A mysterious mist descends upon much of northern Punjab around New Year’s Eve every year. As with other meteorological phenomena, this fog defies political borders and is just as prevalent in India as it is in Pakistan. Our airports suffer the common misfortune of having arrival times for flights in the wee hours of the night and morning (in order to provide convenient departures times in Europe and North America), and the nightly fog causes massive disruptions from Delhi to Lahore. As I arrived in Lahore this year, our flight barely escaped being turned back and we all breathed a collective sigh of relief upon hearing the wheels of the plane being ejected for landing.
Given my credentials as an environmental scientist, I am frequently asked about the cause of this fog. Grandmothers at social gatherings often reminisce about how such fog was never encountered in their youth many decades earlier.
Urban pollution is often considered a common culprit but, as most astute observers would notice, the fog is in fact much denser in rural areas. So what is the cause of this troublesome agglomeration of water vapour that seems to paralyse our lives after dark in what would otherwise be the culmination of the shaadi season?
Fog is no doubt a natural phenomenon whose recorded occurrence can be found in antiquity. Ancient mariners recorded fog along seaways long before any industrial pollution could be considered a culprit.
A confluence of temperature and humidity cause fog — which is essentially the formation of clouds at ground level. In some cases pollution or dust can accelerate fog formation by providing a nucleation base for condensation to occur more densely, just as salt particles can cause fog formation on the high seas. However, the causes of the fog in Punjab need greater study before we can make a conclusive verdict on its causes.
For a writer, the fog in Pakistan these days has much metaphorical value as well. It seems as though the country is engulfed in a pall of uncertainty and calm anxiety that characterises these foggy times. The government appears to be at a loss in navigating the country through this uncertainty because there are too many contending demands and constituents to please or punish.
As a result, our population is surrounded by a dense array of questions that seem to trap us in a troubling twilight zone: Is our current economic predicament to be blamed on the past regime or the current establishment? Can we militarily win against the insurgencies in Swat or Waziristan? Will there ever be a time when diesel generators and UPS systems will no longer be needed for household energy supply? Will Pakistan be able to host a foreign cricket team apart from Sri Lanka in 2009?
Each country has its own share of uncertainties to contend with but usually they are not as consequential as those that many Pakistanis are feeling these days. Unfortunately, if this feeling of uncertainty at multiple levels is allowed to persist for too long, anarchy and cynicism will likely set in among our otherwise dynamic public. While in our patriotic zeal, many might criticise Shehzad Roy for his song “Lagay Raho”, there is an uneasy ring of truth to his commentary on Pakistani society. We are becoming desensitised to this perpetual state of uncertainty and simply “going on” without much care if it is in the right or wrong direction.
Let us not for a moment doubt the ability or resolve of the Pakistani population to work tirelessly towards a productive goal. Indeed, it is millions of our citizens and those of our neighbours in South Asia which have built the skyscrapers of the Gulf states and continue to run some of the most efficient and labour intensive economies of the world. Without South Asian sweat and blood, Dubai and Doha would most likely be ghost towns. By their own admission, the UK and Canadian health administrations have stated that without South Asian personnel, their healthcare systems would collapse.
The same dynamism and energy which our labourers and professionals show overseas would just as well be applied here if our governments could only provide the leadership and day-to-day security which every citizen has a right to demand.
At the end of the day, human beings desire some modicum of certainty in their lives: they want to have some confidence that when they flip on a switch there will be light; when they decide to take an exam and plan their career, they will have it on time; when they go to a CNG station, they will be able to fuel up; and when they go to exercise that very fundamental right to vote, they will not be blown up.
The government needs to communicate clearly to the Pakistani population what plans it has to bring such levels of certainty in their lives. Granted such changes cannot be undertaken overnight but plans need to be clearly delineated so there are trajectories to navigate ourselves through such uncertainty at multiple levels. We have to move beyond languishing in the past or perpetuating blame games, and focus on the present and the future. As the fog finally lifts from the fertile fields of this land, let us hope that we also see a brighter future for the country in 2009.
Dr Saleem H Ali is associate professor of environmental planning and Asian studies at the University of Vermont. His new book, Islam and Education: Conflict and Conformity in Pakistan’s Madrassahs, will be published by Oxford University Press in January 2009. www.saleemali.net