The story goes that a cap seller in Bengal while passing through a forest took an afternoon siesta. When he woke up he found that the monkeys had removed all the caps he was carrying and were up in the trees wearing them and shrieking their heads off with delight. The old man was in a fix but luckily he still had his cap, so he got up, took it off and threw it forcefully on the ground. The monkeys followed suit and the merchant quickly gathered his stock and took off. Years later, his son now in the same trade, came to the forest, took a nap and found the monkeys had done the number on him too. Remembering the story his father had told him, he proceeded to hurl his cap on the ground hoping a shower of caps would follow. When none appeared he looked up. The monkeys sat motionless all wearing the caps. One young monkey piped up and said, ‘you think you are the only one who learnt the trick from your elders? We did too.’ As the monkeys burst into laughter, the cap seller ruefully left the forest.
When the word ‘environment’ first flashed on the Pakistani scene, the thinking here was that this was an elitist western fad that was being thrust down the collective throat of the third world. Whatever it was, the nightmare that had not even appeared then is now a permanent part of our polluted lives. The monkeys learnt their trick. We have not. Pakistan is not just polluted in terms of good governance, integrity, honesty, commitment or financial transparency – the score on that is well known. The great leaders are fairly adept at bending, breaking and twisting every rule to further their personal gains – the CJ’s daughter’s examination result story of 25th November no longer shocks us because we expect nothing but the worst. And they deliver. It still makes some of us cringe. Most take it in their stride. Into whose cruel hands have we fallen? Merchants, charlatans, crooks, rogues, murderers, commission pimps – this is the daily grind and we are being broken in the great stone mills that pass for governance here.
Like everything else our environment is totally degraded. There is no check. A newspaper editorial says it all. Ecosystems, species, mountainsides, soil, waterways, trees, forests, flora, birds and the very air we inhale is destroyed or getting fast polluted. The great Arabian Sea is a sewage as are most of our rivers – take a walk on the legendary Ravi, no longer a legend, but a cesspool of waste materials from factories that flout all rules and reign unchecked, by greasing palms of small, petty and crooked officials who multiply their personal wealth at the cost of the health and well being of millions of their fellow citizens. Entire forests have been chopped down and sold. Hillsides denuded. Trees cut randomly, without plan, without an iota of thought? For what? To widen roads and broaden chaos. This is a nation armed with axes out to fell the first tree they can find. As for the environment, who gives a hoot?
At the altar of dodgy ‘Development,’ every rule is violated. Open spaces are gone or going so fast that you can’t recognize a locality two weeks down the road. The water that sustained life here for millions kills at random now. Congestion, respiratory diseases are epidemic in nature. In Lahore, where smog hangs like a dark ominous post-nuclear blast, people cough and splutter all day long, lines at hospitals grow longer, doctors go on prescribing medication, medicines go on selling but the air is not going to get clean. A UN Report places Karachi amongst the 13 mega cities as (ABC) ‘hotspots.’ A 3-km thick ‘brown cloud of man-made pollution’ is making Asian cities darker, speeding up the melting of the Himalayan glaciers and impacting human life. Black carbon and soot cover the atmosphere over our heads. They contain toxic aerosols, carcinogens and other poisonous materials, leading to deteriorating health of millions living and those who will inherit this death-bounty. Everywhere you go there is garbage, filth, flies, mosquitoes, overflowing gutters, diesel fumes and a city whose very life is being sucked out. And the noise rises like witches screaming. Day and night. Horns, maulvis singing out of tune, sermons that go on endlessly. Weddings and fireworks well into the night.
This is not just Lahore – it gets worse as you move away from the bigger cities. Last week driving my friend AftabGul towards what used to be Empress Road, at about 630 pm, I was baffled by the chaos, the noise, the swirling dust of debris, vehicles of every description belching smoke, the roads, sides and lanes choked with thousands of people, running helter skelter, the landscape more like a science fiction horror scenario than a road. A complete breakdown of what we know otherwise as a city. Lahore generates 6000 tons of solid waste daily. 35 per cent of it remains on the roads. The next day another 6000 tons is added. You get the picture. The garbage that is ‘removed’ by CDGL ends at three landfills, all ill-planned. The underground water, air and health of immediate vicinities is constantly under threat as is the rest of the city. Approaching Lahore from any direction is like entering a bombed city. It is the same whichever city you go to, worse in the smaller cities and absolutely murder elsewhere.
And what have our rulers been doing? Well, tinted glasses prevent you from seeing the filth, hissing along at 80km a click on these roads saves you the sight of the squalor and the ugliness that oozes out everywhere. The Elahi government blew Rs.2 billion on underpasses that were a disaster in the making but those of us who raised our voices were simply ignored. And why not? Since when was policy framed for the greater good of the people? These underpasses were, as Rafay Alam observes, meant for the 15 per cent elitist population that drives cars. A city that 61 years after independence still has no decent public transport system should die of shame – at least its planners should but no such emotion disturbs them. We are going on wasting our resources on harebrained schemes, buying expensive trinkets for our armed forces that devour our resources in the name of ‘security.’
No one has to destroy Pakistan from without. We will manage it from within. No mistake about that. F16 are coming from loans that we cannot pay, the new GHQ is only ‘shelved’ but not cancelled and the opulence style of living and lording over the fate of 161m miserable citizens is a joke on all of us, but we take it. We crib, we moan, we bleat, but we take it. Those small voices that are raised are just ignored.
Pakistanis believe that nothing will really happen to them, that somehow they will be able to get through but history is unforgiving. The monkeys learnt their lesson. I doubt we will.
The writer is a Lahore-based columnist. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org