`It was a good life'

Smoking out every symbol of the good life that was: coalition forces on the rampage  

GIVEN THAT truth is the first casualty of war, it is an interesting exercise to know how much distance lies between truth and media spin about Iraq. We have been told how Saddam Hussein was a monster who did not care much for his people and that his oil-rich country is armed to the teeth with chemical and biological weapons, none of which has been unearthed yet by the Anglo-American forces. In a chat with some Bangaloreans who have been to Iraq, the cradle of human civilisation (it was home to Mesopotamian, Sumerian, and Babylonian cultures), one came across much appreciation for the manner in which the average life of the Iraqi citizen was taken care of and some reservation on the absence of space to have an opinion on the government.

The conversations pointed to a facet common to pre-and post-sanctions Iraq: a disconnect between politics and everyday life and complete intolerance of dissent. The reasoning in the Saddam regime, which came to rule in the late '60s, went thus: reserve all opinion about the state and think only of daily life; everything will be provided for, but opinions will invite trouble. A crucial difference, however, post-sanctions, became evident: declining jobs and incomes, which was not the case the decade before.

N.T.L. Narasimhan, an engineer who worked in Iraq and Jordan between 1980 and 1990, observed that Iraqi public policy was sensitive. For instance, basic necessities for the average Iraqi in the '80s were never scarce even during the decade-long war with Iran. "Bread, sugar, tea, milk, milk powder, wheat, other foodstuff, and clothes were all available in plenty. At subsidised rates. This was because the state was in full control of imports. It must have been to win popular support."

The government was meticulous in ensuring that ordinary life was comfortable. Regular supply of electricity and water, encouragement to agriculture where the state would supply seeds and buy back the produce, supply of land at affordable rates at 10 dinars a hectare, free education, and comfortable hostels for students in universities were remarkable initiatives, said Mr. Narasimhan, who handled building contracts for the University of Baghdad.

The government's infrastructure policy too was focussed, particularly with regard to transportation and health. "The road networks throughout the country were excellent. I particularly remember the expressways between Nasariyah and Basra, and Baghdad and Mosul, one that leads to Jordan. The flyovers too were comparable to the best in the world," said S. Padmanabh, an engineer, who worked in the country in the late '80s.

Much of this infrastructure work was undertaken by Koreans and Germans, and partly by Indians. While the former were involved in road networking, the latter were into construction, and a bit into railway networking.

`It was a good life'

Medical care received preferential treatment, and Baghdad had some of the finest hospitals that offered subsidised treatment.

Industries, limited as they were, such as cement, fertilizers and chemicals, limestone, and oil refineries, thrived. The hydro, power, and diesel industries performed well.

Iraq's social life too was a matter of pride. Visitors to any part of the country could look forward to a very amicable culture anywhere. Mr. Narasimhan, who was with an Iraqi family, referred to liberal attitudes. There were nightclubs and alcohol was freely available. Beer was inexpensive. "They were remarkably Westernised."

Lalitha, Narasimhan's wife, who was with him in Iraq and Jordan for a decade, said Iraqi women were greatly visible in public places and did not necessarily wear the burqa. They wore skirts and were free to venture anywhere any time of the day. Iraq was a safe place. One reason for their visibility could have been the war with Iran which their men were fighting, forcing the women to work for their living.

Matters changed dramatically following Iraq's overrunning Kuwait and the ensuing invasion of Iraq by the U.S., and the sanctions it imposed through the United Nations, in the '90s.

Asha Ponnappa, who worked with the UN on Indian projects in Iraq in the late '90s, lamented that the sanctions did not spare anyone, not even the young. The supply of basic necessities was only through the UN. "Nothing is produced internally now, be it milk, milk powder, soap, wheat, rice, sugar, tea, medicines... everything comes from the UN on a weekly basis. The Iraqis have been forced into dependence on the UN."

`It was a good life'

The power scenario became bleak and new plants began to be set up under the UN. Water was not a source of concern, but the appearance of bottled water meant only the well off could afford it. A pronounced divide between the rich and poor manifested after the sanctions.

If basic necessities were being routed through the UN, how could technological inputs for industry be imported? "The sanctions crippled whatever Iraqi industry there was. There is no industry of note now. Iraq was not allowed to grow in the last decade," said Ms. Asha. That is why there have been very few jobs in the last few years. Unemployment and poverty are high. The few jobs there are, they are in the ministries, government organisations, and colleges. Teachers are not well paid. "At best, 50 dinars a month, which amounts to about US$10." This situation has led to youngsters not pursuing their education. Most of them are forced to migrate to Germany, or even the U.S.

Social life too changed dramatically, according to Ms. Asha. All those hot and happening nightclubs and theatres of the '80s disappeared. Entertainment turned inward and people viewed Arabic songs on video, apart from cable TV. But one aspect remained the same. "People were warm and affectionate wherever I went. One felt at home," she recalled.

All these Bangaloreans agreed that the ordinary people did not want to have much to do with the government of the day. Public sphere was certainly restrictive. "It wasn't too easy to secure a telephone line as that was classified as a security article. Even typewriters were not easy to secure. Road maps were not allowed," said Mr. Padmanabh. "An Indian employee was held for having attended the funeral of an Opposition party leader," informed Mr. Narasimhan.

The interviewees were upset over the present invasion, which has come on top of the crippling sanctions that have set back Iraqi progress by decades.