Home » Capital

Saving the Capital

My piece for The News:
The recent decision of the Supreme Court to order closure of a multinational food chain restaurant in Islamabad is path-breaking
It has become a cliché to praise the Supreme Court of Pakistan these days. Clichéd, because many partisan agendas find resonance within the all-embracing spectrum of judicial activism. Those who have been critical of judges turning into activists must rethink their misgivings. While the dangers of such blanket approval of the workings of a state institution are apparent, it is still a welcome change in a country known for its culture of impunity. This is why the recent decision of the mighty Supreme Court to have ordered the closure of a multinational food chain restaurant in Islamabad’s ill-designed public park is path-breaking.
First of all, the fact that a municipal matter reached an overburdened superior court speaks much about the dysfunctional executive that manages our lives. That the court had the wisdom to uphold the rights of ordinary Islamabadites marks a new beginning which, if taken to its logical end, would mean that all public spaces in Pakistan should come under intense judicial scrutiny. Lastly, the court’s effort to enforce accountability could very well turn out to be a new beginning in our murky public affairs.
Effective municipal management requires that we revisit the urban governance frameworks that are now outdated to handle the population growth, changed needs of the population and dwindling state capacity to enforce regulations. Notwithstanding that Islamabad is fifteen kilometres away from the real Pakistan, the management practices are no different from the rest of the country. Essentially, the Islamabad saga reveals a case of serious governance failure. […]
July 5th, 2010|Culture, development, Pakistan, Politics, Published in the NEWS|1 Comment

Islamabad: “This too shall pass”

Raza Rumi
bemoans Islamabad’s fall from grace

Many of the new roads in Islamabad have nothing to offer to those who do not own cars

The view outside the Diplomatic Enclave

Contitution Avenue, Islamabad

The Serena Hotel, an architectural gem, is no longer accessible to
the public

Today, sleepy Islamabad, with its clear skies and majestic hills, has turned into a classic capital under siege. It is not just under siege from Islamists; internal forces are also set to eat it up in pursuance of a suicidal streak that runs along the faultlines of Margalla-land

Chiding me for returning to Pakistan when its end is nigh, this corporate type endlessly complained about what a s**t hole Pakistan had become. Predictions of decay and disintegration flowed out as his clean, nimble fingers played with a BlackBerry

Not long ago, Delhi and Lahore were vulnerable to hordes of foreign invaders. The Mongol fear was overwhelming and indeed Delhi, the capital of the Caliphate for nearly eight centuries, was time and again ravaged by Central Asian fortune hunters. The builders and beneficiaries of idyllic Islamabad may have forgotten the shrill lesson of history: once the central throne was weak and maladministration at its peak, invasions and insurgencies were almost a natural consequence.

Today, sleepy Islamabad with its clear skies and majestic hills has turned into a classic capital under siege. It is not just under siege from the Islamists; the internal forces are also set to eat it up in pursuance of a suicidal streak that runs along the fault-lines of the Margalla-land.

After a long time away, a day in the capital was a trip into a fear-zone. Although it was admittedly for work reasons, the experience was nevertheless insightful and a little melancholic, especially when one has lived in Isloo during peaceful times. It is not pleasant to see a loveable city turn into a ghetto of barricades, echoing of trepidation; and incessantly wobble on the slippery foundations of civilian power-sharing arrangements. Since the suicide bombing at the Chief Justice’s reception last summer, the slide of the city’s law and order into chaos has been remarkably swift and unrelenting. The Lal Masjid saga, its location, proximity to the invisible force of the power market and bungled operations were clearly reflective of the seething unrest within the polity.

My parents were locked inside the house and recounted those few days with curfews, blackouts, nightly explosions and panic in the air. This had never happened before and a new history akin to the mainland was being scripted for the capital. The rest is history as they say – from the targeting of foreign missions, restaurants, hotels and not to mention the excesses against the sitting Chief Justice and later the lawyers and the media personnel.

This has surely made the proverbially oxymoronic Constitution Avenue a no-go area. On the crisp Thursday morning when I arrived in the city to attend a meeting in the besieged diplomatic enclave, the multiplicity of barricades was astounding. The Serena Hotel, an architectural gem, is no longer accessible to the public; in fact, normal traffic cannot pass on the road that leads to Constitution Avenue. The diplomatic enclave, now proposed to be a gated hamlet within the capital, is also nearly impossible to enter unless you have passes, stickers on vehicles and various identifications ready for inspection.

I wonder what the inhabitants of the diplomatic enclave feel. Apparently, nervousness is rampant despite the sense of adventure that many an international staff share as a life trait. Once inside, life within the compounds replicates “home” with ex-pat clubs, festivals and international nights, or so I am told. My friend, LA, from Canada, is undaunted as she continues to attend parties and even sneak into local markets with Pakistani friends and acquaintances. Not all ex-pats are so lucky: most have sent their families back to the countries of their residence and are barred from going to local markets and restaurants. Essentially, they are limited to the securer circles of work and living.

The obvious question that evades the attention of foreign missions is how much are they, if at all, responsible for all that is happening to Pakistan, particularly Islamabad. If the NATO allies are unable to control Afghanistan despite the massive amounts spent on the war machine, then there is something wrong somewhere. And, if billions in relief, emergency and development aid have been unable to alleviate the miseries faced by Afghan people, then the aid architecture should be revisited or perhaps scrapped to avoid senseless technical assistance on sophisticated government machinery in a country where millions are maimed, hungry and shelter-less. […]

December 8th, 2008|Afghanistan, Personal, Published in The Friday Times|2 Comments

The pampered Islamabadites

My piece published by Himal Southasian

Mahboob Ali

Islamabad is a very peculiar urban space. Though no longer a town, it is still struggling to become a city. Arguably, it is the most ‘inhabitable’ place in Pakistan, and ranks far ahead of several other capitals in Asia and Southasia, nearly all of which are plagued by pollution, traffic jams, crime cartels and civil strife. Islamabad, despite the disturbances and security threats that became endemic during 2007, remains largely aloof from this pattern – at least for now.

Located in the foothills of the Margallas, and boasting green spaces and forests intertwined among the folds of the city, Islamabad appears almost surreal against the densely populated rest of Pakistan. Built during the early 1960s by Pakistan’s developmentalist dictator, General Ayub Khan, Islamabad was seen as an antidote to politicised Karachi – which, in any case, was a bit too far from the Punjab and the NWFP, the popular bases for Pakistan’s powerful military. Laid out as a model city with the help of Greek architects, this city of the exclusive was formally born in 1965. Nearby Rawalpindi was already the seat of the army’s headquarters, and its proximity to the new capital was certainly intentional.

The new city’s layout was divided into sectors, numbered streets and broad avenues that are called ramna, using the Bengali term. The civil bureaucracy of federal united Pakistan moved here, and thus the sleepy town suddenly emerged as a new urban settlement in line with the earlier planned emergence of Chandigarh. In Islamabad, roads would empty out after sunset, and the national capital would be oddly deserted on all public holidays. After all, for decades none of the residents actually belonged to this city. […]

October 17th, 2008|Personal, Published in Himal Magazine|5 Comments

Capital shock

My op-ed published in the NEWS. This was also posted at ATP and a robust discussion took place there.

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. […]

August 27th, 2008|Published in the NEWS|1 Comment