Remember the well known jocular question: How many bureaucrats does it take to change a light bulb? I was starkly reminded of this as I passed a group of eight sturdy CDA employees developing a single flowerbed at the 7th Avenue and Kashmir Highway intersection in Islamabad. Two men were tentatively picking at the ground with digging tools, two more were standing in the supervisory role, while the remaining four were in various stages of a one-legged existence. I looked up at the heavens, raised my arms in abject disdain and muttered, “eight men to dig one measly flowerbed!”

The sight of this group reminded me of another ‘flowerbed’ in the historic Spanish city of Granada, a long time ago. As I sat down for my coffee outside the Moroccan café in the main square, I spotted two white-haired individuals in dusty overalls engrossed in preparing flowerbeds that covered an area almost a hundred times larger than the one that inspired this column. Later, walking down the hill from the Alhambra, after almost three hours of ruminating on why and how had Muslims lost an empire after almost 800 years of conquest and rule, I saw that the flowerbeds had not only been completed, but were also sporting a beautiful variety of colourful blooms, that must have been brought here in pots.

The other day, I saw a string of CDA men with portable verge cutters, trying to mow an island on Jinnah Avenue. What bothered me was the fact that these machines were not meant to mow rough tracts of grass and weeds. What irked me even more was the sight of an equal number of men in green sleeveless CDA jackets, who just stood around as supervisors or for some other nondescript purpose - doing nothing!

I was once at the customer end of getting a major HVAC System installed in a large building within the federal capital. When the container truck arrived at the premises, I stood to one side as a cacophony of sound broke out with everyone standing around the vehicle and gesticulating and loudly voicing advice, instructions and God knows what else. It took almost an hour to get the heavy system out and onto rollers, so that it could be taken down the ramp and into the huge basement. An hour later, I returned to find the men and their supervisors taking their post lunch siesta without the system having moved a foot. A tongue-lashing and threats finally got them moving with their vocal chords moving even faster. Four hours later, the system had not entered the basement and half the men had disappeared from the scene.

The year was 1997 and I was in Riyadh on a business trip. Needing to meet a concerned official, I asked my driver to take me to the Pakistani Embassy. As we drove along, we found the road ahead blocked with heavy construction machinery and boards indicating that we were to use a diversion. We went down an embankment, onto a diversion and up again, across what appeared to be a dry watercourse. Three hours and a sumptuous meal later, I asked the driver if he had taken an alternate route since we had not crossed the construction site. His reply amazed me, for the dry watercourse had been spanned with a pre-fabricated bridge using cranes and other heavy machinery and we had crossed it without realising that this had been a diversion just a few hours ago. I later came to know that this marvel had been accomplished by Pakistani labour working under European supervisors.

In a show of how nations become great, I once saw a demonstration by a South African Company, which had brought in some high-end technology for sale to interested Pakistani clients. The South Africans chose one of the hottest regions of the country to demonstrate the viability of their product in our climatic conditions. I and other would be buyers, watched as a team of four mechanics began assembling the large-sized machine, without a word being spoken or an action wasted. Working like automatons, these men had the system up and running in an unbelievable time of under an hour.

These and other similar encounters have often led me to ask myself: Why is it that we need eight men, when two can do the job satisfactorily? Why is it that we cannot accomplish a task without exercising our vocal chords to their limit? Why is it that we shirk sustained honest labour, when we can accomplish miracles away from home? Why indeed?

The writer is a freelance columnist.