To achieve real citizen input in government development and infrastructure projects, Abdul Baseer Naveed is providing a framework for professional associations, trade unions, and community groups to voice their opinions openly and to work with the government to design solutions.
The New Idea
Abdul is bringing together trade unions, community organizations, and associations of doctors, teachers, lawyers, and journalists to challenge government actions that, in the name of development, run counter to the public will. Through his Citizen Action Committee, he is orchestrating effective citizen participation and forcing the government to negotiate plans and design projects with citizen input. The committee meets frequently to prioritize problems, determine a plan of action, and set in motion a series of actions–signature campaigns, surveys and data-gathering projects, meetings with government officials–that stand the best chance for successful negotiation. Through these measures, Abdul has been successful in helping citizens shape municipal policies relating to school tuition and fees, workers' compensation, transportation charges and route permits, and allocation of women's seats in buses and wagons. Now he has turned his attention to countering development projects that seek to displace the poor in favor of private interests. Most notably, he is leading the way for a proposed redesign of the Karachi Expressway to prevent about 40,000 people from being displaced. By setting a precedent in this case, he would save another million who are threatened with eviction without compensation in similar projects around the country.
Pakistan's transition to a more open, democratic society is both promising and problematic. While it offers hope for the country to move beyond its history of repeated military governments, older institutions, now obsolete, have yet to be replaced by functional new ones, causing an institutional vacuum in which strong interest groups hold sway over government policies. As the political leadership places personal gain over public interest in decision-making, and development projects are designed with the input only of those who will directly profit from them, the human and constitutional rights of Pakistani citizens are regularly ignored and violated.
As the space for people to negotiate with the government shrinks, the citizen input that could help shape these policies to reflect the broader interests of the society–input that is necessary for a healthy democracy–is increasingly absent. When the government is unable to rule by law, force is used and laws are changed. Examples range from the restructuring by the military-led regime of the constitution under the "law of necessity" to uncompensated evictions for hastily planned projects relying heavily on inappropriate, imported technologies. Without their members risking their lives, their property, or their reputations, trade unions, community organizations, and professional associations, usually working separately, are unable to express concerns or stand up for their rights in the face of coercion by more powerful parties. Without the leverage to demand a place at the table where government policies are drawn, citizens' voices remain absent.
Abdul sees that bringing the right people together and providing them with a framework for action is critical for Pakistan now. Citizens are struggling to see some order emerge from the chaos born of conflict in the region, migration of peoples, and natural disasters like drought and floods. Under the umbrella of the Committee for Citizen Action, he brings together people who can make a difference, equips them with structure and contacts, and sets the tone of persistent, proactive input based on research and planning. Having secured a permanent meeting place at the Pakistan Medical Association's office in the center of Karachi, Abdul initiates discussions that identify the material and systemic problems and then leads the group in positioning itself and designing negotiation tools. Once a course of action is set, the group typically meets with the leaders of other concerned parties, educating them about the common problems and interests. The coming together is demonstrated in the form of a public event that not only secures media attention but also helps the group to assess the level of public support it enjoys on that issue. At the gathering, the government is asked to provide remedies, and the group presents its readiness to work out a win-win situation that does not sacrifice the public interest.
The three areas in which the Citizen Action Committee is currently broadening the space for negotiations–forced evictions, public transportation, and education–illustrate the wide range and potential impact of Abdul's approach.
Currently, the Citizen Action Committee is helping community groups both to negotiate with the government on the resettlement of displaced people and to devise methods for avoiding further evictions resulting from construction of the Lyari Expressway. Through demonstrations, media campaigns, and the application of international pressure to the highway department, evictions have been temporarily halted. Now, to create the necessary leverage with which to negotiate, Abdul is bringing in new strategic partners. With the help of the Karachi Urban Resource Center, Abdul has linked the community groups with the Asian Coalition for Housing Rights and organized a fact-finding mission to allow the group to examine a comprehensive picture of all evictions and probable displacements because of major government projects, thus helping the committee to create a common platform for all the displaced people. At the same time, Abdul is working to bring the Pakistan Engineering Council, an association of engineers, into the fold of the committee. Having already persuaded a group of engineers to evaluate the government design of the expressway, Abdul aims to mobilize civil and environmental engineers to be a responsible challenge to the government. By involving the Engineering Council as one of the arbitrators–a group seen as credible and independent–Abdul believes the government will have to look at the project through the lens of public interest. By forcing them to reconsider the design and implementation of development projects, the committee can negotiate for the provision of the internationally accepted compensation of "equal or better housing conditions to the affected people as they had prior to displacement."
Through a similar method, Abdul is drawing attention to public transportation in general and to Karachi's mass transport specifically. With assistance from the Karachi Urban Resource Center, he has brought together transporters and citizens to create a dialogue on how to improve the current public transport system with the aid of the municipality. At the same time, Abdul is pushing the city government to revive the circular railway, construct the northern bypass, and critically review the possibility of a sea transport system around the coast. Through this campaign, the committee is offering a plan that introduces a low-cost transport system designed by local engineers, in sharp contrast to the city government's current policy of opting for high-cost and imported public transport facilities paid for through international loans. In addition to involving local engineers, Abdul is supporting the group's efforts through public action and a media campaign. For example, the committee will organize a "traffic week," to be followed by a signature campaign, to demonstrate citizen initiative and interest in this area.
Apart from issues related to housing and transportation, the committee is also campaigning about the education system in Pakistan. Through the primary and secondary school teachers' association, the committee is highlighting and protesting the deliberate neglect of the government school system with the aim of creating favorable public opinion for its privatization and thereby bringing the public schools under community control and reducing the inefficiencies that make the system so costly. In addition to a media campaign, the committee is engaging the professional institutions to identify the key public concerns and to prepare a paper comparing the private and government schools in terms of cost, quality, and outreach. The paper will help the committee create a public debate, and by using the government's proposal of involving parent teacher associations and community groups, demonstrate a more effective way of imparting primary and secondary education.
Abdul has a history of bringing people together and organizing them on a single platform to prevent the government from unilaterally sacrificing public interest in favor of private gains. While still a student, he protested at a public meeting against the government's decision to raise school fees. He saw the increase as denying the poor their right to an education and therefore the right to be responsible citizens. This line of thinking carried him from being an active member of the National Student Federation to being an active trade union leader.
As a union worker, he learned the skills required for social mobilization, negotiation, and drafting demands. The experience also made him realize that there were many in the movement who might take advantage of their leadership by selling out the cause. Disillusioned by trade union activity, he joined a private pharmaceutical company and started to organize intellectuals to discuss ways to safeguard the rights of Pakistani citizens. These discussions succeeded in bringing together intellectuals from different ethnic groups to discuss the causes of the ethnic conflicts wracking the nation and how to start a peace campaign. As he made connections with other groups to involve them in the process, this campaign grew, gaining him a reputation among political parties, professional associations, journalists, and trade unions as someone who can contact and unite diverse groups to solve common problems.
In 1997 he left his job with the pharmaceutical company and started to engage the various groups with which he had worked to establish a common platform. In February 2001 he formed the Citizen Action Committee to address civic problems relating to transportation, education, and housing.