May 05, 2008

When an elite minority manipulates

I drove to Islamabad the other day. The first thing that I noticed were the brand new avenues that cut through the city. As I drove up Agha Shahi Avenue, I noticed the high-quality construction work on the road. The next thing I noticed were the large number of people trying to cross the avenue at various points. I was struck how, forget our national politics, our cities are totally undemocratic.

One of the most remarkable achievements of human civilisation is the city. It has always been the city as the sacred shrine, the water source, the commercial hub that has attracted men and women through the ages; tempted them to leave their rural life, and has give us the opportunity to interact and exchange ideas. This interaction has given us art, culture, religion, literature, commerce, sport — in a word, civilisation.

Another of man’s remarkable achievements is democracy. This system of social arrangement, the “worst form of government except the others that have been tried,” to quote Churchill, remains, despite its flaws and constant detractors, the most popular form of government invented to date.

Despite its flaws, the great allure of democracy has been its creed of equality and public participation. But just as democracy remains elusive for Pakistan, it remains elusive in our cities. In Islamabad, for instance, the large sums of money spent on roads is expenditure of public funds that caters only to the automobile elite. This “failure of democracy,” to quote former mayor of Bagota Enrique Penalosa, isn’t particular to Pakistan. It is a common occurrence in the urban areas of most developing countries and manifests itself most clearly in the way governments have approached the issue of transport in cities.

Until only a hundred odd years ago, cities grew in accordance with the muscle energy in the human body for low-speed pedestrian mobility, they grew according to how far a man or woman could commute by walking. With the introduction of the automobile, a significant change occurred in the rate and manner cities grew. Society appeared to accept the automobile, and yielded to it willingly as its demands grew. We continue to do so. Take parking congestion, for example. As more and more automobiles crowd into limited public spaces and begin to suppress human activity — as they do on Lahore’s M M Alam Road or in Karachi’s Zamzama — they are regarded as a “parking problem” rather than an automobile problem. As a result, solutions to automobile congestion prioritise parking over, say, public transport. The proof lies in the fact that parking fees are not even remotely close to the real market prices of an equivalent amount of public space.

According to a report recently issued on the economic health of Punjab by the P&D Department, most of this province’s urban population lives in slums or in poorly constructed irregular housing. Now consider the fact that, in the past five years, Punjab has spent billions of rupees to build underpasses along Lahore’s Canal Road (this is just these underpasses, and not the money spent on transport infrastructure elsewhere). There are less than 1.5 million automobiles registered in Lahore, the vast majority of which are two-wheelers. For a city of over seven million, the allocation of such a large sum of money for such a small proportion of the city’s population is astonishing. It means an elite minority are able to manipulate public expenditure. This is not equality. Such allocation of resource is not democratic, especially when the vast majority clamours for things like sanitation, healthcare, education and recreation (and the restoration of the judiciary!).

The fact is that there is no “natural” level of automobiles in a city.

There is no “ideal” ratio of miles of metalled road per square mile of urban area. These are figures — ah, give me a statistic and I can move the world — used by planners to support arguments to widen roads. But nobody widens roads anymore; it’s a practice given up long ago by mature city governments such as those of Paris, New York, Tokyo, Berlin or London. These “global cities” decided, impliedly or explicitly, that regardless of traffic congestion, no new road infrastructure would be built or added in their core areas. Instead, governments of these cities concentrated on public transport. We remain obstinately committed to ignoring the experiences of others or the lessons of the past.

In Lahore, Shahbaz Sharif’s experiment during his previous tenure as chief minister to widen the roads in Lahore is now proof that, if you do so, they will only be filled with more and more cars. Despite the clear results of the experiment, in the past five years, the Government of Punjab recklessly authorised the construction of billions of rupees of road infrastructure. The proposed widening of the Lahore canal is a good example: despite the compelling arguments of citizen action groups like Lahore Bachao, the government remains adamant on spending another 700 million rupees to make the commute from Dharampura to Thokar Niaz Beg 10 minutes faster. Remember the expenditure of this money is in ignorance of the many pressing urban issues facing the city.

For government to retain its legitimacy, it must not only strive to construct the equality so necessary for democratic rule, it must also be perceived to be generating inclusion and some form of equality. Imagine what a carless commuter must think of the “development” in Islamabad. He certainly won’t think the CDA is working for his benefit.

In our urban areas, there is no better equaliser of social hierarchies than public space. Our governments must realise that these public spaces are political weapons that can be used to enhance their legitimacy and which can be manipulated to provide democratic equality to the people.

In public spaces, the highest-ranking executive and the lowest-ranking employee are stripped of their social differences. However, most interaction in public spaces occurs during leisure time.

In developing countries, the upper classes have large homes, private gardens and access to clubs, country houses, restaurants and expensive cultural activities. The lower and middle classes don’t have access to such facilities and so, in our urban areas, it really is the public spaces open for recreation which are the only places that social and democratic equality can be maintained. Sadly, with the number of green belts and parks being used for road widening or construction projects, we are quickly losing the last tool urban planners have to provide recreation and entertainment — and by extension, some similarity and equality with the lives of the rich.

This is also why parks are so precious now. In another ten years, there will be no space left in our urban areas to use for public purposes. If government doesn’t act today, in another ten years that main distinction between rich and poor in Pakistan will be in how they entertain themselves.

Our government must realise that our cities are unequal. They must realise the priorities they have assigned development projects often offend democratic sensibilities. They must realise that the time to act is now, and that neglect will lead to great social division.


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