By: Murtaza Razvi
Paki is a Paki no matter where and what. Those complaining of racism abroad should also look at the way they’re treated at home. Please get it right: it is not always your colour or, of late, religion that may be responsible for the way you’re treated by goras and Arabs alike; it is the Pakistani identity. Those who are known to have little respect at home can lay claim to even less while in foreign lands. Forget the Pakistani police and the humiliation that comes with any interaction with them. Forget also the government officials at Nadra or the passport office who fleece the public. The going rate for ‘accepting’ your claimed bona fides at Nadra and the passport offices start from as low as Rs 50 and go as high as Rs 30,000. The former in case there is nothing wrong with your papers, the latter when you have forged papers.
Intimidation and the risk of running into trouble emerge every step of the way: from booking a train ticket, which now requires an ID card, to boarding an international flight. Past the immigration counter and before entering the departure lounge sit the FIA sleuths who, if you look uneducated, will pull you aside for whatever little you can spare to fill their pockets, even though you have officially been given the exit clearance by an immigration officer who has duly stamped your passport.
Recently, the corporate sector too has joined the official intimidation brigade. It now treats its ‘patrons’ and customers with no less contempt. The reason: perhaps the absence of a regime that guards you against the misuse of any personal, proprietary information that nobody knows exactly who can or cannot have access to. Starting from lucky draw schemes to acquiring a phone connection or getting a phone company or a bank to effect an address change, for instance, you are ‘required’ (says who and under what law?) to submit a copy of your identity card, and often your salary slip or income certificate. Why?
The practice is rampant, and so is the abuse that comes with it. Because of giving my ID card copies at every level, I discovered that I had eight cell phone connections when only one was actually genuinely mine. The onus was on me to correct the records, or else criminal proceedings could well be started against me in case a cell phone number was unknowingly issued in my name and used for subversive activities. And guess what? To correct the records, I had yet to give another copy of the ID card, with no guarantee whatsoever that it will not be abused again by someone in the same cell phone company, which had issued eight SIM cards in my name when I had only sought one. In any other country this could start a class action lawsuit against the alleged violator.
The problem with the ID card is that the identity number assigned to you immediately gives the asking authority or business access to your credit history, which is classified information in any civilised country, and there are rules and laws that govern who – and for what exact purpose – can have access to such personal information. We either have no privacy rules or they are flouted.
Once a bank or a cell phone company has your ID card number, an unscrupulous employee can open floodgates of intimidation and nuisance for you. You are profiled in their records, or in a crook employee’s personal database, according to your income and age. The list is then up for grabs by other businesses that will bombard you with their selling pitches and unsolicited offers. You can be offered a credit card, an additional cell phone number, a personal loan… the list goes on.
Why? Because having your ID card number they have already accessed your credit history and you seem a good catch. Lesser evils entail sharing your mobile numbers or bank account details with relatively smaller businesses, including travel agents, electronics, and real estate dealers.
In a nutshell, having an identity in Pakistan means an end to your privacy. Does it have to be this bad?
Certainly not. Other countries use a personal social security number or a national tax number instead for specific tasks, and much more discreetly. That number is not to be given out at the drop of a hat and is as secret as your personal identification number (PIN).
The national database needs to be made more secure and those requiring access to it to check the bona fides of a given citizen must come under greater checks and balances to avoid breach of a citizen’s privacy, and to ensure that one’s self-respect and integrity are not hurt in any manner.
Corporate entities and businesses must not require the submission of identity cards when soliciting applications for taking part in any redemption schemes or consumer incentives. Only the winners claiming the wins could be required to prove their identity when filing a claim. Then, the winners’ ID card numbers must not be printed with their names and addresses in newspaper advertisements, for they can be traced back to phone numbers and bank accounts.
It’s not that things cannot be fixed. It only took a State Bank directive to the banks, requiring all banks to collect utility bills that corrected the headache the bill paying was not until too long ago. Another case in point also relates to the State Bank. Arrogant bank clerks who refused to take sullied bank notes were made to post a sign at every branch that now says that the legal tender in any form is acceptable and can be exchanged for clean bank notes.
Since such matters of public interest are seldom taken up in parliament, one only hopes a higher court will take notice of such breaches of privacy of the ordinary citizen by government agencies and private businesses alike.