14 June 2012

Where is our Rosa Parks

My column in The Express Tribune today is about the exclusionary nature of cities.  You can't fit more than a thought in an 800-word piece, so I'll be the first to say mine is nowhere near the last word on the subject.

What I also find interesting is how the inequity/exclusion in cities is a global phenomenon.  There's some solace, I suppose, in knowing we're not the only ones.

My piece brought back recollections of another I wrote some years ago for The Friday Times:

A friend recently told me of her interest in global warming.  I asked why.  I often do.  It’s a great way of finding out what the word “environment” means to someone.  “It’s already so hot,” she complained.  “If it gets any hotter, even the ACs won’t work.”
The Lahore I grew up in was a sleepy little metropolis.  It wasn’t the Lahore of the 1950s or 1960s where my parents’ generation wore drain-pipe trousers and The Mall was where writers and intellectuals rubbed shoulders at Pak Tea Houses.  My Lahore was the Lahore of Zia and the 1980s, where everyone either lived in Gulberg or in far-off Model Town.  The Lahore of today is a behemoth.  It stretches from the North shore of the Ravi past Thokar Niaz Beg in the South while the DHA – when it finally completes and colonizes its ten or so Phases – is fast approaching India.  Today’s Lahore is a mixture of things: a confused and congested Old and older City, where pollution and poverty detract from the beauty and complexity of the built heritage; a post-partition sprawl trying to come to grips with the demands commercialization and consumerism place on the existing urban fabric; and a mess of residential housing (some public, some private and some controlled by the Army) that exhibits the hopes and aspirations of today’s Lahoris – all expressing their aesthetic sensibilities through the homes they build.
To a large extent, my politics were shaped – as are everyone’s – by my environment.  But for me, it was the limited urban environs of the Lahore I knew that shaped by opinions.  My Lahore was the Lahore where an active civil society objected to the treatment of women under the Hadood Laws and the religious persecution of the Ahmedi and minority communities by a host of Blasphemy Laws.  Those were (and are) pressing issues of the day, and no one but civil society gave the establishment a run for their money on these issues.  But this civil society never protested for clean drinking water; the Lahore I knew always had clean drinking water.  The sewers worked and, other than an hour’s load shedding here or there, there was no reason to take the local government to task.  There were also never any protests for better educational institutions; all my friends went to Aitchison, Kinnaird, LAS, LGS, LCAS and the host of other O and A level acronyms that passed for schools in residential districts.  Oh, and of course, everyone had a home.
Roti, kapra and makan?  That was and remains a slogan of the poor, for “the masses”.   Now that I think of it, when was the last time civil society protested against poor civic utilities?  Or the lack of a clean sewerage system?  Or the fact their daughters don’t have a school to go to?  It hasn’t because it hasn’t needed to.
A disclaimer: Civil Society has and does play an indispensable role in Pakistan’s politics.  It has shaped and refined the quality of debate and sophistication of argument.  It has taken on issues – like women’s rights, religious freedoms and, more recently, the judiciary and the imposition of Emergency – when few dare to do so.  On the national level, it has been able to amend laws and to change public perceptions.  But it has always had the luxury to choose from many issues that plague our Republic.
Just as my politics were shaped by my physical environment, my friend’s opinion on global warming reflects hers.  In her world, everyone has an AC and, if they don’t, well, they can eat cake!  She is from a Lahore where the 4 kanal “farm house” is the residential accommodation of choice, catered by two automobiles and a phalanx of split units.  Fuel conservation for her is not public transport, its not using the older car.
Our urban environments have made elitists of us all.  This is not a popular thing to say, as it goes against the grain (Islam-, we are told, teaches us that we are all equal).  But it is a false shackle.  Just as we hoisted it on ourselves, we can take it off.  The secret lies in identifying the elitism and segregation that lies everywhere in our urban environment.  Then, if one is so inclined, it’s just a matter of casting it away.
There’s a high wall separating the Cantonment from the non-military homes off of Zarrar Shaheed Road (the stretch of Allama Iqbal Road before it changes to Barki Road).  As if the residents of that locality do not have a right to gaze onto the green belt and ceaseless private traffic.  The smaller entrances to DHA are actually guarded by the Punjab Police – there to ensure undesirables do not enter.  Some time ago, a snake charmer – trying his best to answer my questions about his most lucrative neighborhoods – told me he wasn’t allowed in the Cantonment or DHA.  Everyone’s seem police pickets in Gulberg, but how many times do you see the police pulling over the driver of a private automobile.  It’s almost always motorcycles and rickshaws.   These are bit little examples of the segregation actively enforced and applied before us.   On a larger scale, you have a city designed entirely for those who own or drive automobiles.  Anyone who is unlucky enough to commute by foot will find nothing but a torturous urban environment.
How long can such an urban environment sustain itself?  At some point, one of the many millions of have-nots who support the lifestyle of the haves will stand up and take notice of this segregation.  They will ask why their families aren’t allowed in Cantonment’s Polo Ground Park.  Then someone will ask why just a handful’s of God’s own civil servants – all employees of the people, mind you – continue to occupy such a large tract of urban land in the middle of the city, while at the same time property prices skyrocket and there’s a shortage of housing units.
On a cool December evening in 1955, 42 year old Rosa Parks refused to vacate seats reserved for whites on a public bus.  Her simple and elegant protest started the Montgomery Bus Boycott and earned her the recognition (by the US Congress) as the “Mother of the Civil Rights Movement.”  By simply refusing to play the immoral rules of the game, Rosa Parks began the fight for racial equality in the US.  When will our cities produce their Rosa Parks?  Who will be the first to react to the classist segregation that identifies us and forms our world-view?