Water car: Preaching intellectualism in a society of illiterates

Published: September 15, 2012
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So when was the last time we heard our intellectuals giving speeches in the masses or reaching out to the public? DESIGN: ERUM SHAIKH

So, it’s been more than a month since a ‘messiah’ from the underprivileged led people to believe that he can cure the energy crises, not only of the nation but the entire world.

Engineer Agha Waqar from Pakistan spoke of a car that runs only on water as fuel. Some called him crazy, many more called him a fame-hungry small-town engineer and noted local scientists, they labelled him a fraud. Pervez Hoodbhoy, went one step further observing how far Pakistan has fallen into the pit of ignorance and reflected on the decline in the level of public intellect.

Well the whole episode doesn’t speak as loud about the intellect of the masses of Pakistan as it speaks about the role of intellectuals in this society.

In fact, about the absence of such a role.

Being from a science background, I found the claim highly ignorant at first. But, far from being immediately nipped in the bud, it had a ripple effect, and till now there is no such concrete evidence in public which could rebut Engineer Agha Waqar in a live debate and cave him into submission. It has split the nation.

Had the same claim been made in the field of politics, people would have made their call by now. It would have been a true or false and not a ‘maybe’. This highlights the role of political commentators in our society who might be biased, but still actively involve the masses and lead the people to have their independent opinion about politics. This sadly cannot be said about any other field.

The claim of the effectiveness of Thar coal reserves is still unsettled, and now a car on water!

To give perspective, Pakistanis on average don’t have a high literacy rate (58% as per the Pak economic survey 2011-12) but the population comprises of mainly youth (60% under the age of 30 years) and the youth is always eager to learn. They might not be inclined towards proper schooling but if they are politically active, they will hear you out and even listen.

So when was the last time we heard our intellectuals giving speeches in the masses or reaching out to the public? Only certain noted economists and intellectuals write in English based newspapers, less than that actually write for the common people in laymen’s language.

And Pakistan is not the only country to face this dilemma. When fake claims of financial success were made by spirited US politicians eager to bag the vote banks, economists like Paul Krugman stepped in. And, as he claims in his book ‘Pop Internationalism’ back in the 90’s, that it is the responsibility of the better minds to communicate to the common people and not the vice versa.

If Stephen Hawking, the greatest living physicist among us, can take some time out to pen his findings in the least complicated manner, with just one equation in the entire book, I see no reason why there are no weekly columns by master economists and scientists on basic fundamentals of their respective fields.

In the US presidential election debates, when the republicans or democrats vow to create employment, the public immediately questions ‘how’. This is the achievement of their intellectuals who have, through decades, educated the voters about the fundamentals. Sadly, here, the claim of employment creation by a fiercely outspoken politician goes unnoticed as there are no economists who can shout back with the same ferocity. And as Hitler used to say that it’s the ‘orators’ who change the world.

So although, the claim by engineer Agha Waqar reached out to the common people, his rebuttals have only reached out to a very limited English speaking population which already was sceptical of such a breakthrough. It is the growing gap between the technocrats and common people which gives rise to confusion and populist theories.

In some regions of Sindh, Agha Waqar is already a living legend. In others, the mullahs are, because they actually talk to the public.

I remember Fatima Bhutto was worried about the prospects of her book ‘Songs of Blood and Sword’. Her concern was that only a minimal percent of Pakistani population can read English and so the majority would not understand her work. I wish the intellectuals in our society could think on the same lines.

A column by Nadeem F. Paracha in Urdu would make more sense if he actually wants to change the society and also a translation of Hawking’s work by Hoodbhoy. Till then cars can run on water only and planes can fly on air itself.

This blog originally appeared here.

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Sarim Irfan

Sarim Irfan

The author works in financial services in London and has written various short plays and short movies, which have won local community awards in Dubai and have also been featured at the Dubai International Film Festival. He is currently part of the improv theatre community in London. He tweets @SarimIrfan twitter.com/SarimIrfan

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