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Opinion

October 24, 2017

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Sifting through the garbage

Sifting through the garbage

There is no harm in relentless criticism of government. In fact, it is essential for democracy that even in the best of times a democratic society not only allows dissent, but also seeks ways to nurture and protect voices of dissent from the tendency of all societies to want to silence those that go against the grain.

This concept should not be hard to comprehend. Decent people everywhere find a person like Arundhati Roy to be a unique voice that goes against the grain of the majority of Indians. That majority has not only elected a Hindu extremist as prime minister, but also allowed that extremist to redefine what it means to be Indian. Arundhati Roy is admirable not only because what she says is totally against the grain of mainstream India, but also because to stand up to that mainstream is an act of moral courage. Even if Roy gets the specifics and details of some issues wrong, it is not hard to admire her stature as one that stands in defiance of the mainstream.

It should be no small matter of concern then that it is becoming harder and harder to discern the mainstream from those that stand in defiance of it, here in Pakistan.

On the one hand, Nawaz Sharif democrats argue that his removal from the office of the prime minister is akin to a coup d’état. Anyone that cares even remotely about democracy and rule of law in Pakistan therefore must stand with Nawaz Sharif. Ostensibly, standing with Nawaz Sharif requires Pakistanis to say and write things that undermine the Supreme Court and various justices on it, whilst either explicitly or implicitly suggesting that everything that is bad and broken in Pakistan is because of the military, and its insatiable appetite to deny Pakistanis their right to choose their leaders.

On the other hand, army-rule advocates want us to believe that covering up army-rule in the guise of a ‘technocratic’ government makes baying for the blood of an elected government a legitimate exercise. To make their case seem less illegitimate, they argue that an economic apocalypse is either imminent or has already happened. Anyone that argues against them is an agent of the enemy, seeking to undermine and destroy Pakistan through ‘democracy’. Apparently, the new test for patriotism is whether or not a Pakistani can close their eyes and swallow whole the fantasy of a politician-free Pakistan – as politicians are the root of all evil in this otherwise perfectly manicured land of justice seekers and nation protectors.

In today’s Pakistan, is it Arundhati of us to stand up to Nawaz Sharif, that man of little mystery that wears hundred-thousand dollar watches? Or is it Arundhati of us to stand up to the military establishment, that permanent long, dark shadow upon which real sunlight has never been shone?

Let’s try to answer this from the little guy’s perspective. Lower-middle class and middle class activists for the PML-N seem to be at the wrong end of some righteous rage these days. They have posted things on social media that are apparently offensive. They are in trouble. You know who is not in trouble? The leaders at whose behest they make such posts.

Consider the incessant reminders of the sacrifices of Pakistani soldiers throughout this country’s deeply contested existence. Our soldiers’ sacrifices should never be compromised by politics. Yet when someone raises the question of accountability for judges and generals, up go the referee’s arms! No one quite frames it this way, but the fix is in plain view. We can criticise and deconstruct the corruption of politicians until the cows come home, but pigs will fly before we illuminate the wider expanse of behaviour by judges, or army officers, or even bureaucrats.

If the worst-case scenarios are to be believed, some kind of disruption to the system is imminent, because apparently kicking out an elected prime minister wasn’t disruptive enough. If the best-case scenarios are to be clung onto, the obduracy of a princess will not overpower the interests of 208 million people. No matter what happens though, these winding and tortuous explorations of how to sift through the garbage of our national discourse come at the expense of more meaningful debates.

We have established partisan narratives so spectacularly that we routinely cut off our nose to spite our face, without knowing it. Few examples are as potent as urban mass transit infrastructure.

Since at least 2012, Imran Khan has railed against Shahbaz Sharif’s metro-bus project, tauntingly referring to it as the “jangla bus”. Partisans who already disliked Sharif for any number of reasons have jumped on-board this donkey cart, using all manner of data to demonstrate how expensive and inefficient the urban mass transit fetish is. Now that there is real momentum to the ‘economic apocalypse’ narrative, the hatred for the Sharifs is manifest in citations of the price tag of Lahore’s Orange Line train. Already disrupted by a reserved Supreme Court judgement, the Orange Line should be analysed and assessed critically like all other public investments. But that isn’t really what is happening. What is happening is a demonisation of urban mass transit infrastructure. This is not only bad for Pakistan. It is bad for those leading the demonisation effort. Imran Khan spent years talking trash about a metro-bus, until his own party-led government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa decided to ape Lahore.

Urban mass transit rail is always expensive to build. It is rarely able to pay for itself. It is subsidised almost everywhere. In a 2015 policy memo for The Hamilton Project, Kearney, Hershbein and Nantz analyse the entirety of metro-rail systems across the US to discover, “of the more than 1,800 mass transit systems in the United States, roughly 2 percent reported that fare revenue exceeded operating expenses in 2013, and all metro rail systems operate at a loss”. In a study commissioned by the New York City government itself in 2015, we find that New Yorkers contribute $130 per household to the mass transit system whether they use it or not.

Transport for London reports that fares make up only 47 percent of its funding, with the remaining GBP5.2 billion coming from grants, borrowing and other charges and fees.

The New Delhi metro was built largely through loans from Japan, including 60 percent of the total funding for Phase I, 54.47 percent of the total funding for Phase II, and 48.57 percent of the total funding for the planned Phase III.

Claims of operational profits by metros, made mostly by Indians for the New Delhi metro and, ironically, Japan’s privatised metros for Tokyo, often ignore that those profits are without consideration of core metro system costs in the case of Delhi, and the large contribution of retail and real-estate holdings in the case of Tokyo (not to mention the assumption of liabilities by the Japanese government when Tokyo first privatised its metros).

Perhaps the most important data point from the experience of urban planning and mass transit is that population density and urban sprawl are key informants of the ability of metro systems to generate user fare revenue. Fake and cosmetic local government systems across all four provinces were prompted by judicial activism. There is no narrative against these meaningless local government systems because there is no narrow political interest that is served by it.

The key debate that should be underpinning whether an urban mass transit project should enjoy our support is nowhere to be found. The census tells us many things, and perhaps the most important is the emergence of large metropolises across the country – how will these cities be governed? Will decisions about urban mass transit be made by provincial authorities or by local ones? How will these conversations emerge from the current discourse? Short answer: they will not. In the battle between Nawaz Sharif democrats and army-rule advocates, the winners all have apartments in London, and large plots of land here at home. Everybody else is a loser. And there are no Arundhati Roys.

The writer is an analyst and commentator.

www.mosharrafzaidi.com

 

 

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