Al Ban-istan

Published October 13, 2014
The writer is a member of staff.
The writer is a member of staff.

The first day of Eid is for fulfilling religious obligations, while the second and third days — always gazetted holidays — are days off to spend with friends and family. Many put out appreciable sums of money to take everyone out for a good day: in the Islamabad-Rawalpindi area, they head to the hills or the lakes; in Lahore, the zoo and places of historical interest are always thronged; Karachi has several public, open-access beaches.

Last week, though, day-trippers in their coasters and on their motorcycles and in their family cars found all their plans rudely thwarted by police pickets and barricades, rolls of barbed wire and stern representatives of the law. Why this was so is a matter of what happened earlier, after Eidul Fitr, when thousands of people thronged the Seaview, Hawkesbay, Sandspit and other beaches.

Then, city and provincial authorities emerged from the festivities to learn that, appallingly, several drownings had occurred. Around two dozen bodies were fished out of the sea; most people had drowned off Seaview, the strip closest to most residents.


The ‘ban first, don’t do anything later’ mindset is ever-present.


The authorities reacted as they always do: Section 144 was imposed and access to the beaches was immediately curtailed. Even the extreme step of shutting down Seaview promenade — a busy road that is one of the major connections between large residential areas — was taken, without any thought to the fact that this would curtail Seaview residents’ access to their own homes.

At the time, no one protested much because the shadow of the lives lost hung heavy; in any case the holidays were soon over. And, many conceded, the monsoons did make the currents dangerous.

Last week, though, on the two holidays following Eid day, hundreds of people wanted to visit the beaches. The monsoons were over, the water much calmer, and the weather very warm. But no. A ban was still in place on swimming, they were told, and therefore they could not be allowed to proceed even as far as the sand.

Meanwhile, because this is Pakistan, many people were subjected to harassment by the police, and many who were able and willing to pay bribes or were influential enough were allowed through. Hundreds turned back in dejection.

This is an example of Pakistan’s tendency to use bans as the first-recourse solution to a problem, and of meting out collective punishment. Resolving the issue of people swimming in dangerous waters could, potentially, involve beefing up the ranks of lifeguards, putting up watchtowers, making visitors aware of the danger, and so on. These measures are routine in more civilised places; but I doubt we’ll see them here.

Those in charge of the decision-making process would argue that Pakistanis are foolhardy and argumentative, and they’d be right. It is common to see lifeguards warning beachgoers that they’re in too far, and being met with scorn and sometimes even violence. But curtailing hundreds of mostly sensible people’s access to public beaches and their private properties there, and suspending the livelihoods of all the people who sell food, drink and beach equipment to the visitors, amounts to punishing everybody for the transgressions of a few.

That this is part of a larger, ‘ban first, don’t do anything later’ mindset is obvious because this hardly the first time this has happened. I’ll present here just two more of the many examples available.

The Basant spring festival in Lahore was one of the city’s most joyous features. The entire city would mount the rooftops to make merry, flying kites and filling the air with music and laughter. But then, inevitably, there was a problem, a big one: some people started using razor-sharp, glass-coated kite string, as a result of which there were horrifying injuries and deaths.

The city authorities tried to clamp down on the manufacture and sale of this sort of kite string. They didn’t try hard enough, so they turned instead to the easy answer: ban Basant. The kites came down, the music fell silent, the massive amount of revenue earned by the city and its establishments because of the annual Basant inflow of people from across the country was given up without a thought. Now, every year, instead of a festival we have cases of the police arresting some woeful-looking youth for the serious crime of flying a kite.

Again, collective punishment and bans.

Third example: some mischief-monger somewhere else in the world put up on YouTube a film considered to be offensive. A bunch of crazies went ... well, crazy, and we know what the state did then. The ban on the video-sharing site is now over two years old, and there’s little hope that it’ll ever be lifted.

Will this country’s administrators ever learn to start thinking about resolving problems rather than denying they exist, to the detriment of the population at large? Doesn’t look like it.

The writer is a member of staff.

hajrahmumtaz@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, October 13th, 2014

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