Pakistan and the big shift

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  • Sticking to the status quo isn’t an option anymore

There is a truth universally acknowledged that a Pakistani in possession of any form of fortune must prove it by providing his family with, among other things, meat at every meal and by procuring a car.

There is another truth, less universally acknowledged, that all of the above is a status quo maintained not because of any health or religious obligations — but by societal standards promoted by regional literature, the media and the industries each item on that list belongs to.

Pakistan’s meat market is a mess. The demand never abates and the supply is less than ideal in quality. No amount of raids or notices seems effective in stopping it — a raid as recently as September 10 of this year found over 3,000kg of unhygienic, poor quality meat at illegal slaughterhouses in Lahore, where sick animals were being rounded up to meet high demand. More often than not, it’s been reported that people congratulating themselves on finding prime cuts were actually being sold donkey meat and horseflesh. There is a rumor about the former — reportedly donkey hides fetch a fair price on the Chinese medicine market — but the prevailing reason that Pakistanis are loath to admit is simply this: we are a society that has been raised on living up to certain societal obligations. Eating meat seven days of the week is one of them.

“Of course it is,” quips Rafay Alam, “that’s the seventh pillar of the faith — ‘Thou shalt eat meat every day of the week.” It follows, he says, closely after the sixth: “Thou shalt eat only basmati rice.”

A Yale World Fellow and environmental lawyer, Rafay brought this up in a recent conversation about climate change mitigation. It didn’t matter how many seminars or panel discussions were held, he agreed, if we as individuals did not open ourselves to real, effective lifestyle changes.

What he says corroborates with a recent study published in the journal “Science” — which states that without the production of meat and dairy, farmland could be reduced by as much as 75pc around the world. That would equal a landmass the size of the USA, the EU, China, and Australia combined. The study also suggests that if we do nothing else, the avoidance of meat and dairy products alone should go great lengths in reducing environmental impact on the planet. While almost 80pc of farmland is used for livestock, it only contributes to 18pc of food calories — while contributing to 58pc of greenhouse gas emissions and 56pc and 57pc respectively of air and water pollution. It is also a contributor to freshwater withdrawals — over 30pc of which goes to farmlands.

Of course, that’s not a statement one can easily make in Pakistan. Even people who are recommended to avoid meat by health care professionals find themselves pressured into consuming it — especially during religious events like the Eid ul Adha. Vegetarianism is viewed with mistrust as a “non-Muslim” if not out and out “Hindu” practice because of religious intolerance flairs up thanks in part to a bloody history with neighbour India, but also because of the firm hold of the religious right over a population that is largely ignorant of religious teachings, and relies on these, more learned individuals and groups, for guidance. And there is also the point first raised — societal standards that determine that meatless days imply only abject poverty.

We can’t stop the production of cars — but we can encourage, incentivise and motivate the average citizen to seek affordable alternatives

Advocating veganism, therefore, is hardly going to go over well. And yet, the reduction of meat and dairy consumption in Pakistan is a must. As pointed out by activist and lawyer Abuzar Salman Khan Niazi in a previous article “Pakistan may not have contributed to climate change, but we can’t follow in the footsteps of the contributors. Our greatest challenge now is to learn to adapt.”

And that adaptation cannot stop at advocating a change of attitude towards our meat and dairy industry — as Rafay points out, we need to promote alternatives to other dietary and lifestyle practices as well. Basmati rice, as he joked, is considered a staple in Pakistani diets — but by no means requires Pakistan to grow its own he argues — we can always import.

And that’s not where these changes should end.

Rafay is the founder of Critical Mass Lahore — a community-driven citywide movement aimed at promoting green cities that provide mobility, accessibility and clean transport, by getting groups of people out of cars and on to bicycles. The group believes that this helps to reclaim public spaces and contributes to empowering women and reducing gender discrimination in public space. They also encourage families to come out in force — “All you need is a road-worthy cycle and a sense of fun,” the group’s Facebook description reads, “Buy, beg, borrow or steal a cycle if you have to, but join the Mass.”

This is not dissimilar to other mass movements around the world. More of such “mass” movements in Pakistan, it is hoped, will encourage the government to look at pedestrian and alternative transport friendly infrastructure as a norm — and its citizens’ right. An example to look at for inspiration would be the Rotterdam Environmental Zone — expanded in 2016 — which limits the kinds of vehicles one can drive in that area and the number of times you can be exempted from the rule by “buying” exemptions, contributing to a reduction in air pollution — which is a problem Pakistan can understand very well.

After all, we can’t stop the production of cars — but we can encourage, incentivise and motivate the average citizen to seek affordable alternatives.

Another means of incentivising greener, cleaner living was suggested by Zarminae Ansari — an architect by profession who founded “The Joy of Urdu,” a bilingual organisation that aims to facilitate and enable the revitalisation of the Urdu language in order to reclaim Pakistan’s literary heritage. She points out that individual, not corporate efforts to adapt and mitigate climate change can include women — especially housewives and working women, recounting a personal experience from some years ago when she got the staff of a particular office to increase their recycling efforts while she and her family were in Islamabad.

“There’s a certain amount of money you can make from selling the old paper to a raddi wala. I told the staff that if they took the office’s paper to a raddi wala instead of trashing it, I’d double whatever he gave them. So if he gave them 200 rupees, I’d give them another 200 and so on.”

In addition, she said, if they kept this up every month, she’d pay for the whole staff to an outing — “like going to Monal to have chicken tikka with my son,” she added.

These and other non-corporate efforts are by no means perfect or universally beloved, but they prove one thing: we are all capable of contributing to change. And considering the high risk of air pollution and water crisis Pakistan faces, one would have to press that it is a change that needs to start — now.