The first line of defence against encroachments and occupation of public spaces, and corruption in public projects are the citizens of the towns. But they are not organised or motivated enough to challenge widespread corruption and mismanagement
We often look at the larger picture of
politics, society, corruption and governance, ignoring the most intimate communities and places where we live our lives. For most people, it is the village, the small hamlet; and for us, the urbanites, it is the town, the city. And the quality of the place we live in is determined by the quality of life.
There are many ways to measure the quality of life, and there are universal standards by which cities and communities around the world are compared. We all know how low we are on many measurements, from governance to human development, which is a sad reflection on those that have governed us and continue to govern us — the political-bureaucratic combine. How much we care about knowing and acting to mend things about our towns and cities may be gauged from the fact that these issues are totally missing from our media and socio-political discourses.
In search of the Taliban, Talibanisation and the proliferating madrassa network, I had the opportunity to visit three towns last week, though briefly — Rajanpur, Dera Ghazi Khan and Multan. I must admit my failure in confirming the manufactured political facts about Southern Punjab. But I challenge the ruling groups — the PMLN, which is in power in Punjab, and the bureaucracy — on what I did confirm.
The first thing that hits you in the face is the piles of filth scattered around every part of these towns. Polythene bags, popularly known as “shoppers”, a local perversion of the English language, can be seen flying around like loose kites. You should consider yourself lucky if you escape them while walking on the roadside.
What adds to the stench is not only the debris in the air but open running sewage with thick black water. Parallel to the open sewage are underground sewerage lines, but in many places there are uncapped manholes waiting for the next victim, and filthy water oozing out of the lines. I didn’t see any road clean and unbroken, or not under perpetual repair.
That is also the tragedy of every town and city of Pakistan. Somebody, somewhere has to answer for the death of our cities. A harmless form of protest, which I am trying to register, is to raise voice and bring this problem to the attention of the public and the government.
Why do we live with this daily nonsense, enduring filth and dirt?
This is the central question that we would like to answer in explaining the death of Dera Ghazi Khan. I am focusing on Dera Ghazi Khan because of my four formative years as a college student there, and repeated visits afterwards; comparing what the city was in my days there nearly 42 years ago, what it could have been and what it has actually turned out to be. Nobody can beat my knowledge of this city, which I roamed block to block as a free young man a long time ago.
Surely, its political masters of yesterday or today, or the current lot of bureaucrats serving from their leafy, spacious and clean civil lines, must have had the opportunity to grasp the problems and try to put things right. I didn’t see any sign of that happening.
I am mourning the death of one of my favourite Pakistani cities, Dera Ghazi Khan, for more than one reason. It is now more than a hundred years old in its present location. It was one of the few planned major towns, like Lyallpur (now Faisalabad). After a devastating monsoon flood in the nearby Indus, DG Khan was relocated with a town hall at the centre and four or five very broad four roads leading outward. It had planned residential blocks, market places, mosques and parks.
One could really envy the width of the roads, the well-organised residential blocks with broad avenues, and the beauty of the parks, particularly of a very lavish Company Bagh. The East India Company in almost every major town had established a park mainly for its officers, large parks that became known as Company Baghs.
The Company Bagh of Dera Ghazi Khan was the largest that I had ever seen. It had lush green lawns, flowerbeds, walkways and well-kept grounds where I regularly witnessed volleyball matches in the evening, as well as political rallies and gatherings during the anti-Ayub movement.
Dera Ghazi Khan and its seemingly helpless citizens have lost much of their town and the great Company Bagh to encroachers. Sadly, the residents of the city have encroached outwards onto the margins of the roads and continue to do so without any check from the authorities. If that were not enough, a female DCO posted there a few years ago sanctioned a CNG filling station in a residential area, even in the face of public protest.
While we talk about the accountability of politicians, nobody cares about the accountability of the bureaucracy, which seems to have lost professional autonomy and its traditional role as the defender of public interest.
Yesterday, I witnessed a three-pronged relentless attack on Company Bagh. The first was from the main road, from where you could see the spacious lawns and flowerbeds of the park. Now there is a row of shops blocking the view of the park, leaving only a small gate from that side. On inquiry, I was told that the Town Committee auctioned built shops to supplement its income. It did the same by building hundreds of shops around the famous Town Hall and Committee Building constructed a century ago, which has also blocked the view of the historic buildings.
The second attack is in the form of a sort of school on the land of Company Bagh, and the third one is from the city fire brigade. Who are the real culprits, sanctioning the construction of shops and leasing out park land to a school and the fire brigade?
It is the Town Committee and the bureaucratic and political groups that have alternated in power at the district and provincial levels.
Who can save Dera Ghazi Khan and our other cities?
The first line of defence against encroachments and occupation of public spaces, and corruption in public projects are the citizens of the towns. But they are not organised or motivated enough to challenge widespread corruption and mismanagement. If local communities don’t take ownership of their towns, the situation is not likely to improve.
Our structures of governance are so unresponsive that local populations have lost their faith in organising collective action. Unless that is done, the bureaucrats and their political cohorts would continue to plunder resources, including those we are borrowing on high interest rates in the name of development. Sadly, I cannot do more than mourn the death of Dera Ghazi Khan.
Other cities fare no better, and suffer from the same public apathy and neglect by bureaucracy and political bosses. The choice is between silently suffering and grieving, and organising collective action to hold culprits accountable.
Dr Rasul Bakhsh Rais is author of Recovering the Frontier State: War, Ethnicity and State in Afghanistan (Oxford University Press, 2008) and a professor of Political Science at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org (Daily Times)