Op-Ed. The lost years of Pakistan

Our friend and occasional contributor from Lahore Pakistan Hassaan Ghazali is a very severe critic not only of transport policy and practice in his country, but also of the many cultural and political facts of life which are the bedrock of the decisions which shape (or misshape) the sector (and with it our day-to-day lives). Bad decisions, very bad decisions are not just accidents or one-off occurrences. There are deep reasons behind them, whether in Pakistan or Peoria. Here he explores man/car/technology relationships which can be seen in many places around the world. In short, most of us have a problem with the car. But it’s not the car that is the problem. It’s us. That’s the first thing we need to come to grips with. Read on.

Over Lost years: Howzzat for a land of fear

- Hassaan , Lahore, . (From Pakistan Today. 24 Marcy 2011)

Just as authorities thought they were making progress at the nuclear power plant in Japan, more smoke is seen rising from the reactors. With growing concerns of total nuclear meltdown, it’s clear the crisis is anything but resolved. One originally assumed that the disaster in Japan would be dealt with relatively quickly, but it seems reconstruction and rehabilitation work in Japan could go on for years. Since the nineties, Japan has faced up to its economic challenges with all the dignity that one would expect, but perhaps the cash intensive recovery efforts will give Japan a third lost decade where it faces limited economic growth.

Like Japan, the lost years of Pakistan are also fast becoming a reality when we see how the previous decade has not really made our lives any better.

Sometimes a lot of truth may be said in jest, but the state of the nation reminds one of the joke where Jesus gets a guided tour of hell. Upon approaching large cauldrons where demons keep plunging escaping sinners back into the inferno, Jesus notices that one cauldron is left unattended by the demons and asks why? He is told that the Pakistani cauldron doesn’t require a demon since any would be escapees are dragged back in by the others inside. No one ever gets out or ahead. Jesus may have laughed but it’s a compelling story for anyone worried about the fate of the country and its inhabitants.

As you enjoy what is perhaps the only public holiday this year which doesn’t fall on a weekend, there would certainly be some time to think about what it means to live and die in the land of the pure. The thought itself may bother anyone with a NICOP card and dual nationality, but perhaps a wise man rightly called Pakistanis the world’s bravest nation for having witnessed generations of adversity and socio-political strife. Over the past decade we have woven a rich tapestry of military dictatorship, natural disasters, terrorism, political malcontent and warmongering in Pakistan and today we are still well enough to worry about the fate of our cricket team in the World Cup quarter final. Something certainly keeps us going and it can’t be Viagra or the drinking water around here.

It transpires that fear drives us more than courage ever could. At the individual level, Pakistanis have been living in fear for so long that bravery becomes an occupational hazard. Beyond suicide terrorists, energy insecurity and fiscal instability, it seems the particular brand of fear we propagate best is rooted in our need to ensure not only our success, but the failure of others.

Sentiments such as these may be desirable, even necessary, on the cricket field but severe social problems arise when the fear of losing out to others gains sway in the public realm. Anyone desiring to see its consequences need only to observe what happens when the rubber hits the road–literally.

Like a microcosm of the social ills plaguing us, the commuters and road users of this country offer an excellent example of how fear is ingrained in the most banal of activities.

A car is not just a car in Pakistan. Far from being a privileged source of mobility, it is a metallic manifestation of the owner’s ego interacting with that of others. When egos clash, sparks can fly and no where does this become more evident than at intersections or bottlenecks where all manner of vehicles battle it out for pole position. As everyone tries to get ahead before the others, the resulting traffic jam should make evident that no one really gets anywhere. Just like the parable of Jesus and the cauldrons of hell, the people of Pakistan are adept at going nowhere and preventing others from doing the same.

At the institutional level, the fear of losing out to others becomes more pronounced. For one who has been a public servant in another life, the horrors of inter-agency conflicts simply mimic the situation at the individual level. Our administration and oversight have clearly become fragmented as bureaucrats battle over how budgets, personnel and assets are utilized. If you had to wake up one morning to see no less than three agencies arguing over which one gets to build a road first, you would realize that each institution is a fiefdom in fear of losing out to others. Things have now gotten so bad that the biggest mistake made by analysts of Pakistan is to assume homogeneity and unity of command within our public sector institutions.

If getting ahead at the expense of everything else is the only guiding principle directing our lives, then it should come as no surprise that the Pakistan of today is our crime, and it is our punishment. Only time will tell if we lose the next decade as we have squandered away the previous one. Perhaps now would be an opportune time to assess our situation, put a stake in the ground and decide once and for all that although we have hit rock bottom, the only way to go is up. Just watch out for any demons along the way.

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Hassaan Ghazali is a consultant on public policy. He lives and works in Lahore. His motto is *When conditions are right, things go wrong.*  This article appeared today in Pakistan Today and is reprinted with the kind permission of the author .

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