Fiddling while Rome burns-Ahmad Rafay Alam

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Last October, the Chairman of the Chief Minister’s Task Force for Horticulture (yes, really) announced that Rs. 100 million was to be spent on “beautifying” Lahore. Along the Mall, right opposite the main gate of the Gymkhana Club, this money has been put to use setting up a water feature and a row of Ionic columns. On another corner of the Club, a bit of landscaping under the auspices of the previous government is also being replaced. But this time with the facades of Ionic columns!

Ionic columns? Obviously I have missed the role of the Roman pillar in our cultural heritage. Now, questions of probity have arisen regarding the role of the Chairman of the Task Force – the brother of a senior PML-N parliamentarian – and his role in executing lucrative contracts on behalf of the PHA with firms that he had connections to. This time, the Chairman of the Chief Minister’s Task Force on Administrative and Financial Issues (yes, really) has ordered an inquiry.

There’s a joke going round that the Government of Punjab has a task force for just about everything. The only thing they haven’t got a task force for is premature ejaculation, but I hear that it’s coming soon.

All this would be funny, as Masood Hasan recently wrote to me, if it weren’t so tragic. Just last week, nearly 40 people were burnt alive – almost half the deceased were children – when a fire broke out late at night in one of the numerous slums of Karachi. Police attributed the high casualties to the fact that the slum was hemmed in on all sides by the boundary walls of adjacent buildings. Rawalpindi’s Ghakar Plaza – a well-known commercial building – burnt to ashes not a month ago, taking with it 14 lives. The brave efforts of the emergency services, not least of which was the sacrifice of the 13 heroic firefighters who gave up their lives while evacuating the building, were said to be hampered by the narrow streets and congested approaches to the blaze. On Christmas Eve, a fire in a residential building in Sukkur stole another seven lives and injured 17.

In May last year, a building collapse triggered by an exploding gas cylinder killed at least 29 people and injured nine in Lahore’s Allama Iqbal Town. In April, four people were killed when a building collapsed in the Badami Bagh area. In July, another three people lost their lives when the roof of their home in Krishanagar/Islampura locality.

In the first week of this year, a fire broke out in a building on Hall Road, causing millions of Rupees of loss but thankfully sparing human lives. The fire began when a candle, lit during one of the innumerable bouts of unscheduled loadshedding, fell onto some unattended baggage.

Last year, in Karachi, a prime property on I.I. Chundrigar road was gutted in April when it caught fire. In July, Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani “expressed grief and sorrow” on hearing that nine people were killed when a building collapsed in Buldia Town. The year before, millions were lost when a fire broke out in a store on M.A Jinnah Road. And who can forget the sight of the PNSC building on fire in February as well as August 2007. A latifa doing rounds at the time was that the PNSC building burns down every Sunday, part of the Port Trust’s attempt to provide recreation for passersby.

An investigation into the fire and structural safety of our built environment reveals scandalous negligence and derelictions of duty. When fire devastated the city of Rome in 64AD – and the fire at the time raged for a reported 6 days – mud-slinging Suetonius reported that the Emperor Nero sang the Sack of Illium for the duration. According to popular legend, Nero played the fiddle while Rome burned. This is not true. There were no fiddles in First Century Rome. Tacitus suggests he may have played the lyre. Regardless, given our predilection for the Roman column, I thought I’d have a look to see what one of the most oft-quoted expressions synonymous with negligence and dereliction of duty and responsibility could tell us about ourselves.

Upon learning of the fire, Nero is said to have organized a relief effort for which he paid from his own pocket. He opened his palaces to provide shelter to the homeless and arranged for relief and rehabilitation measures to prevent starvation among the survivors. Later, he fitted Rome with an altogether new urban development plan. New houses were built in brick, old ones refitted with larch wood (a hardwood which, it was thought, was impervious to fire). Streets were widened to provide escape and building heights limited to ensure ease of evacuation.

Autocratic Nero reacted to the fire and made improvements in building regulations with a view to prevent further disasters. Don’t get me wrong, Nero was no Haussmann. Apart from being a murderously cruel and vulgar autocrat, he was totally corrupt. He is said to also have profited enormously from the relief donations that flooded into the city from neighboring provinces after the fire. Nothing we aren’t familiar with in these parts. And to put to rest nasty rumors that the Emperor himself had a part to play in the conflagration, and in another example of his cruelty, Nero fixed blame for the fire on the members of a small community that had no love lost with the local Roman citizenry: the Christians, and had a multitude executed as a penalty.

Nero did what he did because he had to, and if he hadn’t responded to the fire in the way he did, he would have found himself poisoned just as he poisoned his own mother and just as poisoning was the de rigueur mode of “sacking” high government officials at the time.

Meanwhile, what is the response of local and provincial governments? How have the many development and building authorities responded to the crisis that is building safety? What has become of, say, the list of 627 dangerous building identified by the LDA in 2007? What become of the inquiry into the PNSC building fires ordered by the then Minister of Ports and Shipping? What is the Rawalpindi administration doing to ensure that more Ghakar Plaza disasters never occur again? What is being done to protect the precious lives that inhabit our congested and poorly built structures? When will we stop hearing news of children in schools being killed by falling roofs, or of sleeping families killed by their poorly constructed homes?

And Emperor Nero is the one stuck with the bad name.

In other news, last week conservationists in Lahore were aroused by cries from the Pagal Khana. The administration of the lunatic asylum – the first ever treatment center for the mentally handicapped in our part of the world – was up in arms after construction at an immediately adjacent site threatened the main gate of the mental hospital. The adjacent site, a public park not a year ago, is now a brand new wing of one of the other hospitals nearby. It’s quite the encroachment, and now threatens the history and integrity of a fine medical establishment. When a city like Lahore starts to lose parks to things like hospitals, alarm bells should be heard everywhere. It means two crucially important urban utilities are at conflict.

Ironically, all the land adjacent to the mental hospital once belonged to the mental hospital. Over time, it was parceled out to housing colonies and the nearby medical institutions. Now, one of those very medical institutions is trying to force itself on the original owners of the land. Noted architect Kamil Khan Mumtaz summed up the situation by likening the encroaching hospital to Israel and the mental hospital – the original inhabitant of the land – as Palestine. As is the case with the criminal human tragedy being played out in the Middle East, who will hear the voice of the underdog?

The writer is an advocate of the high court and a member of the adjunct faculty at LUMS. He has an interest in urban planning. Email: ralam@


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