Cities have their own personalities and its dwellers, those who live in them, grow in them and with them, inherit their distinctly characteristic personality traits. No city is like another. City planners who try to integrate two cities end up giving a confused aura to the place. The city becomes something new, an ugly mesh that is beyond recognition. There is chaos. The city becomes a tragedy.
Islamabad had a personality not very long ago. There was a charm to its soothing silence. The city had beautiful roads that snaked within its precincts in organized and predictable lines. The direction boards made perfect sense and made losing one’s way impossible. The traffic signals always worked, the lights respected even without the watchful eye of reflective-striped police officers. The beautiful Margalla road, the spine of the city, allowed one to drive from one corner of the city to the other in less than 15 minutes, that too after accounting for traffic signals. Accidents were rare amidst sparse traffic. The drivers were mostly in good moods. They smiled as they gave you way in intersections and often waited patiently if your car stopped en-route to a green light. Horns were rarely punched and in most cases, the flashing beams did the car’s talking. There was always ample space between cars. The green in the green belts was the sort of colour that calmed the nerves. The drives were an indulgence, complemented best by a befitting choice of jazz or opera on the radio. The air was sweet. This was Islamabad once upon a time.
It has all but changed now.
Let’s start with the people; always in a hurry, are exhausted or aggressive. Horns have become the part-and-parcel of driving. Roads have grown congested and narrower, the traffic heavier and stubborn. Traffic wardens are often found directing traffic as the street lights above them stare blankly at the flood of cars. In the rush hours, where there is actual ‘rush’, one often comes across angry drivers fighting over their cars kissing each other’s bumpers. The sight of long queues on petrol stations is a common sight. The larger roads are bumpy and uninviting. Margalla road now allows one to maneuver two sectors in 15 minutes. And then, there are the diversions; the many, many diversions.
It will be presumptious to blame all of this on the debacle that is the metro-bus project of Rawalpindi and Islamabad. Furthermore, it would be naïve to credit all of the loss of temper and patience of the populace of Islamabad on their re-routing to suffocating side lanes or circuitous alternatives. Nevertheless, can it be absolved of blame? Hardly.
The project has affected the lives of the people of this city. It is a favorite topic on round table wedding seating, and is a conversation of interest for the pious after the Jummah congregations. The dialogue protocol of most of these discussions is as follows: there is a mention of meetings and opportunities missed and delays encountered due to Metro diversions which is followed by the distasteful mention of the civilian ‘Shareefs’ and finally ends with an exasperated conclusion on the futility of the project.
Some opinion that the Metro could have better served its cause had it been built on the “Islamabad Expressway” which connects the towns and societies of a large proportion of employees who flood it every morning and evening with their personal cars. Others argue that Islamabad, a small city with its small population, did not need a Metro system in the first place. Then there are those, the majority, who protest that this was not the right time to invest in an inter-city transport system. All arguments however, highlight a basic understanding amongst those most affected: our leaders have their priorities wrong.
Newspapers report that 83 escalators and ‘as many’ elevators are being installed in all of its 24 hour bus stops. This statement begs to be put into the context of the country’s economic, political and social dynamics. According to the State Bank, as of September of this year, the country is inordinately under the debt of $64,385 million. The country is energy famished with its natural resources already depleted to dangerously low levels. It is yet to fully implement its promises on Article 25-A of the constitution. It has missed all of its Millennium Development Goal pledges by a shameful gap. Rising inflation has decreased the real wages of the majority, pushing many silently under the poverty line. Almost 300 cases of polio have been reported this year alone, while the world at large celebrates the disease’s extinction from their countries. Terrorism is widespread and freedom is almost a distant dream.
Can all of the aforementioned be juxtaposed as the opportunity cost to the project? No, but it would have helped their cause if the money used to make a futile bus system would have been spent elsewhere.
As for Islamabad, it has been lost to this misadventure and nothing will bring it back to its former glory. The older population finds it beyond recognition and the younger finds it laborious and confounding. The city has changed for the worst and at this time, to those who were its dedicated admirers, it is Islamabad no more. Its new personality deserves a new name. I will suggest the name ‘Diversion-abad’ to the authorities that be.

 The writer is working as a health economist in a think-tank based in Islamabad.