A national problem

June 18, 2019

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The writer is the author of Brokering Peace in Nuclear Environments: US Crisis Management in South Asia.
The writer is the author of Brokering Peace in Nuclear Environments: US Crisis Management in South Asia.

MY line of work regularly takes me around the world for conferences and other professional engagements. Having been fortunate enough to see much of the globe, I find myself reasonably qualified to assert that parts of northern Pakistan offer some of the most scintillating settings the world has to offer.

I spent the last week up in Naran Valley, being mesmerised by its natural beauty. As I played up the positives of the surroundings to my family, my children gave me pause. Aged 13, nine, and six, they have spent most of their lives in the United States. Their eyes caught what I ignored, but no foreign tourist will.

First, there were literally no foreigners to speak of in the area. Very few (if any) developing countries can sustain their tourist industry through locals. But to attract foreigners, you’ve got to advertise right; get on the map of frequented global tourist destinations; and most importantly, be a place that is considered safe.

We aren’t doing well, especially on the last count. Pakistan’s domestic security situation may have improved drastically in recent years, but the international perception of the country remains negative. The reasons for this are mostly geopolitical. While there is much to be done in terms of investing in marketing that is targeted at key international information outlets and tour operators, a permanent fix to the image problem is tied to an improvement in Pakistan’s relations with the Western world. Western narratives about countries still remain the most potent influence on perceptions of globetrotters.

A trip to the north reflects the state’s lack of empathy.

Second, my kids pointed to the ‘missing state’. A specific example will help clarify what they were getting at.

On the way to Saiful Malook, a glacial movement blocked the route. Apparently, a near-daily routine, we got to witness the road-clearing effort involving a solitary crane and manual work by local jeep drivers. I later found out that the state had no role to play in this. It was up to the jeep drivers and other locals to keep the road functional. The crane was hired by the hundreds of local jeep drivers in the area chipping in Rs1,000 each.

My initial, very Pakistani response was that such delegation of responsibility is a fairly good solution for a resource-constrained state apparatus. The more correct reaction, however, was my children’s: this isn’t how you build a successful tourist hub. State resources must be available to perform such tasks in the most efficient, effective, and safe manner. Indeed, the impressive effort to get things moving on the road was less obvious than the seeming indifference towards the safety of those clearing the road and of the tourists whose jeeps soon began to cross the glacier with great difficulty.

Third, one couldn’t miss the litter.

We all tend to be trigger-happy when it comes to criticising the state for not fulfilling its responsibilities. But what also struck my kids was the absence of any display of civic responsibility by the people. My nine year-old crystallised what anyone with a vantage point slightly different than an average Pakistani would notice first up when he asked: do people have no regard for others around them?

Not only did Saiful Malook and other lakes have waste and eatables in them, but no one seemed to bat an eyelid about it. You dared ask someone and you were made to regret it — by the elite and the commoner alike. Both would tell you to mind your own business, the elite with an arrogance that reflects their conviction that they can (and deserve to) get away with anything; and the commoner with total apathy about their responsibility towards the common good.

This is a microcosm of a national problem. The entire institutional make-up and socioeconomic structures of the country are geared towards benefiting the five per cent to 10pc elite. This elite is above the law — or at least behaves as if it is — and displays the same lack of civic duty as the less privileged. And they do it with a sense of entitlement. While I can at least see where the less fortunate ones are coming from, their mindset is no less worrying. For them, the state has done nothing to deserve anything positive in return, and if the state has left them to fend for themselves, they shouldn’t be expected to offer much either.

The solution requires us to instil basic civic sense in our minds. An essential part of it is to ensure that our state’s behavior is more emphatic towards citizens. But this must be combined with reintroduction of civics as a compulsory subject at all levels of education across public and private schools. Taking this away was one of the most regressive measures by the state of the 1980s.

A visit to the northern areas reminds one of just how endowed the country is. But it also highlighted for me just how we, the state and citizens, have misused it. This must change with both state and society playing their part.

The writer is the author of Brokering Peace in Nuclear Environments: US Crisis Management in South Asia.

Published in Dawn, June 18th, 2019