It has been long, but I can sense it again. After years of despair, I feel optimistic, even bullish, about Pakistan.
Why a sudden change in perspective, you may ask. It’s all about the context.
The recent ruthless murders of innocent civilians in Beirut, Nigeria, and Paris; the harassment of public intellectuals and artists in India; the murders of bloggers in Bangladesh suggest that these are hard times all around.
But, why then the optimism?
Recent developments in India have something to do with it. A climate of fear and intimidation, fostered by the ruling BJP, has made me realise that even during the darkest days of late General Zia’s dictatorial regime, labour leaders, poets, politicians, and the left-leaning intellectuals were not afraid. General Zia closed down dissenting publications because he failed to intimidate them otherwise.
It's not the same in India. It pains me to see that a cultural shift is taking place where even the intellectuals are hesitant to express their opinions. Many have strong words to say about the state of their nation, but only off-the-record.
A rising tide of intolerance can also be witnessed in Bangladesh where intolerant individuals and mobs have hacked dissenting bloggers to death. Even publishers are not safe, Faisal Arefin Deepan was murdered in November.
So, why am I bullish on Pakistan?
Could it be that I am deliberately ignoring evidence of intolerance, press censorship, and violence? Or that there has been a shift in the state of affairs in Pakistan?
I present my case below.
Let’s start with the terrorist violence that until recently was crippling Pakistan’s economy and society. I believe that the numbers suggest a significant decline in violence.
While we can debate what led to the decline, we cannot dispute that the frequency and scale of violence have significantly dissipated.
According to the data maintained by the South Asia Terrorism Portal, I see a 40 per cent decline in terrorism-related civilian deaths from January to October in 2015 than for the same period in 2014.
How can one ignore that for the first time since 2007, terrorism-related civilian deaths between January and October are under 1,000. I, for one, believe that the 837 who lost their lives by October 2015 are 837 too many. But I cannot help notice the tide turning.
There are other encouraging signs hidden in the data. In 2013, the security situation had deteriorated to such extent that nine civilians died for every five dead alleged terrorists. That equation has reversed in 2015 where 2.6 alleged terrorists have died for every civilian fatality.
Two years ago, I was receiving emails from asylum seekers. Now, I am receiving requests to serve on the examination committees for doctoral dissertations or participate in development forums.
Senior Pakistani bureaucrats are writing to me, seeking help in establishing new avenues to train the Pakistani youth in data science and analytics.
For the first time in decades, the governments are building public transit for the middle class and low-income households. Metro buses in Lahore and Rawalpindi are running at capacity, providing a decent and affordable commute to those who cannot afford private modes of travel.
Of course, the utility of bus transit is lost on those who have never ridden a local bus. Those riding cars complain of how much it has cost to build state-of-the-art bus transit service. They never complain about the vast network of highways and roads built from the same public purse for them to drive their cars around.
The clean, efficient, and modern public transit stations in Rawalpindi and Lahore are indicative of a larger shift in the public sector’s attitude and approach towards human development. What I see is a deliberate attempt to invest in what is public in our society.
We should ask for more of it and demand the same in public health and public education rather than opposing the investments in public transit.
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I see tremendous work being done in poverty alleviation in rural areas. The National Rural Support Program (NRSP) is breaking new grounds with its innovations in assisting the very poor.
The NRSP has bundled innovative health insurance schemes with its microfinance programs to provide a cushion to the households who would have no other financial recourse if the primary bread earner is injured or falls ill.
I continue to be amazed by the Anjuman Samajhi Behbood (ASB), which has brought clean water and sanitation to thousands of low-income households in Pakistan. Their clean water initiative, Changa Pani Programme enables communities to self-build and self-finance the water supply and sanitation schemes. Municipal and provincial governments are partnering with the Anjuman to introduce the same initiatives in other low-income communities.
Pakistanis continue to guard their freedoms even after sustaining terrorist violence for decades.
Recently, the Pew Research Centre polled individuals in select countries on how important it was for the people to express themselves without fear or government censorship. Eighty-four per cent of Pakistanis thought that to be important compared to 76 per cent of Indians and Jordanians.
A reflection of the past
While I hear complaints about press censorship in Pakistan, I also see dozens of news channels serving round-the-clock political commentary. I am deeply saddened by the recent death of my former colleague and journalist, Haider Rizvi. I do, however, realise that even being the most rebellious of all the journalists of my generation, he chose to return to Pakistan and died not at the hands of a militant or intelligence organisation, but from somewhat natural causes.
I often reminisce about the bygone days of harmony in Pakistan. I saw a reflection of the same in the past few months on my recent visits.
I am reminded of my parents’ funerals this fall where family and friends, Shias and Sunnis, civilians and army officers, and my parents’ former students, many of whom are Christians and Hindus, came to grieve with us as if we were all one family.
On the streets of Rawalpindi, I saw books by Malcolm Gladwell and Edward Said being sold in the Sunday used-books markets. I witnessed the youth voluntarily patrolling streets at night to keep their neighbourhoods safe.
I once knew a Pakistan like this. And, I see it rising again.