Monday, 3 June 2013

Reflections from Pakistan XI: Islamabad is a foreign city

Islamabad is Pakistan's custom built capital. A city built on an empty piece of land during the 1960s. Until recently, Pakistanis were not 'from' Islamabad – they just happened to live in Islamabad. (Until recently, only bureaucrats and diplomats lived in Islamabad.) However, today a new generation of 'Islamabadis,' with their own culture and lifestyle has emerged.

Islamabad's location on the Potohar Plateau surrounded by the Margalla Hills was no accident. Despite sitting astride an earthquake fault line, President Ayub Khan selected the location due to its proximity with Rawalpindi, Lahore and Peshawar. As a bonus, nearby hill stations like Murree, standing at a comfortable 2,300 meters above sea level, are just about one hour drive north. From the capital, Lahore is several hours drive south while Peshawar is a road journey of a couple of hours northwest.

Daman-e-Koh park in the Margalla Hills which surround Islamabad
Islamabad is home to Pakistan's Parliament and civil bureaucratic leadership. The country's lawmakers and senior mandarins live in nice, leafy neighbourhoods dotted across the city's 900 square kilometer area. Despite being the country's capital, many Pakistanis feel Islamabad is a foreign city; not a part of the 'real' Pakistan. It is easy to understand why such a belief is so widespread.

Islamabad has a sense of order and logic absent from Pakistan's other cities. The 'grid' design of Islamabad city streets helps reinforce the perception of order. In stark contrast, Pakistan's other cities have developed with little or no urban planning. Cities like Karachi and Lahore are breaking under the weight of the country's ever expanding population.

Islamabad's order is far removed from the problems of 'real' Pakistan. Thus, by residing in Islamabad, Pakistani lawmakers and senior mandarins have little practical understanding of the life experienced by most Pakistanis.

Given Pakistan's multitude of serious problems, it is easy to understand why the Pakistani political elite might wish to insulate itself from the rest of the nation by sticking its head inside Islamabad's hallowed ground.

Unfortunately, Pakistan's problems are compounding to the extent that Islamabadis cannot hide from them any longer. Islamabad has electricity rationing like the rest of the country. Extremist mullahs make noise in Islamabad – even violently such as during the 2007 Lal Masjid incident, 2008 attack on Islamabad's Marriott Hotel, or most recently during protests in September 2012 against an allegedly blasphemous film – as in the rest of the country. Other ills plaguing Pakistan, including crime, inflation and unemployment, ultimately find themselves seeping through Islamabad's sterilized door.

Certainly, Islamabad is a nice showcase for Pakistan. But Islamabad is a foreign country. Pakistanis can only hope Prime Minister designate Nawaz Sharif's government will remember there is more to Pakistan than Islamabad (and Lahore).
Imran is a business and management consultant. Through his work at Deodar Advisors and the Deodar Diagnostic, Imran improves profits of businesses operating in Singapore and the region. He can be reached at

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