Islamabad has gained increasing significance over the years but some pressing issues remain unaddressed
ity managers and administrators hurry for back-to-back meetings in August to plan the festivities for Independence Day every year.
All ministries and government organisations are duty-bound to make these perfunctory arrangements without fail. The prime minister sometimes presides over these meetings to make sure that everything goes as planned.
Every ceremony starts with the recitation of the Holy Quran and ends in accusations directed at the opposition members by government functionaries.
This is the Islamabad that people watch on their TV screens. It looks like the epicentre of an unstoppable storm.
Compare this extreme with the quiet and ordered life that irritates visitors. Hassan Naqvi, a Lahore-based journalist, is always perturbed to see markets closed at 10pm. “Other than the ubiquitous Quetta Cafés, you do not have a lot of options for dining out. The city is dull and very costly,” says Naqvi.
Sattar Baloch, editor of a Multan-based newspaper, fails to understand why residents of the city are so obsessed with land. “Everybody I meet, from a university professor to a waiter, talks about plots and flats. Everyone seems to be a closet property dealer,” comments Baloch.
Protocol vehicles and escorts speed through city roads, with wailing sirens and flashing lights. The police along these routes are always on high-alert as the slightest mistake could cost them dearly.
Stormy yet serene, chaotic yet organised, Islamabad is like an addiction for its residents who do not feel like they could live anywhere else. This addiction points to its significance at a national level as the federal capital.
Over 60 years ago, a dictator, Ayub Khan, set up this city and built his bungalow right in the middle of an eponymous park.
Khan’s house and park are in front of the parliament house that he built. But that is not the true identity of Islamabad.
After Ayub Khan, another dictator, Zia ul Haq, built the mighty Faisal Mosque. Although the Saudi monarch contributed to its construction, the government provided the land and continues to maintain it.
The Faisal Mosque remained the defining landmark for the city until the mid-2000s, when yet another dictator, Pervez Musharraf, built the Pakistan Monument at Zero Point. It shows the confluence of five petals.
The foundations for a modern Islamabad were also laid during the Musharraf era. On an overambitious drive to build monuments, Musharraf settled on Kamran Lashari as the man for the job. Dictators typically want monuments. Lashari, as chairman of the Capital Development Authority mowed down hundreds of trees and bulldozed green areas to build big avenues. Their names are 7th Avenue and 9th Avenue. This monumentalization drained funds from the civic body but Lashari was eager to please his boss. Protests were held by concerned citizens and vested interests converted these problems into projects to win donations for environment protection.
“The mass transit system will continue to make lives easier in the days to come. We are building a big terminal at Rawat and three new bus services have been launched.”
Musharraf’s drive went ahead unperturbed, resulting in near bankruptcy of the CDA. For almost ten years after Musharraf, no large project of local importance was launched due to a lack of funds.
In 2015, the city got its first local government leader. Sheikh Ansar, an ‘outsider’, was elected the mayor. With the change of government in 2018, he was made dysfunctional on account of ‘corruption’.
Also, at that time, the Islamabad Wildlife Management Board was set up and a dental doctor made its first chairman. He was followed by a newspaper writer. The board remained a centre of heated controversies at national and international levels. No government was able to appoint a suitable candidate to steer it in the right direction despite the fact that international donors provided significant funding for wildlife protection.
The city finally fell back to its natural manager, the CDA. It is claimed that over a million trees were planted in the city from 2018 to 2020. Even if the claim is disputed by many, no one can deny that a valuable addition to the greenery was made. Streets and parks have put on a new face. No monstrous monuments were added to the wreck of stone buildings. Instead, roads were made signal-free without extending them into green areas. The Sri Nagar Highway and Faisal Avenue are prime examples of this. Margalla Avenue has attracted a lot of criticism for being close to Margalla Hills but it is part of the original master plan of the city.
CDA Chairman Amer Ahmed Ali is convinced that widening of roads is no solution to traffic problems. Asked what his legacy will be, he says that he has added no monuments to the city but he strives to make the city greener and cleaner. “The mass transit system will continue to make lives easier in the days to come. We are building a big terminal at Rawat and three new bus services have been launched,” he says.
Regardless of his intentions, this model is not ideal. Instead of buying new buses and hiring new staff, there is a need to utilise the available buses. One such solution has been offered in a Grand Challenge Project titled Optimal Use of Available Resources: A Prototype Model of Road Safety. The Higher Education Commission approved this project in its Grand Challenge category. The CDA needs to benefit from this research on which faculty members from the QAU, the IIUI, the LUMS and the NUST have been working.
Housing is the second most pressing issue that the city must not neglect into the future. In the absence of action by the government, housing societies have found an enormous vacuum and they are using it to exploit the masses.
It goes without saying that more than anything else, Imran Khan has added to the significance of the city. Before his massive protest demonstrations on Constitution Avenue, the city had not witnessed such a thing.
The city is going to dump its dull image and be livelier on all accounts in the future.
The writer teaches development support communication at International Islamic University Islamabad.Twitter: HassanShehzadZEmail: Hassan.shehzadiiui.edu.pk