Sanitary murders

Two famous events this week. One was the very showy investigation of the PM for money laundering that resulted in a verdict that there isn’t sufficient evidence. The other was a very public and gruesome lynching of a student by fellow students for alleged blasphemy.
I wonder which will shape the nation in days, months and years to come.
In the first, an accusation was made with lots of hearsay but no proofs. Never mind that the PM and his team repeatedly confabulated and obfuscated to incredible levels, the system just did not have the wherewithal to find proof. In the end 2 judges felt that a “smell” was sufficient and 3 felt that the case needed more investigation than the supreme court could do. In the final analysis the case was punted off to the army which can now hold it over the PM in his final “lame duck” year as premier. No systems were formed, people were generally kept unaware of what happened behind closed doors and there is no more accountability than there was a year ago.
In the other event, it is suspected that the lynched student was silenced from criticizing the university admin. This was followed up by 3 sisters shooting someone that they and a mullah had accused of blaspheming 12 years ago. The mullah was an uncle of the deceased and apparently in a family feud with him. So is this how personal enmities, petty grievances and monetary differences will be settled from now on? Have we created the perfect perpetrator less crime, completely sanitary murders.

Saif ul Mulook Lake, Naran, Pakistan: The Beauty, the Splendour and the Missing Development

The beautiful and majestic lake Saif ul Mulook , nestled in the Naran, Pakistan, is considered one of the most picturesque in the world. And the lake deserves this reputation. The pristine lake perfectly reflects the blue sky above and green mountaintops around. The sight simply takes your breath away. This is the stuff of legends (literally). The famous epic poem by the same name (Saif ul Mulook: The Journey of Love) by the Sufi poet Mian Mohammad Baksh is placed here.

A visit to Saif ul Mulook, however is bittersweet. The lake is pristine, its shores are not. The lakeside is strewn from debris from the last rock slide, of which they are many. You cant spend much time there because you cant sit. There is no place to sit. A few boulders are too few for many to sit upon. But that is not the most tragic of things there.

2016-06-25 11.34.15
The main business around the lake is begging. There is little commercial activity. Some tuckshops and a solitary restaurant. The rooms in the only hotel were all unoccupied (this is Ramzan). There isnt much locals can do to survive. Its heartrending to see 4-5 y/o children, grown men and elderly all begging to survive. There are no local women visible.IMG_20160625_115908764.jpg
Part of the problem is getting there. There is no road. Just a mountain path carved into the side of a mountain, strewn with 2-3 feet boulders and ditches. It passes through a mini glacier and sometimes narrows down to allow only a single vehicle. The road from Naran is around 10 km but takes around an hour and you feel lucky to be there. No mere cars can make the journey and only a few ruggedized jeeps operate.

2016-06-25 11.59.58
But then getting to Naran is not that fun either. You can either come via Islamabad-Murree-Abbottabad-Naran way, or Islamabad-Hasanabdal-Abbottabad-Naran way. The third Muzzaffarabad-Mansehra-Naran is too horrendous (a single dirt road cut in the side of a tall mountain) to consider. Either way, what is around 100 km as the crow flies and 17-230km by actual road actually takes around 6 hours. You often go through cities and single lanes at that for tens of km at a time. One part of this route includes the euphemistically named Karakoram Highway. This is essentially a single lane village road that stretches for at least 50-60km of the way we took. This is how we trade with our biggest trading partner: China.IMG_20160625_105754384

The point is. There is so much scope here. Natural beauty abounds. There is scope for normal tourism, eco-tourism and more. The locals don’t need to starve or wait for handouts. There is plenty possible. But first the government needs to decide. Either contribute with better roads and infrastructure (phones don’t reach most locations and many locals have not even heard of internet). Or get out of the way with arbitrary rule changes and the license raj that is holding private investment back. One or the other would work. But why is it not being allowed to.2016-06-25 11.28.47

Reading Arendt in Islamabad

Hannah Arendt in her magnificent “Eichmann in Jerusalem” pointed out that you don’t have to be a monster to do horrible things. Even “normal” and even “decent” people do monstrous and evil things in the right set of circumstances.

Adolf Eichmann was the civil servant responsible for ensuring that his concentration camp ran “efficiently” and that the trains transporting Jews to the camp ran smoothly. He was of course aware that Jews came here to be executed, but to him the job assigned to him held precedence over any personal feelings (and he did show extreme remorse on occasion). The prosecutors during his trial tried to paint him to be a monster but he was not even remotely in that zone. To him it was a job to be done and to be done well. Even when during the fall of the Nazi regime, he was told to stop the trains, he ensured that they still ran; because that was what his state had demanded of him and that surely his superiors were wrong in countermanding that process. When asked why he countermanded his orders to keep the trains running his response was simply: “oh but the trains must run”. Not out of spite or hate for Jews (which he apparently did not have), but merely to do what the society of his time deemed correct and right. No personal feelings in the matter.

In covering Eichmann’s trial in Israel for her newspaper, Arendt correctly identified something more sinister than an evil monster. She identified that in a society where right is wrong and wrong is right, ordinary citizens do monstrous things while not recognizing this atrocity. They even feel that they are doing the right thing. In this way the evil that they do becomes “banal” or commonplace. She called this the “banality of evil”.

I am reminded of this in the light of the events of the past month. Mumtaz Qadri murdered Salman Taseer for what Qadri thought was an insult to the Holy Prophet. A month ago Qadri – who had appealed for mercy but not shown remorse over his act – was hanged after the last of his appeals was turned down. In his funeral and later tens of thousands mourners poured onto streets and much ink was shed his heroics. Some who did not agree with his killing still felt that he was justified. Some of the street protests turned violent and Islamabad was held hostage by these protesters for days. They even demanded that all Ahmedis be exiled from Pakistan. The overwhelming feeling was that use of extreme violence was justified to enforce the will of people over their dissenters. And of course there was that often repeated under current that Salman Taseer had brought this upon himself. So killing over dissent is justified and that dialogue is to be met with force.

The easy thing would be to declare that our moral compass is flipped and that we too are experiencing “banality of evil”, but that would be too easy. The more difficult questions would be why did we get this way, what should we be thinking through at this point and where would our paths – current or the alternative where shrink back from abyss – lead us. But think about ourselves and do it honestly we must.

Applying Urban Thinking to Islamabad

Islamabad is beautiful and idyllic. It is rightly considered one of the most beautiful cities in the world – one that its residents justifiably pride in . So it may come as a bitter pill but the sooner we talk of these issues, the better. For Islamabad, the designed city. was never designed to be a city or to house the over million people that it is now home to.

Cities drive prosperity by bringing people and opportunities together with dense construction and good transport. Thus, successful cities are tall and well-connected while managing the problems of density with services (i.e. sanitation, transport) to promote citizens’ well-being, health and productivity. Islamabad is a 50 year old “designed” city whose safety and suburban beauty make it desirable. However, its design ignored key principles of urbanisation or its future growth. This has come to hurt it and its problems are only piling.

Islamabad is a large city that is spread over 900 square kilometres but has a population of merely 1.9 million. Compare that with the megapolis Karachi that is home to 24 million people but is spread over 1360 square kilometres. That means Islamabad has 2,100 people per square kilometres compared to 17,650 in Karachi, around 25,000 for Shanghai and 46,000 for either Kolkata or Mumbai.

Its short buildings (rarely above 12 meters due to height limit regulations), limited space for new development and in-migration have caused property prices to skyrocket. In fact Islamabad’s property values are among the 20 highest worldwide. Over 90% businesses operate in residential areas, further straining residential stock while causing traffic problems; as commercial real estate to accommodate these is simply unavailable. Recent ill informed campaigns to expels businesses have been fortunately thwarted. One can only imagine the effects of successfully pushing out all businesses to the few commercial areas had been. Very likely the rents would have increased by 4-5 fold, meaning that the average small office that now pays 100,000 or so in rent would be paying around 0.5 million a month. Wonder how many businesses would have survived or how viable would the city have been after losing nearly all of private sector service related employment.

Although idyllic, Islamabad’s services are sporadic and expensive. Electricity, natural gas and electricity are supplied discontinuously for few to several hours daily. Rolling electricity blackouts, once unheard of in Islamabad, now happen for 6-8 hours during peak summer. We are so used to such blackouts for water that we think it normal for water to be supplied for only half to one hour a day. Much of this lack of quality of service relate to how they are priced. All pricing of services is central, with no connection to their actual usage/ availability. Erratic supplies lead to additional costs for storage i.e. water tanks and UPS and use-insensitive pricing leads to overuse of water and electricity when they are available, which further aggravates shortages.

Municipal services cost over Rs. 125,000 per household annually (although only a few thousand of these are directly charged to customers, the rest come from budgetary allocations by the federal government and although we all pay for them, its through indirect taxation and generally invisible), excluding the costs of police, infrastructure and the land transferred to city employees. More importantly the various agencies that manage the city don’t answer to citizenry. Political representation of Islamabad is via the entire National Assembly rather than dedicated members. One has heard of the old axiom: when many are responsible for something, no one is responsible for it.

Recently initiated public transport, connects few areas; requiring nearly all 500,000 children and employees to commute to school and work in private vehicles. This excercise is repeated twice a day. The resulting traffic jams are aggravated by bottlenecked roads, roadblocks and traffic lights that malfunction during peak hours. Just as an example, if all commuters wasted just 10 extra minutes of their time each way, that adds up to 5700 years of time wasted. Roughly equal to 89 lifetimes. Each year. Add to this the costs of wasted fuel while idling, that comes to around Rs. 21 billion a year. All because we choose to ignore how modern cities manage their transport and traffic.

Islamabad can grow into a model city provided its growth is re-conceptualised with services that answer to citizens through political representation, use competition to manage supplies and costs of civic amenity, relax laws on construction height and expand its public transport system. In these it can learn from the Singapore, London and New York.

Ghettoisation and Its Discontents


Today, Norway turned away hundreds of Pakistani asylum seekers. Does this mean that our welcome has run out. If so that is sad.

Immigration is allowed in part on humanitarian grounds. Its based on a shared concept of humanity. No wonder then that many of the countries that lead in accepting immigrants are also the ones that push for human rights.

That was why many of Pakistanis were accepted to Norway and elsewhere. In the recent bouts of crushing surge of refugees from Syria plus the few incidents of religiously motivated violence by refugees in these countries, many of the host countries have started questioning who comes knocking.

One can not stop people from thinking what they do. In a civilised society, neither should we try. But its a bit more than that. How we think is shaped by all that we see and hear. Our societies have too long indulged in a “west-o-phobia” to misdirect how badly the society (actually the governments of our societies) treats people. Suppression of social, intellectual and economic freedoms is a given. The state seeks to mold how you think and only a narrow stream of beliefs is accepted with harsh consequences for dissent.

This has led to the use of religion to control minds. Hence the devastation of our curricula in schools, abandonment of millions of children to madrassahs, laws that exclude individuals based on religious beliefs and even more perniciously, the fanning of bigotry to silence dissenting voices. These have extracted tolls from the society. This is not helped by the fact that many of the young generation grows in households that were shaped by what they see in the Middle East which does all that we do and in spades.

Lets face it. We have a problem. Not because Norway wont accept those that we chase away. But because many of these were so poisoned that even in their adapted homes they seek to rebuild the society that they escaped from. This is the worst form of Stockholm syndrome. It is grounded in part by the need for our governments to control minds at home but also in what has happened due to these policies. Muslims today feel that they are superior to others and yet victimised unfairly by “them” (anyone who does not prescribe to the obscurantist form of religion that many of us are now prescribing to). We want to preserve ALL that is described as “us” with little questioning of whether it is helpful. This is called Ghettoisation and it totally afflicts the Muslim “Ummah”.

The question is whether we have the moral courage and intellectual capacity to find our way out of this mess. I hope so. Doing so would certainly require questioning the role of religion in running the society and there would be lessons to be learnt from Europe. This does not mean in any way to denounce the religion. It means that as many of us have adapted to the modern times in our individual lives while still following the religion as we feel comfortable, so should the society. I dont see an alternative to such as change. I dont think Muslims as a whole will die out or be relegated to footnotes of history. But the way out is difficult and really must start now.

The Doctors’ Conundrum

Recently I had a discussion with some young doctors who were very upset that their salaries were too low and felt rather strongly that the government owed them to increase their salaries. Ironically all of them had graduated from a public sector university which meant that they had received a Rs. 2+ million education for nearly nothing at all. Lets be fair, if I were in their shoes, I too would demand higher salaries and guaranteed jobs.After all they see everyone else in the society looking for government privilige as the way to make it in the society. But that is not how the world works.

Although there aren’t good data on how many healthcare providers work in Pakistan, the best estimates suggest that perhaps there are around 300,000 healthcare providers (around 1.6/ 1000 population) of which around a third are doctors. Doctors and doctor groups often cite the WHO which recommends that there should be at least 2.2 healthcare providers per 1000 population. The government obviously supports this argument since it subsidises the education of over 6000 new doctors each year. In fact more than 12000 new doctors are educated each year, slightly more in the public sector (for nearly free) than in the private sector.

This is where it gets really interesting. There are only 130,000 doctors currently registered with the Pakistan Medical and Dental Council. This registeration is mandatory for all doctors to be allowed to practice or receive the mandatory “house job” training. If we have been producing 12,000 doctors annually for 50+ years, even accounting for death and retirement, there should be at least 300-400,000 on PMDC registers. Even those who proceed abroad for education or migration must surely have done their house job training and hence must have registered with the PMDC. And yet there are only 130,000. This suggests that the vast majority of doctors who start their medical education never intended to practice in Pakistan and don’t even bother to do house jobs or register with the PMDC. To me this suggests that most of the medical students understand that their prospects in Pakistan’s job market are unacceptable and never even try to take their chances with it.

So what happens to those doctors who do practice in Pakistan. In our own research, those that practice in extremely poor communities such as urban slums and the rare few that work in rural areas, do so for very low rates. In one study in Rawalpindi and Tando Allah Yar districts, the average doctor saw 16 patients a day and charged Rs. 65 if they only gave pills and around Rs. 125 if they gave injections. Even specialists in big cities work very hard for their seemingly high incomes. Most of my surgeon friends that earn close to Rs. 900,000 to a million a month, work close to 90 hours a week. This comes to around Rs. 2,500 per hour. Professionals with similar length of training and experience that work in the corporate sector, earn at least 2-3 times more than that.

These factors combine to confirm that there is a glut of doctors in Pakistan, i.e. there are too many of us and Pakistan’s current healthcare markets can’t absorb all of us. Young doctors know this and many don’t even test the markets. More senior ones do and sometimes earn a good living but at the expense of tremendous working hours. It is not surprising then, that the most doctors I meet are dissatisfied.

One must ask, why then is the government producing so many doctors when there is a glut. Surely the argument that we need them in rural areas has worn thin. No one who has dedicated 16+ years of their lives on receiving an education and more years of professional training wants to work where basic amenities such good schools, social life and a decent income are unavailable. We have not found a solution for rural placement, producing doctors in glut is surely not the answer. A better option to Pakistan’s very skewed healthcare provider mix is to concentrate on producing more mid-level providers who feel more comfortable in rural or remote placement and stop the subsidy – i.e. free public sector medical education – to produce more doctors.

Since writing this, I found the following oped from 2013: The Doctor Glut by Rafia Zakaria, Dawn 19 July 2013

Independence Day 69 – Thanks for Our Home

Yesterday was Pakistan’s 69th independence day. Some celeberated exuberantly, while others remembered the ongoing sorrows. However, in the balance there was more cheer on the street than in recent years. And why not. Our independence day should be celebrated, if not for any other reason than the fact that we are free; for people without a land have wretched lives. Unhomed are never welcome anywhere.

That there were more people out in the streets than in recent years is good. Recent years have seen ordinary citizens abdicate public spaces to those who kill, terrorise or loot. For that reason alone it is good that so many Pakistanis felt safe enough to start reclaiming these spaces. It would be even better to have more places and activities where people can celebrate. But even when there are such few outlets for their joy, people turned out, claiming Pakistan as their own.

I see this as a slow and subtle turning point. Pakistan has not been easy for its citizens. Even today, a woman dies every half hour while giving birth and over half of our children and mothers are malnourished. Fewer than half the children study beyond secondary level and even when they do, they can’t read or write at that level. Nearly half of the population lives below the poverty line. 68 years later, this is not what nearly 2 million of our ancestors gave up their lives to achieve. They would want more prosperity for their children. So one may ask where is the turning point.

Slowly, things are improving. One sees the prosperity in the cities. The middle class has expanded. The GDP has more than doubled in the past decade. Indicators for development, health and education have improved albeit slowly. One felt that much that could have been possible in the past decade was squandered while the state played the militant game. This year, it appears that this game may be winding or at least tempering down. Any way, with a marked reduction in terrorist attacks on civilians and in public places this year, the change is noticeable and people are feeling a sense of safety.

Hopefully this will continue. People will continue to reclaim public places back from the militants and terrorists. The expressions of celebrations will transform from these forays into public spaces and flag waving to more constructive “owning” of the country. But this will take some time. People still have to feel that the country is their’s because it benefits them. Not a place where they pay all kinds of taxes while they also take care of their families and loved ones. All that will take time and will require continued stability, safety and some measure of economic independence. People need to continue to feel that their efforts can consistently give them returns and not be arbitrarily taken away from them at someone powerful’s whim. This feeling is still too strong and with good reasons. The state and its government remain whimsical and arbitrary. But even that is slowing down as people have learnt to protest and make it heard. Hopefully this trend grows, driven by increasing autonomy and economic power of the people and the resultant ability to be heard by their leaders.

Still the road is long. But in the meantime, let us be thankful. We have a land that is ours where all this can play out. Onwards to another decade. May its end see us better off than now, by far.

Blocking our Way from Prosperity: The Costs of Road Mismanagement

Even before there were containers or the diversions for the MetroBus, Islamabad’s roads were still extensively blocked. At over 250 locations to be precise as reported in Dawn and Tribune a year ago. This added to misery of commuters, people sometimes spending hours to traverse distances of minutes. Those coming from Rawalpindi, DHA or Bahria spoke of travel times comparable to those coming from Murree or Abbottabad.

To be fair, not all traffic delays can be attributed to the checkpoints. Poor traffic engineering and even worse traffic management have to held accountable. In a city with 1-2 million population, that occupies the geographical area of Karachi or Lahore, and has 4 lane throughfares, there should NEVER be traffic jams. And yet poor management of roads makes Islamabad’s Jinnah Avenue and Faisal Avenues seem like Karachi’s backstreets. Poorly placed U-turns and crossover points, absence of thought-through pedestrian crossings and randomly placed speed breakers add adventure to what would otherwise be a boring daily commute.

Continue reading

Why Imran Khan Is No More A Democrat

Democracy is a process. After many fits and starts, we finally got it going in the past 5 years, We had the first peaceful transition from one to the next democratically elected government last year. Was the election 100% fair. Probably not. Was it fairer than earlier ones. Absolutely. Do we think that Nawaz Sharif, the current prime minister, is doing even half of what he should or his advisors are apt, heck no.

But here’s the thing. Imran Khan (for whom I voted) wants to abrogate this system because he thinks there was rigging in either 4 or 10 seats (the story changes with time). Nevermind that his party was short by about 140 seats. Nevermind that his own polling agents called the election in Nawaz Sharif’s favor (his party leaders tweeted congrats to NS BEFORE the election was called even by the media), Nevermind that international and civil society observers thought that although some rigging did happen,it went both way (Free And Fair Elections Network report is available online at And nevermind that in review the high courts and the supreme courts agreed that the elections were fair enough to stand.

Still no one grudges IK his point of view. If he wants to believe it then that is his right. If he says so to his workers, that is also his right. However if he wants to abolish our current system in order to be declared PM (or king) on the force of a mob of 10-20,000 that he is using to lay Islamabad (and all of us) to siege, this is reprehensible. He wont agree to any other opinion than his own for the veracity of the elections and has already discounted the national election commission, previous chief justice and the civil society as being partisan.

And btw, crowds that have besieged Islamabad on the behest of IK and his co-agitator Tahir ul Qadri must have cost an estimated PKR 1+ billion thus far to keep, transport and feed. Who paid for this and what will be their pound of flesh for it.

We want Pakistan to improve. We dont like the rampant poverty, avoidable deaths, the misery that is so unnecessary. We also understand that the current group of politicians (including now Imran Khan and his cronies) are too corrupt and inept to deliver against these. But we also recognize a slow change where the voters have voted out incompetents in the last 3 elections. The change is slow but there. We like it and want it to continue. While it does, we will tolerate inept politicians as long as we the people have the power to change them. And we resent Imran Khan abrogating that system to take that power from us. So IK, no more tantrums. Please go home and stay. Be at peace. You were once hailed as a democrat. No more.

Why Politicians Don’t Smile and the Political Crisis in Lahore and Islamabad

I never realised it until I worked closely with them, politicians in Pakistan dont smile much. The more senior they are the less they smile. Of course this is completely opposite of what you see in the US or UK. Smiling is a gesture saying: “I am going to be nice to you”. Politicians in the US or UK thrive at the pleasure of their voters. They must behave nicely to their constituents. A US politician who can’t kiss a few babies on the campaign trail should probably just not contest the election. So what’s different with Pakistani politicians. Their power comes from who they can push or extract favours from, that is what they are elected for. Helping voters and their approval means little. If you are in the business of pushing people, you dont smile, you scowl. Pakistani senior politicians are somber people, they scowl a lot.

We are seeing this in the current crisis playing out in Islamabad and Lahore. Mian Nawaz Sharif, the legally elected Prime Minister with over 50% of seats in the National Assembly is running scared against the onslaught of Imran Khan who has fewer than 10% of the seats and Tahir ul Qadri who has absolutely none. Both want to topple his government and dream of becoming kings. 

Imran Khan feels that electoral rigging in May 2013 elections cost him Prime Ministership. Why he is turning to street protests 15 months later is beyond me. Never mind that FAFEN felt that although there were malpractices, all parties did them and they would not changed very many seats. Surely not the 120 more seas that PTI needed to form government. The courts agree with this conclusion. So now Imran Khan has taken to street intimidation (ironically their partners in KPK government are Jamat-i-Islami, the seldom elected masters of street intimidation). There is an implicit understanding that PTI and its leaders are demonstrating: People and their will means little, when you want political power, do it by force. 

Tahir ul Qadri is doing the same. He never contested elections. He even tried to stop them last year with his week long siege of Islamabad (where he got the 50+ crore rupees it must have taken to do that is beyond my understanding). He too is using his street power to topple the legally elected government of Pakistan and has explicitly expressed this aim in public. 

The leader of the nation, Nawaz Sharif, also has little confidence in the will of the people. Ideally when faced with intimidation from IK and TUQ, he should have come out and said: “the right to protest is constitutional and we respect that. Please use these designated public spaces legally to do that. We will listen and talk with you. But you can not hold entire cities hostage. Your protest must only happen on holidays. Dont stop the businesses because we are a poor nation and cant afford the roughly 20 billion rupees that this stoppage will cost the residents of Lahore and Islamabad for each day that you hold your dharna”. But this is not what he did. His minions used heavyhanded and sly approaches such as closing off petrol pumps and commandeering cargo containers (wonder if they paid for their use) and blocking roads and adding to the misery of the people. They were faced with illegal protest and feel reluctant to use legal force of the state to restrain it speaks volumes of their belief in the system. They could have relied on the voters that brought them into office and said: we are faced with this challenge, help us sort through it. It may have been difficult and perhaps even uncertain but that would have brought the voters into the decision making centre and would have strengthened the government. But that didnt happen because like IK and TUQ, NS also does not believe that voters have any say in all of this. They too resorted to what they understand politics to be: overt and covert weilding of power. After all, that is what politics means in Pakistan. Its not about pleasing the voters or making allies.