Meat for the Local Body Elections
By Syed Kamran Hashmi
Committed to its newly discovered passion, the Punjab government last week seized more than ten thousand pounds of meat throughout the state, an action that most folks, including myself, admire as a step towards improved governance in the largest province of the country.
The captured merchandise did not only include the meat of dead and sick animals or the one that was kept under poor hygienic conditions, it also included the flesh of pigs, horses and donkeys, animals that Islam does not permit Muslims to consume under any circumstance except when the believers are at the risk of dying from starvation.
With the strict implementation of the law regarding the handling of nutriments and through its well managed media campaign, Mian Shahbaz Sharif wants to reassure the people about how much he cares about the health of every individual and how honest he wants his small business owners to be when it comes to the well-being of the citizens. Amazed right, with the sudden surge in the care message? Me too. I was surprised when I saw Ayesha Mumtaz, the Director General of Operations of Punjab Food Authority, emerge out of nowhere and take on the most influential families in Lahore - the owners of the restaurants who know Sharif Brothers for decades. Do you think raiding the restaurant in the Avari Hotel is easy? Think again! It's like walking through a land mine or may be harder. Realizing that, I tried to understand the reason behinds these raids which continue with the same spirit till today. I wanted to know what had prompted the Chief Minister to implement those rules now when they had been around for years and what was the motive behind the publicity. Is it a media stunt or is he trying to go after someone in particular, a personal vendetta? But so far, I must admit it has been one of the government’s best kept secrets.
On a quick look, it seems that the problem with the poor quality of food served in the restaurants or the unhygienic meat sold to the consumers in local stores has just gone out of control recently, spreading to every district, acquiring the form of a pandemic like the mosquito-borne Dengue fever which incapacitated the whole province a few years ago. The infectious process could only be contained by taking the radical steps on urgent basis and by getting the help of an expert team from Sri Lanka, a successful endeavor led by Shahbaz Sharif that saved thousands of lives. Similarly, the illegal practice of selling contaminated meat, it appears, would have endangered the lives of hundreds of people, if he had not zoomed in on it and had not declared a statewide administrative priority.
But, is it a real emergency? That is the question which haunts me. Give and take a few months, Shahbaz Sharif is enjoying power for the last eight years now. Is the quality of meat any different now than in 2009 when he was sworn in? Was he not aware of the practices of the restaurant owners then? To be honest, and as far as I can tell, the quality is almost the same; it has not gone any worse. Then, what had he been doing all those years except either building expensive projects to benefit very, few like the Danish schools, or diverting the budget from health and education to pay for cosmetic undertakings like the Metro Bus Service in Lahore and Rawalpindi? Let me also ask this as a side-note: Who gets paid at the cost of our health and education? It's not the Pakistani companies.
Looking at it from another angle, we all know two facts about Pakistan. First, its population is increasing at an alarming pace. We will cross the 300 million mark by 2050 at the current population growth rate of 1.49%. Second, there is a trend towards urban migration of the people from the rural areas. Knowing that, one can easily discern that Lahore or any other big city in Punjab has expanded in the last eight years. It also means that each metropolitan area needs more hospitals and health facilities than before and would continue to need more. So, can you tell me how many hospital projects has Shahabaz Sharif launched in his eight-year tenure? To be honest, I have not heard of any. Now the question is: what would have been better for the people? More doctors, more hospitals, more nursing care, more rehab facilities, more medicines, more physical therapists and social workers or more roads, bridges and more incomplete highways, projects which ultimately fail even if they appear to be successful in the beginning.
I can understand the new health facilities can cost a lot of money. The bill for such an undertaking can go up to billions of rupees. What it means to me is that we need to improve the existing structures and expand their potential. But, their condition has worsened over years. Have you been to the Jinnah Hospital Lahore lately? Can you call it a hospital for human beings? It's a place where you want to die, not get better. Would Shahbaz Sharif or any member of his family like to be treated in that facility? I am sure we all know the answer to that.
In the absence of any of the hardcore measures taken to improve the health care standard of the people, the raids on the restaurants and meat shops are, in my opinion, an inexpensive way to get cheap publicity and a short lived surge in popularity, a gimmick to delude people. Perhaps it's a trick that will pay him off in the upcoming local body elections in which the PTI will be a formidable opponent, a challenger that can upend the last three decades of hegemony of PMLN in Punjab. Notwithstanding that, I appreciate the raids while they last. We can at least enjoy few days of clean food in the restaurants.