In search of alternatives

Miseries are associated with the schadenfreude of someone else. One’s gain is another’s loss, they say. In Pakistan, the socio-economic hardships are either blamed on flawed governmental policies or big businesses working in collusion. In the past, this notion had thrust us to witch-hunt the so-called 22 families and led to a disastrous nationalization campaign. Let’s deconstruct whether big actors are so bad or these are just realist business-minded entities acting on demand sans much concern about the moral footing. In our case, the usually hated corporate sectors are petroleum, big pharma, sugar barons, tech giants, and financial institutions, to name a few.

Let’s start with fossil fuels. Burning of non-renewable fossils enhances greenhouse gasses and damages the environment and public health. The extraction process is also replete with fracking and spilling incidents. Despite all the bad labels, fossil fuel is still the leading contributor to the global energy mix. We are struggling to shift to alternatives owing to low energy density and the intermittency of other fuel choices besides storage constraints. The high infrastructural and transition costs of other options perch fossil fuel as an ultimate winner. Developing countries are stuck in a fossil groove. The rut may not be ascribed to the machinations of oil and gas cartels wholesale. The failure is also on the transition side. If we just expedite our shift to green energy, we will get the transition fruit that is indeed not so low-hanging.

Similarly, another villain in the town is big pharma. A prevailing perception about big pharma is akin to a cartel. They are blamed for being in collusion with medical practitioners by extending lavish foreign trips, kickbacks, and under-the-counter funds. In turn, practitioners prescribe undue medicinal brands sans considering cost-effectiveness and necessity factors. Pharmaceutical entities are also blamed for being the inventors of viral infections to then crack the silver bullet. The claims are insubstantial and absurd but do portray the layman’s worldview towards otherwise noble service. Having said that, the claims do miss the pharmaceuticals’ heavy investment in the R&D sector. Alternatively, we have either placebo-nocebo remedies or snake oil sellers. A world without big pharma may not be a desirable place to live in. The wrong practices within the pharma sector hint towards the inefficiency of DRAP which fails to keep tabs on the subjects.

Moreover, sugar barons are considered a mafia. Whopping profits are set aside by exploiting sugarcane growers and fleecing customers equally. Nonetheless, what are the alternate options at hand? Calls to introduce jaggery as a sugar alternative are preposterous. Both are obtained from sugarcane syrup and have similar caloric profiles. The exploitation and hardships of sugarcane growers have galvanized them to hop over other crops. This situation will ultimately lead us to import sugar, minus sugar barons but with a higher end price. Sugar cartels do not operate in silos but stand on a superstructure laid down by unscrupulous government officials, middlemen, and hoarders. They are equally responsible for the dismal situation at hand.

In the same vein, tech giants are hated for their hegemony, a medium to spread propaganda against cultural mores and religious convictions, feeding with unwanted content, diminishing

creativity, and simply stealing data. These are also labeled as biased. Academicians, artists, and enterprises are fearful of Artificial Intelligence’s incursions. Now pause for a second and imagine a world without tech. How would travel navigation be without GPS? Freedom of speech will not be as free as it stands today. The contributions of tech in educational and informational domains are unparalleled. The apprehensions, especially at the onset of the Gaza conflict, do hold water; but these apprehensions cannot be addressed without nurturing any alternate organic solution. Of late, none of the prominent tech companies station their headquarters in Pakistan. Our unicorn setups prove either non-starter or damp squib considering our structural and capacity constraints.

Another hated sector is financial lending institutions. The hatred for the IMF is an open secret in Pakistan. Do we have such financially sustainable policies that would help us survive without any external help? After all, this is Pakistan that solicits Bretton Wood institutions for help.  Financial institutions do come up with their plan of action. Beggars can’t be choosers, they say. The elephant in the room is our fiscal indiscipline and capacity constraints rather than IMF’s not-so-pro-poor policy measures. Banks are considered as the avenues promoting un-Islamic Soodi Nizam (premium-based banking) without having an iota of idea about how financial systems work. The alternative Islamic banking systems are no more than the old wine in a new bottle. Baptizing has just pushed them to tinker names with an Arabic touch.

Things are not as plain as it seems on the surface. Venting out frustration by just labeling a particular sector pack of goons is easier said than done. We need to understand that we truly lack alternate options. The structural room should either be fulfilled by a viable alternative or else similar entities will keep propping up. Even the crusade against actual harmful sectors like the tobacco industry needs to be rationalized through incremental taxation and periodic phasing out. The wholesale bans even did not work in developed countries like New Zealand had to scrap its progressive smoking ban owing to unsustainability. Babbling gibberish may help in catharsis, but it will not bring a drastic change in the actual scheme of things. The true solution lies ahead of the thorny thoroughfare of practicalities. The sooner we understand, the better.

Muhammad Junaid
Muhammad Junaid
The writer can be reached at [email protected]

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