A Law unto Themselves
By Dr Shireen M Mazari


The exhilarating victory of the Pakistan cricket team against the much-touted English side was yet another reminder that, given an opportunity, this nation is second to none. As I have believed and stated in these columns earlier, our cricketers always win in spite of bureaucratic machinations and the cricketing officialdom, which seems to be a law unto itself and unaccountable for any actions and decisions.
Nowhere was this more clearly reflected than in the absence of the PCB chief on the day our team won against all odds in Lahore. Instead of being there at this critical juncture for the team, he saw fit to whiz off to India to talk to the new BCCI led by Sharad Pawar. Could his meeting in India not have waited for another day? Had he and the PCB shown such speed to take up the issue of Inzamam's wrongful 'dismissal', Bell's cheating in claiming a catch that wasn't, or Pietersen threatening Afridi with the bat, Shahriyar Khan may have redeemed some credibility for himself and the board. But that has not happened to date. Worse still, the question arises whether Shahriyar, while in India, unilaterally took the decision to give in to Indian demands for postponing the Asia Cup which Pakistan is to host? Was it in our interest to do so?
Clearly, the new PCB set-up, comprising foreign office retirees (the Shahriyar-Zaidi combine), has little empathy for our players and more 'diplomatic' sensitivities for the Indians. That is why the Pakistani team had to relish its victory without the congratulatory presence of Mr Shahriyar. Surely, the representatives of the people in their parliamentary committees need to e find out why he had to absent himself from the day of victory. That is if the PCB chief, known for his arrogance towards his fellow countrymen, will deign to come before such a committee -- after all, his past record is not very encouraging on this count. Nor are the PCB chief and his minions alone in feeling they are accountable to no one. The PTF's antics have undermined many rising but poor tennis playing youth to accommodate favorites, but that is a story in itself.
There is a growing trend in this country for all manner of organizations and bodies to feel they cannot be held accountable to anyone. Despite efforts by parliamentary committees, bodies like the CDA by and large continue to carry out activities regardless of their propriety and legality. Press revelations simply pass off with a shrug while coming before committees is seen as a transitory discomfiture. As a CDA official lamented when questioned on the legal position relating to certain road expansions, such legalities "will only delay the work". The assumption that nothing could truly stop them from doing what they intended, smacked of arrogance and a cavalier attitude towards serious public concerns and the laws of the land.
But what of the bureaucrat who actually retains his sensitivities to the plight of the nation and its limited resources, and points out the erroneous decisions taken by his political boss -- be it in the case of overpaid or illegally hired foreign consultants, or the hiring of excessive staff? These bosses also feel they are a law unto themselves and not accountable to state employees. That is why one secretary, sensitive to the nation's resources, now finds himself a pariah whom no politician will touch.
Nor is it just in the field of government and politics where we find the powerful becoming laws unto themselves. Take the case of the private schools that have mushroomed all over the country, supposedly to provide better quality education than the government. Some undoubtedly do. But the critical issue is that there is absolutely no law or supervisory mechanism for these schools. They can charge whatever fees they want, they can hire whatever quality teachers and, most crucially, they can teach whatever they want -- at least until they get to the 'O' or matriculation class levels. There are schools that are highly politicized in their overall agendas; there are schools that have overcrowded classrooms; and there are schools where there is a quick turnover of teachers -- in one case, a class is on to its fourth teacher in one subject alone, in the space of one term. Worse still, there are no minimal qualifications for subject specialists, nor are the CVs of the teachers made public to the parents. There are textbooks, published abroad, that still talk of "Indo China" and others that wrongly calculate historic periods. Many schools still do not have assemblies where children sing the national anthem, so we have a whole generation that is unfamiliar with the national anthem of this country. Yet, the Ministry of Information can make this compulsory for all schools, including private schools. What is preventing them from doing so?
Who will oversee the working of private schools? The education ministry seems unable to even oversee its own schools in terms of what is being taught there. The horrifying incident of US propaganda finding space in our textbooks in the form of a poem of praise for Bush is a sorry reflection on how textbooks are formulated here. To say it was purely accidental is even worse because it reflects an unacceptable level of ignorance on the part of the compiler of the book in question. In any case, it is unfortunate that our own English-language poets are disregarded when it comes to compilation of English poetry or English literature in general.
Coming back to the issue of some form of supervision of private schools, civil society clearly needs to develop a greater sense of civic duty. We need to form civil society groups to help the state oversee educational activities in the private sector. At the very least, we need to set minimal educational qualifications for subject teachers and assess the books and syllabi. Also, all teachers being hired should sign contracts for a minimal period so that there is some continuity in the teaching. Private schools, by and large, are offering good salaries so there is no reason why they cannot implement minimal standards of teaching. The facilities offered by private schools also need to be looked into. In the long term, there is also a need to bring private -- and public-sector education at par, including in terms of examination systems and boards.
All in all, there is a need for civil society to move actively to challenge all those who feel they are laws unto themselves and thereby not accountable to anyone in the country. It is the power of civil society that will push the political elite in parliament into action and strengthen institution building and the parliamentary form of governance. It is time we became dependent on institutions and due process rather than on individuals, no matter how charismatic. The system needs to deliver and that can only happen when there are checks and balances in all sub-systems because accountability is central to responsiveness and that is a critical factor in national well-being.
(The writer is director general of the Institute of Strategic Studies in Islamabad. Courtesy The News)


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