Islamabad, a capital in search of its identity

The Pakistani capital continues to grow with no clear direction or identity.

Last Updated: Jul 22, 2010, 13:19 PM IST

Islamabad: Fifty years after its founding, Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan, has established itself as a modern city, but it continues to grow with no clear direction or identity, away from realities of the country and vulnerable to its problems.

Designed in 1960 by Greek architect Constantinos Dioxadis, Islamabad, or "the place where Islam lives", was founded at a strategically secure zone with a pleasant climate, surrounded by lakes and hills not far from the Himalayas.

Since then, the city has developed into a centre of frantic political and diplomatic activities, though it remains deprived of any form of cultural life and economic boom.

According to critics, the city, which was carved out to avoid local disputes over the status of capital, is nothing more than an invisible "shield", isolated from the rest of the country, having nothing in common with other neighbouring cities.

"In terms of living standard it is perhaps one of the best places in this part of Asia and of Pakistan. It is organised, with many green zones, services, little pollution, but it still lacks an identity of its own," said Humayun Khan, a political analyst.

According to Khan, there are not many people who can be said to be from Islamabad, which is a destination of temporary visits and a meeting point of workers of different ethnicities from all parts of the country, something which is "evident when there are national festivals, as the city gets totally empty".

The demographic boom of the Pakistani capital has been quite recent, and it was only at the beginning of the 80`s that the number of inhabitants of the urban area exceeded that of the rural zones of this town of 906 square kilometres.

The annual population growth rate has been more than five percent, double the country`s average, as the population of the city has increased from 340,000 to over 800,000 in 1998 (according to the last census), while some estimates show that the current population could be a million and a half.

"I remember that 10-15 years back, it was quite a little `village`. Now there is a lot of construction going on, a lot of trees are being cut down," Sabeen Zafar, a resident of Islamabad, said.

According to experts, this tendency of dizzying and unorganised population growth is the root cause of the problems of the city which was once well planned and organised, with properly named sectors and sub-sectors with their respective commercial areas and parks.

"The city will soon - in near future - face serious problems of water shortage and traffic congestion, unless metro is constructed or some other alternatives are found," said Shabbir Malik, an engineer who has worked on several urban development projects.

Architect Naeem Pasha expressed a similar opinion and reminded that private construction has changed the original plan, while the city is suffering massive constructions in the outskirts, partly due to the high cost of plots in urban locations.

If there is something that characterizes Islamabad, where the literacy rate (72 percent) is 30 percent higher than the national rate, it is its emergence as a dense congregation of rich and affluent people with a few concentrations of slums.

The monthly house rents, usually buildings with gardens and terraces for nuclear families, are generally much more than the annual per capita income of the country.

Even public transport doesn`t have much to offer, partly because the main symbol of mobility in South Asia, the "auto rickshaw", is forbidden to enter the city.

There are cars used as taxis, but the smallest ones - the Suzuki Mehrans of yellow colour - cannot access the so-called "red zone", an enclave which is increasingly being fortified as the government buildings.

This is where the foreign embassies are also concentrated, protected by intense security measures to confront the terrorist attacks that Pakistan suffers and against which its capital "bubble" has not yet managed to immunise itself.

IANS