Nearly three decades ago, when I was born in Islamabad, the capital was nothing like it is today.
There were no coffee shops, no enclaves of the elite or those of diplomats, not even as many sectors dividing the beautiful city on a systematic grid today. I remember that until recently, few roads were double. And long before Fatima Jinnah Park existed, most sectors teeming with life today were nothing but farmland, with small concentrations of rural population that had lived here since generations.
Yet, there was something to Islamabad decades ago, in its infancy, which had it destined to become something spectacular; something out of the ordinary, something that would make it the center of Pakistan, yet not – as many people would say – “the real Pakistan”. It was, as it is today, the seat of the government.
Then, Islamabad started to grow.
It seems unsurprising now, how future development and budgetary allocations favoured the city over the years, or how the city ended up accommodating many more than just government servants and their kin.
As the cost of living soared, it pushed many lower and lower-middle class workers out of the city into the peripheries, while attracting the higher classes from all around the country. That is where the problem arose.
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Until yesterday, Islamabad lacked a very basic necessity of any city destined for growth: The absence of a mass-transit system.
The hundreds of thousands of people who commuted everyday from Rawalpindi to Islamabad, to work in shops and government offices – primarily the lower staff – had to spend more than an hour – at times even close to three hours – to reach their workplace.
To change all that, the Rawalpindi-Islamabad Metro Bus Project was inaugurated yesterday evening. This brings an end to a yearlong suffering of the cost of progress; namely dust, under-construction roads, tortuous diversions, prolonged travelling times and what not.
The somewhat-controversial Metro bus was finally here, albeit after a delay. It was with a mixture of relief and skepticism that I went ahead for a ride on it yesterday.
The regular bus service did not begin on the first day, so only a few buses were moving back and forth. But the atmosphere was buzzing with excitement as a big crowd had gathered in and around the platforms soon after the politicians had left.
At around 10pm, I parked my car next to the "Katchery Stop" of the Metro Bus Service and walked towards the entrance of the station.
I was pleasantly surprised when I climbed down the stairs to see a corridor perfectly lit, with polished floors and nicely lined plant pots. But then, this was only the first day. It almost reminded me of New York City's subway terminal, but it didn't – it wasn't as jam-packed and it did not have that stench every New Yorker is so used to. Instead, it was air-conditioned, spacious and beautiful.
|Stairs leading down from Katchery Station.|
|Katchery Station Platform, people waiting for the bus.|
|Commuters buying tickets and Metro cards.|
Shahid Satti, an employee at the terminal was guiding locals on how to purchase their Metro Card, 130 rupees apiece, which would then last a lifetime and could be refilled with cash and coin at the machine.
A 20-minute ride from Saddar in Rawalpindi to the Parade Ground, right in front of the President's House in Islamabad would cost 20 rupees per person.
"We have 64 buses that will run through these tracks," Satti told me. "I am excited, I am hoping this venture takes off."
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Even though the ride was free (and it will most probably remain free for some days), I bought my card, loaded some money into it and walked up to the platform. An air-conditioned hallway; water coolers and seating in the middle; the platform is mostly glass, and right in the middle of the road, so that you can see traffic going past on either side.
|The machine which credits your Metro card by inserting cash or coins.|
|A man analysing the route of the Metro Bus.|
|Punjab Metro Bus Authority ads are visible while people wait for the buses.|
|One minute left for the bus to arrive.|
Atif, a resident of Rawalpindi who works at Jinnah Super, Islamabad, was waiting for the bus with a few of his friends when I inquired him about his views.
"It is a very good initiative. It saves money for the poor. It is very hard for me to spend 100 rupees daily on commuting. With this bus, my expense will come down to 40," he said.
However, much to his chagrin, when the bus arrived, his friend hopped on to it, whereas the bus doors slammed shut before he could. Atif was left behind waiting for the next bus to arrive.
I suppose it will take a while for all of us to learn not to swarm into the door as soon as a bus stops, so that those disembarking can easily come out. Likewise, it will take some time for our Metro drivers to learn not to close their doors as soon as everyone had gotten out, like it happened at one time.
|'Let me get in'. 'No wait, let me get out first'. People rushing into each other instead of waiting.|
I traveled from the Katchery Station to the Kashmir Highway Station and back, because the bus driver simply stopped there and told everyone to leave, perhaps because the service wasn't fully functional on the first day and the rides were merely a test.
The test did not go well all the time; the bus door remaining shut at the platform when someone wished to get in, opening while it was moving, and remaining open till the next stop came, when it closed shut again.
The buses are nothing like the usual public buses we are used to here. Rather, they depict a striking resemblance to those found abroad. Free Wi-Fi, route map, extensive space for women and rather comfortable seats made my first-ever ride a memorable one.
However, as Muhammad Imran Khan, a commuter said to me, "It is a good service but it remains to be seen how the public will use it."
|The front portion is reserved for women.|
|People traveling to Saddar from Katchery.|
|A long way to go to Saddar.|
|But the door is open, dear driver.|
|Late night at the Kashmir Highway Station.|
|Heading out of the Metro bus station.|
The capital has come a long way from its early days. Nestled next to the Margalla Hills, it is no doubt one of the most beautiful cities of not just Pakistan, but the world. Much like New York City’s residents boast about its greatness, Islooites can be proud in their own way.
Where its people have contributed into making a distinctive culture of its own, the governments, every now and then, have tried to keep the city true to the thought that comes in mind when someone mentions, Islamabad – the Beautiful.
This is perhaps, yet another feather in its cap.