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Glimpse of a state

February 07, 2017

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I RECENTLY worked with someone with significant clout in Western journalistic and policy circles who was preparing for his first trip to Pakistan. Having travelled the world, he had determined that one of the best data points to gauge societies and state-society relations was one’s experiences at a country’s airports. He believes that management of airports, the demeanour of state officials, the type of treatment foreign versus local travellers receive, passenger behaviour etc give a general sense of how things operate in a country.

The traveller reported back on his airport experience in Pakistan after he returned. He had walked away with a negative experience. Airports create first impressions which tend to stick. When those drawing conclusions from their experiences happen to be people whose word carries weight, they can affect a country’s international perception and image.

The first thing that struck this traveller was the panoply of power by the privileged. He noticed a dozen or so people carrying name cards of passengers they were tasked to escort past the immigration and customs queues. This isn’t peculiar to Pakistan so what stood out? The sense of entitlement, he said. Those he spoke to felt they deserved this privileged treatment, and didn’t see their willingness to bypass proper channels as undermining the rule of law.


Airports create first impressions which tend to stick.


Next, he observed the normal immigration queue and recognised some individuals who had waited patiently in the long queues before boarding the flight from the US. They were perturbed, even though the queues were far shorter in Lahore. They resorted to talking down Pakistan’s systems and institutions and expressing their displeasure with everything from airport staff to the country’s leadership.

(I might add that the patience of Pakistani travellers — irrespective of socio-economic status — tends to return promptly on flights back to Western lands even though immigration procedures in these countries are seldom welcoming of green-passport holders.)

The contrast prompted him to strike up a conversation with a few of these passengers, only to see their deep apathy for state authority and distrust in the state institutions they harboured. He walked away convinced what he was hearing amounted to a case of a tenuous, perhaps unsustainable, social compact between the state and society.

His read-out on the state’s systems and regulations wasn’t bullish either. First, he noticed their inertia. He was puzzled by the fact he was asked to fill out landing and health declaration cards before arriving at the immigration counter but the officer tossed both out in front of him. Landing card data has been automated, and there is no mechanism for health data management at airports. No immigration official could tell him why these forms still existed.

This traveller was troubled by what he described as a bad law with incentives that encouraged rent seeking by officials. He narrated his run-in with a customs official who demanded duty payment on his personal gadgetry based on a rule that any traveller arriving with more than one laptop or mobile phone is liable to pay taxes on the second piece. He was taken to a desk where the relevant page of the customs manual was bookmarked.

Customs officials will tell you that if they implemented this rule across the board, they would be rehearsing this drill constantly through the day given the large number of travellers carrying multiple phones or laptops. The logic of the rule is to prevent smuggling of such equipment. But the same customs officials would also accept that professional smugglers seldom arrive without prior rent payments that allow them to bypass inspections. As expected, this traveller was asked for chai pani ka kharcha to be let off.

On his way back to the US, he noticed his porter handed over money to the security official at the airport’s entrance tasked to ensure that only ticketed passengers enter the check-in lounge. Turns out that this wasn’t a porter but an employee of an airport authority that gave him access to the check-in lounge, but not to provide porter services. Apparently, this is a mechanism well known to those who ought to put an end to it.

Finally, at one of the airports he visited, the traveller was struck by an advertisement/announcement that offered assistance to women of Pakistani origin who feared being forcibly married in Pakistan. This wasn’t the ideal first impression by any stretch. It left a lasting impression, in his own words, confirming the many negative stereotypes of Pakistani society he had picked up in researching for his trip.

Overall, he felt we are desensitised to obvious institutional anomalies and wrongs, and seem to lack the drive to fix them. Right on the mark, he is.

The writer is a foreign policy expert based in Washington, D.C.

Published in Dawn February 7th, 2017