Convocation Address

Members of the Board of Governors of the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture, faculty members, ladies, gentlemen and students. First of all I would like to thank the Board of Governors for having invited me to deliver the Convocation Address. I consider this a great honour.

A convocation address is supposed to be inspirational for students, especially those who are graduating. However, there is always a danger that the address becomes so inspirational that it loses its relevance. Therefore, I will try to be conservative in what I say. Many of you will go on to doing exceptional things in your lives. However, most of you will practice your professions, lead fairly conventional lives and aspire to the luxuries that society can bestow upon you, and it is those who I primarily wish to address today.

It is a well established fact that societies that strive for building systems of equity and justice, develop and prosper. Those who do not- degenerate into a state of chaos, conflict, fragmentation and corruption. In history professionals and their institutions have played an important role in promoting justice and equity. Without their inputs modernism, its institutions, the concept of human rights and the European welfare state model could never have been created. Professional institutions in Pakistan, except for the institutions that represent journalists, the medical profession to some extent and more recently the bar associations, have not played any significant role. To promote justice and equity you, as individuals, can help in doing four important things. One, develop ethical principles that you can follow as individuals and promote for collective use. Two, relate your work to the larger social and political context of Pakistan. Three, carry our research that can feed into advocacy and policy. And four, guide your professional institutions to take ethical positions on development and politics. I will elaborate on these issues.

First principles: I began my architectural practice in 1968. In 1983, I reviewed it and decided that in more than one case projects that I had done had damaged the ecology and environment of the area in which they were located. I wrote an article on the subject, which was subsequently published and is often quoted, in which I stated that, I quote “I will not do projects that will irreparably damage the ecology and environment of the area in which they are located; I will not do projects that increase poverty, dislocate people and destroy the tangible and intangible cultural heritage of communities that live in the city; I will not do projects that destroy multi-class public space and violate building byelaws and zoning regulations; and I will always object to insensitive projects that do all this, provided I can offer viable alternatives.” I have tried, I think successfully, to stick to these principles. My partner Mushtaq Ahmed, commenting on this article said that it was a recipe for bankruptcy. However, I am happy to say that I have not become bankrupt and neither can I be classified, by any stretch of the imagination, among the poor. All professionals have to develop principles if a just and equitable society has to be created. This is all the more important today as the interests of global capital and its links with a ruthless politician-developer-bureaucrat nexus is not only deciding the shape and form of our cities but also the way we live and think. More often than not, this is to the detriment of the social and economic well-being of the vast majority of our people and is leading to a destruction of our physical environment, both built and natural.

Second: Relating your work to the larger social and political context of Pakistan. The understanding of this context is important and it is the job of academic institutions to inculcate this understanding among the students but minus all fake romanticism or exaggerated concepts of charity. It is my firm belief, that if an informed and impartial understanding is created, it will generate an immense desire among students and professionals, unless they are intellectually dishonest, to involve themselves in socio-economic issues related to their profession or creative work. It will also create love, affection and respect for the people of Pakistan and hence an increased sense of belonging. Here, I would like to mention two important contextual issues. One, in our city (and increasingly in our country as well) the age group of 15 – 24 has very different social indicators from its parents and grandparents. 78 per cent of this age group in Karachi is literate with no difference between male and female literacy. In addition, less than 20 per cent of women and 9 per cent men in this age group are married today as opposed to 38 per cent women and 13.39 per cent men in the 1981 Census. For the first time in our history we have an overwhelming majority of unmarried adolescents the vast majority of whom are also literate. This is one of the reasons why the extended family is being replaced by the nuclear family. The recent Karachi Strategic Development Plan survey shows that 89 per cent of Karachiites live as nuclear families as opposed to 61 per cent in the 1987 survey. These trends are revolutionary and are changing our values and our family structures, and because their repercussions are unaddressed, they are promoting a state of social anarchy. To contain this anarchy, the creation of multi-class recreation, entertainment and cultural space and activity of a populist nature is necessary. Also, there is a need for the promotion of a state and societal culture and value systems that project and support the aspirations of this new generation. As professionals, architects, artists, graphic designers you have an important role in promoting new societal values and the institutional and physical infrastructure that goes with them which reflect the changing demands of the social and physical context.

The other contextual issue is unemployment which is one of the major causes of poverty and the rich-poor divide because of which the rich have ghettoised themselves surrounded by security systems and armed guards. The greatest tragedy that can befall a city (or a country for that matter) is an alienated and uncaring elite. There is no dearth of skilled jobs in the market in Pakistan, especially after the imposition of the WTO regime and the culture of globalisation. However, there is an acute shortage of skilled people for them. Most of these jobs are of a para-professional and technical nature and are related to industry, construction, IT, the medical profession and the services sector that is related to them. Sufficient technical schools and colleges for creating these skills simply do not exist in Pakistan. The few that exist are well beyond the reach of the poorer sections of society who should normally be their beneficiaries. It is because of this gap that we have failed to achieve any form of sustainable growth and development. Government polytechnics set-up in Ayub’s time and vocational schools set-up in the 1970’s are in a pathetic state. Without the development of these institutions of intermediate learning, the edifice of the universities and centres of higher learning that we are building, are simply castles built on sand, producing professionals, entrepreneurs and academics for the developed world. Throughout the world it is highly qualified professionals and their institutions that have helped in setting up the institutions that develop these skills and make them affordable. Many of you will be in a position to promote the creation of these institutions and all of you will be in a position to lend support, especially as part time, if not full time teachers.

Third: Those of you who have an inclination towards research should follow it. Without research into the technical and/or social aspects of various disciplines, teaching and practice cannot become relevant to our context and policies for a just and equitable society cannot be formulated. It is one of the greatest misfortunes of Pakistan that there is almost no independent research anymore in any sector. It is ironic that for social and development related research we have to depend on the research done by international financial institutions such as the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank who have a vested interest in providing us with loans. It is partially for this reason that almost all their projects have failed or are unsustainable, and many of them have resulted in massive environmental degradation and social and economic deprivation of our people. In addition, they have left us heavily in debt. Opportunities for independent research are limited today but when you are in positions of importance you can not only help create these opportunities but also help in taking this research, through your institutions, to politicians so that they can take aware decisions. And always remember that the most important part of research is genuine consultations with what is today known as “stakeholders”.

And lastly four: The creation and nurturing of professional institutions is necessary. In many countries they have helped bring about major social and environmental changes. I feel that our existing institutions can also do the same provided they stop behaving like trade unions and develop effective research and extension programmes based on a strict code of ethics. I have often felt that for graduating architects and planners there should be an oath (similar to what the medical profession has in the form of the Hippocratic oath), in which the architect or planner promises not to undertake any work that adversely affects the natural and built environment or promotes poverty, marginalisation and injustice. Other professions can also consider similar oaths. However, the issue of equity and justice cannot be separated from the politics of a country. Members of professional institutions will always have different political view points and many may be apolitical. In such a case, a one point overarching political agenda has to be agreed upon and I propose that agenda should be that the professional institutions will always say a big no to any form of constitutional deviation or usurpation of power. It has to be understood that without the supremacy of law and its related institutions, there can be no justice and equity although supremacy of law itself does not guarantee a conflict free society.

You live in a world of massive social and economic transformations; enormous opportunities; and at the same time of increasing poverty, marginalisation, alienation and conflict both at the regional and global level. I firmly believe that the four doable things that I have spoken about can help bridge many of these contradictions. So when you go out into this world, do think about them.


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