Khadim-e-a‘alaa, the self-chosen title of Punjab’s famous Chief Minister, Mian Muhammad Shahbaz Sharif, connotes a certain humility and dedication to serving common folk. Literally meaning ‘chief servant’ it contrasts starkly with the high station of wazir-e-aalaa, ‘chief minister.’ Grand projects like the Lahore Metro Bus System serve to demonstrate through action such notions of humble devotion to serve the troubled lot of Punjab. Major road improvement work before the recent elections seems to have resolved much of Lahore’s most frustrating car traffic problems. But in all this the cyclist and the pedestrian is neglected, for whom the road becomes ever more dangerous to use. The Chief Servant serves, but only from the high station of the Chief Minister’s car.
Having grown up in Lahore as an avid cyclist and someone who loves walking, I have noted with increasing concern the hazards posed to pedestrians and cyclists by road improvements carried out by authorities that represent the values and mindset of the ruling elite. I was especially struck by this a few years ago when I returned to Pakistan after a year of graduate studies in the US. When I tried to make a simple right turn on my bike at the Defence Club junction on the Main Defence Road, I encountered a new road barrier which required me to stop on the main road, turn my head around 180 degrees to watch for fast approaching cars, and then wait for the opportunity to cross over. While I continue to follow the same tracks to walk and bike, every passing year it becomes more and more of a survival act in a jungle of loud, stampeding herds of cars.
[quote]Bigger and fancier cars confer more prestige on members of a still traditional society[/quote]
Like big scary moustaches, bigger and fancier cars confer more prestige on members of a still traditional society; a society which tends neither to egalitarian liberal-democratic Western ideals nor the exemplary piety of early Islam. To our elites, to be a cyclist is to be someone unable to afford something better. Themselves beset with health problems, they relegate their own walking to evenings in parks or community centers— spaces which, let us not forget, generally refuse permission to those who look dark or poor. Cycling is of course acceptable as a fun activity for elite children, but we seem to be running out of space even for that. In fact, in many urban areas of Lahore, the sweet and simple act of taking your son, nephew, niece or daughter for a walk to the market has become unthinkable. Older men and women no longer young enough to jump over road dividers are entirely handicapped from crossing the road. What a world apart from fond childhood memories of being taken to the market for a treat by your good old Daada Jaan.
The poor worker who rides a Sohrab to work, or the average motorcyclist belonging to a slightly higher income group has to deal with the daily stress of being locked out by his own city. What is felt as insulting and dehumanizing by me has to be braced by him as another of life’s situations he can’t do anything much about, a matter of routine survival. Masons Muhammad Yasin and Muhammad Majid are two such individuals. I asked them how beneficial the road improvements in Lahore had been for them.
“Get out of the city and the roads are horrible, as is the sanitation. The roads we take to come to the city for work are so bumpy and broken that our cycles break often. One regularly hits a bump so bad that the chimta (fork) of the bike’s front wheel breaks. It costs more than a hundred rupees to have that fixed. “They’ve built such tall bridges. Road crossings are often far away. Our bikes can’t get on these bridges, but even if they could, it’s just not allowed.”
What did they think about the Metro Bus System?
“The Metro Bus is a great initiative for the poor person. But we don’t use it at all since it only caters to one stretch of road in Lahore.” They’re not beggars, but they still can’t be choosers.
The problem is that of perspective. One’s view is limited by one’s vantage point. If only our ruling elite could see from a different point of view, they would see how unfair, insulting and ugly roads can be to those not fond of, or unable, to use cars to commute. Authorities seeking to serve should first look within themselves and ask: can we see like those we intend to serve? Or perhaps we need to cleanse our hearts first, like spectacles wiped they will let our eyes see. For a country struggling with a shortage of fuel supply and high fuel prices, bad health among its citizens, and a major neglect of the environment, it is high time that our ruling ‘servants’ began to see.