Islamabad's 50 Years: A Downward Spiral in Urban Planning

Islamabad is celebrating its golden jubilee this year. General Ayub Khan, who overthrew a democratic government and imposed the first martial law in 1958, decided in 1960 to move capital from Karachi to a rugged and hilly area north of Rawalpindi. Pakistani military headquarters were in Rawalpindi and Karachi -- the first capital of Pakistan as chosen by its democratic founders -- was 1,000 miles away from his power base.

The move was political and to this day some people have not adjusted well with this development. They say that the Pakistani military and political leadership has always come from the Punjab and Ayub himself was of a mixed Punjabi-Pashtun lineage; his home village is just 20 miles north of present-day Islamabad. Perhaps he feared that another army general would stage a coup d'etat while he was busy in governmental affairs in Karachi. Critics also say that Ayub did not want Karachi as the capital because Punjabis were a minority and the city was teeming with immigrants from India. These immigrants, known as Mohajirs, were better educated and thus dominated the bureaucracy of federal government.

Supporters of the move cite the proximity of Karachi to India and its vulnerability in case of a war with the arch-rival. They also cite the beautiful setting of Islamabad and its urban planning that was not possible in the century-old mishmash that was Karachi. Whatsoever maybe the geopolitical reason of the move, the capital was moved to Islamabad in 1960. Rawalpindi served as the interim capital during the 1960s while Islamabad was being built at a slow pace. It was the first Pakistani city with a master plan that was designed by the Greek firm of Constantinos A. Doxiadis.

While the city officials implemented the master plan in the start, they sidestepped one of the major strategies of building overpasses and interchanges. The original master plan envisaged an underpass/overpass at every road intersection, none was constructed by the city authorities until very recently. The famous Greek architect had envisioned Islamabad as a car-friendly city and subsequent changes to this plan also continued with this assumption. They forgot that majority of Islamabad's population was and still is of lower rank government officials and their families that were/are entirely dependent on public transport. The lack of mass transit has resulted in a total mess on roads. There are a few private buses and mini vans but they are unable to bear the burden of hundreds of thousands of commuters. One can see long queues of commuters at bus stops during morning and evening rush hours.

As if the lack of mass transit was not enough, there is an even bigger issue of water scarcity. Capital Development Authority (CDA), the all powerful civic agency of Islamabad, has made many plans but none of them has been implemented. It has never been strapped of cash but that money is generally spent on beautifying the posh sectors and building useless freeways. There was a boom in road construction during the period of 2003-2008 and billions of Rupees were spent on them. Result: more bottlenecks and empty freeways as public transport can't use them and there are not that many cars in Islamabad. The same amount could have been used in building a mass transit system or building small dams to improve water supplies. Thousands of trees were also cut during this process and this has robbed Islamabad of its essential oxygen supply and environmental cover.

Islamabad is running out of water and many residential neighborhoods now rely on water supply through tankers; they charge exorbitant rates for this job that is actually the responsibility of civic authorities. Many have dug wells in their homes -- albeit illegally -- to meet the shrinking water supplies; they have also constructed additional rooms and garages on government land. Even people living in government quarters have violated building bylaws as there is practically no implementation and no authority.

While the civic infrastructure is in shambles and Islamabad is slowly turning into just-another-third-world-city, CDA has coined a new phrase: Islamabad, the beautiful. One can see dozens of hoardings and banners displaying this catchphrase and advertisements being published in newspapers. Advertising certainly works big, canceling out the negative vibes and concealing ground realities. People from other cities of Pakistan get a shock of their lives when they visit Islamabad and cannot even find a public bus to move around. Most of them ultimately head out to the nearby hill resort of Murree as they find it near impossible to pay stupendously high taxi fares and mind boggling hotel rates. There is lack of entertainment features too. Islamabad is perhaps the only capital in the world with no cinema, no theater and no amusement park; even the post-Taliban has got many cinemas but there are none

City managers remain unavailable for comment and rightly so. A retired CDA director, who took part in the establishment of Islamabad during the 1960s, told me that CDA officials are least interested in the development of Islamabad. The authority is under the control of the state department, which in itself is quite a unique distinction of Islamabad, and every orders come straight down from the federal minister who often does not even have any knowledge of the key facts about Islamabad. There is no elected civic body in Islamabad and the centralized control has resulted in a total mess, he said.

Perhaps the only saving grace of Islamabad are the residential areas of the high and mighty. One would find carpeted roads, 'functioning' sewerage systems and adequate supply of water. The third world trend of urban/class segregation is working fine for Islamabad. There are two worlds: one for the 'it' crowd and the other for the masses.

Cities evolve and face countless problems but the lack of urban planning spoils everything. Islamabad, once known as the city that was "10 miles outside of Pakistan" due to its superb urban planning, is now a living example of political maneuvering and bureaucratic red-tape. A city of over one million people can't be run by a few government officials. It needs an elected body and representation of its inhabitants. Otherwise, Islamabad will become another rundown and forgotten city of the developing world.