Nation on the verge of a nervous breakdown

The floods destroying Pakistan’s infrastructure are against a backdrop of corruption, impunity at th

This is the month of Pakistan's birth, the month that a generation once claimed for freedom and liberty. But on 14 August, its 63rd birthday, Pakistan was submerged. There was no fanfare as on previous anniversaries - no noisy street festivals marked by flag-waving and family outings, no young men on motorcycles paying homage to national monuments and shouting slogans into the open air, little celebratory music on state television. Instead, there were vigils, quiet remembrances and a solemn accounting of what has been one of Pakistan's most turbulent years since its proud but bloody inception.

According to the UN, the flooding has affected more than 14 million people, making it Pakistan's worst ever natural disaster. The government claims 20 million people - roughly 12 per cent of the population - have been affected. As I write, six million people are in desperate need of food aid, more than three million children are at risk of contracting fatal waterborne diseases, and millions more are displaced. Over two million acres of agricultural land have been ravaged. With the monsoon season still upon us, Pakistan's food belt, Punjab and Sindh Provinces, has been hit especially hard.

As the country suffered, the entire top echelon of the Pakistani state - led by the rapacious president, Asif Ali Zardari - embarked on a tour of Europe. First up was a visit to France: a handshake with the Sarkozys and then a jaunt to the president's private chateau. London was next, and the itinerary barely unchanged - handshake, swanning around, photo opportunities at stately houses. When asked by the BBC why he had abandoned his country as floods raged from the northernmost province to the southern tip of Pakistan, Zardari cleared his throat and replied that parliament was in session and that he, as a munificent democrat, had empowered others to deal with the dis­aster; the prime minister, Yousuf Raza Gilani, was on duty.

But even the city of Birmingham was not far enough away from Pakistan to protect Zardari from outrage at his feckless rule, as an old man, a supporter of his own party, lobbed two shoes at the president while he was addressing a crowd of British Pakistanis. Zardari's machine was quick to block reports of the attack appearing on Pakistani television channels and to restrict access to websites that carried accounts of how the shoe went flying towards the ducking president.

Back home in Pakistan, a scandal grew over parliamentarians who had fudged paperwork to claim that they possessed academic degrees - once a condition of participation in provincial or national politics. So far, of the 47 MPs shown to have bogus degrees, the largest number of offenders came from the president's Pakistan Peoples Party. One of its coalition partners, the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), had almost as many.

In the southern city of Karachi, meanwhile, human rights groups estimate that roughly 300 politicians and political activists have been murdered this year. In the first week of August, Raza Haider, a Sindh assembly member for the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (another coalition partner), was gunned down at a mosque. Since then, more than 50 people have been killed and another hundred-plus wounded in ethnic and partisan attacks. The response of the state, through the unelected minister of the interior, Rehman Malik, was to empower Karachi's elite Rangers squad with "shoot on sight" orders. More blood to quell the bloodletting.

The disasters pile up

There is worse. This year alone, Barack Obama's White House has sanctioned 70 Predator drone attacks on the north of the country, with one suspected attack ordered while the floods raged, killing 12 people. The Pakistani state, eager to be as willing an ally as possible without adding 49 stars to the national flag, has allowed the US to kill and maim from on high, resulting in the deaths of more than 200 unnamed, unindicted and unconvicted Pakistani citizens.

In the past month, Pakistan has also suffered its deadliest civil aviation disaster. A commercial airliner crashed in the Margalla Hills north of the capital, Islamabad, killing all 152 passengers on board. Families were distraught when the interior minister appeared on television to announce the surprise discovery of five female survivors of the crash only to return and admit that he had made a mistake.

As the disasters pile up, Lieutenant General Nadeem Ahmed, chairman of the National Disaster Management Authority, has estimated it will cost as much as £38m to fix the damage from the floods to highway infrastructure. Half that amount would be required for dam repair and maintenance. But the nation's coffers are empty. The hobgoblins at the helm of Pakistan's teetering state fail to remember the words of our founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, to those who would build Pakistan from nothing, raising a new nation out of centuries of colonial rule and violence: "I may tell you that unless you get this into your blood, unless you are prepared to take off your coats and are willing to sacrifice all that you can and work selflessly, earnestly and sincerely for your people, you will never realise your aim."

These floods are the cost of Pakistan's endemic corruption and political malfeasance. The vast numbers of people affected by the disaster multiply every day. They join the millions of other forgotten Pakistanis living in fear, hunger and homelessness.

This year, we marked our birth in silence.

This article first appeared in the 23 August 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Pakistan

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A simple U-Turn may not be enough to get the Conservatives out of their tax credit mess

The Tories are in a mess over cuts to tax credits. But a mere U-Turn may not be enough to fix the problem. 

A spectre is haunting the Conservative party - the spectre of tax credit cuts. £4.4bn worth of cuts to the in-work benefits - which act as a top-up for lower-paid workers - will come into force in April 2016, the start of the next tax year - meaning around three million families will be £1,000 worse off. For most dual-earner families affected, that will be the equivalent of a one partner going without pay for an entire month.

The politics are obviously fairly toxic: as one Conservative MP remarked to me before the election, "show me 1,000 people in my constituency who would happily take a £1,000 pay cut, then we'll cut welfare". Small wonder that Boris Johnson is already making loud noises about the coming cuts, making his opposition to them a central plank of his speech to Tory party conference.

Tory nerves were already jittery enough when the cuts were passed through the Commons - George Osborne had to personally reassure Conservative MPs that the cuts wouldn't result in the nightmarish picture being painted by Labour and the trades unions. Now that Johnson - and the Sun - have joined in the chorus of complaints.

There are a variety of ways the government could reverse or soften the cuts. The first is a straightforward U-Turn: but that would be politically embarrassing for Osborne, so it's highly unlikely. They could push back the implementation date - as one Conservative remarked - "whole industries have arranged their operations around tax credits now - we should give the care and hospitality sectors more time to prepare". Or they could adjust the taper rates - the point in your income  at which you start losing tax credits, taking away less from families. But the real problem for the Conservatives is that a mere U-Turn won't be enough to get them out of the mire. 

Why? Well, to offset the loss, Osborne announced the creation of a "national living wage", to be introduced at the same time as the cuts - of £7.20 an hour, up 50p from the current minimum wage.  In doing so, he effectively disbanded the Low Pay Commission -  the independent body that has been responsible for setting the national minimum wage since it was introduced by Tony Blair's government in 1998.  The LPC's board is made up of academics, trade unionists and employers - and their remit is to set a minimum wage that provides both a reasonable floor for workers without costing too many jobs.

Osborne's "living wage" fails at both counts. It is some way short of a genuine living wage - it is 70p short of where the living wage is today, and will likely be further off the pace by April 2016. But, as both business-owners and trade unionists increasingly fear, it is too high to operate as a legal minimum. (Remember that the campaign for a real Living Wage itself doesn't believe that the living wage should be the legal wage.) Trade union organisers from Usdaw - the shopworkers' union - and the GMB - which has a sizable presence in the hospitality sector -  both fear that the consequence of the wage hike will be reductions in jobs and hours as employers struggle to meet the new cost. Large shops and hotel chains will simply take the hit to their profit margins or raise prices a little. But smaller hotels and shops will cut back on hours and jobs. That will hit particularly hard in places like Cornwall, Devon, and Britain's coastal areas - all of which are, at the moment, overwhelmingly represented by Conservative MPs. 

The problem for the Conservatives is this: it's easy to work out a way of reversing the cuts to tax credits. It's not easy to see how Osborne could find a non-embarrassing way out of his erzatz living wage, which fails both as a market-friendly minimum and as a genuine living wage. A mere U-Turn may not be enough.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.