Posts Tagged ‘Taj Mahal’

Civil Society: Myth or Toothless Tiger?

April 3, 2016

By Anjum Altaf

I had proposed a civil society initiative to constitute a People’s Planning Commission as a possible check on wasteful expenditures of public money by the state (Taj Mahal and the Planning Commission, The News, March 25, 2016). The responses received suggest that readers are in agreement with my critique of the existing Planning Commission but skeptical of the recommendation for civil society activism.

The reservations extend from questioning the very existence of civil society, to pointing out its fragmentation, to asking whether it has any way of choosing qualified individuals. These are legitimate questions, and given that I believe civil society activism to be virtually the only mechanism for moving forward in Pakistan, the onus of arguing the case is on me.

The concept of civil society is simple. Subtract from our universe the spheres of the state and the market along with their associated organizations and what we are left with is the sphere of civil society. The rationale for this division is that the state and the market have the power to take actions that impact the lives of members of civil society but the latter, as individuals, do not have the power to resist these actions if they are unjust, unfair, or in any way detrimental to their welfare. Civil society activism is the attempt to make possible collective actions to protect or advance the interest of citizens. The vehicle for such actions are voluntary organizations that are non-state and not-for profit.

As a citizen without power I consider myself a member of civil society and the opinion I wrote was a manifestation of civil society activism in that it proposed an action that would protect or advance the interests of citizens in a situation where I felt those interests were being jeopardized. In that sense, all citizens without state or market power who advocate change are activists belonging to civil society.

As mentioned above, civil society activism at the level of the individual can suggest ideas for action but cannot substitute for the action itself which requires collective effort. This brings us face to face with the reality that civil society is not a monolith with all members in agreement over what is to be done or how. On the contrary, civil society is fragmented with many interest groups often acting at cross purposes. To add to the complication, civil society actions can also be malevolent, dishonest, and welfare-reducing.

It is not this complexity that is surprising; rather it is the expectation that civil society can be anything but otherwise and the conclusion that this complexity renders civil society completely ineffective. The real world incorporates a political process in which many competitive interests are at play. In such a process the choice is not between doing nothing and conjuring up some mythical super-united countervailing power. The choice is between passive acceptance and engagement, between remaining silent spectators and articulating a voice and then strengthening the effectiveness of that voice. This is hardly a choice even when the odds appear insurmountable at the outset – the battle is surely lost without an engaged citizenry.

The argument that civil society has no way of nominating or selecting individuals to represent its interests is also based on a misleading conception. Civil society is not a political party that has to hold nation-wide elections or choose out of a list of all eligible candidates; rather, civil society activism involves the coming together of a sufficient number of concerned individuals to contribute a countervailing voice in the political process and in the realm of ideas.

Some examples should both clarify and put to rest these concerns. The number of effective citizen watchdog groups in the USA is an obvious starting point. These include the American Civil Liberties Union, Common Cause, Judicial Watch, US Public Interest Research Group among many others. A number of Truth and Reconciliation Commissions have been formed through civil society activism and the Vietnam War Crimes Tribunal initiated by Bertrand Russell was a powerful intervention challenging the narrative of the state.

In India, the People’s Union for Civil Liberties has for long been a credible voice. Within Pakistan, one can credit the slow and continuous pressure exerted by a coalition of women’s groups to reverse the negative legacies of the Zia era and to push through new legislation.

For those who continue to doubt, the most stunning recent example has been the success of civil groups lobbying for same-sex marriage across the world. The opposition to such a change was immense within the state, the religious establishment, and within civil society itself. The objective seemed unattainable, yet the relative speed with which the tide turned is testimony to the power of civil society irrespective of how one might view the action itself.

With this background, the way forward for those wanting to establish a public watchdog in Pakistan should be quite clear. All it requires is for five individuals with professional competence and recognition to announce their availability. From there on, it would be a patient struggle using right-to-information provisions, public interest litigation, establishing people’s tribunals for specific issues, and a broad educational and support mobilization campaign. All this may appear daunting but nothing ever comes easily and all journeys begin with a small and seemingly inconsequential step.

This opinion appeared in The News on April 2, 2016 and is reproduced here with permission of the author.

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Taj Mahal and the Planning Commission

March 25, 2016

By Anjum Altaf

The Taj Mahal was the nub of the argument in a recent opinion by Dr. Nadeem ul Haque on the Planning Commission (Should we have a planning commission? The News, November 3, 2015). I feel both sides of the argument were misplaced and am elaborating my view in keeping with the exhortation of the author to “let the debate go on.”  

Dr. Haque quoted Khawaja Asif as saying that “If there had been a Planning Commission the Taj Mahal would not have been built!” He then retorted by writing: “First, let us tell Khawaja Asif that he is very right. Taj Mahal, an ageing emperor’s whim, should not have been built in any case. The Planning Commission was built to keep such whims in check.”

There are two questions at issue: Should the Taj Mahal have been built? And: What is the role of the Planning Commission? In addressing these questions both sides have lost sight of the most crucial ingredient in any debate – the context.

I suppose what one would like to see across time is the avoidance of outlandish projects. In the context of its time, that of the age of monarchy, the Taj Mahal was not at all outlandish. In fact, it was quite the norm – from the time of the Pharaohs, kings and emperors built mausoleums for themselves. The only difference as far as the Taj Mahal was concerned was that it was particularly elegant – truly a marvel of aesthetics and architecture.

It is also misleading to say that there was no planning commission in the age of monarchy – the advisory body just assumed different forms. In fact, the caliber of the nauratans in Akbar’s court far exceeded that of those who pass as ministers these days. There is little doubt that emperors sought the guidance of their advisors but it is more relevant to recall that in those times all wealth and property belonged to the monarch who ruled by divine right – the monarch was not answerable to anyone for his or her choices.

Under the norms of monarchy, it was perfectly acceptable to build the Taj Mahal. Ironically, even if a Planning Commission had been present, it would have congratulated itself for approving the construction. Over its lifetime, it has generated far more in tourism revenues than its cost – something a Planning Commission is intended to ensure. Not just that, it has become an iconic symbol of India, making the country known in the farthest corners of the world. The payoff to the project has been huge.

In that light, similar investments in pyramids, cathedrals, mosques, palaces, and forts during the age of monarchy are what constitute the cultural heritage that is a huge draw for modern-day pride and pleasure. To write them off as whimsical is to be both ahistorical and short-sighted.

The above notwithstanding, we have moved on to the era of representative governance in which the wealth of the nation belongs not to the state but to the people to whom the state is accountable. So, contrary to what Khawaja Asif implies, the state is not entitled to build a Taj Mahal today without the consent of the taxpayers.

This is not to say that a Taj Mahal cannot be built in our time. It can, as long as the builder is using his or her own money to do so. For example, Donald Trump can quite lawfully build the Trump Taj Mahal (note the value of the name) in Atlantic City, Ahsanullah Moni can build one in Sonargaon, Mukesh Ambani can build an Antilia in Mumbai, and our own rulers can construct palaces with gold-plated faucets in various places. No one can object except to question the taste and the sources of wealth in some instances.

But the state or representatives of the state cannot make such edifices using the money of taxpayer. In our times, these would be outlandish projects and the Planning Commission is intended to prevent them by keeping the monarchical proclivities of our rulers under control.

And that brings us to the real issue – the fact that under a representative cloak our rulers continue to harbor monarchical tendencies and ambitions. It is very hard for them to submit to the control and accountability of citizens or of institutions designed to act as watchdogs on behalf of citizens.

The fact that the state controls the appointment of officials to such institutions renders the latter ineffectual. The further fact that most officials appointed to such institutions themselves aspire to become part of the darbar puts paid to any remaining institutional effectiveness. Given this contextual reality, there is really no point in having the kind of hobbled and crippled planning commission that we have today.

Dr. Haque is also quite right in his observations about the foreign donors who are supposed to assist with projects in Pakistan. Most of their representatives assume the mentality of colonial governors who know better than the natives what the natives should get. They are just as impatient with watchdog institutions as the native rulers.

In order to keep in check the anachronistic tendencies of our native rulers and foreign benefactors, a planning commission acting on behalf of citizens is essential. However, expecting the one we have to fulfil that function is to be completely unrealistic. What we need is a People’s Planning Commission, a set of experts appointed by civil society, to rigorously evaluate and critique all projects proposed by the state. In our neo-monarchical era citizens have to strive for creative ways to protect their interests.

This opinion appeared in The News on March 25, 2016 and is reproduced here with the author’s permission.

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