Age of innocence
Mira Sethi TFT Issue: 09 May 2014
Mira Sethi remembers a different Pakistan
Mira with her brother, Ali at their grandparents’ farm, 1992
In the immediate aftermath of the assassination of Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer in 2010 in Islamabad, his murderer Mumtaz Qadri, was showered with rose petals. Four years later, a mosque in the capital has been named after Qadri. A library has also been named after Osama bin Laden.
And so, lately, I have been asking myself a question: what will I tell my children about the kind of Pakistan I grew up in? My childhood was a buoyant, sunny time. Now I live in a country maddened by terror.
I grew up in a Pakistan where the news of someone being burgled, or kidnapped, turned the world upside down. When my uncle Shahid Sethi was kidnapped in 1997, it seemed like the most menacing thing in the world had come to pass. His kidnapper found his way into my nightmares, and his name into conversations, at age 9, about the state of crime in Lahore. Much to my family’s bewilderment, I once chose the kidnapper’s name in a game of “20 Questions.” I laughed very hard when they were unable to guess.
Now, kidnappings are so routine that it takes an assassination to get the blood going.
I grew up at a time when India and Pakistan were hyphenated in social and political discourse (remember “Indo-Pak”?) I argued with my Indian friends over the superiority of our cricket team, our national icons, even our GDP. These days analysts find “Af-Pak,” and its geo-strategic resonances, more useful.
The rivalry of my Indian friends first gave way to pity, and now articulates itself as sympathy. I suppose that’s comforting.
I grew up in a Pakistan where battle lines were clearly drawn. If you exposed corruption in government, the government threatened you, or tried to cajole you. You could lambast a maulvi on television without fearing for your life. In today’s Pakistan, Muslims are killing Christians, Wahabis are killing Ahmadis, Sunnis are killing Shias, Deobandis are killing Barelvis, Barelvis are killing ‘liberals.’ The Taliban are killing everyone: social workers, journalists, soldiers.
Kidnappings are so routine that it takes an assassination to get the blood going
I grew up in a Pakistan where Abbotabad was an exotic city where two of my coolest friends, Mussarat and Nadeem, went for their summer holidays. Now it is associated with the man who has posthumously been honored by a library, defined as a place full of books – objects that Malala Yousafzai reads in the safety of Birmingham. The man who helped find bin Laden rots in prison as punishment for helping the Americans locate the world’s most famous terrorist. Meanwhile, our military remains addicted to American largesse. How nice to hunt with the US, and run with an anti-American public you have helped create. Nice and simple.
I grew up in a Pakistan in which the word “secular” meant, quite simply, a system where church and state are separate. Today, “secular” is shorthand for those who are atheists, anti-Islam, anti-state, and therefore, traitors deserving of death. Violating the constitution doesn’t count as treasonous. But refuting the state agenda – an anti-India ideology generously marinated in Islamic nationalism – will get you killed.
Mira with her mother, Jugnu Mohsin in Swat, 1994
I grew up in a Pakistan where the walls of our house, and those surrounding it, were low—walls over which you could climb, and land on the soft cold grass. For the last decade, the walls have gone up. The walls keep going up.
I grew up in a Pakistan where I would go wobbling, on a bicycle, down the road, to buy chewing gum from the neighbourhood grocery store, Choice Inn (we pronounced it Choy Sin). Back then, men idled around the sidewalks, looking here and there. I never felt fear; I never felt an informed sense of dread. Now, I can’t walk on the same streets without a paranoid awareness of my surroundings.
Sorry, that’s a lie. Now I don’t walk on those streets.
I grew up going to school in a beige Suzuki FX. I remember watching the driver behind the steering wheel, his gold watch jangling on his wrist as he shifted the gear with two lean fingers. It seemed magical. We giggled on the seats at the back. For the last few years my family and I have been travelling in bullet-proof SUVs. The glass on the windows is so thick you don’t hear a sound when you knock, or pound, the glass, with your fists. The sensation of travelling in these cars is like being in the belly of a whale, watching the world float by.
Mira with Amna and Salmaan Taseer at Basant, Lahore, 1995
I grew up going to school with one other person in the car, Amma Kaneez. (At chhutti time, she would bring me rooh afza in a thermos tinkling with ice). Now we travel with a retinue of bodyguards, and when they leap off the van, guns in hand, to surround me, to protect me, I think: is my kameez too short? Are these jeans tight? Should I even be wearing jeans?
I grew up in a Pakistan where men in plain clothes barged into your home and “picked up” your father. At age 12, as I marched on the streets of Lahore’s Mall with my brother and mother, I knew my father would return. As I wrote in an article earlier this month, those were the good old days when the government picked you up and threw you in prison, but at least you got out alive. Now journalists are being shot at in broad daylight on busy thoroughfares.
My friend the journalist Raza Rumi narrowly escaped an assassination attempt in Lahore in late March. He threw his body on the floor of his car, and the attackers, mistaking him for dead, finished off his driver. The night Raza was shot at, I went to a shaadi. I arrived late, at 1 am, to a house glittering with beautiful people. Shehrbano Taseer, the assassinated governor’s daughter, stood in a corner talking to friends. When I saw Bano, I broke down in her arms. “It’s so ugly,” I cried, surrounded by a few perplexed guests, and trees strung with fairy lights. Bano hugged me tightly, silently. A few weeks later, Bano and I were talking on the phone. She told me that she had been taken aback by my tears, because, she said, they reminded her of how numb she had become.
Sixty people died in a building collapse in Chennai last fortnight. There is much more than the municipal incompetence that needs to be fixed to avoid such tragic incidents. This building was located on Porur lake, a water body that provides services like groundwater recharge and flood management to an otherwise water-starved city. If you care to ask the obvious question how construction was permitted on the wetland, you will get a not-so-obvious response. Wetlands are rarely recorded under municipal land laws, so nobody knows about them. Planners see only land, not water and greedy builders take over.
It is time we realised that a water body is not an ornamental luxury or a wasted land. A city’s lake is its lifeline. Take Chennai, located at the tail end of all rivers. It has spent a good part of the past two decades squabbling over rights to the Cauvery water, fighting with farmers over withdrawal of water from Veeranamlake and also depleting groundwater aquifers around the city to quench its own thirst.
Today it has two choices: desalinate seawater at a price difficult to recover from its citizens or harvest every drop of rain and hold it in lakes, ponds and underground tanks for use in the dry period.
It was also in this city that its then and current chief minister, J Jayalalithaa, had launched an aggressive rainwater harvesting drive. In 2001, it introduced bylaws that made rainwater harvesting structures mandatory in all multi-storey buildings. In 2003, it extended this provision to all buildings and then went about monitoring compliance. All this meant the people understood the value of rainwater. A study by Stanford University on the impact of the initiative found that where without any intervention only 9 per cent of the rainwater went back to the aquifer, with rainwater harvesting it could go up to 30 per cent. This showed up in the bottom line. In the worst months of drought of mid-2000, groundwater was available in many household wells and the tanker market was reduced to a third.
This result was even without optimising on the big potential of rainwater harvesting offered by lakes and ponds that act as sponges. Water experts record over 1,500 water bodies in the city and its vicinity. These are the real opportunity to secure water future. Unfortunately, in the next 10 years, government’s focus moved from the millions of little water collectors to implementing the one big solution of making seawater potable. It has set up two plants of 100 million litres per day, but it is struggling to pay for this water, which costs Rs 50-60 per kilolitre. As electricity costs go up, so does the cost of desalination. Chennai water utility MetroWater, till
recently the country’s only water agency with balanced books, is now finding itself in the red because of its expensive hardware for supply.
So Chennai needs to do what all cities must—undertake a detailed survey of the wetlands and then bring every water body and its catchment under legal protection. The Wetlands Conservation and Management Rules issued by the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests and Climate Change are toothless and meaningless. What is needed is to ensure that city development rules include a comprehensive list of water bodies and their catchment. Any change of this land use should not be permitted. Even this will not be enough unless the city values the water this land gives.
The Central government should provide funds for water supply to only those cities that have brought their own water sources under protection. The cities must show they have optimised on local water potential before claiming access to water from far away sources. This will reduce the cost of supply. The city can invest the saved money in treating sewage,
which pollutes the lakes and ponds in the first place. It is this vicious cycle that needs to be broken.
The one water cycle cities need to ensure runs smoothly is where water turned into waste because of human use is converted back into water fit for human use.