By Wajeeha Amir
When one hears anything negative about “Peshawar” these days, the first thing that might come to mind is the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) project. Previously, it would have been terrorism.The unanimous verdict is that BRT is a mess. There is debate over whether the city even needed it. There is an opinion, especially shared by car owners, that widening of roads was the best option to ease the traffic flow, and this is still seen as a symbol of development. Others believe BRT would help the poor, but there is concern over the bus fares being costlier than the existing transport arrangements. There are also apprehensions over the design itself. On visiting the area of Saddar, the massive BRT overhead structure appears to be crashing over the bustling roads. Earlier, a piece of concrete actually broke off from the structure.
The provincial government spent precious resources beautifying the city through planting trees and building infrastructure only to be supplanted by a concrete monstrosity in the middle of the multi lane road. This has narrowed the lanes for traffic and has given rise to traffic jams – an enduring legacy of this project. The idea of creating a bicycle track along the entire corridor, a welcome initiative, now seems unlikely, given the crammed space.
For women in Peshawar, mobility remains a major issue. Few women are seen outside, and that too on the backseats of the vehicles, avoiding prying eyes on the street. More of them are seen flocking in the small bazaars in the heart of Saddar, but seldom on the main roads. Once when I asked my father to take me to the walled city, I was told that “it is not a place for women”. There is noticeable class disparity in the city that defines the experiences and opportunities for women. It is not uncommon to see women belonging to wealthier families roaming about the posh branded shops in the town locality.
Overall, the city lacks a vibrant public life. There are very few public parks – existing ones being poorly maintained and overly crowded. There are hardly any public libraries, or spaces for creative activities. The community in Peshawar, though closely-knit; has seldom channelled these community ties for development of the city. The people of Peshawar are emotionally attached to it, but this love rarely translates into civic responsibility.
The town side of the city gives a good glance into the evolving business culture of the city. This area has seen massive development recently and has limited space to expand further. The trend is moving to establishment of high street brands and cafes closer to Hayatabad. These may seem modern, but are in fact quite shallow, benefiting the select elite of the city who own these properties and franchises. Apart from these, the employment and business opportunities in the city are scarce. The city is underdeveloped in terms of having a thriving business culture. For young students and graduates, finding an internship or job in Peshawar often proves to be a daunting challenge.
The older end of the city, housing the great remnants of ancient civilizations, gives a glimpse of Peshawar’s great history. Having lived all my life in Peshawar, I was shocked to discover only recently that it is one of the oldest living cities in the world. This is because our heritage has not been cherished and is rotting away in front of our eyes. A few of the historical structures, like the Sethi House and Bala Hissar fort, are somewhat maintained, but accessibility is an issue; Sethi house is located in the walled city, where women cannot comfortably travel, and the Bala Hissar fort houses the Frontier Constabulary Headquarters. Besides that, the ancient gates and other undocumented buildings of the walled city are deteriorating every day. Our history is unbelievably rich, from the Chowk Yadgaar to Gor Ghatri; however, there have been no concerted efforts to maintain and document these, let alone capitalizing on them as sites for learning history, tourist attractions, and revenue generation.
Despite a painful recent history, peace has returned to Peshawar. The city, however, seems to be stuck in a limbo between the old and new times. The capitalist culture is penetrating it in a fragmentary manner, as international franchises are coming up and an increasing number of people vying for opportunities and mobility. The youth of the city seems promising – young people are increasingly going out of city for education and work, while some are starting new businesses in the city. Better organization will, indeed, help them flourish. The National Incubation Centre Peshawar, for instance, was recently established to cater to the growing entrepreneurial aspirations of the people. But overall, there is a lingering preference for the old, small-town lifestyle. Peshawar does not seem to want to participate in the capitalistic rat race, seeking comfort in its old traditions. It has an immense potential to develop itself into a modern 21st century city, by capitalizing on its revered cultural and history, rather than letting them go.
Wajeeha Amir is a rising senior at LUMS, studying political science and public administration. She has a keen interest in urban planning and wishes to play her part in bringing meaningful change to her hometown.