The duty of the system

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The ruins we do not see

The blast that took place at the Old Sabzi Mandi on Ferozepur Road in Lahore on July 24 immediately made headlines. The carnage was witnessed on television screens across the country as families collected the bodies of the 26 people who were killed in the attack or rushed to the aid of the 50 others who were injured in the incident. Quite naturally, almost everyone in the city was left perturbed.

But did anyone look beyond the immediate aftermath of the damage caused by the bombing and examine the events taking place in the area that was targeted? Yes, the purpose may have been to kill or injure as many policemen as possible. But these policemen had been deployed to carry out what is being called an ‘anti-encroachment drive’ by the local authorities.

Under this drive, the carts of small vendors were overturned and broken and many small dwellings located in the same area were also razed to the ground through the use of heavy machinery. The locals who were affected by this campaign had only been given a week’s notice and many of them had nowhere else to go and no other means to earn their livelihood. The money that was provided to the residents a few months ago as compensation was limited and failed to cater to their needs.

Today, many of them have been left without shelter. They have sought temporary refuge at the homes of their relatives or simply settled in the area surrounding their now-shattered homes.

It is unclear what the purpose of the anti-encroachment drive was. Additional police reinforcements were called in after people began protesting the destruction of stalls, carts and their homes. Rumours suggest that a new bus depot will be set up in the locality. However, others believe that the Hall Road electronics market is to be shifted to the area which lies adjacent to the Arfa Karim Tower, which has been named after the teenage IT wizard who died tragically in 2012.

There is no doubt that these facilities or perhaps any other venture planned for the area where the vegetable market existed would benefit people. But only people who are well-off and can afford to purchase electronic items or travel in properly maintained buses are likely to benefit from them.

However, this question is, in some ways, irrelevant. The main matter is: why has nobody considered the fate of the people who were deprived of their homes and the means of livelihood within a few hours? Surely it is the duty of any system to look after the needs of the most vulnerable sections of society even as it seeks to develop means to benefit other citizens.

Where are these people who, even on a Monday, were found sitting along the roadside expected to go? What are they to do? It is true that the land they parked their small carts on may not have belonged to them. They were guilty of encroachment in the exact sense of the word. But if we think in terms of basic humanity, is it not a bigger crime to simply throw them out on the streets if we know that they can do little to sustain themselves?

This is not the first such incident. In the past, people have been thrown out of land that they had occupied for generations because it technically belonged to the Pakistan Railways. The same is correct for other anti-encroachment efforts. While of the construction of the Orange Line project – which will run through Lahore – remains a matter that is being debated by the Supreme Court, there has been little discussion on the situation of the people whose tiny homes were demolished as part of the mammoth efforts to build a transport system.

Women who are raising their children on their own under the most deplorable conditions have been thrown into even greater misery as their homes were torn down. Some civilians have attempted to help. Clerks at offices located around the areas have, in some instances, delivered food from their own houses to the impoverished sections of society. The scale of displacement is massive. However, no one talks about it or refers to the conditions of these people. They are – in some ways at least – just as significant as the heritage sites which are also under threat from this project.

All cities need a transport system and a mass transit network. But they also need the compassion that any elected government should be showing towards its people. The Metro Bus, which runs along Lahore’s main arteries, serves thousands of people every day. Of course, this is a huge benefit. But can the same service be provided at a lower cost by running the buses along an allocated lane on the roads?

This is what certain experts, including the top city planners in the country, have suggested. The money that was saved could have been directed towards meeting the most basic needs of the people. These needs include better public sector schools and hospital facilities. Even the patients who were rushed to Lahore General Hospital and other facilities after the blast this week complained of inadequate care. The problem is, of course, evident at all government facilities. In many of Lahore’s top hospitals, nearly three patients are placed on one bed due to the severe shortage of space. Those who are less fortunate must make do with the floor or a bench.

Development is undoubtedly a major requirement for our country. But it needs to be carefully thought-out. The vegetable sellers who had their carts upended at the Sabzi Mandi in Lahore are also citizens of our country. They deserve rights and protection. They deserve the support of the state. After all, states were developed to provide services to people who lived within them as part of an agreement that has evolved over time. This basic agreement is breaking down in our country as the state becomes less able and, perhaps, less willing to protect people. As a result, people have become less prepared to abide by the law of the land.

The ‘benefit versus the damage’ equation needs to be considered more carefully while carrying out eviction or anti-encroachment drives. Giant developers who are guilty of massive encroachments in Karachi, Lahore, Rawalpindi, Faisalabad and other cities rarely face penalties. When it becomes necessary to clear an area for various purposes, some provisions needs to be made for the people who inhabit it. There are also other ways in which the state can show that it has some semblance of meaning in people’s lives.

Food programmes at schools have become a necessity given the surging rates of malnutrition recorded by both local and international agencies. The extent of this deprivation is shocking. It should disturb all of us. Perhaps we should then think about whether we need bus depots and expensive transit systems or whether our priority should be to ensure that every person living in Pakistan has adequate food.

This argument can be aligned with the operation carried out Sunday and the desperate efforts made by the people to save their homes. It is these protests that brought the police to the area. The bomb blast was, of course, not their fault. However, the fact that it occurred simply exhibits just how complicated it has become to run our country.

One of the ways in which this process can be simplified is to remember that the people must always come first and all categories of people must be accounted for. Perhaps the most important people are those who live in shanty towns and are less able to help themselves. Following this principle will enable us to build a happier, more united society.

By Kamila Hyat


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