The writer is a freelance journalist with over twenty years of experience in national and international reporting.
Yesterday I saw the warriors of life. Hundreds of them. The working stiff poor. I thought I was dreaming. But the images before my eyes were real. These men moved with a spring in their gait and a twinkle in their eye. And I conjured up the biblical lines “Happy are the meek — They that hold all their passions and affections evenly balanced. They shall inherit the earth — They shall have all things really necessary for life and godliness. They shall enjoy whatever portion God hath given them here, and shall hereafter possess the new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness.” It was Sunday and the huge construction machinery sat silently beside their tents at the workers colony in the centre of nowhere in Islamabad. The tents were soiled, shanty and small. Inside were cramped cots where these men rested their tired bones after a 12-hour shift. Ah, the vagaries of weather — freezing cold in December and boiling hot in May. But these warriors faced the changing climes with stoicism born of a deeper belief. They call it kismet or fate.
A wind storm hit us lashed by rain. Not a tree in sight, not a shelter anywhere for refuge. Soon the wind settled and the raindrops tapered. Heaven before us opened in its beauty and magic. The rolling hills of different hues and heights with tall mountains standing solid behind them and the undulating acres of virgin beauty typical of the Potohar plateau offered sights that cannot be seen anywhere else in the world. Yes, this is the place I want to build my home, I said to myself, momentarily forgetting about the seamy picture at the labour camp. “When will it be ready?” I asked the supervisor at the construction site where one day not so long in the future, farmlands, country clubs, community centres, shopping malls and villas will rise. “I want to live on the highest peak out here. Can you please book me a plot?” I rattled on, completely deleting the misery of men who work day and night wanting the construction company to hit a jackpot and make dreams of folks like us come true. Yes, we can own a home. After the supervisor mumbled in the positive to my demand for securing a plot provided I cough up the asked price (escalating by the day), I thought of food. “Where does the labour get its food from? This place is literally in the boondocks.’ The answer that I sought satisfied me. I am told the company operates a ration shop at subsidized prices. “Food for the labour is free.”
Thus the thousands working on the site get their roti,kapra aur makan catered for, a clarion call that brought Asif Zardari and earlier his late father-in-law Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto to the citadel of power.
‘Do these guys (labour) rake up trouble for you?’ I ask the supervisor. “Why, no! With the unemployment raging throughout the country today, these men consider themselves fortunate to be holding a job.” Umm, that makes me think. But what if their rights are being infringed by their employers? Where can these illiterate, ill-clad, ignoramus go to seek justice? The supervisor, a good human being and a cheerful chap, makes a quip: “Well everybody who is somebody is busy in his/her own battles. These poor are left by the wayside by every government.”
On the way back to his booking office after having driven on slippery ridges I’m reminded of archaeologist Dr Dani’s remarks that the area around Islamabad is prehistoric and if one was to look closer, we’d still find artefacts belonging to the Neolithic man who lived in the Stone Age. If truth be told, the men I see earlier at their camps are not any different to the Stone Age times, barring the heavy machinery of course. Dressed in shalwar kamiz covered with dust and grime from hair to toe, they look a different variety of human species altogether from our political tycoons living in snotty homes just ten miles down the road.
We need to mirror the truth of the forgotten millions and the squalor they face. Who is responsible for pushing the poorest of the poor down the gutter? Is it America, the army, the PPP, the PML (Q&N), NGOs or monsters like the World Bank and IMF or the intelligentsia?
Sadly, it’s all of the above! We have no stake in the poor; therefore by disassociation we are guilty. There will be a lot of answering to do when we shuffle off to the next world and stand before the Judge, the real Judge that is!
Let me take you on a road trip through Islamabad. It is ideal for comparisons. Nature has been indulgent in its beautification but man has made it ugly; rulers have pillaged national wealth but people have strengthened its foundations; politics has made it dirty but goodhearted souls have washed it off with their sweat and toil; black money has smoked out the sufaid posh and lodged the crooks into mansions beyond their wildest dreams. The poor, we have pushed into the netherworld. Open the newspapers or tune in to any channel and you’ll get a fair idea of how our leaders fly off to foreign lands to discuss issues like the restoration of the sacked judges. Why abroad? Why cart cabinet members who should be ‘serving the awam’ and not cavorting in five-star hotels discussing the future of Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry. Aren’t there many more urgent issues pressing us today?
Take out your pocket calculators and start counting the expense incurred by our leaders on our exchequer during their foreign trips. But wait…it won’t be made public by this regime. We’ll only find out when the present lot leaves as is the cyclical routine.
Newly returned MNAs want trips abroad – that’s all they can think about at the moment; Asif Zardari demands presidential protocol; the MQM wants to stuff its people in lucrative ministries in Karachi; Nawaz Sharif wants to be the prime minister as does Zardari and the opposition plots and plots to overthrow the government.
Democracy is hypocrisy. It nurtures designer-wearing, self-centered and egotistical leaders with billion-dollar bank accounts.
We need crusader-activists like Arundhati Roy and the late Akhtar Hameed Khan who served no vested interests other than the awam. Inaugurating the National Solidarity Convention on Chengara land issue where 27,000 people who were told to vacate their land but who resisted and forcefully occupied a sprawling tea plantation property, Roy called the land agitation in Kerala as “the most revolutionary struggle that is going on in India.” She said “this is a struggle for the right to dream. We are here to express our solidarity.”
Last week Roy launched her latest book The Shape of the Beast in which she expands on themes that both “engage and enrage her.” She vents her anger against globalised, corporate-led political establishments, which push the marginalised further to the edges of the world. “A writer hones his or her language, makes it clear and private and individual as is possible. And then you look around and see what’s happening to millions of people. You find yourself in the heart of the crowd, saying things that millions of people are saying and it’s not private and individual anymore,” says Arundhati Roy. “How do you hold these two things down? These are very fundamental questions. This is why so many writers are frightened of political engagements. They feel it is a risk, and it is a risk, and yet I would rather do it than not.”
Let’s talk about the Pakistani media and the men and women responsible for disseminating news, views and analysis. But for that I need one whole column. Let me in the meanwhile leave you with a thought provocatively penned by the Friday Times:
‘President:pareshani/ Prime Minister: Gilani/Army chief: Kayani/Speaker: Zanani/ Aata na roti, bijli na pani/Wah re Pakistan, teri ajab hai kahani!’