On doing things by half!


Friendly Fire

Khalid Saleem

The 90-day mantra raised its head once again in the Land of the Pure when the Kaptaan, himself had averred that he will end corruption in the country within 90 days of his coming to power. This would appear to be a rather tall undertaking as undertakings go, even coming from the leader himself, and it is not one’s intention to dare challenge him. What intrigues one though is the widespread mention of the period of 90 days in this blessed land. Think of anything and you are confronted with a mention of the 90-day period.
The Constitution fixes the interim period between a dissolved Parliament and the newly elected one at 90 days. The interim government set up to arrange fresh elections has its life limited to 90 days. And those dabbling in the study of recent history of this blessed land will recall that our erstwhile dictators began their regimes with the promise to restore the democratic government within a period of 90 days. What one is intrigued by is the blanket mention of the 90 day period. Why not 80 days or for that matter full 100 days?
One wonders if any of our other leaders have any constructive ideas about accomplishing diverse tasks in the period of 90 days! If so, they would be well advised to come up with these ideas soon. Our TV anchors, who never miss a cue, may wish to ask their honored guests in talk shows what they or their political parties intend to accomplish within this hallowed period. And, while they are at it, they may wish to dilate on what happened to those who failed to live up to their commitments vis-a-vis the 90-day period. But seriously, why is the period of 90 days figuring again and again in our archives?
On an allied note, one wonders if the gentle reader would recall that the once prevailing fashion was for important people to opt for accomplishing things ‘by half’. This is the circumspect method that provides ample flexibility when it comes to the crunch. Let us see how this mantra has worked out in the world at large.
Talk of poverty, illiteracy, shortage of clean drinking water – you name it – whenever the person in charge chooses to allude to it, he or she invariably unveils a strategy aimed at cutting it BY HALF (it is never less or more, but precisely half). This is not merely confined to individuals or even to politicians. It happens also in much wider contexts. For instance, it may be worth recalling that the UN-sponsored World Food Summit in 2002 – amidst ringing calls to halt the scourge of hunger – had, in its collective wisdom, opted merely to repeat a 1996 pledge to cut the hungry people of the world BY HALF by the year 2015. Presumably, this pledge is being reiterated ever since.
High-sounding speeches and well-worded resolutions do look good, but only on paper. With the benefit of hindsight, one can surmise that the pious resolutions of World Food Summits, as of other multilateral forums, are nowhere near achieving even their ‘half-hearted’ goals. In the Third World, most planners, aided and abetted by Western-educated economists and statisticians, continue to dole out pious resolutions to alleviate poverty, hunger and want BY HALF during a certain space of time. Makes a person wonder why the stress on doing things by half? Why not one-fourth, for instance, or one-third or even two-thirds for that matter?
The truth of the matter is that HALF is not just any arbitrary ratio. It has a connotation with a history – and science – behind it. So much so that such a complex thing as radioactivity itself is involved in this equation. Facts are as follows: all radioactive substances, it happens, are constantly losing their radioactivity. Also each such substance has a certain pre-destined and fixed “half-life”. In one of the mysteries of nature, the one constant in the life cycle of these substances is never the complete life or any odd part thereof but always the “half-life”. Now, what this jargon implies is that half of the substance “expires” during a certain fixed period of time. Subsequently, over the same time period half of the remainder would expire. And so on, ad infinitum. This is the immutable law of nature to perpetuate existence at least in so far as radioactive substances are concerned.
The aforementioned provides ample food for thought. In dealing by halves, nature has, in effect, ensured the survival of these otherwise highly volatile substances. Had the “life” period of these substances been fixed instead of “half-life”, the physical shape of the universe as we know it would long have been transformed. In other words, perhaps the dark forebodings of the doomsday merchants would have come to pass by now. The concept of “half-life”, therefore, is nature’s idea of a preservation package of sorts.
Be that as it may, one cannot help getting the queasy feeling that the idea of doing things by half implies that the problem in question is being shelved – put on the back burner so to speak. Political leaders, one finds, have readily fallen back on this handy formula. And the multilateral actors appear to have grasped it too. It is enough to give one the creeps! Radioactive substances notwithstanding, talking of cutting anything back “by half” does smack of a conscious effort to sweep the matter under the proverbial rug. Where does that leave our favorite 90-day mantra?
One passes that one on to the perspicacious reader!
— The writer is a former ambassador and former assistant secretary general of OIC.

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