Unwise protest management (By: I.A. Rehman)

THE five-day sit-in by Lady Health Workers (LHWs) in Lahore that ended last Friday after their demands were met is a glaring example of the administration’s arrogance in dealing with poor citizens’ protests.

The episode merits attention because the administration in all provinces has been demonstrating a similarly unwise attitude towards low-paid state functionaries — teachers, LHWs, etc. The degree of official petty-mindedness increases considerably if the protesters are women, if they belong to minority communities, or if they are people with disabilities. The employees of private and public-sector organisations, peasants and jobless people also receive much less consideration than political groups especially if the latter can unfurl a religious flag.

The sit-in by Punjab’s LHWs was quite justified although the responsible administration should have thought twice about allowing a large group of mostly middle-aged women to squat under a hot sun for several days. But if it had somehow begun, the matter could still have been resolved at the outset. That the protesting women’s demands were legitimate is confirmed by the official notification that ended the protest.

The protesters had demanded the payment of arrears for the years 2012 to 2014 and the implementation of a relief formula agreed to five years ago. An official spokesperson disclosed while the dharna was still on that a decision to clear the arrears in four monthly instalments had already been taken. Why was this decision not announced and implemented while there was time?

The protesters were agitating for a proper service structure and the benefits of improvement accruing from the qualifications and expertise. These demands too were eventually conceded. All Lady Health Supervisors are to be promoted to higher grades: half of them from BPS 7 to BPS 10, and 35 per cent to BPS 12, while 15pc are to be put in BPS 14. The LHWs have received a less spectacular award: 55pc of them are to stay in BPS 5 while 40pc are to get BPS 7 and 5pc will be promoted to BPS 9.

This service structure too was supposed to have been finalised before or soon after the sit-in started. If that was the case why did matters drag on for days on end? Were the provincial health bosses waiting for a Lahore High Court directive to clear the Mall for traffic?

The common assumption underlying the official haughtiness towards the disadvantaged protesters is that they are malcontents who challenge a government established by law, as the colonial rulers used to put it. Some protests may indeed attract this definition but a sweeping generalisation to suit the administration’s convenience or bias has no justification.

The authorities must realise that consciousness of the right to speak out against injustice has increased the frequency of protest sit-ins, rallies and marches. It is necessary to distinguish demonstrations that are inspired by genuine grievances from mischievous affairs. Specially trained staff, preferably outside the police department, may be maintained at provincial/district levels. Quite a few protests could be ended with assurances of redress.

All contentious issues should be reported to the competent authorities and negotiations to resolve matters must start forthwith. Every effort must be made to avoid situations such as the use of force to disperse a group of visually impaired persons or the alleged lynching of a man who had a disagreement with hospital guards.

Now legislation is being demanded to bar people from staging protests on and along principal roads in the provincial capital and to designated areas where they may be allowed.

These demands are supposed to be based on the public’s right to freedom of movement and the right to free access to workplaces. This matter will not yield to any simplistic formulation. It is also necessary to take into account the aggrieved parties’ right to peaceful assembly and freedom of movement for the removal of their grievances.

The reasons for selecting urban transport nerve centres for staging dharnas are obvious. To be effective, a sit-in must be visible to the largest number of people, especially those who matter. It should also generate public pressure to have normal traffic restored as quickly as possible. If the authorities are not hurt or embarrassed at all you may demonstrate for months outside the press clubs in Karachi, Lahore, Islamabad, Hyderabad or anywhere else and the administration will take no notice. Thus, while the middle class may join the rulers in demanding a trouble-free drive along town thoroughfares it should spare a few moments to listen to the protesters.

Civilised governance demands regular, open and two-way communication between the authorities and the citizens. The people must not always be obliged to listen to the custodians of power; the latter must keep their ears open to what the people say not only about their tribulations but also about the quality of governance.

What often prevents a quick and mutually acceptable resolution of public grievances is the view held by administrators steeped in the less reasonable practices of the colonial rulers that accommodating the ‘rabble’ will inevitably weaken the steel frame of efficient rule. Perhaps it is necessary to remind all branches of administration that efficiency and tranquillity are best secured by building consensus with citizens and acknowledging their ownership of the state and all its resources. Public grievances, even when exaggerated or based on ignorance or misperception, ought to be dealt with tact and understanding.

Unfortunately, Pakistan’s failure to develop a culture of democratic governance has prevented the replacement of the colonial-style administration with one that is not only responsible but also responsive to citizens’ needs and aspirations. Further, the elite’s lack of interest in freeing the society of stratification on a social and class basis has resulted in pauperisation of the masses and in depriving them of their right to voice their suffering and deprivations. This path can only lead to social ossification and a regressive polity.

Published in Dawn, April 5th, 2018

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