The Alive and Well in Pakistan project provides independent reporting from and about Pakistan, humanizing Pakistanis for a global audience and giving Pakistanis worldwide an honest, sympathetic portrayal of their situation in the contemporary world that goes beyond the headlines and cliches, in film, print and other media such as short videos, still photography, and audio.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Energy poverty: Pakistan’s real tragedy

I returned from Pakistan in November, raging: “If I didn’t have family there I would never go back. There are better places to spend thousands of dollars and a month of my life.”

The reason for my rage was electrical “load shedding”. After sundown, Lahore would go absolutely, completely dark. You could stand on your balcony in the middle of Cantonment, Garden Town, or Gulberg, unable to see or hear anything but the moon and the stars. The silence was eerie, almost ominous.

This was not due to any Pakistani Green movement or new kind of silent protest, but to the simple fact that the country had no electricity to provide its citizens.

WAPDA, the government-owned electricity provider, had not paid the independent producers (IPPs) that generate electricity. After extended negotiations, the IPPs had decided to turn off the power plants and leave citizens to fend for themselves.

The streets were lit not by street lights but by headlights - of cars, motorcycles, and trucks all lost in the vast sea of darkness, each afraid to stray far from the vehicle in front of it. On Main Boulevard and Jail Road, all you could see was an almost continuous sea of dim shades of white light.

Once the power switch is forced off, life becomes amazingly primitive. For me, life in Lahore became a constant struggle to find a light source at night and to stay cool during the day.

After a few days of stumbling and mismanagement, the infamous WAPDA came up with a master plan. The electricity was turned on at odd hours and off at even hours - all day, all night seven days a week .

“What can you say about a country that has no electricity and clean water?” I griped to a friend after returning to Chicago. I had made up my mind. I was hurt to see Pakistan make a 180-degree turn back toward the Dark Ages. Or perhaps, over the last few years, I had begun expecting more for Pakistan. And then, almost accidentally, I picked up Thomas Friedman’s new book Hot, Flat, and Crowded.

Friedman frames the issue in global terms. “The World Bank estimates that roughly 1.6 billion people - one out of every four people on the planet - don’t have regular access to an electricity grid,” he writes. “Every night is a blackout for 1.6 billion people.”

Friedman calls this phenomenon energy poverty and the people energy haves and have-nots. Many factors play into energy poverty, including inefficient utilities and the inability to raise funds for massive power generation and grid projects. In sub-Saharan Africa, 75 percent of households have no access to electricity.

All these facts and figures gave me little comfort. Friedman helped me understand the problem in a global way, but I was not satisfied. Pakistan can destroy another country with its nukes, but it can’t deliver the power its citizens need to keep the lights on. There is something very wrong with this equation.

Within two weeks in Lahore, I was shocked to notice that I had become accepting of the fact that electricity was no longer a utility but a rare commodity. I downloaded the “Flashlight” application on my iPhone and used it regularly. Basheer, the family servant, was glad that I no longer yelled for him every time the light went out.

Like me, the entire country had adapted. Car mechanics had figured out how to rig a conversion kit for compressed natural gas (CNG) onto a power generator. These kits are commonly used to convert cars to CNG, which is one fifth the cost of gasoline. Now, many were connecting generators to the gas pipes at home and generating electricity by burning gas - at least until SSGC, the gas company, comes up with its own master plan.

Pakistan’s energy and electricity problem is complex but, whatever its reasons, it’s a great tragedy. GDP growth in nations is closely tied to infrastructure investments and availability of electricity. Investments in Pakistan’s grid infrastructure today will pay dividends only a decade from now. With its limited resources and massive population, Pakistan must adjust its priorities or suffer the consequences in an ever-flattening world.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

What's in a name?

Hello everyone, and Happy New Year in advance. Fawad and I have started this blog as an efficient and enjoyable way to stay in touch, to address questions and suggestions that come up about Alive and Well in Pakistan the book, documentary film, and reporting project, and to share stories from and in the spirit of the project.

One thing on my mind lately is the project's title. Several people have challenged me about it, most recently in Chicago in early December, when a Pakistani man said that, to him, the title has a negative connotation, suggesting danger - along the lines of "Even though I went to Pakistan, I'm still alive and well."

My reply is that the title is intended to imply something that, to most Americans, is unexpectedly - even startlingly - positive. Many Pakistanis are quick to perceive slights and insults toward their country - so quick, I think, that often they take offense unnecessarily and unhelpfully. While those of us who know Pakistan well love the country with very good reason and despite its undeniable flaws, we all know that many, many people out there in America have a very, very negative impression of Pakistan. That impression needs to change, for everyone's sake. The book's title is directed first at those prospective readers - and mainstream Americans are the first people any Pakistani should hope will read the book.

Fawad and I find the title a conversation-starter. It seems so unlikely to many Americans that "one of us" could go to Pakistan and not only return alive and well, but want to go there again, that they're intrigued. And once a conversation has started, the potential exists for real communication, real dialogue, real respect, even real friendship. Such a conversation is a secondhand version of my own experience: I went to Pakistan, I met people there, I listened to and learned from them, I recorded my education in an affectionate book whose subtitle is "A Human Journey in a Dangerous Time". Not a dangerous place, mind you, a dangerous time.

So I urge Pakistanis not to read in the title any implication that's not there, but to see it as a tool for starting a conversation with well-meaning, but understandably cautious, mainstream Americans who should - and often do - want to learn more about Pakistan and Pakistanis.

A similar issue that's come up is the very occasional appearance of some rude words in the text, perhaps because one particular word appears a couple of times on the first page. Frankly, in nearly five years since the book was published, I've been asked about this exactly twice. If I had thought it might have kept anyone from reading the book, I might have rethought the opening scene - because of course I want people to read the book! But by the same token, I hope no one will find such words (again, used very sparingly, and always in dialogue, i.e. spoken not by me but by people I met) obstacles to reading and justly assessing the book as a whole.

Book publishing has changed since Norman Mailer was forced to change the many instances of a certain word to "fug" throughout his World War II novel, The Naked and the Dead. I don't know whether that change has been for better or for worse. I do know that such words are part of the language people - including Pakistanis - use out there in the world I travel in. I never use such words gratuitously. The opening scene of Alive and Well in Pakistan takes place on a PIA flight from London to Lahore, and the word in question is spoken by Pakistanis. My role in that scene is as an innocent bystander. Should I have whitewashed the scene? I don't think so. Indeed, as I say to open the scene and the book: "It was as if I was already in Pakistan."

Can anyone seriously argue that the only appropriate, or even the most effective, way to counter negative stereotypes about Pakistan is to write only positive things about it? I love Pakistan - warts and all. And I think it's important to show the warts. As my friend Zahyd Hamead replied to one of his students at the Islamic University in Islamabad, who asked him if I was "a good American": "There are 290 million Americans. Not all of them are like Bush. Now let me ask you something: There are one billion Muslims in the world. Can you tell me that they're all good?"