By Syed Sharfuddin
It is always good to touch base with the Fatherland and breathe the air of the place where one was born and grew up playing all sorts of desi and not fit for Olympics games in the less crowded playgrounds and streets in the days gone by. I have been coming to Islamabad from England every year to touch my roots and relive the past in the present. This year was different as I had returned after a long gap interspersed by the Covid pandemic and global travel restrictions. But it was useful in the sense that the longer I stayed away from Pakistan, the better I was able to look at it objectively. Of course, this was from a personal perspective based on my own experience.
The result of my public encounters and private introspection led me to conclude that Pakistan needs some socialist intellectuals of the 1950s once again to reclaim our national spirit and promote the socialist principle of egalitarianism which is completely discarded in the prevailing capital market and free trade regime. Indeed, we have made much progress, but it has also allowed an unfathomable rich and poor divide to grow along with the population as the byproduct of development. As hard times have hit every country in the world this year, Pakistan’s economic problems are making the poor poorer everyday, which is a genuine worry because it undermines the principle of equality and makes democracy’s one man one vote theory difficult to practice. To be brief I will cite in this essay a few observations and offer some suggestions to illustrate my concern.
Yesterday afternoon, as I was walking outside my home in a busy residential sector of Islamabad, I saw old women and frail labourers sitting along the walkway waiting for help in the form of handouts from the pedestrians and passing cars. Then I saw a big SUV slowing down and a hand coming out of the driver’s window holding some currency notes. I couldn’t be sure about the colour of the notes as a blue note is a thousand rupees, a green is five hundred and red is a hundred. But the man who received the money seemed extremely grateful. Inspired by this noble gesture, I also gave some spare change to an unskilled labourer sitting a few steps away. Thanking me for my help, he said no one had hired him for the day. One kilometre away I witnessed similar scenes. People stared at me expecting I will give them some charity. Many were professional beggars who craftily sent their kids after me to pester for alms but on the other hand, many were also quiet. They spoke not a single word to ask for money. Their looks did their talking. An elderly baba who was selling fruit on a rickety trolley, however, pleaded with me to buy some mangoes from him because he had not sold any in the day. When I said the reason why he wasn’t able make a sale was because his mangoes were priced at Rs 300 a kilo while the market rate was Rs 250, he said the difference was his profit.
Considering that the temperature was 45C that day, I thought he deserved some help because he was at least trying to make a living by selling fruit instead of taking to begging. Given his position he appeared perfectly justified for jacking up the price of his mangoes to increase his profit margin. But he was no different from the those big profiteers in possession of large stores of sugar, cement, flour, fertilizer, medicines, UPS batteries and other essential commodities who also faced the heat of the adverse economic impact and considered themselves guiltless for ignoring the market in order to maximise their profit. In the end I bought a kilo of mangoes from the old man despite my ideological difference from his theory of making profit.
Then I noticed that most of the SUVs in the shopping centres were driven by the drivers of invisible owners who were probably sitting in air conditioned houses as their hired servants did all the shopping for them. These drivers were lucky because they had jobs and they could ride in those big vehicles worth fifty lakh. They even had the discretion to give small change to the beggars while shopping for their Sahibs. In the evening they take their Sahibs and Begum Sahibs to meet their friends for dinner at homes worth twelve crore or more.
Out at the clubs in the Rawal Dam area and in E-9, only the privileged people go for socialising. The don’t haves go to fast food joints and open air restaurants in sector markets where one basic meal costs around Rs 500. I had tea in F11 markaz in an open air sitting arrangement. The concoction cost me Rs 50 and a Naan Rs 20. There I saw many hungry faces passing by and many middle class husbands ordering takeaways to make their wives happy that tonight’s meal will be ‘bahir ka khana’, as opposed to ‘ghar ka khana’.
There are many other things unique to this country. We try to find local solutions to global problems. For instance, to reduce buildup of traffic on four crossings in Islamabad, the Capital City’s traffic police has found a novel solution unique in the world. It has blocked many such crossings by placing boulders in the road openings from where motorcycles can take a right turn, but four-wheel vehicles cannot. To take a right turn, a car driver must continue ahead for a kilometer or more and then take an awkward U turn in order to come back and then take the left turn. I thought as petrol prices have doubled people will ask questions about the logic of going the proverbial extra mile to take a right turn on many intersections, but drivers seem to have accepted it the traffic norm.
Another thing that got my attention was that many traffic lights that could benefit from solar energy panels remain dependent on grid electric supply which means that during load shedding hours, which are frequent in summer, traffic police personnel wearing thick cotton polyester uniforms are deputed to manage traffic under the blazing sun. In British India, traffic police wore khaki shorts in summers which looked funny but were airy and provided relief to the traffic cop. In 70 years of independence we are not only still there but gone a step back. The challenge of high temperature awaits the Islamabad administration’s attention to turn it into an opportunity to generate solar electricity for making their traffic lights work automatically.
A few years ago, a lot of large metal cat lights were placed on highways of Islamabad and Rawalpindi which were far more effective in tearing tires than illuminating in the dark. Someone must have charged the government for this work as metal was used in these road marking lights. This year I saw that these were removed from many roads. The highway authority must have received the feedback that they were a nuisance. Someone must have again charged the government for doing the removal of these lights.
A lot of revenue to the tune of crores of rupees is lost by Islamabad traffic police every year by not placing solar powered CCTV cameras at key traffic lights and parking areas to generate money from fines for traffic violations such as jumping red lights, over speeding or double parking in shopping areas. Here too, local solutions are devised for this problem by building very high road humps that hit the chassis of the cars or placing more road barriers for preventing double parking and not suspending the registration of cars driving against the flow of traffic in shopping areas.
I saw no less than ten big cars in a month on the roads of Islamabad with the sign “Applied for Registration”. The issuing authority was not the traffic department but individual car dealers from different cities. I asked a friend if this is allowed. He said it is not allowed but no police constable will risk his job stopping any of these big cars because their owners are big people with very long hands, longer than the law.
Real estate is a booming business in Pakistan. I don’t know about other cities, but I do know that whoever is somebody in Pakistan owns a house or a flat in Islamabad. In the federal capital the Capital Development Authority (CDA) has the final say on the allotment of land for residential or commercial purposes. CDA is also responsible for collection of property tax, as is the Islamabad Mayor’s office responsible for collection of water and sewerage charges. CDA and Islamabad property registry office lose crores of rupees of revenue every year by remaining outside the sale purchase deals of apartment buyers with the builders of apartments. Every new buyer of a new or old apartment pays an ownership transfer fee amounting to 3 or 4 lakh rupees to the apartment builder but not to the government. In CDA’s books individual apartment owners are not legal and registered owners of their addresses. In CDA’s books the registered owners are those who purchased the plots from CDA and got the permission to build apartments on those plots of land. Yet CDA sends every apartment owner a property tax bill each year. Many private housing societies in Sector E-11 have defied the CDA and given ownership rights through registry to the home and apartment owners. There are two parallel rules in operation in one capital city.
CDA has also bent down to political and government pressure frequently to change the capital’s master plan by adding unplanned streets, observing benign neglect for illegal encroachments on slopes adjoining rainwater passages, and blocking public roads for certain sensitive offices which want to keep the public away from their access points for security reasons but they do not want to relocate their offices to places where there is less public movement. Often the law enforcing agencies are the beneficiaries of such exceptions.
And yet despite this interesting maze of local logic applied in parallel with international good practice, people seem immensely grateful for what they have. This is perhaps due to the strong Sufi tradition which runs deep in Pakistan’s rural, as well as urban population. The rich may call the poor crooks and the poor may call the rich corrupt but no one, not even a street urchin is prepared for a revolution. They happily accept all that happens in their lives is fate. Afterall, they are one people under God. It is only a matter of whoever is lucky and got the opportunity to rise in rank and file. They pay the same sales tax and buy petrol at the same price. They eat the same roti and drink the same tea Alhamdulillah.
The only common thing between the rich and the poor is a social entente which is characterised by exploitation, corruption and cutting corners. Often they take turns to do this to each other. The rich pay income tax through their nose but they also make the drivers, maids and servants work at their homes 24/7 on very small salaries. And why shouldn’t they do so. They provide free accommodation and free meals to their underlings and never assert their ehsan on them. But this does not make them generous or large hearted. They send their drivers to stand in long queues at filling stations on the very whiff that government is going to raise petrol prices. They always fill out the lucky draw lottery form at Dubai International Airport to win that dream sports car which is not roadworthy on Pakistan’s roads. They are always out for bargains whether buying land or hunting for Swati furniture or banded clothes.
The maids and servants on the other hand are no angels either. They exploit the class under them . Promises are never kept by them, contracts are never honoured. Their commercial deals are based on chicanery and cashing in an opportunity. The housemaid or cook you employ will be gone tomorrow if your neighbour offers them 500 rupees extra in their salary. This social culture is one where big fish eats small fish. In this culture survival means either being a big fish or being together with the school of the big fish. And in case you feel like making a complaint or writing pro bono suggestions to improve things, your communication will not be read, or if it is read by mistake it will not be answered. I did a test run of this by making few attempts before writing this piece. Once I got a phone call where the person calling was in a hurry to close the case; on another occasion I got a proforma email acknowledgement but nothing on substance and on several other occasions, no reply ever came. However, I will continue to knock the door and push the envelope because life is another name of forward movement.
By Syed Sharfuddin