A NEW definition of sanity in Pakistan today is one’s ability not to be distracted by the Islamabad anarchists’ lectures on principles of governance and political propriety and keep doing what needs to be done, as advised by Voltaire.

There is no mystery in the riot zone melodrama, in fact has never been. Those claiming to disclose secrets are not disclosing anything. They are not adding to a conscious citizen’s knowledge. The wise ones who have got stuck inside the idiot box and are offering counsel to one party or the other know their words will have no effect on disasters foretold.

Yet most people find it impossible to drag themselves away from the TV screen and the screams of anchorpersons because they are afraid of what appears to be in store for them and for their children. What is at stake is surely much more than is realised by the contending parties and their promoters.

In such a situation it is not easy to stay normal. Thus one is happy to learn that the country’s football team has returned home after winning laurels in India and Bahrain and that this experience has inspired them to make serious preparations for the Asia Cup.

Balochistan has become the second province after Punjab to ban private moneylending.
These sportsmen deserve credit for giving their time and energies to a sport that has suffered greatly as a result of the state’s criminal negligence. It has been dismissed with contempt because it is the poor man’s diversion and its patrons in Balochistan and Karachi (Lyari) have hardly ever been treated as equal citizens of Pakistan.

These footballers have raised themselves higher than the officials of the Pakistan Hockey Federation who have rewarded themselves for their team’s miserable performance on the field by securing offices in the international body.

But perhaps the best demonstration of sanity amidst anarchy has been offered by the Balochistan Assembly which has passed a bill designed to protect the people against exploitation by private moneylenders. For once, the government and opposition parties got together to clear the ground for a legal assault on the institution of private moneylending that has rightly been denounced as a curse.

Balochistan has become the second province after Punjab to ban private moneylending. It has followed the Punjab Prohibition of Private Money Lending Act 2007 in prescribing imprisonment for 10 years as punishment for offenders but has provided for a higher fine — Rs1 million, twice the amount mentioned in the Punjab law.

The private moneylenders’ network is operating in all parts of the country and its victims constitute a sizeable number. An idea of the enormous suffering of the families caught in the debt trap can be had from a collection of case studies published by Dr Amjad Saqib of Akhuwat, an organisation reputed (like the Orangi Pilot Project) for reducing overhead charges on micro-credit facilities.

The poor take loans from private moneylenders to meet emergencies — such as sickness or a marriage in the family. Only six out of the 25 cases analysed needed money to cover business losses. Their demands were meagre — 17 out of the 25 victims borrowed Rs5,000 to Rs25,000. The highest loan amount was Rs50,000 sought by two families — one for meeting medical bills and the other for saving a youth from the bribe-hungry police.

The rates of interest charged by the moneylenders vary from 120 to 440 per cent per annum. A petty contractor who borrowed Rs35,000, payable in a monthly instalment of Rs3,000 (equal to interest per month), paid Rs468,000 over a period of 13 years and the principal amount was still outstanding against him.

The state’s obligation to help the victims of private moneylenders is manifest. The latter are running a usurious racket that no civilised authority can permit. Besides, more often than not, the poor are driven towards disaster by lack of state care in certain critical areas.

Most of the poor families have no means to deal with emergencies, such as sudden illness, accident and collapse of enterprise. They cannot enter a decent hospital without coughing up cash and the small entrepreneur is entitled to neither credit nor insurance. In most cases, families fall into the moneylenders’ trap out of sheer despair.

Thus, neither Balochistan nor Punjab — and there is no reason why Sindh and KP should not join them — can expect that their legal instruments alone can free the people of a usury-like evil. A lot more will need to be done. The state must guarantee all its citizens affordable health facilities and insurance cover to all economic operations. At the same time, credit-supply institutions must be created to meet the needs of less resourceful people. The absence of such facilities is a principal reason for the poor to go to moneylenders or join the hordes of bonded labour.

Tailpiece: Down with parliament. The people should be gratified to learn that parliaments have caused greater havoc in Pakistan than dictators. This message should be spread throughout the length and breadth of the country with appropriate examples of parliaments’ sins and dictatorship’s blessings.

It is impossible to forgive parliaments for their horrible misdeeds, such as granting voting right to all adults including women and slave-labourers and the creation of writ jurisdiction in high courts in the 1950s to the acceptance of some of the federating units’ demands for autonomy and recognition of the right to education and fair trial in 2010. Down with parliament for all this mischief.

At the same time, the dictators are wrongly blamed for destroying democracy repeatedly (1958, 1969, 1977 and 1999), for the country’s disintegration in 1971, and for the war to promote the Kalashnikov-drug culture. These are canards spread by unpatriotic elements. A dictator could do no wrong and that is what Pakistan needs above everything else. Hail the new dictators, stupid.

Published in Dawn, September 4th, 2014