Environment: City of hope —Saleem H Ali

The work of Mr Kamal in tackling far greater challenges in a city twice the size of Lahore leaves me quite dazzled and hopeful that Pakistan can have productive and liveable urban centres in the not too distant future

Pakistan’s largest metropolis Karachi is most frequently associated with urban squalor, water shortages, load shedding and a persistent stench of either sewage or seawater. Despite these marks of infamy, this is also a city with some tremendous achievements to its credit.

It is home to the world’s largest private ambulance service, started by Abdul Sattar Edhi; and the place where the Orangi Pilot project in poverty alleviation and sanitation was started by Akhtar Hameed Khan is an exemplary case of grassroots environmental management. Karachi University and the Institute of Business Administration have many distinguished alumni to their credit, who have managed to achieve some of the highest ranks in corporate America and academia.

However, the city’s problems in terms of infrastructure and environmental management still seem insurmountable given its enormous size and layers of bureaucracy. Refreshingly, the pages of Time magazine last month were graced with some rather positive news about Karachi and kudos for its young Nazim Mustafa Kamal.

It is very rare for the American edition of the magazine to profile stories about any Pakistani city and even rarer to have one which is generally positive. Only last year Karachi was being featured as a chaotic crucible of violence in Hollywood movies such as A Mighty Heart, about the abduction and murder of the American journalist Daniel Pearl. While acknowledging that the challenges facing the city are enormous, the Time journalists applauded the work of Mr Kamal in improving the city’s infrastructure and for his incorruptibility.

Mr Kamal has faced tremendous opposition from various tiers of government but he has remained persistent and is determined to make Karachi a world-class city. He has achieved at the local government level what most ministers in Pakistan’s history have not even tried to consider at the national level. The city government was certified by the International Standards Organisation’s series of quality standards for cities (which is more significant than many businesses that put labels of the same standards without much to show for the laurels). The Nazim was able to establish Jheel Park as the country’s largest public conservation space, Bagh Ibn-e Qasim, on an area of 130 acres. Infrastructure development is continuing at an unprecedented scale.

On the matter of large-scale building projects, I would advise the Nazim to not try and emulate Dubai which is now facing the challenges of transport congestion because of ill-advised highway-centred planning. Instead, consider the example of Kuala Lumpur, which has focused far more effectively on the development of public transport infrastructure such as monorails and high-speed trains. Having studied in Malaysia, Mr Kamal is well aware of these developments as well.

In order to have constructive development, the new government needs to have a clear plan to integrate environmental planning and economic development. It should also encourage merit-based politicians such as Mr Kamal. Though we may have misgivings about Mr Kamal’s MQM credentials, it is important to note that unlike other political parties where landholdings and industrial establishments are the main credential for political office, the MQM has allowed grassroots politicians to emerge.

Their leadership may well be chameleonic and remote-controlled from the British Isles with a retinue of unsavoury gangs but at least they deserve credit for moving Pakistan’s political landscape marginally beyond the politics of wealth and fortune. Hopefully, politicians such as Mr Kamal will also be able to reform the undesirable features of their party, while the feudal can learn the lessons of grassroots activism.

Mr Asif Zardari in particular should pay serious attention to issues of environmental planning in urban areas that are the nerve centres of commerce but environmentally challenged. His erstwhile portfolio as environment minister more than a decade ago was not particularly memorable. Hopefully, he can now redeem himself by making a positive difference for Pakistan’s cities and the environment at large.

While I am not holding out too much hope on that account given his brash bravado in recent statements, perhaps he will have a ‘Thomas Becket moment’ and transform his sense of feudal entitlement into a positive sense of humble public service.

Let us hope that that the Pakistan People’s Party, that has strong roots in Sindh, is willing to engage with an admirable son of the soil such as Mr Kamal. Needless to say, as a young politician he will make mistakes and possibly falter, but his poise and perseverance deserve our applause.

As a Lahori myself, I have been more inclined to praise the work of leaders such as Mian Shahbaz Sharif in terms of urban development. However, the work of Mr Kamal in tackling far greater challenges in a city twice the size of Lahore leaves me quite dazzled and hopeful that Pakistan can have productive and liveable urban centres in the not too distant future.

Dr Saleem H Ali is associate professor of environmental planning at the University of Vermont’s Rubenstein School of Natural Resources and on the adjunct faculty of Brown University’s Watson Institute for International Studies. www.saleemali.org


Source: Daily Times, 30/8/2008


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