“Free” is the most ironic word in the English language, simply because it never means exactly what it is supposed to. Trust me, anywhere you read the offending word, be it on a beverage container or emblazoned in red on the signboard above a 24-hour clinic, there are always strings attached. You may not always be able to see these strings, and you will most certainly never hear about them from the people who are ‘selling’ you this so-called free stuff, but they are always there. Anyone who has ever tried to avail a ‘Free Trial’, be it an untested drug or a pornographic website, has always regretted falling for the oldest trick in the book.
This rule holds true for both the private and public sectors, but both go about implementing it in very different ways. In private enterprise, where products must be sold at all cost, it helps to use the offending word at least once on the packaging to make the consumer feel safe (in a “I’m-not-getting-ripped-off-too-much” sort of way). There is also always an asterisk* next to said word, which leads down to a ton of fine print. This kind of extra-small font text usually contains references to horrible things such as “a slow, painful death” or “massive financial liability”, as the case may be. You may not know it, but with each purchase of something as minute as a contraceptive, you can be signing over your future children to the estate of DewyCheatemandHowe, without batting an eyelash But you can be sure that no such organisation would ever be held accountable in case of a disaster, all because of that bloody fine print.
In the public sector, where accountability reigns supreme and (dis)information is a matter of life and death, the rules are slightly different. In the interests of transparency, any information that is deemed unfit for public consumption is simply left out. That’s right, you heard me; edited out, glossed over, ignored and omitted. Their logic is eye-ball numbingly simple, what you don’t know can’t bite them in the posterior. This practice is popularly known (in Karachi, mind you) as topi-baazi.
However, do not be deluded into thinking that this is some sort of malpractice, or that these faithful public servants have anything less than the best interests of the people at heart. In fact, it is in the pursuit of public happiness that ordinary sheep like you and me are kept ‘out of the loop’. Confused, allow me to blow your mind.
You see, the government is currently in the process of running a few cash grant schemes with hopelessly unachievable goals such as poverty alleviation, restoration of livelihoods and disaster-risk mitigation. These cash grants, which are essentially free payoffs to voters in any given constituency, are administered at the federal level by an organisation that has all the answers and shall hitherto be referred to as Big Brother. Big Brother, being the all-seeing mastermind type, also has all sorts of rules, mostly drafted to exclude genuine recipients and replace them with cronies, neighbours, friends, mistresses, friends’ mistresses and so on. But even this all powerful uber-sibling can’t be everywhere at once and needs to delegate. But in doing so, he has to do business with an unruly younger brother, who resents Big Brother because he feels usurped. With me so far?
Now the alienated underling feels that once authority has been devolved down to him, he can do pretty much what he wants to under a universal license to make a killing. Said license is then used against the hapless masses, who are then excluded from the original cash-grant scheme on the basis of ridiculous criteria. Under these criteria, anyone can be excluded, whether it is a disabled person, single-parent family, juvenile or a 16-year-old one-legged single mom from Muzaffargarh. Such heartlessness would put even Dick Dastardly to shame.
But the tragedy doth not endeth here. Under pressure from the pugnacious younger one, Big Brother caves in and lets him have his way. In doing so, he allows all his other siblings to flout these papier-mâché laws like so much trash. This benefits all the members of Big Brother’s family, down to their man-slaves from Dadu. The only people who do not see a single cent are the ones whose houses were destroyed by a force of nature so terrible that it makes all of the weapons in Big Brother’s arsenal look like pea shooters.
All of this brings us back to the duplicitous nature of the word “free”. Did you know that there is a place on this earth called “The Free World”. In this mythical land of fairy tales and elves, corruption, lies, deceit and videotaped intercourse are not totally unheard of. But life still goes on, far better than it does in our burnt down neck of the woods. But if merit ruled the world, they would call it the “Fair World”. But they don’t. And there’s a good reason for that.