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Whose country is this anyways? (Part II)

At the time, the Supreme Court was hearing a case regarding the construction of the Citizen Club.

The Club was meant to be an alternative to the oversubscribed and packed Islamabad Club.

Articles such as “Will there be a Citizen Club in F-9 Park” claimed that the citizens of the twin cities (those who were eligible for membership that is) were eagerly awaiting the opening of the club as it offered excellent facilities including:

an auditorium having 475 seats, three conference halls, two banquet halls, one party hall, a coffee shop, lounges, a lobby, 48 suites, swimming pools, fitness centres, three tennis courts, two squash courts, a gymnasium, library and some other facilities.

I have nothing against the operation of private ventures that offer facilities to paying customers. However, there seems to me something perversely wrong with taking public property, converting it into a members only institution and then financing its construction with the tax payer’s money!

Even in the best of times, justifying such extravagance is repugnant. In a country like Pakistan, where millions are homeless, poverty is increasing, inflation is on the rise and there is endless violence, allocating resources to create islands of elitism is shocking.

The Supreme Court in its judgement directed the CDA to halt the construction of a members only club and pursue a publicly accessible project instead. That was that, I had hoped.

I am writing Part II because our notoriously short memories ensure that history repeats itself.

National asset or a playground for the rich?

Recently, we have had the case of the Royal Palm Golf and Country Club, where a bankrupt Pakistan Railways, a state enterprise, has leased out its property in dubious circumstances to create another island for the rich and infamous to play. The writers at Café Pyala summed it up quite nicely:

I just have one question. How in a super-elite swanky golf club with only 2300 members (each of whom have shelled out millions to be a part of this privileged surrounding) in a country of 180 million plus (most of whom live either below or just above the poverty line, have no land to live on much less spend their non-existent leisure time on, and could not give a flying toss about golf), a “National Asset“?!?

I mean I know the definition of ‘national interest’ and ‘national assets’ has often been stretched beyond belief but this is just ridiculous!

The only form of poor governance and corruption that we seem to be interested in is the one that can be traced back to President Zardari. However, there are blatant examples of misappropriation of state resources right before us, which we seem to hesitate to condemn, as many amongst us either benefit from them or know someone who does.

Double standards and elitism

A newspaper noted that:

The issue of non-payment of rent raised by CDA was also highlighted. CDA claims that at the commencement of Islamabad Club, 244 acres of land was rented out as the parking area of the club at Rs0.672 million per annum. The authority claims that not only is the rent too meagre but the club refuses to pay it……..The committee also raised the issue of $15 charged by IGC as its monthly membership fee.

Municipal and cantonment boards do not think twice before seizing a poor man’s vegetable or fruit stall if they have not paid their vending license. Millions living in shantytowns in abject squalor across the country have still not received access to basic services such as clean water. However, for $15 a month, you can play a nice round of golf in lush green surroundings.

The Islamabad Club website notes that the club is spread over 346 acres. Of this 244 acres is rented out at an annual rate of Rs0.672 million. That works out to Rs2754 per acre per year. That in turn equates to Rs344 per kanal, per year, which in turn is equal to Rs172 per half-kanal per year.

Can the state offer such competitive rates to those millions of homeless Pakistanis who don’t happen to have “Federal Secretary”, “Minister”, “Brigadier”, “Ambassador”, “Inspector General” or “Justice” in front of their name state property at the same price?

If tomorrow the government announced that for Rs172 per year, it would offer common Pakistanis access to state property, can you imagine the headlines? We would all hear corruption, corruption and even more corruption! The outrage would be unanimous.

Given the precedent set above, not only should state property be offered at ridiculously low prices; when people refuse to pay the rent no actions should be taken either.

Mimicking the British sahibs

Clubs and military messes are a hangover from British Colonial rule. Both were set up to offer a playground for the colonial Brits, where they could keep the local population at an arm’s length. One would think that as a post-colonial state, we would give up the pretence of upholding a privileged elite at the state’s expense.

One has to have many lakhs or be in a position of influence to gain membership to such institutions. Both preconditions ensure that the overwhelming majority of Pakistanis will never see the inside of such places, unless they are the ones who trim the grass or hold the door open. People cough up so much money to such institutions, which in turn don’t even pay their rent.

Some are more equal than others

Billions are being spent on constructing parliamentary lodges and izzat enhancing protocol. Millions are being spent on sprucing up the natural beauty of the main boulevards of various cantonments and municipal authorities across the country, while at the same time, citizens living just off the very same roads receive contaminated “drinking water” every other day. If you happen to live in Rawalpindi, you can also witness the solemn procession of staff car after staff car, exiting just before sunset. Of course, millions are spent on those as well.

I have nothing against people spending their hard earned; post tax paid income on whatever, wherever they choose. However, is it justified to play the role of the privileged in surroundings paid for by the state-and then in those very surroundings, criticize the state for its failings?

As George Orwell said in Animal Farm: All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.

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