Afia Salam's Blog

Life is a journey

Posts Tagged ‘Pakistan

Let’s ‘Disrupt’ Pakistan!

IMG-20171104-WA0032Disrupt? really? Does that raise eyebrows? Were you taken aback? Well let me tell you right off the bat that a dinosaur like me certainly was! God forbid.. bite your tongue, rolling of the eyes so on and so forth!

And that is when I learnt that actually, there is a lot of weight in the saying that ‘understand the context first.’ Well the context of the word disruptive for a dinosaur like me only had negative connotations! It was synonymous with destruction and disturbance. It meant rocking the boat, making waves, kicking people out of their comfort zones. Now I know that makes a lot of people uncomfortable.img-20171104-wa0031.jpg

But oh well sometimes the company you keep pushes your boundaries. Now I interact with the communities #geeks and #techies, through their guru, my school friend @Jehan Ara who takes them under their wing as the Big Bird at the tech incubator she heads at the @The Nest I/O in #Karachi

This is a fraternity that has spun the meaning of the word on its head and attached all the possible positives with it as they could find. So in their ecosystem, ‘disrupt’ means shaking up an archaic, stagnant system that is not responsive to the needs of the changing times. It means not just bypassing a system that serves more as a stumbling block than as a facilitator, but by charting a new system that democratizes opportunities and takes them to the boundaries of the outliers.

In a connected, shrinking world where technology is making history of so many traditional market places and services, they feel they can get their share of the pie if they strike out like they see small startups making exponential growth at the global level. So many global leaders have emerged out of garages that it gives hopes to the new generation of entrepreneurs who want to tap into the new world that values ideas and knowledge before it looks at anything tangible and physical like a merchandise produced at a physical space.

The energy seen on the opening day of the #021Disrupt Conference hosted by #TheNestiO shows that there are many out there who are not willing to wait for the ‘system’ to fall into place. They want legislation, taxation reforms, infrastructure like incubation centres that provide them the tools, mentorship and investment on a day before yesterday basis.

They got to hear from the experts.. on tech startup who made it big, from technology giants like google about the tools available to help them, from venture capitalists who informed them how perception management of the country is important. They were unanimous in their opinion that that was the responsibility of the entire ecosystem to do that.

The encouraging thing is the size of the Pakistan market because of its population size. This is why it stands a good chance to draw in investment, just like India, Indonesia. Turkey, East Africa and Middle East will also draw it but Middle East’s total population maybe large but is divided in 22 countries.

Pakistan is a growing market with a lot of potential for investment eventually. However, local investment will attract global funding. Before that there needs to be an ecosystem that needs to shed its cumbersome regulatory top down approach. There are many grey areas that need to be navigated as far as SECP and FBR are concerned.

One common thread from the The payment cycle for start ups is one of the main reasons for failure, aside from a lack of a good enough team. But interconnected to the issue of payment is the route of payment as #Paypal still is not there and the #fintech solutions being worked through the State Bank of Pakistan need to be easier to use.

On the subject of failure, which cropped up repeatedly in the conversations of various panelists, the common theme was to view it as a learning process. But the learning also needs to be at the end of the venture capitalists which need to be data driven. Also all digital innovation has mostly been adopted not by the traditionalists but by the fringe.

The encouraging note was that a market need is assessed, and solution to meet it was provided, and then came the connection with the regulator. If it was done the other way around, it would probably be a non starter.


Sidra Iqbal in a Fireside chat with Dr. Umar Saif

And this is why people like Dr. Umar Saif are so valuable where they are at the moment as they have gone with an understanding of the ecosystem into the corridors of power to disrupt the hidebound structures there. The only problem is, there aren’t enough such persons in #Pakistan with the clout needed to accelerate the disruption if we do not want to stay stuck in playing the game of catch!

So just a quarter of the proceedings done, and this dinosaur has now understood a new meaning of disruption, and understanding it as something really positive, and needed. So come on folks, let us disrupt Pakistan so propel it forward and leave the stagnant pool behind.

With some of the best Venture Capital firms meeting startups at the 021Disrupt, this opportunity is something the tech sector was just waiting for to get that much needed leg up. Let us see how they are able to capitalize on it.






Written by afiasalam

November 4, 2017 at 9:02 am

Hospital, Gilchrist & cricketing DNA!

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When one visits someone in the hospital, the conversation usually is about the hows and how are yous, doctors, medicines, and what have you… besides of course  expression of good wishes for the patient and prayers for a speedy recovery, and offer of assistance to the caregivers.  Hardly, if ever, it veers too far away from the topic.

Well I was in for a different lesson in my hospital visit to see a very dear person who has been very ill. I also realized that while in Urdu, if something becomes a distinct character trait, we usually say ‘yeh uski ghutti mein hai;’ the closest phrase to it in English is the contemporary term of something being a part of the DNA! I know it is usually said as a form of exaggeration, but how true it actually is hit home today.

The legendary cricketer Hanif Mohammad, our Little Master has been very ill, and hospitalised for days. Yes he has been battling cancer, very bravely, but what got him into the hospital was a severe chest infection, because of which he was barely able to speak. Aggressive treatment and admission to the special care unit stablized but exhausted him out, so that he was in a deep sleep for hours.

The visitors too were careful, talking in barely audible whispers so as not to disturb him. However, as he opened his eyes, he spotted former Pakistan captain Mohammad Yousuf standing by his bedside and after the greetings and inquiries about the health were over, launched into a purely cricketing discussion, reminiscing about when he almost got a century in each innings against Australia, thwarted by a bad umpiring decision, which of course he didn’t contest and walked off, but which was admitted to by the opposition players as well.

While his son Shoaib attempted to take charge of the conversation by recounting the incident, Hanif Mohammad, who had woken up when our conversation had probably risen above the level of whispers, was absolutely lucid in his interjections. The drawl in his voice was there due to the weakness but there was not a hint of uncertainty about the games of long ago. I immediately understood that this clarity was because  it was cricket he was talking about which was in his ghutti… in his DNA… which no illness could alter!

Call from another Pakistan captain, Zaheer Abbas meant that the conversation stayed the course, with Hanif Mohammd complimenting  the caller by reminding him of his title of Asian Bradman and of his several double centuries. Such clarity after serious illness? Deep drug and exhaustion induced sleep? Nah! put it down to DNA!

IMG_20160802_215456And then came Gilchrist in the room… that fearsome West Indian pacer, the nemesis of all batsmen in the line of his lethal projectiles.

Aided by Shoaib, Hanif Mohammad took us on a trip down his memory lane to that glorious match at Barbados in the West Indies where he not only faced the fearsome Gilchrist, but walked right into the record books with his knock spread over 999 minutes… erroneously written in the Wisden as 16 hrs. 10 minutes.

(The actual duration of the longest innings to date in Test cricket has been mentioned as 16 hrs 39 mins … with its entire commentary etched onto a LonIMG_20160802_215148g Play record presented to him after the match.)

Innings that started with Pakistan in dire straits, following-on with a deficit of 473 as the score card would show, a familiar situation for the young Hanif Mohammad.

IMG_20160802_215251He faced the pacers any which way he could, in the days of folded towels inside pockets serving as cushioned guards, and flimsy (by today’s standards) pads, NO HELMETS, and certainly no No Ball calls from the umpires to the beamers aimed at the head by Gilchrist each time his ball was hit for a four!

Gilchrist was the stuff of every batsman’s nightmare, with arms dangling down to below knees, and a fiery temper spurring his catapulting of the ball out of his hands at speeds hitherto unknown. Hanif recalled with a chuckle how even a slight touch of the bat would make the ball race to the boundary, simply because it came at him with such great speed.IMG_20160802_215154

The father and son recounted Gilchrist’s vile temper which ultimately led him to being jailed for assault and battery as he had hit his wife with an iron! And to think that our diminutive  Little Master faced him and his ilk of equally ferocious fast bowlers simply on the dint of his determination and technique.

IMG_20160802_215420This firmly established him as the mainstay of Pakistan’s batting line up and earned him accolades across the cricketing world and recognition at home from the highest quarters. 337 with 26 fours, 16 threes, 40 twos and 105 singles were no mean feat!

Between his daughter in law Shazia and my exhortations to him not to speak too much, I couldn’t suppress a smile on his very matter of fact answer ‘well he didn’t really get to hit me on my pads’ (of course… perfect technique after all) when Shoaib asked if Gilchrist’s deliveries hit the body!

DNA again eh? The frailties of the physical body have done nothing to the sharp mind and wonderful memory. Get well soon Hanif Bhai. May we accompany you on many more of these trips down memory lane.


All pictures from Hanif Mohammad’s autobiography “Playing For Pakistan”








Written by afiasalam

August 2, 2016 at 9:36 pm

Six years after the Attabad disaster, adaptation is still name of the game!

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Some of the most stunning mountains of the Karakoram range circle the Attabad lake in Hunza, Gilgit-Baltistan

The mountains of Gilgit Baltistan are like a petulant teenager still trying to find a place. They are still experiencing growing pains and rock and rattle all those around them like the teenager slamming doors. Just like that teenager, they need to be watchful of, because of the potential to do harm.


Hunza river snaking though the valley

On this day in 2010, the young Karakorams stretched themselves to release some of their tension, but that one stretch had nightmarish results. The villagers of Gojal valley in Gilgit-Baltistan, heard a rumble, that quickly turned into a roar, the earth trembled, and billows of dust triggered by a huge landslide raced down a disintegrating mountainside, and slammed into the path of the Hunza river down below.

This disaster,  resulted in the loss of 19 precious lives, displacement of thousands of villagers from  Attabad, Shishkat and Gulmit, and complete destruction of many miles of the Karakoram Highway that linked Pakistan to China, and the bridges linking the villages in the valley.

It was not unexpected. This is a seismically active zone. Human activity, especially infrastructure construction disturbs the fragile environment. Humanitarian groups like Focus along with the environmentalist working in that area had been warning the people of the valley below of the widening crevices. Warmer temperatures due to Climate Change have also impacted the integrity of the glaciers in the northern mountains.

The people were warned of the dangers, and  advised to relocate. Many heeded the warning, but not all could. They had no idea where to move. They also had no other alternatives. The political leadership was also reactive and there was no disaster preparedness.


Tree tops indicating the presence of the submerged village


Tree tops protruding out of the water are an eerie reminder of a thriving village having become a watery grave

The mountain-side that had fallen into the river had dammed it completely, and soon the accumulated river started forming a lake that encroached on the homes and hearths, and business of the villages, completely submerging the village of Ayeenabad, and parts of Sishkat and adjoining villages.


Only a row of tree tops serves as a haunting reminder of the live that flourished along the banks of the Hunza river. Where people must have tended to their livestock, and reaped the fruits of their harvest. Now, there is an eerie silence of the watery grave of a thriving village.

Today, 6 years later, all the information that one needs of how the disaster was handled, of the evacuations, the airdrops of food and relief supplies, the construction of the spillway to release the rising water threatening to engulf more land is easily searchable.


Temporary shelters given for a period of 6 months are still there abode 6 years after displacement

This is about the people. The people who have been protesting each year on the frozen Attabad lake that was formed in the wake of the disaster. Protesting because promises were not kept. Because relief and rehabilitation did not come in the manner promised. And because 6 years after this disaster, there are still people living in the Altit village in temporary shelters.


These shelter were put up in is 2016, and the ‘Mutasareen’ or the affectees are still living in them

People with means moved elsewhere. The paltry sum of 600,000 was given out at one time. Chinese provided them dry rations for a year. Many moved to other villages, started their life anew, set up businesses. But the people who were given temporary shelters in Altit and Karimabad village, some in Gilgit, for six months are still living there after 6 years.

There is a great sense of community in these areas. People help out. The displaced persons in Altit were given these shelters on the land of the small farmers. However, this ‘temporary settlement’ of almost 60 shelters in this small town brings a double jeopardy.


IDPs cultivating potatoes , something the owners of this land used to do

The farmers are without their land; cultivable land which was used for growing potatoes which serve not just as a food but a major cash crop. They were expecting the use of these shelters once the IDPs left, but now they do not even get to benefit from their own land, which they had given temporarily

Most of the people of this area either are farmers, or in the Army. The people displaced from the disaster now do odd jobs to sustain their families, with only the well to do among them having established businesses like shops or transportation services.

They yearn to be in a place of their own. They feel that because they are so few in numbers, they do not even matter to the politicians when they go out seeking votes. The only hope they have is from their National Council of the Ismaili community in Pakistan.

One father spoke of the psycho-sociological effects of this temporary living. Children of the village, brutally honest and blunt as they are, call his children and those of his displaced neighbours as ‘mutasareen’ or disaster affected. He said his child was born in this village, but wants to know the meaning of this label of mutasareen. He can understand it is not being said in a nice way so does not go to school willingly.

Many adapted to the life after disaster. The infrastructure rehabilitation was going to take a long time but there was a daily trek of villagers from Gulmit and upper villages to cross over to Gilgit. This spawned a thriving road and river transportation network that had been unseen and unheard of in those areas.


Boats served as a only means of transportation for villages cut off due to damage to the roads and bridges

The awe inspiring pictures of cars and even trucks travelling astride two boats going at synchronized speeds fired the imagination of the adventurous, setting in motion a mini tourist boom. Interestingly though, when asked, this turned out to be a classic case of adaptation.

None of these people had owned boats or ran such a business there before. The locals eased into this earning opportunity as owners of boats, and tourist guides. They know the area so are comfortable in that role. However, water transportation in the upper reaches of the rivers is rare, so this was something they had to learn. Many preferred to outsource it to people who were more adept at this skill.


People with distinctly different features from the locals are boatmen from the neighbouring KP province

This is why while they became business owners and operators, the boatmen employed by them were mostly from the nearby Hazara division of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. No wonder they had features so different from the locals! These became the migrant workers who found livelihood opportunity in a new land.

It is another story now that with the inauguration of the tunnels built through the surrounding mountains by the Chinese, the road link with Karakoram Highway has now been established.


Trucks like these, bearing testimony of the pervasive presence of China in the area, will no longer have to straddle two boats to get to the other side

Screen Shot 2016-01-05 at 12.12.55 pmThis no doubt meets a great need. But this also means that once again the people have to adapt to another kind of a life when these boats would be used only if tourism is sustained and people want to travel on the stunning blue waters of the lake, surrounded by some of the most captivating peaks.


Those in a hurry will now be using the road going through the Pak-China Friendship Tunnels.

Those wanting a comfortable ride will also be using it. But how many will be able to keep themselves from climbing onto the boats to experience the wonderous surroundings which only a boat ride will offer. Not everyone will be able to afford letting go of the boats to buy means of road transportation.

For this to happen, and tourism to thrive, rudimentary facilities around the lake will be needed so it progresses from ‘adventure’ tourism to include the less adventurous, especially as now ease of access is not a problem.


Majesty and grandeur of nature in its full glory


Pakistan’s flag flutters atop a boat, with the view of the drowned village, a makeshift one, and stunning locale behind. A mixed message of hope.

The vistas of breathtaking beauty must be made more accessible. Unless this is done, within a short span of 6 years after the Attabad disaster, the lives of its displaced persons  will be  topsy turvy once again, and they will remain in this cycle of adaptation.

Do they have to protest on the frozen lake every year on the anniversary of the disaster to make themselves heard?

*All pictures except those already with due credits have been taken by the author


Written by afiasalam

January 4, 2016 at 3:54 pm

Benazir.. the woman, the mother, the Prime Minister… the martyr!

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Benazir arriving in Pakistan just prior to the elections

Benazir arriving in Pakistan just prior to the elections

It was around this time when the enormity of the incident had finally sunk in. She was no more. I could hear our senior reporter Mubashir Zaidi‘s chillings words over and over in my head saying that doctor’s had confirmed that Benazir Bhutto had passed away!

I had also witnessed the mayhem on the road outside when immediately after hearing the news of the attack I went to pick my daughter from her office which was just a few minutes drive away. The angry, charged crowd waving sticks and whatever else they could wield was on a rampage, and i could not even cross the road.

Had to phone her to tell her to stay put in office, and then to go to her uncle’s house close by when things calmed down and spend the night there. As it happened, she witnessed more horror from the roof top of her office with all the auto workshops on the main road set ablaze. They even had to give sanctuary to a terrified family fleeing the mob.

Being in the news channel (Dawnnews) meant that while one was rooted to a spot seeing things unfold , rather, unravel, all around, one also had to keep one’s wits about to plan the next day.

The morning after started with a call from the anchor of the breakfast show saying his wife wouldn’t allow him to go. There was no question of guests coming in to discuss anything. The only thing we could do was to put one of our news anchors in with an analyst who had been flown in to discuss the forthcoming elections, with a pile of newspapers which of course, had only one thing that could be discussed.. Benazir’s murder!

The rest of the day in the newsroom was surreal. Amid real time news, there was the running to and fro from archives to pull things about Benazir to prepare small packages on different aspects of her life. The longest it took was to work on a longish documentary as the editing of its script was proving to be heart wrenching. It was one of the most difficult editing jobs to date!

One just couldn’Benazir 2t get the images of her saying goodbye to her children our of the mind.. when she was leaving to board the flight to Pakistan. Those images didn’t affect me as a journalist but as a mother. The journalist in me knew she was coming to a life fraught with danger, as the Karsaz blast proved on her arrival.

Another image that just stays with me is of her hands going up in prayers when she landed on Pakistani soil. What must have been going through her mind. What hopes and aspirations did she come with for herself, her party, and her country! Her resolve seemed almost palpable to be able to something for the country.. to make it better.

She emerged from the Karsaz disaster almost unfazed, showing grit and determination and went about her campaign across the country….. and then, on that fateful day to ‘Pindi. And then the rest, as they say, is history! History that has become another name for tragedy not only for the Bhutto family, but for this country, and indeed for the world which lost a woman, a leader who was exceptional, and had exceptional potential.

I have never been a PPP supporter, for a variety of reasons. But Benazir transcended the persona of a PPP leader. As a woman, it made me proud to see her reach where she had, and develop as a politician, out of the shadow of her father, which was her first springboard. It made me feel good to tell people that Pakistanis had elected a woman twice as their PM, despite being a patriarchal, misogynistic sBenazir 3ociety.

But of course not everyone shared that pride. There were people who resented her presence, and the possibility of her calling the shots again.. this time more forcefully, against the forces of darkness.

And they cut her life down brutally. Who are they? will we ever know? Doesn’t the nation deserve closure? Don’t her children deserve to know who were the enemies and if they are still around to pose a threat to them too?

Benazir the politician was not flawless. There is a long list of mistakes. But Benazir the person, was truly that… Benazir… without parallel! May she rest in peace, and may her killers never find any peace

Written by afiasalam

December 28, 2015 at 9:31 am

What does the society expect of its women!

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What does the Society expect of its women

Written by afiasalam

July 11, 2015 at 4:45 am

Girls drink Milk too

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Girls drink milk too

Positive messaging is what advertisers should be doing, instead of heedlessly reinforcing gender stereotypes, writes Afia Salam.


Is this a rant? Well, sort of, although I usually restrict my rants to social media forums. But lately I have been a bigger ‘consumer’ of the media than ever before. Working from home, I usually have the television on, and what is beamed by way of advertising is, well, not very palatable.

The debate on the commodification of women has been done to death. We are seeing a lesser number of women pushing ‘men only’ products.

As for the issue of culturally inappropriate imagery, it may resurface along with the swirls of lawn now that summer is here. This is not what this rant is about.

Neither is it about the offensive ‘skin whitening’ creams promising a happily ever after. Or wedded bliss and acceptance by the in-laws by conjuring up the right kind of fragrance in cooked rice (Maggie Umda) and laundered clothes (Sunlight). I live in hope that these will eventually fade, or at least become reflective of another breed of women, who march ahead, notching up successes in fields as diverse as mountain climbing, flying planes, performing complicated surgery or teaching difficult subjects in remote parts of Pakistan; every one of them completely unmindful of the effect these activities may have on their complexion. Or culinary skills!

But I digress. This is about the gender bias in the advertising of products which lay claim to improving health, growth, well being and which reinforce dangerous stereotypes that have far reaching effects on society. And please don’t anyone fling the line at me that “it is just advertising; it has no effect.” Everyone associated with this industry knows the purpose of advertising is to have an effect on those it is targeted at – en route to the bottom line.

The problem I have with the advertising by some leading brands is their extreme gender imbalance, nay exclusion. Be it a brand of milk, (Nestlé Milk, Nido)… better still, of a fortified kind, or a food supplement (Horlicks), the talent shown in the commercial is that of a boy – never a girl! Boys are shown guzzling glasses of milk and adding IQ points, smearing butter and margarine on parathas and grabbing cups in sporting meets, adding nutrition supplements to their food and inches to their height.



As I mentioned earlier, I usually rant on social media. I did on this issue too, and while there was some support for my point of view, it was the justification given for the gender exclusive trend that had me stumped! ‘Mothers prefer boys’.

Yes, a cultural truth, but not one that needs to be perpetuated. Advertising is target market oriented, so since there is a tilt in favour of the male child, it has to cater to that niche… true again. But isn’t advertising about creating a demand to lead to a sale?

How will the addition of a girl in products not meet any marketing and advertising goals? The kind of products I have mentioned and the market they target has a profile of mothers who are usually without such biases. And if these biases are inherent, they can be nudged away with the right kind of messaging. Sometimes all it needs is for someone to realise that their biases are baseless.

The segment of children depicted in these commercials is not one where girls would be made to wait until their male sibling has eaten so that they can be given the leftovers. These too are the harsh realities of our patriarchal landscape, but the households shown in these ads are not from there.

milk3Also, judging by the monumental failure of our family planning programme, this single male child family may be a latent aspiration, but is far removed from reality. Wouldn’t a mother (or father) pouring two glasses of milk or stirring in spoonfuls of food supplements or ‘buttering up’ toast and parathas and then handing them over to a son and a daughter be more believable?

Surely brands with millions to spend on promotion in order to gain billions can afford the addition of a girl in the same concept? Even the film directors will not be too hard pressed to fit them in the same frame as their male sibling.

The social costs of the visual exclusion are far greater, especially in Pakistan, which ranks abysmally low on the nutrition index – 97 out of 125! It also scores a shameful 19.3 out of 100 on the Global Hunger Index. Scratch the surface, and you will see a clear tilt in this imbalance, negatively impacting women in general, and girls in particular.

When existing cultural biases are entrenched deep into the psyche, positive messaging, which need not even be a hard sell, can play a role in chipping away the stereotypes. It has been done elsewhere with success and the advertising industry across the world in general and in Pakistan in particular, has been putting forth some brilliant public service messages. There is no dearth of creativity here. Some of the current advertising, slice of life as well as fantasy, have engaging concepts, humour and great execution.

Advertising is usually taken to be an extended arm of marketing and the sales department of a brand. Try rocking the boat a bit; go beyond the market surveys and insights and rely on gut feel. Even if keeping an eye on the numbers is the objective, there is no harm in suggesting that the client attempt to broaden the customer base.

I still remember a brand of children’s biscuits – Choco Chum – which had no competitor in the market and enjoyed healthy growth. The agency urged, cajoled, and finally convinced the brand into doing an ad campaign and sales skyrocketed. They pushed the market envelope and the brand reaped the benefits.

So advertising does make a difference. Gender insensitive brand messaging neither makes good business sense, nor is it socially responsible. Maybe the advertising industry, which has the money and the clout could launch an affirmative action plan and weed out such practices.

How about kick-starting the brainstorming process by putting on a proxy and watching (on YouTube) the excellent advocacy animation developed by UNICEF called ‘Meena kee kahani’ addressing just this issue.

After all, we too have many Meenas in our midst. Let us not allow them to slip off the radar!

Afia Salam is a freelance journalist and has worked as a creative head at three agencies.

First published in the May-June 2014 issue.

Written by afiasalam

June 11, 2014 at 1:40 pm

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A tunnel without vision



The term ‘ tunnel vision’ has always been used as a pejorative. People accused of having it are also variously called myopic, short-sighted, shallow, etc. But when one hears of grandiose projects like Islamabad New City, to be made accessible to the old one through a tunnel to be drilled through the National Park in the Margalla Hills, one wishes to plaster all of the above words and more on those conceiving the project!

What goes on in the heads of the people who come up with these schemes? Are they still rooted in the infrastructure development model that now stands rejected everywhere because it was unmindful of sustainability? Do they get a high thinking of brick and mortar, steel and glass structures coming up at the detriment of the existing natural and social environment, disturbing the ecosystem and displacing communities? Or do they drool over the prospects of billions of rupees/dollars changing hands?

Is that what it is about? Building a shiny, new wide road to connect Islamabad to Haripur by shaving off 10 to 15 minutes off the existing road? Is that what their cost-benefit analysis justifies? Or will the real benefit come from the real estate bonanza this project will spin off?

These lop-sided priorities are not the only reason why Islamabad’s civil society has banded together, under the aegis of the Margalla Hills Society, led by the seasoned campaigner, former civil servant, Roedad Khan.

Members of the Islamabad civil society protesting against the tunnel project. -Photo courtesy of Kuch Khas.

Members of the Islamabad civil society protesting against the tunnel project. -Photo courtesy of Kuch Khas.

Luckily for them, they have found another champion for their cause in Senator Mushahid Hussain, who had moved an adjournment motion in the Senate, and highlighted the illegality of the intent in a forceful enough manner that made the Supreme Court take a suo moto notice.

The Supreme Court has also put on notice CDA, NHA, Cabinet Division and the provincial governments of Punjab and KPK, though this project had to have the buy in from the Planning Commission, ECNEC and the Environment Protection Agency.

What is extremely interesting is that this is proving to be quite a cloak and dagger game, with authorities publicly denying that any such project is in the offing and Roedad Khan adamant that those in the know have assured him that it is going ahead.

Former bureaucrat, Roedad Khan addressing the protestors. -Photo courtesy of Kuch Khas.

Former bureaucrat, Roedad Khan addressing the protestors. -Photo courtesy of Kuch Khas.


Now that the matter is before the Supreme Court hopefully it will become clearer. What also needs to be made clear is why this tunnel is such a bad idea.

The environmentalists think it is a bad idea, and rightly so. The area Margalla Hills (12605 hectares) the Rawal Lake, andShakarparian Sports and Cultural complex was declared as a National Park in 1980.

This is one of the 29 National Parks in Pakistan, which fall under the category of Protected Areas. As of 2012, 22 of these are under supervision of respective provincial governments and remaining are in private care. Legislation giving them this status enshrines in itself the intent to conserve the flora, fauna and biodiversity in its natural state.

However, they can be made accessible to the public for recreation, education and research. The latter has been more than taken care of through access roads into the Park. It is the former, the natural assets that stand threatened by development, in a manner that can be described as unsustainable.

A member of the Steering Committee formed by the concerned citizens, with the assistance of the Margalla Hills Society, Bilal Haq said:


Ostensibly the reason of the tunnel is to reduce travel time from Haripur to Islamabad so as to facilitate the people of that area. This can be done by making the existing road infrastructure better, making it signal free. An arrangement like this would reduce only 15-20 minutes from a total of about an hours travel time compared to a direct tunnel.

This incremental improvement is not worth destroying the natural Margalla habitat. And if the proposed tunnel is part of a corridor to connect Rawat then it will have to be close or on the existing residential areas of Islamabad (F-6/F-7). However, if the intent is to get the value of the already acquired real estate near and on the Margallas then this purpose will be served by the tunnel.”

Dr. Farrukh Chishty, also a member of the Steering Committee cautioned that; “The proposed Margalla tunnel has the potential to cause significant and irreversible environmental damage. This includes loss of biodiversity, unmitigated air and water pollution due to crushing of rocks and emission of harmful gases from heavy machinery.


The risks of quarrying in a seismic zone should also be considered, as mining and quarrying blasts generate ground motion which resembles natural earthquakes – this could lead to unintended consequences as Islamabad is on five major fault lines. Further, a great amount of resources, including water and fuel will be spent on creating this tunnel, which ultimately will benefit only a few in the short term and harm all in the now and the future.

Their call to attention is now attracting the notice of the authorities, who can sense a fight on their hands, and by the Islamabad civil society, which will have to come up and show that a segment of the society is willing to own this city as its own! There have been protest meetings and walks at the park to raise the issue, and the above mentioned Steering Committee is a result of these collective efforts.

Members of the Islamabad civil society protesting against the tunnel project. -Photo courtesy of Kuch Khas.

Members of the Islamabad civil society protesting against the tunnel project. -Photo courtesy of Kuch Khas.

Dr. Jawad Chishty, of Subh e Nau, an organisation that has been in the forefront of environment, and a member of the Steering Committee puts forward many arguments against this tunnel project:

He says the first argument is moral. This is a protected piece of land that the Government itself set aside for conservation. Do we want to allow the rape of this pristine land for profits that line a few pockets? Whatever the economic argument for it, the ethical/moral argument is the strongest. It is based on health, social, environmental and countless other impacts. There is no way to size up nature, and therefore, it is not possible to humanly calculate the costs of this project.

The second is on the basis of environmental, social and health impacts. Pollution of all types, air, water, land and noise is going to increase and cause irreparable damage to the health of the populations on both sides of the tunnel.

The area is meant for conservation, and Monal, La Montana, street lights and rabid commercialisation have and are seriously damaging the eco-system of the area. The Rawal Lake area has been destroyed in the name of the Lake View Park.

The Biodiversity argument is also extremely important. The MHNP is a sanctuary for wildlife and plants, including birds and animals such as the grey goral, the barking deer and the leopard, many of which are becoming extinct, or are threatened.

Many do not know that Islamabad is a wild bird sanctuary, and many migratory birds from different regions of the world stay here. This is mainly because of the MHNP. Poor air quality because of the transportation and road building has reduced these populations. Implementation of planned mass transit schemes are the need for Islamabad, not a tunnel that brings in unimaginable and unaccountable damage for decades to come.

Dr. Chishty is a strong advocate of the ‘precautionary principle’ of not undertaking any step that can threaten the environment as it directly or indirectly hurts our health and interests. If people want to make money there is always the option of developing eco-tourism, but then of course, the monetary windfall will not be comparable.

So, while the ‘stakeholders’ trudge off to the court to explain the pros and cons of this project, or even the fact whether it is a figment of the imagination or a clear and present danger, there is a need for the civil society to act as a watchdog to safeguard this national, natural asset.