The illusion of development


Urban and elite centric




A month ago it was the heatwave in Karachi and the ineptness of the authorities to provide citizens with basic needs to help them survive; today it is annual flood-imposed carnage in various regions of the country. While many continue to bemoan our fate and proclaim helplessness at the hands of nature, there are a few sensible individuals who have raised an alarm at the gross lack of preparation against inevitable occurrences. No summer is complete without a severe dose of flooding that wreaks havoc, killing those unfortunate enough to exist on the peripheries of society, and crippling the livelihood of the survivors.

With the strengthening of democracy in recent times, it would be expected that the government would look favourably upon policies that directly protect and safeguard the lives of the masses, especially of those most vulnerable. Why then are these people, not defined by any ethnic, religious or geographic parameter, left to rot at the fringes of society, mercilessly exposed to the whims of Nature? Are they not important enough to come under the umbrella of the government’s seemingly extravagant development plan? Or is it that, even in a democracy, our policies remain urban and elite centric?

The government has been buoyed by the positive feedback it has received by certain credit rating agencies, investment firms and the IMF regarding the state of the economy. The GDP growth rate looks set to rise, the construction industry is booming and CPEC is ready to provide substantial investment into what is touted as an “untapped market”. But there are imperative questions that remain regarding the beneficiaries of the current development agenda. Boosting macroeconomic indicators without considerable structural reform to expand the breadth and depth of those who benefit from this development will only serve to alienate more sections of society. Our system continues to be one in which wealth is concentrated in the hands of the elite, who enact policies to sustain (if not actively promote) the exploitation of the masses.

Though it has become a worn out topic, the necessity of the metro bus projects in various cities portrays the true nature of our development idea. While it undoubtedly facilitates scores of commuters, does it truly outweigh the dire need for investment in other public goods, say health and education facilities, or even decent drainage systems? A more recent example is the eviction of up to 85,000 slum-dwellers from the I-11 sector in Islamabad without providing them with any sort of alternative. They may be “Illegal residents”, but they are victims of the vicious socio-economic system that has left them property-less and forced them to reside in these shantytowns. Rather than recognising their rights as equal citizens and trying to rectify the initial failure of the state to provide for them, the authorities have resorted to brute force to simply throw them out. What is this, if not a gross violation of human dignity and treading upon the helpless in the name of development?

Examples of such short-sighted and misconstrued policies are not few and far. We do not need to go any further than the proposed projects to tackle the energy crisis: coal power plants. While the international community is upping the ante in its fight against climate change and moving away from this technology, we have decided to revert to the technology of a bygone era, with blissful ignorance towards its unsustainability and the tremendous environmental cost. The irony being that Pakistan is one of the most adversely affected countries in the world by climate change, with the risk of this exponentially worsening in the near future.

The common denominator of all these policies is a complete lack of sense of direction and failure to set the right priorities. Rather than democracy spurring policies than socio-economically uplift the masses, which would in turn further strengthen the political system, it seems that the perverse cycle of manipulation of the masses will continue. The fear of democracy being used as a vanguard of the elite and a means to further enrich themselves is turning into a tangible reality. Mega traffic projects such as flyovers and underpasses are meant to wow the masses and create a wonderful mirage of development, while our cities and society bear irreparable costs. For example, there is little thought given to long term urban planning or the aesthetic massacre of Lahore as it continues to be submerged under layers of concrete, with the Main Boulevard signal-free corridor the next abomination underway. Yet there will be cries of joy by the masses as they continue to be placated through the opium of mega-infrastructure. The illusion of progress is, perhaps, more dangerous than the sight of incompetence, especially with an easily appeased population.

It is not hard to roam the streets and witness firsthand the existence of two Pakistans; one that we often pass by innocuously, its residents occupying their place in the shadows of all this rapid urban development; and the other, that gets to save ten minutes of travel time because of these new routes. And with all this rain, the flyovers surely help reach home earlier to eat pakoras, while cursing the media for showing different parts of the city flooding, again. Even monsoon has a completely different meaning depending on which Pakistan you belong to.

The writer is a freelance columnist.