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Mirror to the soul

January 28, 2013

THERE is enough in Pakistan to signal that the problem is not that we get it wrong all the time, but that we do get it right. Inconsistently.

If reality was the former, one could just throw one’s hands up in despair and give up; assume that the situation was impossible. But what’s frustrating is that in bits and bobs, here and there, we get it exactly right — and then, as though merely proving that it can be done was the job itself, Pakistan sits back, exhausted, and goes no further.

This is evident in a lot of spheres. Most of urban Pakistan is an ugly concrete jungle, but not Islamabad. In these days of perpetual loadshedding and electricity shortages, getting anyone to give you an accurate estimate, with customer-friendly service, of when you might expect Miss Bijli back is a tough job; but Karachi’s power utility, the KESC, maintains an exemplary helpline. There is no social service net to speak of; but there are organisations such as Edhi and the SOS Villages that get it right.

One is left with the eternal sense of being thwarted right when the prize was within grasp. If only the success stories could be expanded and replicated, a lot of what ails Pakistan could be put right.

Currently, what’s uppermost in my mind in this vein is the traffic, since I have spent a good part of my life navigating both urban and rural roads in various parts of the country.

First, consider the traffic police department in the large cities. Generally, traffic cops are reputed to be lazy, corrupt and merciless, as long as they aren’t facing anything even remotely their own size.

(For the record, though, personally I consider them rather heroic, given their workspace: roads full of serial rule-breakers, diesel fumes and noise, an utter lack of respect offered by society at large, no one willing to follow their direction as they attempt to unsnarl, etc.)

One would think that Pakistan was incapable of setting up a service-oriented, friendly, efficient and fair traffic police organisation.

But no. They set up the Motorway Police. It’s not that they’re nice; they come down on you like a ton of bricks. But they’re polite, civilised and professional; they’ll hand you a ticket, and they’ll never, ever ask for some chai pani money.

One lady I know got flagged down for over-speeding; in her 60s, she argued that of course she hadn’t been — would she be likely to resort to such hijinks at her age? They took the time to show her the footage on the speed camera, saying that they wouldn’t want her to leave thinking that she’d been cheated.

There are many who would argue — and to some extent they’d be correct — that this last statement is unfair because there is a great difference between setting up a police organisation from scratch, and trying to improve one that already exists and is riddled with holes and entrenched inefficiency.

True. But here we can turn to the example of Lahore, which several years ago made a genuine attempt at cleaning up its roads, which started with a clean-up of the traffic police department.

First, the pay structure was revised meaningfully upwards, as were the educational qualification requirements. Henceforth, Lahore’s traffic wardens would have a minimum BA qualification. Those already in the traffic police who had the qualification were offered promotions as wardens; the others were adjusted in other areas. And at one stroke, the traffic police situation improved — and started attracting a better quality of recruits, both men and women.

You might point to a completely uncontrollable traffic pattern and motorists who refuse to follow any rule at all. What of the motorcyclists who, like everywhere in urban Pakistan, wash up to and inevitably beyond the white line at a signal with all the agency and malice of the tide at the shore?

Well, those traffic wardens stood there and they handed out tickets to every violator in sight, without fear or favour, without argument, for even the most minor of infringements.

Forget running a red light, you got a ticket if even a portion of your car’s wheel was touching the white line, for not wearing a helmet, for motorcycles not being in the left lane, for cutting across lanes or making a turn from the wrong lane: ‘Salam. Can I see your licence and vehicle registration, please? You were in violation of the rules. Ticket, ticket, ticket, and no, sir, I’m going to take affront if you offer me a hundred rupees again.’

They actually fixed the city’s traffic. Just to put it in perspective for readers who may not know, the traffic in Lahore used to be just like the traffic in Karachi, Gujranwala, etc. or Rawalpindi (before they cleaned up ’Pindi’s act too, to a lesser extent). After this effort, it was exemplary — even though the volume remained large.

Another place they’ve got it right: the driving licence issuance process and test. With the not-so-new computerised driving licences, people are actually required to answer questions, occasionally devious, about traffic rules and undergo a test. Here’s a sample: “At a four-way intersection with traffic lights, the traffic from the right has the right of way. True/False?” And, of course, people fail.

In other words, if every driver on the roads actually went through the procedure of obtaining a driving licence, and passed, the roads would very likely be a much nicer place than they are currently. If only.

Like I said, the problem isn’t that we get it wrong all the time; it’s that here and there we get it right, perhaps to highlight the prize that always remains tantalisingly just out of reach.

The writer is a member of staff.

hajrahmumtaz@gmail.com