Blasted to modernity

All the contrasting visions from Islamabad to Nathiagali hammer home one important point: the area of Murree and Galiyat is very vulnerable

That natural disasters are also political disasters has been demonstrated by Amartya Sen's work on famines. The work got him a Nobel Prize for Economics and also influenced the way the UN Development Program ranks countries according to their "human development." But these were only theoretical concerns until I steered my car away from the old Kashmir Highway to Islamabad-Kohala Expressway. There the proof of the argument that political disasters compound natural disasters was clearly visible. The entire length of the Expressway shows the traveller warning signs in a neutral, impersonal tone "Danger: Land Slide Area Drive Carefully" as if landslides along the four-lane road were a natural phenomenon. The fact that the entire stretch of tarmac has been built after extensive blasting of the mountainsides and after removing the trees is hidden behind the scientific-sounding warnings.

The Expressway also betrays another political nightmare: the total disregard for the dignity of the pedestrian. It seems our various governments value concrete and tarmac above human beings. There is no respite for a car-less human being travelling on this road. No pedestrian crossings. No friendly places to sit and wait. Through the drive, I saw people sitting on the concrete barrier and waiting for some public transport to pick them up but there are no designated waiting areas for the villagers who come from different old settlements in the valley stretching from Islamabad to Murree.

It will not be an exaggeration to say that the Islmabad-Kohala Expressway is one of the many manifestations of the classist hubris prevalent in our country. It is almost impossible to travel on it if your vehicle is even slightly underpowered. The last stretch of the road to Murree is so steep that on the way up many cars were standing with their engines steaming. It is such a common occurrence that the local boys have started selling water for cooling the engines in 1.5 litre cola bottles all along the two-lane road.

Only after the Expressway's yellow and black clinical precision gave way to the old road, there was some respite from the terror and apathy induced by concrete. The old road to Nathiagali, past Jhika Gali, still seems more humane. And the fact that the snow is still visible on both sides of the road, once you have passed Ayubia, is an immense relief to somebody who is running away from Lahori rickshaws and other smoke-emitting monstrosities.

Nathiagali also shows signs of human activity but it is still a peaceful hill station with a crisp, invigorating air and many pleasant trekking paths. Even architecturally, the old wooden buildings are a pleasure to look at dewspite the fact that the old wooden church has been painted brown from the original black. There are some 19th century chalets preserved and maintained by the Sarhad Tourism Corporation available to travellers for spending a night or more on seasonal rates. At night, Nathiagali is sheer calm and one only hears the rustling of the trees and the sounds of distant waterfalls.

All the contrasting visions from Islamabad to Nathiagali hammer home one important point: the area of Murree and Galiyat is very vulnerable. Its ecosystem, which is a part of the Himalayan ecosystem, is threatened by governmental development projects, consumerism and fundamentalism. The entire area has too many signboards of different property advisors and numerous wall chalkings of various jihadi outfits eulogising an aggressive ethos.

After driving around in the region for some time, I had a strange realisation. All the signs that contained the phrase "global warming" were in English as if they were not meant for the local residents but for the consumption of some donor agency. I even started thinking whether the phrase "global warming" was untranslatable into Urdu.

I left the region thinking that there must be some way of dealing with the environmental threats faced by the region. Several options came to my mind:

(a) The entire region of Galiyat, like Murree, should be declared a pollution-free zone,

(b) Deforestation of the region should be checked by introducing other ways of heating such as gas or solar heaters,

(c) The only kind of tourism that should be encouraged should be eco-tourism,

(d) The local population should have a network of medical and educational facilities so that there is less need of travelling and burning fossil fuels.

The only way this region can have a future is by having a healthy ecosystem because concrete, money and religious aggression cannot be eaten.

Published in The News on Sunday

dated March 29, 2009