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Humans of Islamabad suffer due to flawed urban planning

The following article aims to highlight the problems faced by the commons in Islamabad in the form of ten tales inspired by true events.

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The following article has been written to highlight the challenges faced by the residents of Islamabad. The names of the characters are fictitious but the problems they represent are very real. The stories touch themes of housing, transportation, rigid zoning regulations, environmental sustainability planning, waste management, education, and the tyranny of masterplans.

The purpose is to engage the local community through stories they can relate to and thus, understand the implications of the vast field of urban planning on lives of citizens. With this aim, an effort is made to change the direction of urban planning to reimagine Islamabad.

Can we afford to move?

Jamshed recently retired as a BPS-14 officer after 40 long years of service to the Federal Government. When he moved to Islamabad from his village for a job at 20 years of age, life seemed full of possibilities.

He settled in the city, got married, raised four kids. However, the cost of living kept increasing while the salaries of Jamshed and his wife struggled to keep pace with the inflation. They spent their entire earnings and savings on giving their kids the best possible education.

Despite that, the children are now jobless as there is limited growth in private sector jobs in Islamabad. The family will soon have to vacate their government provided residence in G6 and they cannot seem to find anything affordable to rent, let alone purchase. Jamshed has suggested that they move back to the village, or somewhere in Bhara Kahu, or the suburbs of Rawalpindi.

However, this is a difficult decision for the family who has built their entire social network in Islamabad. Moreover, they do not own a car which has added to their difficulties as there is a lack of decent public transport in the capital city or adjoining areas.

So, there is no possibility of living far and still commuting to the capital for work. Jamshed’s daughter recently got a job in F-11 which pays a meagre PKR 30,000 per month which makes it nearly impossible to either rent a place in the capital or commute from Rawalpindi every day using private transport.

Renting safety

Alaya recently graduated from LUMS and is originally from Karachi. She got a job in Islamabad that pays her PKR 50,000 per month. She has explored all avenues for a decent, affordable apartment in a safe area.

However, the safest areas are also the ones that are most expensive. In fact, she cannot find anything within PKR 20,000 per month, which is already almost half her salary. How can she rent a safe apartment and support her family back in Karachi at the same time?

The law does not side with us

Sohail, a resident of Chitral, recently got admitted to a private university in Islamabad. He tried to find a place near his university in E8 but there are no formal student hostels in Islamabad.

Commuting from somewhere far would be quite expensive on a student budget as no feasible public transport option is available. A few of his classmates decided to rent a house together but no landowner wanted to rent out the place to students. It took a strenuous period for them to achieve success in their house-hunting, but that too was short lived.

The Capital Development Authority (CDA) gave a violation notice to the house owner that he was running the hostel, stating that it was not allowed according to the prevailing zoning and bylaws. Sohail and his classmates are now left homeless.

The funeral of entrepreneurs

Aqsa, a recent IT graduate from a university in Islamabad, has been working as a freelancer for a US based firm that develops software. She recently secured some big projects and registered her company. She also recruited two of her friends to work with her.

Hoping to rent a proper workspace in the center of the city, she went to Blue Area. She was exasperated to find that the plaza in Blue Area was in a decrepit condition. There was dirt (among other things) clinging to the insides of the building, an artwork of spits on the floor, wires hanging out of the ceiling and stairs, and a smell that can politely be described as rotten.

The rent for a small office in that space was PKR 50,000. Valuing her money, health, and safety, she decided to work from her home with her two employees. However, the CDA got a whiff of entrepreneurship invading the quiet decay of the city and they sent Aqsa’s father a notice to cease business activities from his home. You see, this was a residential area and entrepreneurial aliens were not allowed there.

Where does my water flow?

10-year-old Akbar lives with his family in Bhara Kahu in Islamabad. He often asked his parents why they must buy water from vendors despite a pipeline of water passing by their home. He is too innocent to understand that the water being pumped from Simli Dam flows directly to the elite of Islamabad and has no business in Bhara Kahu.

It is even more difficult to explain to him that there is little regard for environmental or natural resource justice in the capital of this country. While the lush green lawns of four kanal houses in F6 and F7 remain adequately watered, the residents in other parts of the city continue to purchase access to their basic right.

The public needs transport

Khushbakht has recently moved from the US with her parents. The family has bought a house near Rawat. Khushbakht got a job in F7 Markaz and must commute daily from her home. It takes her over an hour for a one-sided commute.

There are often protests on the Islamabad highway or accidents, which add to the commute time and her parent’s worries about her safety. For this reason, she hates driving.

She would love to travel through public transport, just like she did in New York City, but such options are not available in Pakistan. The policymakers seem oblivious to the fact that the public needs transport rather than privately owned cars.

Selective Activism

Mohsin is an O levels student living in F6. He loves his lush green lawn facing Margalla Hills. His mother is an activist who works to preserve the greenery and wildlife of Margalla Hills.

Once Mohsin was travelling with his family to PC Bhurban when he observed that mountains are being cut on both sides of the Murree Expressway with some heavy machinery.

He asked his mom why she does not work towards preserving the greenery of these mountains the way she does it for Margalla Hills facing F sectors of Islamabad. Taken aback, his mom asked him to talk to her later as she had suddenly started feeling motion sick.

Lack of schooling options

Talha lives in F7 in Islamabad. His house help Sakina Bibi lives near Bani Gala. Sakina Bibi bears the transport expenses to send her children to the Model Colleges in F sectors of Islamabad whose admission is very difficult to secure.

However, these schools are better than other low-cost options. Talha’s children travel every day to Bani Gala and Bahria Enclave because their schools were recently closed in F sectors and they had to relocate. Talha is an urban transport planner and has been working with various consulting firms in Pakistan.

Recently, he started observing how children from outside of the city travel to Islamabad to study in public sector schools and families living in F sectors have been sending their children to outside main sectors of Islamabad.

He attended a public hearing of the CDA in which he proposed to analyze that trend of commute and fix it through better urban planning e.g., by allowing both public and private schools to co-exist in residential areas, thereby giving the residents a fair choice in where they want to send their children.

However, in response, the CDA official said “Why don’t you send your kids to one of the public sector schools in your own neighborhood?”

Whose pollution is this?

Ammara, an 8-year-old, has been living in Rawalpindi on the banks of Nullah Lai since her birth. She has recently heard that a Lai Expressway is being developed which means that her home will be demolished, and she will be relocated. Ammara is concerned about where she will go next and if her neighbors and their children, who encompass her social network, will move with them?

Recently, she visited Islamabad zoo and was impressed with the cleanliness on the roads of Islamabad. She wished people around her would keep Nullah Lai clean in the same way. Anam, a community mobilizer who advocates for the rights of people living on the banks of Nullah Lai, organized a community meeting.

This meeting was aimed at mobilizing the locals to go to the court of law to seek justice for their sudden relocation. She also told the locals that they should protest in Islamabad for all the garbage and sewer that is thrown in Nullah Lai. Ammara was sitting next to her mom when this news reached her ears and transformed her world forever.

She had always blamed people of Rawalpindi for polluting her little world, whereas the culprits were the “environmentally friendly” people of Islamabad.

Read More: Islamabad to have Eagle Squad for improved security, announces Interior Minister

The tyranny of Masterplans

Shahzeen is a sociologist based in Islamabad. She recently attended one of the hearings of a committee formed by the federal government to review the master plan of Islamabad.

She was surprised to find out that the structure of the master plan is still same as what was developed in the 1960s by Doxiadis Associates on a clean slate. This seemed unusual given that the needs of the local community should be an important aspect of any master plan.

Shahzeen decided to raise this issue with the committee and asked them to reimagine Islamabad according to the current demography, the needs of the residents, and the current dynamics of the city. She appealed to them that cities are not feats of engineering; rather they are built by the people and for the people. She pointed out that if there are no women, persons with disabilities, or younger people in the committee, how will the needs of these populations be reflected in the plan.

In addition to the participatory process including the local people, the view of the masterplan should be expanded by including sociologists and economists on the committee.

However, the current committee, made up of men whose average age was above 65 years, and consisted only of planners, architects, and engineers, insisted that they had to follow the sacred 1960s plan. They were of the view that planners must develop the plan which is implemented by the administration, and the residents must accept whatever is decided by the government.

Muhammad Naveed Iftikhar holds PhD is Adjunct Faculty at LUMS. Earlier, he has served as a Governance Specialist at the Economic Reforms Unit of the Ministry of Finance. Dr Naveed holds a PhD in Urban Affairs and Public Policy from the University of Delaware’s Biden School of Public Policy and Administration and a MPhil degree in Economics. He writes regularly for national dailies and advises cities and public sector organizations.

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