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.

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.

Women and Religion – Learning from Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka is beautiful. Its got it all. Beaches, hills, forests, culture. All of it. Just like Pakistan. But unlike Pakistan, its also a tourist destination. Visiting and travelling in Sri Lanka, it really stands out that Sri Lanka prospers by respecting its women and its religious diversity.

Coming from Pakistan, it strikes you. Women are everywhere. On trains, rickshaws, walking unchaperoned on the streets. Everywhere. And no one minds. Strange. Caught an impromptu group of teenages, young men and women break dancing on the sidewalk just outside the train station. There was a huge crowd around. Some cheering, some filming with their phones, others simply watching or cheering. Not one jeer, no frothing at the mouth at the moral decay at display. On the train and then on our public bus in Colombo, women sat in all locations. There wasn’t even a “women’s only” section. No one teased or misbehaved. Oh that and women sit on motorcycles normally. Not in the sack of potatoes style you see in Pakistani cities (but curiously, not so much in Pakistani villages).

Makes me wonder that perhaps this extra space for Sri Lankan women is not what leads to their being vulnerable to disrespect and jeers that we see for their Pakistani counterparts foolish enough to come into public spaces without a chadar, dopatta, hijab or naqab. Maybe its something else. Like the men in the society expectating women to behave in this way. And if they dont, then they will pay a price.Some will be jeered, others physically beaten, acid thrown upon or simply killed for not listening to their male handlers. Kind of like the protection money that store owners have to pay in Karachi if they dont want their shops vandalised by their “protectors”. Makes you wonder if this “chadar and chardiwari” business is a protection racket after all.

The other thing is that you see are the mosques, churches, hindu and buddhist temples all over the place. They are the best kept buldings in their neighbourhoods, as places of worship tend to be. And if you talk to the average person on the street, they are extremely respectful of religious differences. We passed a mosque near iftar where cars were badly parked causing a traffic jam. The taxi driver told us that this happens at iftar and around Juma prayers and while normally it would result in fines for blocking the traffic (this was near the presidential palace) but for these times (iftar and juma prayers) the police make an exception. For all I can tell, religious diversity is not only tolerated, it is part of the culture.

I wonder why Sri Lanka has adopted gender and religious tolerance when we lost it. Even in the middle east, you find all kinds of diversity tolerated in Dubai. Is it because they need to attract foriegners; and not so in Saudi Arabia which draws its wealth from under the ground and where a single family and its friends rule a population of 30 million people. But we are not rich in Pakistan. We havent harvested our natural resources. We even go out of our way to discourage businesses. So may be its time to ponder, if our cultural obscurantism is meant to keep the control of a few over the many. And if so who and why do the rest of us allow it.