Feuilleton – The Express Tribune


David Hume once said that the only reason the many and there have been so many had been so successfully controlled and governed by a few and there have been so few was opinion.

A Feuilleton was a supplement attached to the political portion of old French newspapers. It was designed so that one could tear it away and read it at leisure. It consisted of literature, gossip, criticism and, generally, anything of a non-political nature.

The late Professor Khwaja Masud, the much respected teacher, mathematician, philosopher, activist, progressive, and an intellectual, used to write a column titled ‘Feuilleton’ and every week readers across Pakistan, myself included, would be treated to an erudite, apolitical view.

Professor Masud’s column stands out for me as an example of a gifted teacher educating through opinion. Some may criticise my choice to take the name of Professor Sahib’s column. I can only hope to do him justice.

A headline in a recent newspaper informs that top officials of the Capital Development Authority (CDA) in Islamabad are “united in resolve to end encroachments.” While I’m glad to hear that there are still committees in Pakistan that can come to unanimous conclusions, I cannot but wonder how far this resolve will get them.

Remember, encroachments aren’t just someone setting up a shanty or a mechanic’s workshop along the side of the road. An encroachment occurs every time someone occupies and uses land in a manner that it was not originally intended for. In the category of encroachments, therefore, I also include schools in houses and offices in residential areas.

I do this because if these categories aren’t properly understood, anti-encroachment drives, like the one proposed by the CDA, are merely exercises in the abuse of power and seldom, if ever, succeed. I am reminded of a passage I came across earlier: “In reality, the bourgeoisie has only one method of solving the housing question after its fashion that is to say, of solving it in such a way that the solution continually reproduces the question anew.

This method is called ‘Haussmann’ . . . No matter how different the reasons may be, the result is always the same; the scandalous alleys and lanes disappear to the accompaniment of lavish self-praise from the bourgeoisie on account of this tremendous success, but they appear again immediately somewhere else.”

Georges-Eugène Haussmann was the French civic planner who was responsible for destroying Old Paris and building New Paris. He has been hired to do so by Napoleon III. Much of Haussmann’s ‘rebuilding’ involved tearing down the squalid tenements of ancient Paris the encroachments of the day. But to no success for nearly 140 years, people have known that simply knocking down an encroachment will not do anything about removing it.

It will just reappear somewhere else. Encroachments will always exist unless and until the “economic necessity which produced them in the first place” is not countered and provided for. But then, what a country this would be if city fathers actually read. What the CDA needs to be asking itself is why are the encroachments there in the first place? If there are shanties, then why have they not done anything about low-income housing?

If there are mechanics workshops along the side of the road and this is a sign for demanding workshops then why has not the CDA ensured that there are workshops available in the commercial areas it sets out? And not just for multinational oil companies, but the Authority must ask itself whether its policies encourage small businesses by providing them opportunities to ply their trade.

And if there are schools in residential areas, the CDA must also ask itself why it has failed to foresee the future demand for educational institutions in Islamabad. Where did it think the children of the city, especially the less privileged children, would go to study? At some levels, anti-encroachment drives are a sign of the elitism that drives the shape of our cities.

They are often carried out against the poor and the helpless, destroying sometimes the very means a man has to provide for his family. They are never against the systemic problems that cause encroachments in the first place.

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