It was October 13, 2021; the venue was Charing Cross (in front of the Punjab Assembly building), The Mall, Lahore, and dozens of persons, sitting on the road with white canes in their hands, raising slogans for regularisation of their services in government departments, and fulfilment of the promises, made with them by successive governments.
The sit-in continued for a week, but nothing constructive happened on part of the government, except for an “attack” on the protesters on October 19, by a group of around 70 traders from a nearby big market. They pushed the white-cane holders away from the road, as the Eid Miladun Nabi procession was set to pass through the road and the sit-in was a hurdle to its way. Eight special persons were hospitalised after injuries.
The sit-in continued for over two weeks until the protesters got dejected, and even the media also lost interest in covering it. Most of the sit-in participants left the venue after falling ill or for other reasons, and the media didn’t know when all of the white-cane holders had left the protest venue one after the other, and the road was cleared for normal flow of traffic. What a great strategy on part of the government!
And after the passage of around 37 days of the “failed sit-in”, Prime Minister Imran Khan appeared on TV, reiterating his government’s commitment “to transform the lives of those with disabilities by offering them equal opportunities in education and employment”. In his message on International Day of Persons with Disabilities on Dec 4, 2021, he gave the disabled persons good news that a bill to empower and enable them surmount all barriers was ready.
The Prime Minister must be appreciated by all special persons for giving them the great news. Otherwise, something worse might also have happened to them. Last year, on February 13, 2020, the Sardar Usman Buzdar-led Punjab government had “locked” at least 70 people with visual disabilities at a shelter house in Lahore for “planning” a protest demonstration outside the Chief Minister’s House.
Various “would-be” protesters complained about maltreatment at the hands of the police. “The police trapped us; they hit us and even tore off our clothes,” a protester told the electronic media. “I just asked the police to open the gate, and they responded by choking me,” another white-cane holder told a reporter. The riot police were deployed outside the shelter home following the “chaos”. And earlier, in November 2019, the special people called off their week-long protest after the government had assured them that their demands would be met within 35 days. The visually impaired people have been holding annual protests in Lahore for the last seven years.
These are a few glimpses of how the government and society take the visually impaired and other special persons and how sensitive they are to their needs. Muhammad Ashraf, a daily-wager employee at a government department for the last six year, has been part of the sit-ins during the past years. “You can’t even imagine how much contempt, mockery and even scorn we have to face at the hands of the police and the public while holding a sit-in,” Ashraf shares his agony with the writer. Most of them would say: “Hafij ji, tumhen koi kaam nahin, rozana yahan aa kar beth jatay ho? (O blind men, don’t you have anything else to do; every other day, you stage a protest here and block the road?). “I believe they would have never been part of any protest demonstration to get their rights. How would they know what it means to sit on a road for many days and nights and not only experience insults but also physical abuse many a time,” adds the man in his early thirties, in a gloomy voice. “We may be blind, but the government is deaf, dumb and blind. They don’t listen to our grievances despite the passage of many years,” says Muhammad Ashraf.
“Every time, they tell us, from the prime minister and the chief minister, to their representatives, who come to us asking us to end the protest, that legislation is in process. That the job quota for special persons will be increased and all daily-wagers would be regularised. None of them has told us during the past five, six years that legislation has been completed and our jobs have been regularised,” he says helplessly.
And what about the implementation of the existing laws, concerning the safety of workers? According to the All Pakistan Wapda Hydro Electric Workers Union (CBA), more than 200 workers die and almost double of them become disabled on average every year due to non-implementation of safety laws. The union leaders say that due to a lack of safety regulations implementation at the workplace, Pakistan is being termed one of the most dangerous countries for field staff on the basis of a high number of deaths and disabilities in mines, textile, chemical, transport and other industries.
And last but not the least, there is a specific sector which needs immediate attention of the government, to save the future generations from disabilities. Only a few people would know that a Pakistani scientist, Prof. Dr. Aurangzeb Hafi, was offered British citizenship and two million pounds sterling for providing the original manuscript of his research about the prevention of disabilities among unborn babies. He was contesting for the prestigious international title “Man of the Year 2003 in Interdisciplinary Sciences”, and the offer was made to him by the London-based International Scientific Council.
Later, on the basis of his scientific discoveries, Prof. Hafi was declared sixth among “Top of the Top Ten” most impactful persons of the world. And fewer people would know that Prof. Hafi had been running a campaign for over seven years seeking legislation against the use of teratogens substances in medicines as an ingredient, which cause physical and chemical abnormalities during the embryonic stages. The professor says there are dozens of medicines containing teratogens, which have been banned in the US, Sweden and other Scandinavian countries. But, in Pakistan and other developing countries, these medicines are still being prescribed and used without realising their lethal effects on the baby at the embryonic stages. He has prepared a list of about 380 medicines containing teratogens in his annotation conspectus inquiry titled “Embryonic-Iatrogenesis Causality Annotation Broadsheet (EICAB)”, which had been submitted to the United Nations for stressing the need to launch a forceful campaign in developing countries to make legislation on the issue and raise awareness about its usage and its consequences. He wants the government of Pakistan to legislate on the issue to bring to an end the pharmaceutical barbarianism in the country.
The writer is a physician by profession. She worked as an intern at the Capital Health (New Jersey) & the Mount Sinai St. Luke’s Hospital (New York). Rights and gender issues are the areas of special interest to her. She can be reached at: [email protected]