Foolish and dangerous

Source: Published in Current Affairs on Thursday, April 10, 2014

CHARLES Dickens was not the only one to call the law an ass — many others have been driven to that conclusion, especially in countries like Pakistan. But how big an ass the law can be has been demonstrated by the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government.

An ordinance promulgated by the KP governor last February provides for a novel way to punish the victims of terrorist attacks. The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Sensitive and Vulnerable Establishments and Places (Security) Ordinance divides vulnerable places into three categories and lays down how the owners should assume responsibility to fight off the terrorists.

In whatever category one may fall, failure to comply with the law will earn him imprisonment for up to one year, or a fine of up to Rs40,000, or both. As a senior lawyer from Peshawar put it, the victim of a terrorist attack, if he survives, may have to pay Rs40,000 and stay in jail for a year.

In this law of extraordinarily broad application, the phrase “sensitive establishments and places” covers all “sensitive government/non-government institutions, religious places, offices of non-governmental organisations, and foreign projects or any other office, institution or place [such] as government may, from time to time, declare as sensitive establishment and place”.

For any place declared sensitive by a district committee, headed by an assistant commissioner, a security plan will be devised by the committee and the owners will be obliged to adopt it. If anyone engages two guards against the committee’s order for three or the guards have ordinary guns where Kalashnikovs have been prescribed he will be in trouble.

Another category of terrorists’ possible targets comprises “utility service providers” and that “means and includes any person, company, authority, firm that for the time being is providing the services of electricity, gas, telephone, water and sanitation, drainage, postal and other civic services”.

All these utility providers in each district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa “shall be responsible for ensuring that no unauthorised intervention has been made to their installations nor any suspicious material has been planted. For this purpose, they shall detail the inspection team consisting of such members as they may deem appropriate in order to check the installations on regular basis”.

In other words the suppliers of electricity, gas or telephone services will regularly inspect the transformers, and electricity and telephone poles and make sure that no bomb is planted anywhere. The suppliers of water may be able to check the overland pipes but how will the drainage staff check the bodies of dirty water?

The third category of places, “vulnerable establishments and places” “means and includes hospitals, banks, money changers, financial institutions, firms, companies, industrial units, educational institutions, public parks, private clinics, wedding halls, petrol and CNG stations, jewellery shops, hotels (three-star and above), any amusement or entertainment centres, public transport terminals, special bazaars, commercial streets, shops or shopping arcades, or any other place [such] as government may, from time to time, notify.”

All vulnerable establishments and places are obliged “to make appropriate and sufficient security arrangements for themselves”.

The first remarkable thing about this category is that it covers all places of business, activity and entertainment. Private homes, including jhuggis and hotels less than three-star, buses, rickshaws and tongas are not at the moment included in the list but only till the government decides to include them.

The second remarkable feature is the definition of “security arrangement”. According to this law it means “both physical and technical arrangement, including the provision of CCTV cameras, biometric system, walkthrough gates, security alarm and modern gadgetry”. The possibility of other instruments being added to make the arrangement “appropriate and sufficient” cannot be ruled out.

The authors of this extraordinary piece of legislative chicanery have simply prescribed the security plan for their Governor’s House for owners of humbler places who certainly do not possess the resources spent on the security of the high and mighty. Those who lack the means to have the kind of security arrangement expected of them may have to choose between jail and closure of their enterprises.

The premises and places described as sensitive or vulnerable are precisely the points the law-enforcement agencies have for years been directed to keep a special watch on. The ordinance relieves them of most, if not all, their counterterrorism duties. Indeed, the KP government can be accused of abdicating its primary responsibility for guaranteeing the security of citizens.

The measure will have disastrous effects. A government that is unable to protect the people loses all claim to their loyalty. The state will fall in the estimation of ordinary citizens and its writ will shrink further. The terrorists, and ordinary criminals too, will be emboldened to plunder and otherwise harass the citizens abandoned by the state.

The KP government would be well-advised to take the measure back before the charge of foolishness is added to its indictment for incompetence.

Tailpiece: The much neglected street children have done Pakistan proud by winning laurels at an international soccer tournament. No words of praise for them will be too high and no honour too extravagant. Their exploit also brings into focus the myopic policies of sport barons. The best reward for these boys will be to start giving football the attention it deserves. Otherwise these street children will wither away alike the street children boxers who used to win medals for Pakistan not so long ago.

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Written by I.A. Rehman

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