Politics and the destruction of our cities

Years back, I sent an article titled, “Nationalization of social and moral values in Pakistan,” to a newspaper. It did publish but with entirely a different title. The new title, “A state that took over society” aptly described what that article was about. Now when I want to write about the destruction of our cities by the political elites in their bid to impress the citizens as voters, I cannot think of a better title than the present one. First I thought of this one: “Preserving the older cities.” However, both the titles communicate what this article argues about. First, the political elites are destroying our cities; and, second, we need to preserve our cities and their age-old soul.

As far as the concept of cities prevailing in our society is concerned, it needs to be reminded that cities are not a complex of roads, buildings, houses, streets, schools, colleges, universities, markets, hotels, restaurants, parks, gardens, libraries; in fact, they are a complex of conceptual environment in which people are born; where they are brought up; where they play, study, comingle, make friends, indulge in love; where they do business, politics; where they organize in various associational initiatives; where they build their world of dreams; where they wage struggle for the improvement of their life or others’ life; where they marry, settle in new homes and beget children; where they pass their old age completely in harmony with their cities; and finally where they are buried. And cities are such places where after their death, they are remembered and visited and prayed for a peaceful afterlife by their survivors. Ultimately cities are made of the stuff dreams are made of.
But as the Pakistani state has taken over its society; along with it, it has grabbed that environment of our cities also where the citizens used to be part of the city’s conceptual environment, and now they feel stranger in their own cities. Now when I go about in Lahore here and there, I miss so many things that were the part of my existence, and like me part of millions of Lahoris’ existence; however, they are no more there. Flyovers, underpasses, overhead bridges, metro-bus have encroached upon the canvas of Lahore. I really feel lost. Just go in front of the MAO College, and see how that Muhammadan Anglo Oriental College has lost its look and image under the ugly shadow of the elevated road for the metro-bus. Not only the MAO College, but just opposite to it another old red-brick building of the erstwhile government college of education stands eclipsed by the same elevated road.
That may mean that one is despising the progressive work meant for the benefit of the people at large, and he may be diagnosed of having a retrogressive mindset. For example, metro-bus is such a good facility that saves time and money of the thousands of commuters. Flyovers, overhead bridges, or underpasses, they all facilitate smooth flow of vehicles and do not allow for any traffic jams. That it’s a great achievement seems to be a truism.
However, the underlying story is quite different. As far as Lahore is concerned, its population has increased manifold and it lacks many of the civic facilities. Good roads and smooth traffic are two big issues. But the question is how to solve these issues; by running metro-bus (which consumed so muc of the space), building flyovers, overhead bridges, underpasses; or by improving the roads and managing the traffic as is required by the traffic laws. It cannot be controverted that in Lahore and in other cities also, rules and laws of traffic are not implemented. Nobody in the department of the traffic police, and up to the chief minister, bothers about controlling the traffic mess that’s a daily suffering for millions of people. While a number of flyovers, overhead bridges, underpasses do not witness much traffic using them, one is forced to ask why so much money has been spent on such “political marvels.”
Clearly, it is political economy working behind these, in most of the cases, un-needed and un-wanted projects. And, no doubt, they are to prove that the government is doing a lot, and surveys and studies are misled by this illusion of progress and development. In Lahore, there has been built an overhead bridge where the Shalimar Link Road crosses the Canal Road; one can stand there for one hour and count only dozens of vehicles use this bridge; and just beneath this bridge, there is almost always a painful traffic mess facing the people. That shows what is needed is management of traffic on the roads by strictly implementing the rules and laws of traffic, not these political impressive!
It reminds me of a short-story which narrates the ordeal of a simple woman from a suburban village coming to one of the biggest city hospitals to have her daughter treated by the specialist doctors. The first day she has to go back unattended by the doctors; because she has to face a complex network of doors, corridors, floors, stairs on the one hand, and on the other, complicated system of availing various medical services provided by the hospital. She was not familiar to that complicated style of building housing the complicated way of providing services. It takes whole of her second day to know where to go for this and where to go for that.
The gist of the matter is that progress and development means facilitation; not complication; simplicity, and not complexity. Sure, that means simple cities imbued with their soul and spirit. That amounts to saying that development in cities doesn’t mean disfiguring of the face of those cities. Politicians and rulers must understand this simple truth that their mandate to rule is just for 5 years, and they have no authority or right to destroy the 500 years old existence of our cities. In many cases, these cities of ours, like Lyallpur, Gujrat, Karachi, Peshawar, Lahore and so many others may be much older than a period of 500 hundred years.
The politicians and rulers must not impose their dreams on our cities; they should go and develop new cities and do whatever they like, just as they did in Islamabad. Our cities are the dreams of our ancestors as well as ours. We want our cities back. O politicians and rulers leave our cities alone to us, the civil society which can better take care of them. O politicians do not destroy our cities for your temporary political gains! Do not politicize our cities! Let our cities be ourselves!
Note: This article was completed on June 9, and was originally posted in June 2014.

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