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‘Islamabad is an authoritarian city’

Updated September 01, 2013

Dr Chad Haines provides a brief history of Islamabad and its development and evolution.

What was the purpose behind creating Islamabad?

Chad Haines: Islamabad is a city that reflects its time. It was a product of the authoritarian demands of the military dictator Ayub Khan; a reflection of the postcolonial condition of Pakistan born out of partition with serious ‘cartographic anxieties’; the international regime of ‘Third-Worldness’ institutionalised in the planning/development regime of the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and the US Agency for International Development; and mid-century modernist ideas about the urban that were the basis for Constantinos Doxiadis’ vision.

Islamabad, at heart, is an authoritarian city that reflects the need of a militarized state.

The grid layout, the area set aside for all the government buildings, and the ability to control all entries into the city reflect this reality of the city. Originally the plan was to place the government sector at the center of the city.

However, that was rejected by the military government. Placing the Parliament, Courts, secretariats, and the President’s home on the edge of the city creates a visible presence of the state. Islamabad is not a democratic city.

Can you please elaborate the idea that Islamabad represents the military mindset?

There are several examples in which Islamabad is an authoritarian city, rather than a democratic city.

Several features of its design are based on security issues of controlling public spaces and movements rather than the more democratic principles of urban planning. One example is the grid layout itself, which is easily policed and controlled.

I remember staying in the old city of Lahore, in the inner city, near Shalmi Gate, at one point in the 90s when the PPP was in power. The PML had taken to the streets to protest, but they held the protest near the inner city.

When the police raided the protesters, they fled into the narrow, twisting alley ways of the inner city and the police refused to pursue them out of fear. The chaos of the inner city of Lahore is in fact more democratic than the grids of Islamabad.

A second aspect of this is that the entry points into Islamabad are limited and thus easily controlled, as they were during the Long March in the spring of 2009 (when I was in Islamabad). The city was completely shut down to keep the protesters out of Islamabad.

A third aspect of this is the placement of the “Red Zone”. The original plan by Doxiadis was to place the Red Zone in the centre of the city, along the Blue Area, between G7 and F7, if I remember correctly. Ayub Khan moved it to the edge of the city, with particular interest in placing the Aiwan-e-Sadr in a prominent and visible location.

In comparison to Washington DC, for example, the White House is less prominent than the Capitol building, reflecting, at least in principle, a more democratic idea, rather than asserting the authority of a single power/authority figure.

The original building plans for the Cabinet Secretary and the Parliament Building were very open designs, with a park for people to visit with fountains. Those plans were rejected and the buildings were placed behind security fences and gates (which were not part of the original plans).

Why did the government feel the need to shift the capital from Karachi?

Karachi was viewed by the Capital City Commission, headed by Yahya Khan, as too congested to construct the necessary government buildings. Like Lahore and Dacca, it was viewed as a provincial capital, but unworthy of a new nation.

The new site was also a clear move to ‘Punjabise’ Pakistan, moving away from the city of the muhajirs. One of the ideas of the site chosen was that it was also along the Grand Trunk Road, grounding the new capital into an ancient history.

This is symbolically significant as it creates a cartographic and historical continuity for the country, that otherwise has no history as a territorial entity.

What led to the rapid boom in Islamabad’s population in the 90s?

There were multiple forces, both national as well as global, that led to the growth of Islamabad in the 1990s.

One of the major driving forces was the returning migrants and investments of Pakistanis who had moved to the Arab Gulf countries in the 1970s and 1980s. This also included a significant number of military personnel who were on rotation to countries such as the UAE and Saudi Arabia, where they served on loan in their militaries.

Having earned huge amounts in tax-free salaries, the migrants, businessmen, and military personnel sought to return to Pakistan to new homes. While Karachi was seen as the financial capital of Pakistan, in the 1990s, it was burning with ethnic violence.

Islamabad, on the other hand, was desirable for two reasons: first, it was safe and secure; and, second, it was modern and new, very similar to the cities of the Gulf. Thus it was a place they could reproduce their luxurious lifestyles in Pakistan.

You have said in the past that the term 'land mafias' is a misnomer. Why? What would be a better term?

I don’t remember my exact thinking on this matter when I first wrote about it. It is something I have not fully researched yet.

While the emergence of the ‘land mafia’ counters the original idea of Islamabad being controlled solely by the government, it is not an unexpected development as people began to see land as an investment and not just a home.

As well, it reflects some of the contradictions and problems of building a city on land originally owned by other people. While there is extensive corruption in regards to who actually owns the land and people occupying it, and reoccupying it, in attempts to get compensation and selling it off at huge profits, it is a natural part of turning land into a commodity.

In your research, you have compared Islamabad to two other Muslim cities…

My research is comparing Islamabad, Dubai and Cairo. All are radically different cities. Dubai, like Islamabad, is a new city, but with a different drive.

Dubai emerged as a global city, driven by the changing global economy and reflecting a neoliberal ideology. It was constructed by semi-private corporations with a focus on profit and the commodification of land and buildings.

In comparison, Islamabad was a state project defined by a modernist vision that was brought by Doxiadis. This modernist vision was about shaping the lives of people to be modern. The grid layout and central market areas were defined by the use of automobiles, even though very few existed in the 1960s when Islamabad was first built. Dubai is defined by selling, for profit, a lifestyle of luxury and excess.

Cairo, obviously, is a historical city and when the need to build new areas emerged, it followed the Dubai model. New Cairo is a development in the desert south of Cairo, somewhat similar to Bahria Town. It was built by private companies, selling a secure lifestyle for a certain class of people. In that way, New Cairo is similar to Islamabad, which is a classist city, with very clear class demarcations mapped by sectors.

The fixing of class by lot size and building materials used for the homes, denies an urban dynamic similar to other cities. In major cities around the world you have processes of decay and rejuvenation, often referred to as ‘gentrification’. Neighborhoods change. However, in Islamabad there is no urban dynamic, as such, of changing neighborhoods - they are fixed.

Can you explain in some more detail what you mean by the assertion that there is no urban dynamic in Islamabad?

Cities are very dynamic places, neighborhoods constantly change – types of residents, commercial interests, businesses, and people who traverse them or not come and go.

Some neighborhoods go through periods of decline when they are perceived as less desirable to live in, less economical for businesses to open a new store in, or as unsafe and thus people don’t walk or drive through them. Other neighborhoods are up and coming, with new investments and new interests for people to visit and shop. Urban spaces change over time.

In Islamabad, the spaces are less dynamic than in most other cities. For instance, E-7 will never become a ghetto and G-7 will never become a posh neighborhood. Doxiadis’ urban vision defined spaces by very clear demarcations of class. It is this classist nature of Islamabad that makes it a very undynamic city.

What about the slums in Islamabad? Are they similar to those in cities such as Mumbai where people come for better opportunities or did they just develop following the immigration of people displaced by the Afghan War and then later the militancy within Pakistan?

The katchiabadis of Islamabad emerged due to a variety of different forces. Both in-migration to the city from rural areas and refugees from the Afghan wars have had huge impacts on population growth.

But there is also another root cause. The katchiabadi in F-6, one of the most posh sectors in Islamabad, is primarily Christian who serve the upper classes. When designing the city, Doxiadis forgot about spaces for servants!

While many of the more luxury villas in the F sectors and E sectors have rooms for live-in servants, there was no recognition of day servants. While it was assumed they would live in Rawalpindi; that was not the most practical.