Excerpts from my article on Peshawar which appears in the special Pakistan issue of Critical Muslim.
In Peshawar no one walks as a potential victim. It must be part of human nature to never imagine oneself in the day’s plane crash or car wreck. Death always seems escapable; not so the burden of existence. The astronomical rise in the cost of living is putting a visible strain on most people. Inflation has remained in double-digits since 2008, second only to Vietnam in Asia. Prices of some commodities are comparable to those in Britain. Bananas are cheaper at Sainsbury’s in London.
The free flow of dollars in Afghanistan has created a further distortion, raising prices and emptying markets of commodities which are flowing freely across the border. Smuggling is rife. According to Sayad Waqar Husain of the Institute of Management Sciences, with 141 transit points along the Durand Line, and with dysfunctional customs regulation, there are now 133 illegal markets in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) alone where trade in non-custom paid goods is booming. Property prices have also risen and rents are high. Real estate prices amplified by inflation are making people invest in the only commodity which is likely to keep its price. With an exploding population, accommodation is always scarce and buyers always at hand.
Although Pakistan’s cumulative birth rate has declined in recent years, the fertility rate in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is still the country’s highest. In 1809, when the first British envoy to Kabul Monstuart Elphinstone visited the city, it had a population of about 100,000. Following the Sikh conquest in 1832, the number fell to 80,000, dwindling further to 63,079 by 1891. After independence, however, the population began to increase steadily reaching 109,715 in 1951, and 166,273 by 1961. But by 2010, the number had shot up to 3,625,000. This figure very likely excludes the large number of unregistered Afghan refugees who at one time numbered in the millions. All of this places an enormous strain on the city’s resources. Water, which had always been abundant, is now scarce. The city’s sanitation system is overwhelmed—it is impossible to escape the vague odour of raw sewage in most parts of the city. Where oncePeshawar dazzled visitors with its verdure, today it is permanently covered under a coat of dust; the varieties of flowers which were eulogized by everyone from Babar to Elphinstone have today receded into private enclosures.