Tuesday, June 21, 2011


By Rabia Ahmed   Pakistan Today 21 June 2011

The issues on the ground are pretty basic: roti, kapra aur makan (food, clothing, and housing). The irony of course is that the political party that adopted this as its central manifesto is responsible for continuing and adding to the process whereby all three things have become completely out of the reach of the common man. In fact no political entity in Pakistan has taken steps towards resolving a single one of these three basic issues.

Sheikhu lives in a small village near Lahore. Nine persons live in his home, Sheikhu and his wife, their five children, and Sheikhu’s elderly parents. Sheikhu is one of the luckier ones, his monthly income of around Rs200 most days means that the family has more or less Rs6000 a month to live on. The two eldest children are at school, and once they have some basic education the plan is to send them out to work and then the next two or three siblings (depending on how much the children bring in) can be educated.

The family takes in one litre of milk a day. This is shared between the nine of them, the bulk being consumed by Sheikhu himself, since he works in the fields and brings in the money.

After the milk has done the rounds of the children and the aged parents in their daily cup of tea, there is none left for the mother, Sakina, who considers herself lucky to get a cup of tea with milk maybe once a week.

Sakina at thirty five with few sound teeth, could be mistaken for a woman of fifty five. Sakina would however be surprised if you told her that. Where she lives, she is no different to others her age.

Lahore is cold in winter, but in the villages among the fields and open spaces, temperatures are arctic. Yet few people dress warmer than a shawl, or at best a light sweater over their clothes, if they’re fortunate. In fact, one day, a woman stood at the edge of the Ravi with a baby in her arms, watching a boat come in. The baby wore a thin shift, and this was a bitterly cold day in January.

When asked why the child was dressed this way, she said, quite without bitterness that her child had better get used to hardship. If not, he may as well die while he was still young.

Village life for the underprivileged (what a tidy term) while pathetic has an edge over the life of city slums.

Acquiring a decrepit mud house is an upwardly mobile move for a city slum resident, since these slums are composed of mainly “anyhow ‘dwellings’”, shelters made of twigs, cardboard, odd scraps of fabric, grass or straw, whatever comes. The entire slum exists in close proximity and often in the centre of a rubbish dump. Also on the site is a stagnant pool of filthy water mixed with effluent abuzz with mosquitoes, and extreme noise pollution in the shape of a busy road featuring trucks on every side.

There is no provision for water, sewage, or any form of drainage whatsoever. Come the monsoons when luckier folks enjoy the scent of moist soil, these homes are in danger of collapse, and very often they do. The straw or twig homes of course flood, providing no shelter at all, while as for the mud homes, a caved in roof, a broken wall, an entire house dissolving into the water…all these are par for the course.

When this happens, the people who live in these homes take refuge under trees, beneath a bridge, or in any kind of shelter they can find. And with no money with which to feed themselves, they join the ranks of those who are cleared away when VIPs pass.

Over the years, these problems have only increased, and with this increase, the lifestyle of those with means has become more opulent, which is interesting, but then so have official promises turned more elaborate, and claims of success taller and ever more incredible.

The current budget promises to implement austerity measures that were given the go ahead two years ago, and to control price increases of basic commodities. Given that this goal has eluded the powers that be exactly as bin Laden did, we had best not hold our breath waiting for successful implementation of either of these measures.

A US intelligence report on Pakistan once summed the situation up by saying, ‘No money, no energy, no government.’

Faiz sums it up inimitably with these words:

Woh intezar tha jiss ka, yay who sehar tho nahin

(This is not the dawn we waited for, for so long)

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