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When nothing else works

Little over five years when the Ayub martial law struck, I was too young to know the difference. All it did was disrupt my most favourite moment of the day.

Perched on a third floor balcony looking down on an expansive Peshawar road below where a side road from Lady Reading Hospital made a sparse corner there was a fruit shop decked out in its collage of colourful fruits from the season. Peshawar fruit sellers are specialists in enchanting displays.

As the day cooled, a water-carrier would spray the dust down in front of and around the shop from his water-skin (mashshk) in preparation of the arriving clients. This made for a fascinating initiation for me as I would saunter out just in time for the festivity to begin. But this wasn’t what I waited for. As the sun went further down a few degrees, there would arrive the one I waited for – a beautiful horse-drawn buggy. It had an open top, was radiant white in colour and drawn by the most beautiful white steed which was the pride of the owner.

The graceful gait of a snow-white horse holding its head high with a bumping mane with every step of the trot was a scene made for a royal entrance. It stopped at the shop after turning the corner. The owner himself or a friend in company would alight to savour the delights. All this while I fascinatingly fixed my gaze on this most graceful horse. Its presence enriched the surroundings and my little world. The roads aren’t as empty and the surroundings not as quiet any longer to know the pleasure of a horse’s hoofs’ rhythm in the stillness of the air. We have lost to time a lot more than mere simple days.

Ayub Khan and his martial law robbed me of my pleasure. The horse and the buggy stopped appearing even as I wandered out at the appointed time to await their arrival; they were replaced by a camouflaged tracked vehicle. It was a military tank from what I now recollect. It did not make for as enchanting a backdrop and soon lost my interest. It was a while before the horse and the buggy would reappear but by then I had moved on, unaware that a childhood treasure was permanently lost. I do remember though the return of the horse and its buggy and it had seemed life was back to its beautiful self.

There were other things that my young mind noticed. The sanitary and municipality workers began to become very obvious cleaning the surroundings and ensuring neater spaces along the roads and sidewalks. The meat sellers placed wire-nets around their shops to keep the flies out even as they worked to keep the insides clean. There were frequent checks by the municipal authorities to ensure that hygiene mattered. The vendors were required to display a price list per the one issued by the municipality and it was frequently verified to check over-pricing. There was a spur of efficiency and it showed. Malik Amir Mohammad Khan, the nawab of Kalabagh was the governor of West Pakistan, then a one-unit, and ran an exemplary administration under him where law and order, societal discipline and the effort to keep cities and the towns clean became the norm.

There was still time before Ayub’s government would kick-in more substantive plans and policies which moved us towards an industrialized economy, and the second and third five-year plans which resulted in projects like the Mangla and the Tarbela Dams. The first five-year plan instituted in 1955 had been laying wayside without any follow-up. The more concrete aspects of governance under Ayub began to mark their presence from 1960 onwards, but the first two years under him in an all around administrative shake-up was quite remarkable. My fancy for the horse notwithstanding.

The lesson here is obvious. Governance has many facets: policy, implementation, follow-up, action and review, and administration of law and order in the society; along with provision of basic necessities of life to the citizens in an orderly and efficient manner. That is when the state is seen to be touching the lives of the common citizen. Any government that remains mired in conceiving policy or is a laggard in implementation or hasn’t yet got its marbles right, or is lost in the maze of complexities and finds it impossible to negotiate its way out of what has befallen it, is losing the script by neglecting the more visible and easier side of administrative governance. That’s a handy trick used by all governments which have by some guile or luck found their way into power, and must now learn governance while sitting over a state of hundreds of million people.

It’s simple. You have numerous janitorial staff in all municipalities and other service areas. The DCOs of those regions as indeed the mayors and the elected members of the councils need to get them about and create a semblance of activity to clean and green the surroundings. This doesn’t need money – which isn’t there – just the necessary prod to work for their salaries. As soon as it becomes routine, the ‘government’ gets to be seen doing something. The DCOs, with all their intellectual brilliance from the CSS competitive exams could at least get some janitorial work done.

I visit Lahore often and live in the Islamabad Capital Territory. The traffic on the roads, especially in Lahore, is dreadful. Worse, there isn’t a soul out to manage it. The traffic wardens had become a regular feature, both at Lahore and in Pindi, but no more. Surely they are still on government payroll, so what has become of them? One hopes the administrative bureaucracy is not on a furlough? Police reforms can wait but if the police can do just a little more than kill innocent civilians from Sahiwal, and bring some order to a highly chaotic public places by just being around and enabling some sense of security and help to the citizens the government would be more visible. The current cart blanche is simply scary. They are running amok and as they please. The DPOs could do their bit, please. No money, again. Simply doing one’s duty.

Ditto with the health units and the hospitals. And the schools. We could at least make those functional within the resource which routinely gets allocated to them. This too is governance. Most importantly, it doesn’t cost money.

One innovation that will still be kosher is to ban the polythene/plastic bags that are now an interminable part of human waste and retain their presence over decades for not being degradable. This too doesn’t cost money. It can though ask for some intuition since it will entail a replacement programme. I only add my voice to what respectable Ayaz Amir has campaigned for relentlessly.

When nothing else works, something still does. Grab on to it, and be seen. And run a horse, at times, to please a young boy’s heart.

Shahzad Chaudhry, "When nothing else works," The news. 2019-04-05.
Keywords: Social sciences , Childhood treasure , Martial law , Societal discipline , Industrialized economy , administration law , Intellectual brilliance , Public places , Health units , Replacement program , Police reforms