students have to turn to private tuition and coaching centres to pass their examinations.

Are not the lack of commitment and neglect of duties of many of these teachers so striking? They never make demands for an improvement in academic standards because they are responsible for this decline thanks to their appalling performance.

The problem with vested interests is that once they are allowed to strike roots it becomes difficult to break them. They grow rapidly by enlisting in their fold other people who become party to the enterprise that serves the interest of a small minority. Generally these partners are the state functionaries and political leadership whose primary duty it is to check vested interests. But they don’t because they are paid for not doing their duty. That is how the entire society has been corrupted and there is no light at the end of the tunnel.

In a state where the rule of law is supreme and where administrations supposedly protect the interests of the people, a citizen can at least seek redress. But not so in Third World societies where the legal system is weak. When this process breaks down, trouble lies ahead.