So You Think You Know Pakistan?

May 24, 2010

Despite its current political turmoil, Pakistan today is better than it was 20 years ago. Farid Ahmad defies the pessimists and tells us why.


Sitting in the middle of load-shedding, watching the political theatre roll on ad infinitum, and reading the news of another security incident somewhere, it is easy to be depressed about Pakistan these days.

Depression, however, is parasitic.

It jumps from person to person and grows in strength unless treated. It makes you weak and vulnerable – and sometimes it is necessary to break the circle. Yes, Pakistan is going through very tough times, but there is no reason to throw all hope to the wind and to start denying the things that are going right – and a lot has gone right in the past 20 or so years.


independence day, pakistan

Pakistan Independence Day

First, the necessary disclaimer: The intention here is not to sweep Pakistan’s problems under the rug or to try and rationalise away the immense suffering of the victims of recent violence and economic turmoil. There is no doubt that things have taken a very serious turn in recent months and millions of people are paying a heavy price every day.

With that disclaimer in place, here’s a collection of things that I have seen change for the better in my life in Pakistan – from high-school in the ‘80s to today.

It is necessarily a very personal list, though others might be able to relate to some of it. Travelling apart, I’ve spent my life living in Islamabad and Lahore and my memories are naturally specific to these places. So again, I’m fully conscious of the fact that not everyone can relate to or agree with my attempt at optimism.

But even if I come across as being overly optimistic, it is only to counter those who are becoming unnecessarily pessimistic.



1989: Driving from Lahore to Islamabad was an ordeal on the mostly single-lane, badly maintained GT road.

2010: Driving from Lahore to Islamabad is a pleasure on the motorway. And it is not just this one road; a lot of roads have been added to the network or improved. I know people in my office in Islamabad who routinely drive to Karachi with their families. We need many more roads – but we have certainly not been sitting idle.



1989: Calling from Islamabad to Lahore meant going to the market to a PCO, telling the guy to book a 3-minute call and waiting around till it got connected. Even if you had an STD line at home, your fingers were likely to get sore from dialling before you got connected. And once the call was connected you watched the clock like a hawk as it was so expensive.

2010: Instant, cheap calls worldwide for everyone from cellular phones.



1995: I was first introduced to the wonders of e-mail in 1995. It was an offline “store and forward” system (remember those @sdnpk email addresses?). If you sent a mail in the morning, it reached in the evening when your e-mail provider called USA on a direct line to forward it.

2010: Broadband, DSL, WiMax, Dialup, Cable – instant connectivity for everyone. More generally, I’ve gone through a series of denials about the adoption of new technologies in Pakistan. I went through thinking that cellular phones would never gain widespread adoption – I was wrong; that internet would remain a niche – I was wrong; that broadband would never take off here – I was wrong; that Blackberry would never be adopted – I was wrong. Here I speak from some experience as I work for a cellular company and I’ve seen all these numbers grow exponentially. The fact is that Pakistan and Pakistanis love technology and are eager to adopt and adapt the latest technologies as soon as they become available. With its huge population, this creates a large market for every new technology in Pakistan and businesses rush in to fill it. This bodes well for the future.



1986: When I finished high school, career choices were limited. You could either be a doctor or an engineer – or you could join the army or the civil service. And once you’d decided to be, say, an engineer, choices were limited to practically one or two government universities in your region. MBA was still a somewhat rare phenomenon and there was only one well known business school – IBA in Karachi.

2010: As my kids move towards high school, there are many more choices, and tons of good schools to pick from. LUMS, GIKI, IBA, Bahria University, Air University, NUST (which has grown much bigger since those days) and many more. In a country that gets a beating for its lack of focus on education, we have made tangible progress – even though there is much more to do.



1986: There were few decent bookstores in Islamabad and Lahore (Feroze Sons in Lahore being an exception of course, and there were the old-book shops in Islamabad). Finding books – even prescribed books for professional education – was hard. I remember many a trip to Anarkali during my UET days looking for the latest edition of that one book that would always be short

2010: Lots of good, large stores well-stocked with books on every imaginable subject. And even Amazon delivers books in Pakistan in case you cannot find them locally. In my observation, this is linked to the last point. Education/reading has grown in importance and there is a greater demand for books than before.


Foreign Currency Regulation:

1992: Paying in dollars for exams like GMAT or GRE involved going to the State Bank and filling out forms – and talking your way around unhelpful clerks

2010: Better regulations, credit cards and foreign exchange dealers mean you can make such payments instantly. In general, financial regulations since the early nineties have been more or less consistent. While each successive government likes to blame the last one for all ills – they all end up making similar policies anyway: privatisation, deregulation, increasing the tax base, etc. Implementation has been uneven and there have been setbacks, but the general direction has been towards opening up of the markets – which has resulted in many of the other changes listed here.