Experts from the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) discuss the meaning of the term "rule...
Trashing Social Divides in Pakistan
I wanted to get off the phone as soon as possible when Zar Aunty told me she started an environmentalist organization, called The Environmental Protection Foundation, to get kids to pick up trash and plant trees in Lahore. "Zar Aunty, we are interested in peace and tolerance. I'm not sure how this fits."
Since returning to Pakistan three months ago, I've discovered the most interesting links between social activism and peace in Pakistan. Pakistanis in every sector are leveraging their skills, energy, and resources to create positive social change across the country. But some of the most relevant work is the least obvious.
Street sweeping, it turns out, has traditionally been the job of Christians in Lahore. Street sweepers, or chuhras, were almost all once Hindu "untouchables" who converted to Christianity in the late 19th century to escape the oppressive caste system. But since the creation of Pakistan, notions of the "uncleanliness" of minorities have ensured that the job of street sweeping would be reserved for non-Muslims. Government hiring ads sometimes state that street sweepers must be non-Muslims or specify that they must be Christian. Blasphemy cases have actually started with a Christian using and thereby "polluting" drinking water (as in the case of Asia Bibi, the Pakistani Christian woman convicted of blasphemy ) or cooking oil that was to be used by Muslims.
Colorful litter has become part of the landscape in Pakistan. Cities, villages, pristine valleys, historic sites – litter is everywhere. And Christians are not the only ones cleaning up Pakistan's streets. Trash-picking has become the job for the poorest of the poor – often the children of Afghan refugees who cannot work legally in Pakistan. In this way, the most marginalized of Pakistan's population clean up after everyone else who litters liberally.
Pakistan has been branded internationally for terrorism, extremism, and instability, but most outside observers are oblivious to the class divisions that underlie Pakistan's quandary. Pakistan has a lot of problems, but they do not bother everyone equally. Pakistan's upper classes prove that almost any social problem can be solved with money or power. No electricity? Get a generator. No quality public education? Go to an elite private school. No clean water? Buy bottled. No security? Hire private armed guards.
The socio-economic system becomes one of entitlement and impunity at the top, and disenfranchisement for the rest. Those at the top can circumvent the symptoms of state failure, and therefore have little incentive to compromise their comfort to address mass social problems that can be rendered invisible. The state is also biased in its provision of public resources. Electricity cuts are less frequent in elite neighborhoods and the capital, Islamabad. Meanwhile, slums, villages, and Christian areas hardly ever have electricity. The police are disproportionately deployed to elite areas. As a result, scarce resources, public goods, and human rights are reserved for those who can afford them, or who society and the state deem deserving. People are willing to do anything to get a piece of the "pie" – lie, kill, cheat, smuggle, terrorize – except work together to make it bigger.
Pakistanis give enormous amounts in charity and volunteer time, but there is little cognizance of how individual, daily decisions shape shared space or undermine collective goals. Unless Pakistanis work together and adopt more socially conscious habits, no amount of international assistance or pressure on the government of Pakistan can save the country.
By asking rich and poor children to work together to clean up the streets, neglected neighborhoods, and even Hindu temples, The Environmental Protection Foundation sends a strong message to the next generation: Pakistan's problems are everyone's problems. Everyone must shed their biases to work together for the collective good. For most young, upper class Pakistanis, it may be the first time they encounter a contemporary of a lower class, not as a servant, but as an equal citizen with similar thoughts, feelings, and rights – including the same right to a clean, functioning state, and same capabilities to make it happen.
Treaties may be signed in fancy hotels, but peace will not come to Pakistan at the Serena. It will come when Pakistanis decide to take responsibility for the collective mess they have created, and pick up the trash.
—By Nadia Naviwala.
Nadia Naviwala is the country representative for the U.S. Institute of Peace. Her family is from Karachi, Pakistan.
This article originally appeared on USIP.org on May 25, 2012.