The Capital Shock

Posted on August 23, 2008
Filed Under >Raza Rumi, Travel
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Raza Rumi
A week long sojourn in Islamabad just came to an end. It was not the Islamabad that I had lived in or the one that my memory was intimate with. It has changed and perhaps forever.

I have been an accidental resident of Islamabad as I was thrown into the sleepy folds of the capital by imperatives of securing a livelihood. Lahoris can never be content with any other city. But Islamabad’s serenity as a stark contrast to the urban mess of Pakistan was most endearing to say the least. Even its cultural wastelands were forgivable for the communion with Nature was a splendid alternative to civilisation. Thus the sprawling greenbelts of Islamabad and its wild foliage became a source of inspiration and muse. I left the city three years ago with fond memories.

But the return of this accidental native was not too charming. Islamabad over the last three years has confronted a development paradigm that reflects much of what is wrong with the elite-led progress in Pakistan. Whilst the political fissures have also erupted in the form of terrorism and activism around the issue of deposed judges, it is the brazen model of urban development that remains most worrisome.

Express-ways and highways have been built all over the place that can facilitate fast paced cars, cavalcades and power caravans. But the pedestrians who by even conservative estimates are 30 per cent of commuters find themselves at the wrong side of history. They have been virtually bypassed or at worst humiliated. Many of the express-ways have no provision of underground walkways or overhead bridges. Small wonder, that the absolute poor of Pakistan are also nearly the same percentage and almost as invisible.

The natural gifts of Islamabad have been mercilessly chopped in the name of widening the roads or even erecting senseless structures. Tracts of green areas that would bloom in the spring and sway in the monsoons have all gone. Barren squares reveal the idiocy of the initial layout of Islamabad that Nature had shielded for so long.

Where else in the world would find a public park space rented out to a global corporation and that too of dubious credentials such as the McDonalds. And, if the purpose was to entertain the hapless Islamabadites then why not patronise a local chain? This is crass commercialism being actively promoted by gurus of modernization and elites who find the global signs as a proof of having arrived. All of this has happened at the expense of the public aesthetic and values. Islamabad of today with its copycat musicals and made-to-order tourist villages is nothing but an attempt in cultural annihilation. Amazing that a city next to Gandhara and capital of the Indus valley terms Broadway remakes as high culture!

The original Islamabad-wallas remember how the CDA installed dustbins sported the chaste Urdu-Persian word Khashaak in bold. No more. It is now all English wonderland and a signpost on a major highway displays the route to “Atwar bazaar”. Since when has the mighty state language lost its relevance. If this was to be the future of Urdu, then why was there a need to alienate our fellow Pakistanis in the Eastern Wing now Bangladesh in the name of a uniform national language.

Believe it or not, Ramna, a Bengali name was used for the old sectors. If in the 1960s the Bengalis complained of excessive investments in Islamabad they were termed as traitors. Today, a similar fetish for capital investments in Islamabad remains unchanged. The complaints are muted often sidelined due to the bomb blasts and the glitz of highways and underpasses. In stark contrast, the poor relative town of Rawalpindi is quite neglected where a flood at Nullah Lai ravages segments of population and their livelihoods each year and where the martial and non-marital divides are difficult to overlook.

Islamabad continues to grow and is liked by many including the foreign diplomats thanks to its wondrous surroundings. But we are keen to make it a mess. Where have big roads and speed-ways been a substitute for traffic management and integrated urban planning? Even an undergraduate would know that. And, why is there no public transport system in place if this were the best that we want to showcase in the world.

While the entire country has been administered the magic dose of devolution, Islamabad remains ‘undevolved’ and its administration is highly centralized reflecting the culture of an overarching and central state. These are not accidental contradictions but symptoms of the larger malaise.

About time the Islamabadis woke up and shunned the flashy development for more substantive progress that includes the poor, creates livelihood beyond consumerism, saves the trees and focuses on long term urban vision rather than short term infrastructure feats.

A version of this post also appeared in the daily News.
Raza also blogs at PakTeaHouse, Lahorenama and taraqee

28 responses to “The Capital Shock”

  1. Jamshed says:

    Islamabad is certainly not the city now that I once studied and worked in,and have fond memories of.I agree with the writer.Islamabad is losing its essential character as its green assets are fast disappearing.There is too much commercialisation and it is now just another overcrowded,chaotic Pakistani city.

  2. Farah says:

    This is an interesting debate, Mr. Raza it seems like a typically well off Lahori you might be knowing Lashari socially to have so fiercely protected him. Maybe Lashari was efficient in Lahore but do you still think so highly of him post Marriot disastor where the CDA fire fighting capacity was so great that they could not even save people from 4th floor? He has been there for 5 years and Islamabad has experienced the devastating earthquake in 2005. This is what he has to show after repeated extensions on this lucrative post? Roads, elite food courts and total ineffective Disastor Management ability? All I can say is shame on you Mr Rumi for not having a ‘spine’

  3. Naila says:

    Mr Rumi this is quite naive on your part, I think you are not aware of what as been happening in Islamabad maybe the editorial of THE NEWS and some other news items would enlighten you a bit:
    The News Editorial Friday, August 31, 2007
    Commercialising public parks
    According to a report, the chairman of Islamabad’s Capital Development Authority, quite unabashedly told a meeting of the National Assembly’s Public Accounts Committee on Aug 29 that there was nothing wrong whatsoever in a fast food restaurant operating inside a public park. The CDA chief had been called by the august body — which at least has to its credit of making the effort of investigating matters that relate to the public interest — to answer questions related to the opening of a fast food eatery inside Islamabad’s F-9 park. The CDA chief was quoted in the news report as saying that “food outlets and shops are allowed in public parks all over the world” to which the members of the Public Accounts Committee had reportedly no answer. Of course the MPs had perhaps forgotten that a Supreme Court ruling exists which says that commercial activity was not to be permitted in public parks. In any case, had the MPs been better prepared they would have been able to offer worthy rebuttals to the CDA chief.

    For instance, let’s take a look at some of the better-known public parks around the world. New York’s Central Park had London’s Hyde Park do not have commercial activities or fast food restaurants. Even if eating opportunities are available, as is the case with the former, they are in specially designated area, and also since the area of the park is massive. Furthermore, the location of the eating place is such that it does not in any way hamper the main function of the park, which is to provide the resident of Manhattan a large enough space to run, jog, walk, cycle and generally come in close contact with nature It’s a pity that government officials whose job it is to safeguard the rights of citizens often do not understand the concept of what the public interest is and assume that ‘development’ means sacrificing a portion of a public park and allowing a fast food restaurant to be built.

    The CDA chief, in defence of his views on commercialization of public parks, also quoted examples from Lahore where he said parks had such eating places. This makes sense because prior to working in Islamabad the official was head of the parks and horticulture authority in Lahore and under his tenure much of the public space in Lahore was commercialised. Of course, this has both its good and bad points but the way it was done in the Punjab capital tended to indicate that the commercialisation came at the expense of the public and aesthetic interest. In any case, if one is going to quote instances of parks in Lahore having such fast food establishments, then an instructive example may be the park in Block Y of that city’s Defence Housing Authority. Carved out of one corner of the park, amid much public protest some years back, the fast food restaurant’s size and location has had an adverse effect on the normal functioning of the park.

    Of course, the CDA chief cannot be blamed for having such an anti-citizen mindset when many other entities that are far more influential have the same thinking. For instance, the DHA in Karachi, parts of which were practically flooded by recent rains for lack of a good drainage system, is busy commercializing the city’s seafront. In its zeal to do so, it has not bothered to ask the residents of the DHA what their choices are and whether they even want such development in their midst. The CDA chief can be accused of doing the same. Were the residents of Islamabad asked whether they wanted a fast food restaurant inside a public park? Sometimes even so-called public hearings are held before such a project commences — also so that the agency can at least say that this requirement was held — but the concerns that are raised at such forums are often ignored. The citizens of this country, especially those from low-income backgrounds, will continue to be short-changed as long as officialdom adheres to this myopic and flawed view of development because all such projects will usually come at their expense or will be designed to exclude them from any possible benefit.

    CDA Giving Public Parks to Influential People
    February 7th, 2008
    Source: The News
    The Capital Development Authority (CDA) is fast throwing away the public parks to influential people for commercial ventures, depriving the children of lower middle class from recreational activities, and that too in bypassing rules.
    The latest blunder in this regard is of the handing the F-6 Markaz Park over to an influential but equally controversial Tennis Coach, Ali Akbar Khan, without seeking formal approval from the CDA Board.
    The CDA chairman would not only put a brave face on to defend these ventures that are in violation of the Article 26 of the Constitution which prohibits discrimination in respect of access to public places, but also said he was getting sick for being questioned on this issue.

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