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DAWN - Features; 18 February, 2004

February 18, 2004


Bush vs JFK: bring it on

By Mahir Ali

At some point during this year's US presidential campaign, someone or the other is bound to quip: "I knew Jack Kennedy, and I can tell you that John Kerry is no JFK!" Or words to that effect.

If it hasn't already been said, that's only because the White House and the Republican Party have not yet joined the battle against Kerry, who is likely to be more or less confirmed as the Democratic challenger by early next month.

In a literal sense, Kerry is indeed a JFK: with Forbes as his middle name, his initials are the same as those of his lionised predecessor as senator for Massachusetts.

In a further coincidence, it so happens that Kerry chose a naval career in the hope that it would serve as a stepping stone to politics, just as it had for Kennedy.

Beyond that, there aren't many resemblances. Which, perhaps, is just as well. Kennedy is overrated as a president, mainly because of the circumstances in which his days at the White House came to an abrupt end.

It was in the Kennedy period that US involvement in Vietnam was escalated and assumed the shape of a long-term commitment; and it was JFK's successor who proved much more adept at pushing through Congress crucial civil rights legislation that formally illegitimized race laws reminiscent of the apartheid in large parts of the US.

There is a certain amount of irony in the fact that the Vietnam War, which ended nearly 30 years ago in a humiliating American defeat, has become an issue in the present campaign.

The phenomenon is not unrelated to the war against Iraq. Innumerable differences notwithstanding, there have been persistent echoes of Vietnam during the past year. But that's not the only reason the White House is wary of references to the Indochina conflict.

The 1960s were a time when young Americans were being drafted into the army and sent to Vietnam to combat the "communist menace". Large numbers sought to dodge the draft.

Many did so for perfectly principled reasons: they could see no moral justification for going to a small Asian country and killing its inhabitants. As Muhammad Ali, perhaps the most famous draft resister of the era, inimitably put it: "No Vietcong ever called me a nigger." (For telling the truth he was stripped of his world heavyweight title and, in his prime, denied the right to box.)

Then there were those who were fully behind the aggression against Vietnam, but were desperate to avoid combat. And those of this cowardly ilk who were fortunate enough to have relatives in positions of influence were able to find alternatives to proper military service. Among them was a certain George W. Bush, whose father was at the time a congressman from Texas.

Dubya is alleged to have been catapulted to the front of a National Guard waiting list, and was able to train as a pilot. But beyond a point he was grounded for either failing or refusing to take a physical test.

Worse still, for a year or so, he appears to have gone AWOL. He was supposed to have been serving in Alabama at the time, but the White House has thus far been unable to produce a single person who served alongside Bush, or even remembers seeing him at work.

It has produced documents suggesting that Dubya was on the air guard payroll. But that could mean he was getting paid for work he didn't do. Bush has pointed out that he received an honourable discharge, but that again doesn't prove much.

It doesn't look good. The president has been sending hundreds of thousands of young Americans to fight a war waged on the basis of a plethora of blatant falsehoods.

Yet Bush himself, as a young man, carefully avoided putting himself in the line of fire. The leading members of his coterie also appear to have avoided serving in Vietnam - with the exception of Colin Powell, who has been implicated in covering up the My Lai massacre, a particularly gruesome incident in which American troops slaughtered Vietnamese villagers, including old women and infants, in cold blood. (It wasn't the only such incident; one can only assume that in other cases the cover-up was more carefully coordinated.)

And then there's Kerry. Shortly before the Iowa caucus, which kick-started the Democratic nomination process, the senator had a teary-eyed public reunion with a former Green Beret whose life Lieutenant Kerry had saved in the Mekong Delta.

Kerry had by then been more or less written off by analysts and the press. The governor of Vermont, Howard Dean, was perceived as the favourite. But Kerry swept Iowa and the subsequent New Hampshire primary - and since then has become unstoppable.

Kerry went to Vietnam despite being unconvinced of the war's merits. There he earned bronze and silver stars and three Purple Hearts for combat feats. He returned to the US determined to take a stance against US involvement in Vietnam, and was briefly a leading figure in Vietnam Veterans Against the War.

Testifying before the Senate foreign relations committee, the 27-year-old veteran famously said: "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam? How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?" The committee's Senator Claiborne Pell presciently told him that he "might one day be a colleague of ours in this body".

His anti-war stand, which testifies more eloquently to Kerry's character than his war record, is likely to be used against him in the months ahead. Recently, Bush also expressed doubts about Vietnam.

It was, he said, a political war. The US army ought to have been allowed to fight it the way it wanted to - the implication being that it would in that case have ended rather differently.

Which may well be true. A couple of nuclear weapons, for example, may well have compelled whatever was left of Vietnam to capitulate. Bush's remark is intriguing, however, not in terms of any light it may throw on military history, but as a statement of intent.

The US today is a nation divided. Opinion polls reveal a remarkable trend whereby the incumbent president's positive ratings have slowly declined while his negative ratings have soared.

Some polls have shown Bush trailing Kerry by a small margin. Kerry's excellent showing in the primaries thus far suggest that he is perceived as the Democrat most likely to defeat Dubya in the November election.

Most of Kerry's Democratic rivals have by now dropped out of the race, and chances are that he'll effectively be anointed as the challenger after the Super Tuesday primaries two weeks from now.

It remains to be seen whether the early choice helps or hinders his candidacy. On the one hand, it will give him more time to campaign against Bush rather than against fellow Democrats, with the party machine swinging behind him.

On the other, it will open him to more sustained fire from the neo-conservative clique that went to such lengths to ensure that Bush made it to the White House in the first place. But then, Kerry knows a thing or two about dodging hostile fire.

Be in no doubt: anything that can be dredged up will be used against him. It doesn't, of course, have to bear any resemblance to the truth. Among other things, Kerry may well be accused of harbouring weapons of mass obstruction.

His congressional voting record, though, could prove hard to criticize from a conservative point of view - for instance, Kerry voted in favour of the war on Iraq (although he had opposed the 1991 venture spearheaded by another George Bush, and has lately been coming down hard on the administration for having lied about the reasons for launching last year's war, and for making a mess of the after math).

It is but a truism that there isn't a huge gulf between Republican and Democratic administrations in the US. But it has appreciably grown of late. American society is increasingly polarised.

There can be no guarantee that the project for a new American century, despite having run into serious trouble in its inaugural phase, will be reversed by a Kerry administration.

But at least it is, thus far, not irreversible. And a Democratic victory in November is at least likely to mean that the fanatics who have hitherto orchestrated it will find themselves disempowered. That provides enough reason to hope that Dubya's minders will be unable mimic the farce they pulled in 2000.

It has for decades been possible to argue that much of the world should have a say in who becomes the president of the US, given that he is liable to behave as if his jurisdiction extends across all continents

Such an arrangement would have served the US well, too, by broadly guaranteeing a far better breed of leaders. This year, even a franchise restricted to member nations of the so-called coalition of the willing would inevitably have led to a landslide against George W. Barring that possibility, one can only hope that the American voters will have the decency to usher in regime change by themselves. Few other nations require it so desperately.


Understanding Karachi's traffic problems

By Arif Hasan

Karachi's traffic and transport problems are increasing rapidly. There are huge traffic jams every day, inconveniencing hundreds of thousands of commuters; pavements and even entire streets have been encroached upon at all key transit locations, making both vehicular and pedestrian movement almost impossible; and the ensuing anarchy makes an effective traffic management difficult, to say the least.

The reasons for these conditions are obvious for those who have been involved in monitoring and documenting the growth of the metropolis.

In the absence of any alternatives, manufacturing and warehousing facilities and informal cargo terminals have taken over the narrow lanes as well as the already scarce open public spaces in the inner city, and are rapidly moving into residential areas and katchi abadis, which are spread all over the city.

An increasing number of heavy-duty polluting vehicles crisis-cross the city to serve these facilities. Again, in the absence of formal bus terminals, depots and workshops, entire pavements and roads are being used for the purposes, and the absence of a rail-based mass transit system has caused congestion in the main arteries of the city and has compelled an increasing number of commuters to purchase cars and motorbikes, thus adding to the total traffic volume.

These trends are causing massive environmental degradation, besides encouraging inappropriate land-use and are subjecting the city population to mental stress and various respiratory diseases and allergies.

It is also destroying the city's rich cultural heritage; depriving the citizens of recreation and entertainment facilities (or access to these, where they exist), and most serious of all, dividing the city into isolated rich and poor areas. A faulty sewage disposal system and deteriorating solid waste management are some other long-standing problems.

The city government's response to these problems so far has been the building of roads, inner city flyovers and expressways, which may ease traffic flows on certain corridors for the time being, but will fail to tackle the issues listed above.

As a result, Karachi's traffic, transport and environment-related problems will keep increasing with every passing day. It is feared that Karachi may end up being a commuters' nightmare, such as Bangkok or Manila, despite the fact that the both have no shortage of expressways and flyovers.

To tackle Karachi's problems, what is required urgently is a decongesting plan the city; decentralizing of some of its functions; separating the local and outside traffic and fast and slow-moving traffic; removing certain environment-degrading functions to the Northern Bypass or off the Super Highway; and opening up new areas for the development and/or relocation of inner city manufacturing and warehousing facilities, along with area development plans for Saddar, Lea Market and Liaquatabad and an urban renewal plan for the inner city. In short, what is required is a plan where not only land value but also the social and environmental concerns should determine land-use.

Some of the decisions taken by the city government are detrimental to the implementation of such a land-use plan. For example, it has decided to commercialize 13 main corridors of the city in the Phases 1, 2 and 8 of its commercialization plan.

This means a huge increase in traffic volume and an over-taxing of an already inadequate services infrastructure. The Lyari expressway project, in the absence of an effective land-use plan, may result in congestion of the already over-congested Lyari corridor.

Already, the factories and godowns demolished for the alignment of the expressway have been relocated to the dense settlements on either side of the river, creating further congestion, degradation and an increase in traffic volume in these settlements.

Informal land speculation has also begun and is likely to play havoc with the city. In addition, if the existing plan of the expressway is implemented, it will also wipe out an important part of Karachi's history as embodied in the 18th and 19th century villages (and the communities that live there) that are to be demolished to pave the way for the expressway.

The decision to curtail the length of the Northern Bypass was also unfortunate, as now it will terminate much nearer to Sohrab Goth on the Super Highway than as it was planned earlier, thus increasing congestion on the main city exit point and considerably reducing the areas to be opened up for future development.

The city government has repeatedly banned the movement of heavy vehicles (both of cargo and transport) in the inner city. However, it has not been able to impose the ban effectively, obvious reasons. In the narrow lanes between Estate Avenue in SITE and M.A. Jinnah Road, Karachi's main wholesale markets and small-scale manufacturing units are located.

Trucks have to serve these markets and industrial units, while hotels for businessmen, and middlemen from other parts of the country, and transport facilities for them, are (and quite naturally also) also located in this area. This economic activity cannot be wished away and its requirements cannot be banned through an order and nor should it be. while

The main markets in this area are the Dhan Mandi, the Metal Market, the Chemical Market and the garbage recycling industry, which has developed along the Lyari corridor.

The Dhan Mandi is by far the largest market and its operators have been expressing their desire to move to an area which is easily accessible for heavy cargo vehicles. The Chemical Market should also not be in the inner city. Due to unsafe storage of chemical products, the incidence of disease is high in the inner city and a number of children have reportedly died as a result of leakages.

Studies of the environmental, social and economic issues of the inner city have been carried out by the Department of Architecture and Planning, NED University, and also by the Urban Resource Centre with the involvement of the various interest groups of the inner city.

Similarly, negotiations with the garbage recycling industry were held by the governor's task force for the improvement of municipal services and as a result, a solid waste management proposal involving the recycling industry was prepared by the consultants and a presentation made to the city Nazim.

The 'recyclers' and the middlemen and workers, who serve the industry, were willing to relocate to garbage landfill sites, provided they were provided with land, electricity, access roads and water there. They were also willing to pay for these services.

Meanwhile, the residents of the inner city, especially Lyari, have constantly been demanding the removal of warehouses, godowns, manufacturing units and transport and cargo terminals from their localities. However, this is only possible if the markets are shifted. Once they are shifted, the areas they vacate can be turned into amenities and this will completely change the environmental conditions in the inner city, removing congestion and making the rehabilitation of the inner city possible. This is all the more important since a major part of Karachi's built heritage lies between the lower reaches of the Lyari River and M.A. Jinnah Road.

It is important to note that the process that has degraded the inner city is also affecting Saddar and its adjacent areas. Manufacturing and storage have crept in due to which heavy vehicles in fairly large numbers come into the area.

In the absence of a proper plan to accommodate hawkers and effective management of vehicular and pedestrian traffic, there is chaos like situation in the area and almost all public space has been encroached upon.

The solution does not lye in removing the hawkers (and adding to the already high figures of unemployment) but in a rehabilitation plan. Such a plan has been prepared by the Urban Resource Centre and hopefully will be presented to the city authorities for consideration. In addition to rehabilitating Saddar, the plan, if implemented, will also generate considerable revenue for the city and can be self-financing.

Though the above recommendations will help improve the situation, the needs of Karachi's commuters and transporters have to be met. It has to be understood that the development of the Karachi Circular Railway (KCR) and its extensions into the suburbs is environmentally, economically and socially a far better solution than the building of elevated transit-ways on the main corridors of the city.

If we are to solve Karachi's traffic and transport problems, we have to move away from crisis management, ad-hoc, half thought through projects (often imposed from Islamabad), and from denying reality in favour of "politically attractive" grandiose mega projects, the likes of which have failed miserably in other Asian cities.

We have to realize that without competent and effective institutions, urban planning and management is impossible and that you cannot have effective institutions without initiating and institutionalizing a genuine consultative process with the major actors in the urban development drama.

A novel marsia collection

By Hasan Abidi

KARACHI: 'Izhar-i-Haq,' a volume, comprising unpublished elegies of the late Sultan Saheb Fareed, a marsia poet coming from the elan of Mir Anis, was launched under the aegis of the Idarae Tahzeeb-o-Tarveege Marsia at the NIPA auditorium on Monday.

Dr Syed Taqi Abedi, a Canada-based intellectual and researcher, also a physician, who researched, edited and compiled the hand-written elegies found in decaying condition, spoke with a zest on the elegies of Sultan Saheb Farid and the Lucknow of the early decades of the last century.

As Mr Abedi had arrived with his three other research publications about another marsia poet, Mirza Dabeer, an equally important contemporary of Mir Anis, he spoke on the Dabeer's merits and invaluable contribution to Urdu poetry.

Marsia, Dr Abedi said, was not just the poetry of sorrow, "It encompasses the whole life," he emphatically argued while denying the critics who considered marsia as simply "religious poetry."

Talking about Sultan Saheb Fareed, he said, about 70 per cent of his 'Kalaam' was missing. In the later part of his life, he had stopped composing marsia, reacting against the jealousies of lesser people in Lucknow, Dr Abedi said, adding that whatever could be found in the family treasure was the most precious.

Sultan Saheb Fareed's illustrious son Dr Iftekhar Ahmad, a botanist and also based in Canada, commenting on the merits of the marsia collection, admired Dr Abedi's efforts and pointed out some lapses in the compilation, mainly the omission of the efforts made by Dr Ahmad's elder brother in preserving the manuscripts.

The present volume carries fifteen elegies, thirteen Salams and twenty five Rubaiat. Giving his views on Mirza Dabeer, Dr Abedi said he was the most 'victimized' poet of his time, maligned and abused by many.

He had to his credit the largest number of couplets, while his command over various experiences of life and study of nature was amazing, he added.

He informed that the bicentennial celebrations of Mirza Dabeer were going to be held in India. Dr Farman Fatehpuri spoke highly about Dr Abedi and also admired Dr Iftekhar Ahmad.

He suggested that a small portion of selected elegies might be published for lay readers, at a low price, to make the genre popular. Dr Hilal Naqvi of the Idara, in his welcome address, briefly referred to the evolution of marsia in Urdu.

Dr Mohammad Raza Kazmi presented his critique on the elegies of Fareed. Prof Saher Ansari called it a "monumental work," Dr Abedi had done at the age of 55, and suggested that a history of Urdu marsia should also be compiled.