Despite its current political turmoil, Pakistan today is better than it was 20 years ago. Farid Ahmad defies the pessimists and tells us why.
Sitting in the middle of load-shedding, watching the political theatre roll on ad infinitum, and reading the news of another security incident somewhere, it is easy to be depressed about Pakistan these days.
Depression, however, is parasitic.
It jumps from person to person and grows in strength unless treated. It makes you weak and vulnerable – and sometimes it is necessary to break the circle. Yes, Pakistan is going through very tough times, but there is no reason to throw all hope to the wind and to start denying the things that are going right – and a lot has gone right in the past 20 or so years.
Pakistan Independence Day
First, the necessary disclaimer: The intention here is not to sweep Pakistan’s problems under the rug or to try and rationalise away the immense suffering of the victims of recent violence and economic turmoil. There is no doubt that things have taken a very serious turn in recent months and millions of people are paying a heavy price every day.
With that disclaimer in place, here’s a collection of things that I have seen change for the better in my life in Pakistan – from high-school in the ‘80s to today.
It is necessarily a very personal list, though others might be able to relate to some of it. Travelling apart, I’ve spent my life living in Islamabad and Lahore and my memories are naturally specific to these places. So again, I’m fully conscious of the fact that not everyone can relate to or agree with my attempt at optimism.
But even if I come across as being overly optimistic, it is only to counter those who are becoming unnecessarily pessimistic.
1989: Driving from Lahore to Islamabad was an ordeal on the mostly single-lane, badly maintained GT road.
2010: Driving from Lahore to Islamabad is a pleasure on the motorway. And it is not just this one road; a lot of roads have been added to the network or improved. I know people in my office in Islamabad who routinely drive to Karachi with their families. We need many more roads – but we have certainly not been sitting idle.
1989: Calling from Islamabad to Lahore meant going to the market to a PCO, telling the guy to book a 3-minute call and waiting around till it got connected. Even if you had an STD line at home, your fingers were likely to get sore from dialling before you got connected. And once the call was connected you watched the clock like a hawk as it was so expensive.
2010: Instant, cheap calls worldwide for everyone from cellular phones.
1995: I was first introduced to the wonders of e-mail in 1995. It was an offline “store and forward” system (remember those @sdnpk email addresses?). If you sent a mail in the morning, it reached in the evening when your e-mail provider called USA on a direct line to forward it.
2010: Broadband, DSL, WiMax, Dialup, Cable – instant connectivity for everyone. More generally, I’ve gone through a series of denials about the adoption of new technologies in Pakistan. I went through thinking that cellular phones would never gain widespread adoption – I was wrong; that internet would remain a niche – I was wrong; that broadband would never take off here – I was wrong; that Blackberry would never be adopted – I was wrong. Here I speak from some experience as I work for a cellular company and I’ve seen all these numbers grow exponentially. The fact is that Pakistan and Pakistanis love technology and are eager to adopt and adapt the latest technologies as soon as they become available. With its huge population, this creates a large market for every new technology in Pakistan and businesses rush in to fill it. This bodes well for the future.
1986: When I finished high school, career choices were limited. You could either be a doctor or an engineer – or you could join the army or the civil service. And once you’d decided to be, say, an engineer, choices were limited to practically one or two government universities in your region. MBA was still a somewhat rare phenomenon and there was only one well known business school – IBA in Karachi.
2010: As my kids move towards high school, there are many more choices, and tons of good schools to pick from. LUMS, GIKI, IBA, Bahria University, Air University, NUST (which has grown much bigger since those days) and many more. In a country that gets a beating for its lack of focus on education, we have made tangible progress – even though there is much more to do.
1986: There were few decent bookstores in Islamabad and Lahore (Feroze Sons in Lahore being an exception of course, and there were the old-book shops in Islamabad). Finding books – even prescribed books for professional education – was hard. I remember many a trip to Anarkali during my UET days looking for the latest edition of that one book that would always be short
2010: Lots of good, large stores well-stocked with books on every imaginable subject. And even Amazon delivers books in Pakistan in case you cannot find them locally. In my observation, this is linked to the last point. Education/reading has grown in importance and there is a greater demand for books than before.
Foreign Currency Regulation:
1992: Paying in dollars for exams like GMAT or GRE involved going to the State Bank and filling out forms – and talking your way around unhelpful clerks
2010: Better regulations, credit cards and foreign exchange dealers mean you can make such payments instantly. In general, financial regulations since the early nineties have been more or less consistent. While each successive government likes to blame the last one for all ills – they all end up making similar policies anyway: privatisation, deregulation, increasing the tax base, etc. Implementation has been uneven and there have been setbacks, but the general direction has been towards opening up of the markets – which has resulted in many of the other changes listed here.
1989: Cashing a cheque from a bank, or paying a bill for that matter, routinely meant long queues, unhelpful clerks, long waits – and this was at the larger banks in big cities.
2010: I hardly ever go to the bank, thanks to ATMs. Bills are payable at more banks than ever and the staff is better trained than before (believe me!). There are several private banks today with a healthy competition that makes them invest in better infrastructure, improved technology, and innovation. Consumer finance products which were largely unknown twenty years ago are everywhere.
It is important to draw strength from our achievements even as we try to correct our mistakes.
1989: There used to be exactly one brand of toothpaste – and other consumer goods offered little variety. People used to ask relatives to bring stuff like shampoos from abroad when they were visiting.
2010: Take a trip to any half decent market and you’re spoiled for choice. Go to a place like a Metro store, or the Hypermart in Lahore and you could practically be anywhere in the world. (Of course some people still like to source their shampoos from abroad but, well I guess old habits die hard!) Again, this is not just a coincidence. Privatisation and deregulation have moved things in this direction.
1984: Smelly, dirty places. Few choices, mostly government-owned.
1984: You had exactly one government run channel. There was no concept of foreign channels. Listening to BBC meant tuning in to their radio service.
2010: Channel, channels, and more channels. Local, foreign, sports, news, kids – take your pick. Hate them or love them – they do inform and do give you more choices.
1989: Buying a car meant years of saving and then buying a beat-up second-hand car which would break down more often than not.
2010: More leasing options, more models, more cars on the road. People who have always had cars often treat this proliferation of cars on the road as a negative (“oh the rush on the roads”). But ask the man who buys / leases his first car for his family and takes them out for the first day of entertainment.
Well, I guess this is one thing that has not changed over the years. I’ve always held that among Pakistanis you will find the most open-hearted, generous people around – and I still believe this. The philanthropic sector has become more organized over the years. Edhi Trust was the torch bearer and is still doing a great job, but there are countless others. And grassroots philanthropy – now enabled by pervasive communication – is thriving. I registered the full scale of it in the aftermath of the earthquake – and it simply reinforced my belief.
I could go on.
The point is that while there is much that has gone wrong, there is much that has gone right. And we have gotten this far while getting through one political maelstrom after another. Through thick and thin we’ve shown ourselves to be resourceful, resilient, tolerant, and progressive. I’m all for being self-critical, and at another time I could write an equally long list of things that have become worse over the years. But we must not be dismissive for the sake of being dismissive. There is much that is good in Pakistan – and it is important to draw strength from our achievements even as we try to correct our mistakes.
Farid Ahmad also blogs at All Things Pakistan and How Many Roads Must a Man Walk Down.