WHAT the Government did to the protesting employees on Wednesday sent shockwaves across the country as it conveyed a vivid impression that citizens stand deprived of their democratic right of protest even if they are wronged.
The Red Zone of the Capital turned into a battleground when full might of the police force was used in an attempt to disperse protestors who were neither taking the law into their own hand nor making unconstitutional or illegal political demands but a pay raise for all employees in view of sky-rocketing inflation, a phenomenon that the Government itself has acknowledged at the high levels on a number of occasions. The free-for-all use of force including ruthless tear-gassing and baton charge were least expected against peaceful demonstrators who otherwise are regarded as implementation machinery of the Government.
The unfortunate clashes in the Red Zone were further manifestation of continued insensitivity of the Government towards the legitimate demands of the employees who have long been demanding an increase in their salaries in the backdrop of non-stop price-hike. It is understood that the price-hike is affecting all segments of the society but more so in the case of fixed income groups who have no other option to compromise their standard of living in the event of significant increase in prices of goods and services. The Federal Government should have increased salaries at the time of presentation of the budget for the year 2020-21 but it completely ignored the plight of its employees despite the fact that the Sindh Government, where PPP is in power, allowed an increase for the provincial employees.
The employees of the federal and other provincial governments as well as those belonging to different public sector corporations and entities have since been lodging protests and in fact, government teams did talk to them but without offering anything tangible except the lollipop of setting up of a Pay Commission that is unlikely to present its recommendations any time soon and there are also questions whether or not the authorities concerned would accept its proposals as in the past recommendations of such bodies were nearly assigned to dustbin.
The Government ought to have announced an interim relief pending recommendations of the Commission and their implementation but it only sought to buy time by holding meaningless dialogue with the protestors. Some federal ministers are holding protestors responsible for Wednesday’s ugly situation in the Capital claiming that they backtracked from an understanding arrived during negotiations for a 40% increase in the salaries of employees from grade one to sixteen. This thinking is seriously flawed and unjust as officers from scale-17 to 22 are also badly hit by inflation but unlike employees from grade-1 to 16 they cannot give voice to their demands as they are barred from forming unions/associations.
By refusing to compensate the government employees for the actual inflation, the Government is, in fact, forcing them to indulge in corrupt practices. In an ideal situation, the authorities should not have waited till holding of a massive demonstration by employees to listen to their demands (and that too in a discriminatory manner) as it has the paraphernalia to get data on inflation and its impact on employees and the general public. We have a democratically elected government in the country, which should have been sensitive to the plight of the people in general and its employees in particular but regrettably force was used against non-political protests. It is also scathing to hear arguments that the protestors were aided by the opposition parties whereas the fact remains they have been agitating for months and conveying their demands to the authorities concerned through their representatives. No doubt, the opposition has condemned action against them and supported their demands but all this was within the ambit of the law and democratic norms.
There is also an impression that by using brutal force against Government employees, Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmad has sent a message to the opposition about what is in store for PDM when it marches on Islamabad. One hopes instead of banking upon use of force to suppress legitimate demands, the Government would review its policy and immediately allow a handsome increase in salaries of all employees irrespective of grades and classes. Pensioners are also one of the most vulnerable segments of society and they also need similar relief without waiting for their protests to begin. The Government should not seek refuge behind excuses of tight financial position as it is for those in power to arrange resources and protect rights of disadvantaged people.