Friday, June 18, 2010

Traffic Chaos in Lahore– a public policy failure

Traffic in Lahore city is chaotic, unruly and roads are often jam packed with both motorized and non-motorized vehicles fleet. Due to its magnanimity, rising ‘traffic’ poses a big challenge for all those institutes responsible for planning, devising and implementing transport policies.

Traffic is chaotic because drivers, whether of a bus, a wagon, a car, a rickshaw or a motorcyclist, like driving in their own peculiar way. They are always in such a hurry that most of the time they forget whether they intended to turn left or right. They don’t mind parking their vehicles on sides of congested roads without realizing that their parked vehicle may end up blocking the entire traffic flow. In case of a traffic jam, almost everyone on road, rather than waiting in vain, would worsen the traffic jam by self assuming the responsibility of the traffic wardens and devising a way out for their vehicle only. They also love honking on roads where government has advertised in Urdu “honking is prohibited on this road’.

Perhaps, following no rule is the new rule on roads. Dr. Shabih-ul-Hassan Zaidi thinks that driving license issuing authority is also to be blamed for the behavior of drivers on roads. “Currently, bribing is the standard operating procedure to obtain a driving license. Wanna-be drivers or car owners, who seek a driving license through bribe, do not have to go through the standard test and their driving licenses are delivered at their doorsteps. It is a governance failure”, he added.

Besides people’s behavior on road, there are other multiple issues which are adding up and pointing toward a public policy failure. Firstly, private vehicles (including cars and motorcycles) are increasing at an alarming rate of 12.2% per annum. Dr. Shabih-ul-Hassan Zaidi, a senior town planner was of the view that, for the past six years, the car ownership rate is growing at least five times more than the population growth rate of the country. We have also witnessed the widening of roads to accommodate the increasing number of motorized traffic. “This rapid increase in number of cars is straining the capacity of the existing road infrastructure in Lahore. But widening of roads by reducing the size of green belts is not a viable solution”, pronounced Dr. Shabih-ul-Hassan Zaidi.

One major reason for increase in number of vehicles (cars or motorcycles) is the absence of an efficient public transport system. According to the Lahore Rapid Mass Transit study 2006, there are only 1053 buses for approximately 200,000 regular commuters. In addition to buses, there are 518 mini buses, 475 mini wagons, 34156 rickshaws plying on Lahore roads but still the supply side of the existing public transport system does not match the growing public demand. Secondly, the condition of all public buses, mini buses or wagons is very terrible. Bus services such as New Khan and Daewoo, which started some ten years back, have increased their fare many times but apparently maintenance of these buses is the least priority.

Thirdly, is the role of the corporate sector which has exploited the existing gap created due to the wretched public transport system, by offering easy car leasing options to people. Now anyone with a few months of job experience can lease out a car. Neither the corporate sector nor buyers think for a second the environmental consequences of selling or buying cars. Of course, the former is aiming at more profit and the later their own convenience.  

Fourthly, there is the issue of governance or the lack of it, which is exacerbating the problem. For instance, there are number of government bodies responsible for managing and planning traffic and transport issues of the city. Some of these departments include Punjab Transport Department, Traffic Engineering and Planning Authority, City district government, Urban Unit of Planning and Development Department, City Traffic Police etc. “roles and responsibilities of all these departments’ overlap. Additionally, they work in isolation and coordination is completely missing”, says Dr. Ghulam Abbas Anjum, Chairman of City and Regional Planning Department.

A joint-up government is the new approach, which requires involvement of all relevant government departments, has been employed in countries like Australia to solve wicked problems such as traffic congestion. Nevertheless, such an approach is completely missing in case of city Lahore. Here, the Transport Department of the Government of Punjab is developing a transport plan of the city but unfortunately, Traffic Engineering and Planning Authority has not been taken on board prior to embarking on any future transport plan. It appears that the introduction of joint-up government concept would take some time in countries like Pakistan.

Similarly, the knowledge of experts, working in various government departments of Lahore, about existing national framework for transport is also a matter of great concern. I talked to Mr. Mohammad Ozair, Senior Transport Specialist of the Urban Unit, Planning and development department and asked whether Pakistan has any national transport policy. Mr. Ozair was completely ignorant about any such policy at the national level even though such a national level policy was formulated through assistance of Asian Development Bank.

But what experts say to resolve the traffic congestion issue in Lahore. Dr. Shabih-ul-Hassan Zaidi thinks that policy planners should adopt the multi-nuclei concept of town planning. This concept entails decentralization of town centers by developing new town centers. This will reduce the traffic congestion by distributing traffic to multiple town centers. By doing so, the average travel time would also be reduced. On the contrary, Dr. Ghulam Abbas Anjum, Chairman of City and Regional Planning Department, was of the viewpoint that the only viable option is to provide an efficient public transport system to the city dwellers. “Traffic congestion would be reduced to a great extent if government considers the option of rapid mass transit bus or rapid mass transit rail system. Lahore Rapid Mass Transit Rail Project (LRMT) is already on the table but there were serious delays due to unavailability of funds”, pronounced Dr. Ghulam Abbas Anjum.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Hate Speech, Our actions and Inactions

Today, I came across couple of pictures on twitter which was a clear enough evidence of how minorities are treated in Pakistan. The first picture tweeted by Beena Sarwar, a veteran Pakistani journalist, captured a banner displayed outside Lahore High Court with the slogan “Jews, Christians and Ahmedis are enemies of Islam”. The second picture, tweeted by Shahid Saeed, was of a billboard with the logo of Auqaf Department Punjab, stating “Friendship with Ahmedis is a revolt against Prophet Muhammad (PBUH)”. This kind of provocative banners and billboards perpetuate nothing but sheer hatred against minorities such as Ahmedis.

We have already witnessed the resultant effect of this hate speech on May 28th, in a massacre of two worship places of Ahmedis, which killed at least 100 civilians and left many injured. Ironically, despite such a massive bloodshed of a minority community, the reluctance of the Government of Punjab to order removal of all such provocative banners is outrageous. Rather, Government of Punjab is allowing Auqaf Department to continue sponsoring provocative billboards to win support and avoid wrath of religious parties. By doing so, Punjab government is not only neglecting its constitutional responsibility of protecting minorities but it is also fanning hate speech against Ahmedis. Should not it be called a ‘state sponsored terrorism” against Ahmedis community?

Similarly, there are our so called leaders of religious parties who have been campaigning against Ahmedis for so many years. Recently, these religious leaders have condemned the attacks on Ahmedis but they have also declared  these attacks as a western ‘conspiracy’ to build pressure on Pakistan to amend blasphemy laws, to do more for the US led war on terror and to create justification for a possible attack on southern Punjab. It is pertinent to note that these religious parties have been infusing people’s minds with such ‘conspiracy theories’ since ages. Subsequently, what they have accomplished is support from masses to spread the hate speech and also religious bigotry.

But leaders of religious parties did not limit themselves by highlighting the so called conspiracies, some of them pronounced blanket statements on minorities protection. For instance, the attention-grabbing statement by Syed Munawar Hassan, Ameer Jaamat-i-Islami, also surfaced in the media, who said that “minorities are secure in Pakistan”. Such statement seems inane if we look at the history of persecution, indiscrimination, intimidation and gross atrocities faced not only by Ahmedis but also other minorities such as Christians. Pakistan’s treatment of minorities has been called ‘worse’ time and again by the Human Rights Watch and Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. There are innumerable examples of gross atrocities committed against monitories in our country. For instance, Gojra massacre, May 28th carnage etc. Similarly, displaying anti-Ahmedis banners and hoardings at public places and the inaction of our provincial government is a reflection for us to acknowledge that minorities are neither respected nor secure in Pakistan.

How many people protested against and condemned the May 28th massacre on Ahmedis’ community? Well, there were only 40 people who turned-up at Islamabad press club to attend the protest and same goes with other cities of Pakistan. On the contrary, on May 31, country wide protests were arranged in Pakistan to condemn Israel’s attack on a flotilla of aid ships going to Gaza. Does not this attitude elucidate our double standards? We are in a state of denial and live with our own prejudices. We are intolerant toward minorities (whether Ahmedis, Christians or Hindus); we disrespect them and deny their fundamental rights. We don’t reflect upon our own actions and inactions and blame others for hatching conspiracies against us.