Pains of Peshawar

Sustaining the impact of counterterrorism initiatives will be the real test of the civilian administration and police

Mohammad Ali Babakhel July 02, 2015
The writer is a senior police officer posted to Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa

In the post-9/11 scenario, escalated terrorism and its psychological consequences have become the common characteristics of a host of places, ranging from Peshawar and Kabul to Baghdad. Popular songs like Pa Pekhawar Key Parhar Ma Jorawa/Da Kabul Parhar Jor Shawe Na De (Don’t hurt Peshawar because the wound of Kabul still bleeds) elucidate a tale of dejection and grief.

Prior to 9/11, Peshawar had gone through colossal changes as a result of the Soviet-Afghan war. An influx of refugees led to the emergence of slums with the city extending decades’ long hospitality to displaced people. Badhabher, Munda, Kababian, Khazana and Mera Kachuri camps housed 450,000 registered refugees. This demographic explosion badly affected Peshawar’s sociocultural fabric. In 2002, the city had 2.2 million inhabitants. The present estimated population stands at 4.5 million, indicating a growth rate of 3.5 per cent.

Peshawar, encircled by the Khyber and Mohmand agencies and Frontier Region Peshawar, has faced the brunt of terrorist incidents. Between 1979 and 2001, it witnessed 311 incidents of terrorism in which 252 civilians were killed. After 9/11, Peshawar emerged as one of the worst-hit cities, with 732 incidents of terrorism resulting in the deaths of 1,451 persons and injuring 3,384. With 381 killings in 2009, Peshawar registered the highest number of casualties ever in a year.

Military operations in the adjacent tribal areas have resulted in another wave of internally displaced people entering Peshawar, comprising 72,385 families, including 56,360 and 6,812 from the Khyber and Kurram agencies respectively. This exodus is not only challenging the cultural values of the walled city, but also altering its demographic profile.

Coming to the madrassas in the city, there are 243 such establishments in Peshawar in which 32,329 students, including 2,744 foreigners, are enrolled. There are a total of 1,353 schools in Peshawar, including 573 for girls. In comparison, Mansehra has 2,384, Abbottabad 1,851 and Mardan has 1,779 schools. To reduce the gap between conventional schools and madrassas, a pilot integration programme should be initiated. Female literacy can be improved by establishing more schools for girls in the rural areas of the province.

Apart from the brutal impact of terrorism, another factor contributing significantly to the death toll of the city over the years are road accidents. The year 2014 saw 102 accidents in which 108 persons died. To reduce public inconvenience and improve the traffic flow in the city, a traffic warden system has been introduced recently. The Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (K-P) police intends to replicate it in Swat and Abbottabad. Outdated public transport is another pressing public concern. To facilitate the public, 100 new air-conditioned buses will be replacing old vehicles in the public transport system.

Peshawar, once known as a city of flowers, can now be called the city of rickshaws. Traffic congestion is a major issue. Merely increasing the number of traffic officials will not achieve anything. Rather, a collective effort is required by different stakeholders. In 2001, the daily traffic count was 115,789 vehicles. This has escalated to 353,490 vehicles. Presently, Peshawar has 40,000 rickshaws, 9,000 Qingqis, 5,700 buses, 9,369 wagons and 7,286 taxis. Pollution is another serious problem afflicting the city. The noise level ranges from 90 to 100 decibels, comfortably exceeding the limit of 85 decibels set by the World Health Organisation. Peshawar has 17 particles per million in the air on average. Rickshaws are the main source of noise pollution and a major cause of hearing impairment and hypertension among locals. Reduction in the number of rickshaws could ease the traffic congestion in the city considerably.

Gone are the days when the famous Karkhano market and the cantonment attracted a large number of shoppers. Limited recreational facilities have restricted Peshawariites to their homes. In the post-9/11 era, an attack on the lone five star hotel in the city, persistent attacks on the historic Qissa Khwani Bazaar, closure of Nishtar Hall and explosions in cinemas have badly affected social life although recently, cultural activities in the city have resumed after ages. In the absence of a healthy social life, the elite of Peshawar prefer visiting Islamabad while the common folk head to Sardaryab in Charsadda and the Kabul River, Nowshera.

The Peshawar airport is located in a densely populated area with its funnel area adjacent to Fata and FR. The airport was attacked in 2012. To beef up security, the government recently announced the construction of watch towers around the airport. A plan for a new airport is also being talked about that could facilitate the manpower working in the Middle East as 75 per cent of the flights originating from Peshawar are international ones.

Another neglected area has been of infrastructure development, which has not been commensurate with the influx of population. Housing needs of the city have remained largely ignored. In the absence of proper urban planning, the establishment of privately-owned colonies has also led to the mushrooming of slums. In this regard, a plan to build a Peshawar Model Town spread over 170,000 kanals could bring some relief.

The prevalence of qabza groups is another headache. These primarily take advantage of property disputes among claimants. Recently, the police identified 162 such groups and individuals and in a few instances, action was taken against such elements. Such groups also patronise criminals. To ensure action against such elements, a more coordinated effort between the revenue, municipal and police departments is needed.

Three recent pieces of security legislation, including the Restriction of Rented Buildings (Security) Act, 2014, the Hotels Restriction (Security) Act, 2014 and the Sensitive and Vulnerable Establishments and Places Act, 2015, aim at empowering the police but also place a barrier to extremists using physical space to achieve their nefarious designs. These legal instruments are contributing towards enhancing the security of the provincial capital. In addition, to employ technological security solutions, the Peshawar Safe City Project has been allocated Rs1.5 billion. The project will employ CCTV cameras, cellular and wireless technology, GPS and electronic maps. To improve technical surveillance through CCTV cameras, 2,000 points have been identified. The system will be capable of vehicular and facial recognition.

The outer-most points of Peshawar consist of 43 police posts, including 37 adjacent to the Mohmand and Khyber agencies, which are in a shabby state, with policemen being exposed to several threats. To improve fortification, an innovative initiative entitled the Security Crescent has been instituted at a cost of Rs200 million and 31 fortified posts will be constructed. This could be helpful in deterring the movement of militants, smugglers, criminals and kidnappers.

Operation Zarb-e-Azb, coupled with a better policing strategy, has brought substantial improvement in Peshawar’s peace index. During the last six months, there has been a 54 per cent reduction in incidents of terrorism and militancy. Sustaining the impact of counterterrorism initiatives will be the real test of the civilian administration and police.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 3rd,  2015.

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