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Short Cuts

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By Anjum Altaf

Position yourself at a traffic light or a roundabout in a Pakistani city today and you will witness every possible violation of the traffic code quite independent of the status of the violator and the presence of one or more policemen. The free-for-all encompasses the entire range from glitzy cars to rundown bicycles. Reflect a little on this seeming chaos and you might be able to infer that it all follows from one simple rule — the desire of every individual to find the shortest route from here to there unimpeded by any constraints in the way.    

Such a rule is called a shortcut and although I have reflected on this particular shortcut for some time and deem it important, I refrained from raising the issue out of a sense of its ranking in the list of catastrophes enveloping our country. It seemed akin to someone quibbling about the declining quality of wine in Abbasid Baghdad while the country was run over by the hordes of Halagu Khan and his general Guo Kan.

I have changed my mind after stumbling across an observation by that most elegant of writers, Nirad Chaudhury (1897-1999), one probably recorded well before the creation of Pakistan:

“One ineradicable habit all Indians have is to take a shortcut to their destination whatever the risk to themselves or others. One striking illustration of this habit was provided for me. There was a bus stop just outside Mori Gate, and not more than twenty yards from it was a public convenience. But the passengers never went so far. They urinated on a tree nearby, and the poor tree died at the end of six months. In northern India men are never able to resist a wall or a post.”   

I realized on reading this that some shortcuts are phenomena of enduring nature and can get hardwired into the DNA of a society, that they can extend over a range of activities, and that they can have life-and-death implications. What else could die like the unfortunate tree near Mori Gate as a consequence of some other shortcut? It was therefore of interest to explore the matter further and draw conclusions about the possible impacts on the health of Pakistani society.

It is important in this context to draw a distinction between the DNA of an individual and that of a society. To return to Nirad Chaudhuri’s observation, it should be obvious immediately that a northern Indian man would never do to a wall or a post in Dubai what he would do one in India. The solution to this malady rests entirely on a society doing what is routinely done in cities like Dubai, i.e., to enforce the codes of civic behaviour.

In the same vein, it is not that our society has remained unchanged over time. I recall from my bicycling days in Lahore being hauled up by a policeman for not having a reflector on the rear rim. That was the era of DIG Niblett, the legendary enforcer of traffic rules in the city. How far we have slid from those times to the anything-goes present — most bicyclists would fail to identify a reflector or believe that at one time bicycles required rearview mirrors and night lights as well.

So, the traffic shortcut is easy to fix. All it needs is enforcing rules which is not going to result from fancy gimmicks like E-Tickets that capture only the violation of red signals while most violations take place away from lights. Why, as a society, we feel increasingly disinclined to enforce rules is a matter of great significance. Why, with gross underemployment, we rely not on mobile wardens but fixed cameras is a puzzle. Why, with sophisticated design tools, we configure roads that invite traffic violations is hard to explain. But one thing is certain: societies that are unable to address small problems can never address big ones. To think otherwise is stupidity. 

This brings me to more problematic territory. On the economic front, I increasingly see people looking for shortcuts to getting rich. This is simply because lifelong employment that was the norm a generation ago is simply unable to provide desired standards of living. As a dean at LUMS, I reflected often on this paradox trying to calculate how many years typical graduates would have to work to afford on their earnings the kind of homes they grew up in. You can guess the answer. 

This has deep implications because the runaway get-rich-quick-by-any-means mentality overturns all social and moral norms that provide order and trust in society. These norms cannot be restored by draconian punitive measures and by treating every person as a thief. It requires thoughtful measures that enable people to live decent lives by holding regular jobs and discharging their duties honestly. 

The political shortcut is the most worrisome. By some bewildering path we have arrived at the point where we are willing to give a chance to whoever is seated on the crown no matter what their intelligence, competence, qualifications, or experience. How one arrives at the apex is not any matter of concern. All that seems to matter is that the person hasn’t been tried before and therefore ought to be given a chance like the predecessors. This is certainly a holdover from the Mughal era when leadership was determined in a very different fashion and whoever fought his way to power was deemed legitimate. But legitimacy is not derived the same way in electoral systems where sovereignty is supposed to rest with the people. And governance without legitimacy is the road to long-lasting and often irreversible problems. Democratic politics rests on persuading others of the merits of ones policies but that becomes impossible without the mantle of legitimacy. The only recourse is to annihilate the opposition, become more and more authoritarian, and to regress to the worst attributes of despotic rule.

In short, we should be wary of the shortcuts we have made a part of our lives.

This opinion appeared in Dawn on August 24, 2019 and is reproduced here with the author’s permission. The writer is the author of Transgressions: Poems Inspired by Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Delhi, 2019.  

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