The discovery of 5000 illegal SIMs in May 2014, held by just one apprehended terrorist in Karachi, came as a rude surprise to the otherwise highly informed Sindh Assembly. It is for just such occasions that Mir Taqi Mir wrote his famous couplet “jaane na jaane gul hi na jaane baagh to sara jaane hai”. The Sindh Information Minister was honest enough to confess that he too had seven illegal SIMs on his name , while he physically possessed only one. As expected, the Sindh Assembly promptly passed a resolution on 5th May 2014 to ban all illegal SIMs. The look-good resolution was meant for files only and that is where it continues to reside.
The vital role played by unverified SIMs in almost every crime committed in this country has been well known to the government , the PTA and the Telecos for years. They however chose to look the other way. The commercial benefits of continuing with this criminal practice far over-weighed considerations of a few hundred people getting killed every now and then. An April 2014 newspaper article summarised the problem in these words, “The unverified and untraceable SIMs are the ones used in crime, terrorism, extortion, kidnapping and bomb blasts, while the lack of control over IMEI leads to large-scale phone snatching and mugging – often at gun point. The Prime Minister, the Supreme Court and the Police have on numerous occasions publicly demanded elimination of all unverified SIMS. However they have done nothing to fix the problem, they are themselves responsible and paid for.” Not addressing the issue of 103 million unverified SIMs by the Government, PTA and Telecos is tantamount to abetment in crime and militancy.
Finally on Dec.16, 2014, after suffering the ultimate sorrow of losing 141 school children, the feet-dragging government suddenly awoke from its deep slumber and gave a knee-jerk call for verification of SIMs. All those who acquired SIMs without going through the biometric verification process were now required to do so within 28 days. For more than a month after December 16, 2014, the government kept on repeating the mantra of 28 days time limit for biometric verification of all 103 million SIMs. The Telecos however rightly pointed out that 28 days was not a realistic timeframe. Thirty six days were lost in issuing public statements and holding meetings and negotiations before the PTA could come out with a clear announcements stating, “ Using a SIM without biometric verification is a crime. The last date to verify your SIM is February 26, 2015. All non-verified SIMs will be blocked after this date.” (PTA ad of January 21, 2015.)
PTA, the government’s organization responsible to prevent the mess that we currently find ourselves in has been consistently callous and apologetic. The newspapers of January 30, 2015 have reported the PTA Chairman as saying that “the three months is not realistic time for such an uphill task but such are the directions from the ministry of interior. The new date for biometric verification of SIMs will now expire on April 13, 2015”.
Clearly we are already on a slippery slope. Like the grains of sand these dates will keep shifting. The government is either in awe of the wealth and power of the Telecos or simply hand-in-glove with them. Why must the people of Pakistan suffer because of an inept and disinterested government that refuses to do what it ought to have done many years back. The technology was always known but the will was never there.
The events of unclear statements and shifting dates suggest that the government’s recent announcements are yet another bluff to pacify the public. The only solution lies in giving one final date (no later than April 13, 2015) and blocking all SIMs that fail to meet the biometric verification requirement by that date. This last date and its consequences must be repeatedly advertised on radio, TV and newspapers. It makes little sense to fight a Zarb-e-Azab at one front and refuse to eliminate the instruments of militancy at the other. The government must clarify if it stands with the people of Pakistan, Telecos or the Taliban.