Mass transit woes
AFFORDABLE public transport and roads form the backbone of any economy. Not only do such fundamental services lead to an increase in productivity, they tend to act as equalisers in societies seeped in class and gender inequalities. There are also environmental and public health benefits of having fewer private vehicles on the roads, leading to a reduction in carbon emissions and congestion. But despite all these economic, social and environmental arguments for greater investment in public transport — and despite the reality of an ever-expanding population — the sector has been largely neglected in Pakistan. While Punjab has been able to develop proficient urban transit systems — primarily in the cities of Lahore and Multan — the other provinces have lagged behind. And time and again, we have seen how development projects and the provision of necessary services come to a halt with interruptions in governance. For instance, the Islamabad metro bus service was supposed to extend to the New Islamabad International Airport, but this plan has been put on hold since the PTI government came to power.
There is petty politics, and then there is political hubris, which is perhaps best illustrated in the case of the Peshawar Bus Rapid Transit project. The ambitious venture was announced one year before the general elections. However, from the beginning, the Peshawar BRT has been mired in controversy. Over two years and several design changes later, billions of rupees have been borrowed, hundreds of trees hacked, and there is still no sign of the project nearing its completion. The mismanagement of funds has also led to accusations of corruption, with the Peshawar High Court directing the FIA to carry out investigations.
Then there is the tragedy of Karachi. Residents of the metropolis had been told they would have their own mass transit system as part of a plan conceived by the Japan International Cooperation Agency in 2012. Seven years later, however, the plan is a non-starter, and the city is still waiting for even one of those four colour-coded bus routes to be completed, or the defunct Karachi Circular Railway to be revived. Instead, the roads that were dug up to make way for the Green Line have been abandoned midway. Despite housing over 14m people and opening its doors to people from all over the country and beyond, and despite millions of dollars pouring in from foreign donors, it is nothing short of a travesty that the city does not have a single decent public transport system running, even with the federal government stepping in. The ever-enterprising private sector — ride-hailing services, rickshaws, buses — have rushed in to fill the gap, but many cannot afford the daily commuting expenses. Unfortunately, the country’s economic powerhouse remains an afterthought to its leaders, especially the provincial government.
“PEACE is more difficult than war,” said Abbas Stanikzai, the Afghan Taliban’s top negotiator, in an interview with the BBC in February this year. The war in Afghanistan has dragged on for so many years that one tends to forget what is actually at stake: the future of the country’s children. A new Unicef report titled Preserving Hope in Afghanistan: Protecting children in the world’s most lethal conflict is a timely reminder of the ultimate cost of the 40-year-old conflict. The report sheds light on the extent of the adversities suffered by millions of Afghan children simply because they have been born and raised in a country which has been described as “the world’s worst killing field”. According to the report, on average, as many as nine children in Afghanistan were killed or maimed every day in 2019 — a year termed as particularly deadly for the country’s young ones “even by Afghanistan’s grim standards”. It reveals that at least 6,500 children died while 15,000 were injured between 2009 and 2018. The recent surge in suicide attacks and clashes between pro- and anti-government forces have raised the rate of child casualties by 11pc in the outgoing year.
The report also calls out all parties involved in the conflict for failing in their duty to protect Afghanistan’s children from the ugly consequences of war. However, conflict-related violence is not the only factor preventing Afghan children’s right to be able to lead normal lives. Severe malnutrition, an indirect effect of the prolonged war, affects as many as 600,000 children under the age of five. Similarly, the country’s shattered infrastructure has kept at least 3.7m children away from schools, while at least 30pc of children are engaged in labour to support their families. The report states that nearly 4m Afghan children need some form of humanitarian assistance to help alleviate their difficulties. In her statement released with the report, Unicef’s executive director Henrietta Fore said: “Children, their families and communities suffer the horrific consequences of conflict each and every day. Those same children are desperate to grow up, go to school, learn skills and build a future for themselves.” As the negotiations between the Taliban, and the US governments resume to look at the possibility of ending the long war, there may be reason to hope that the children of Afghanistan will have a chance to experience a life of peace, as opposed to their present existence of hardship and fear.
Press freedom in 2019
BY all appearances, the significant decline in journalist killings around the world this year — the lowest level it has been in 20 years — is an encouraging development. However, as highlighted in a recent statement by the International Press Institute, this is little more than a hollow victory when seen in the context of emerging trends in the news media today.
The IPI has expressed concerns that the drop in the number of journalists murdered in 2019 — 47 killings, as compared to 79 the year before — is, in fact, likely the direct result of an increasing use of non-lethal intimidatory tactics to attack independent journalists.
Arrests and newsroom raids from countries with authoritarian governments such as Egypt and Turkey to ostensibly open democracies such as Australia; populist rhetoric and vilification campaigns against journalists in Brazil, Pakistan and the Philippines; oppressive laws enacted in the name of national security but abused to suppress information in Nigeria and Singapore — these are just some of ways in which press censorship has evolved.
The current global press crisis should alarm all those who seek free and open societies, as it is also a manifestation of the deeper danger to democracy.
The very tools by which polities can be empowered to hold their leaders accountable — media platforms, justice systems and access to more data than ever before — have been weaponised by the latter to strong-arm the press into subservience. And this campaign does not stop at targeting journalism alone.
In Pakistan, one need only witness how such tactics are being extended to harass and undermine NGO workers, rights activists, academics and vulnerable minority groups — even relatively powerful individuals such as members of the judiciary and the political opposition. Going into 2020, matters are unlikely to improve. If this authoritarian ascent is to be arrested, it will require every ounce of resolve from today’s embattled journalists to lead the way for others — to read, write and resist.