Pakistan News

Faisal Jamil Kashmiri was chatting with a neighbour outside his home in Khawaja Mohalla, one of the oldest and thickly populated parts of the Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK) capital, Muzaffarabad, when a devastating earthquake rocked northern Pakistan on the morning of October 8, 2005. Tens of thousands lost their lives, hundreds of thousands were injured, and countless others were rendered homeless.

Muzaffarabad was the worst-hit district in AJK due to its proximity to the epicentre of the quake. And within the municipal limits of Muzaffarabad, the entire old city — Khawaja Mohalla being part of it — was completely flattened.

Kashmiri’s three-storey house on a six-marla plot [about 150 sq yards] along a backstreet was home to three families, comprising 20 members. They included Kashmiri’s family, his parents and two siblings who lived on the ground floor, his younger uncle’s family of seven on the first floor, and his youngest uncle’s family of eight on the second.

The earthquake badly damaged the third storey, leaving his youngest uncle dead on the spot. Although the other members of the family remained unhurt, the structure became unliveable.

If the devastation of the October 8, 2005 earthquake wasn’t enough, many citizens of Azad Kashmir are still reeling from unfulfilled promises of new housing

After the burial of the deceased member, all three families moved to Rawalpindi — as almost all other survivors from the main old city had done — where they hired separate houses on rent.

Some eight months or so after the temblor, Kashmiri’s family returned to Muzaffarabad, to rebuild life bit by bit in the same dilapidated structure.

October, 2005: In the aftermath of the quake, most residents of Muzaffarabad turned landless in an instant. Many migrated elsewhere, only to return to the same spectacle of despair | Photos by Arif Mahmood/WhiteStar
October, 2005: In the aftermath of the quake, most residents of Muzaffarabad turned landless in an instant. Many migrated elsewhere, only to return to the same spectacle of despair | Photos by Arif Mahmood/WhiteStar

 

However, they were undecided about its reconstruction. This was because the AJK authorities had announced that it will develop six satellite towns along the Jhelum Valley Road to overcome the housing problem in the ruined AJK capital. Kashmiri also imagined that he’d be able to construct a new house in any of the proposed satellite towns because, back in the old city, authorities were not allowing the reconstruction of multi-storey — and in some cases, even a single storey — concrete structures.

But what initially appeared a justified call by the government has ever since haunted the residents of the old city. Even 12 years down the line, Kashmiri still lives in the same dangerous building, waiting for the day when the government would make good on its promise to resettle those affected by the earthquake.

And it’s not just Kashmiri’s story — tens of hundreds of affected families from the main old city could not and did not reconstruct their fallen houses or repair their damaged houses in anticipation of resettlement in the proposed satellite towns.

Take for example the woes of 32-year old Khawaja Junaid, now a junior grade employee of the forest department.

A view of the Langarpura Satellite Town from the left bank of the River Jhelum.
A view of the Langarpura Satellite Town from the left bank of the River Jhelum.

 

As the quake struck, Junaid’s two-storey house along a main thoroughfare in Sethi Bagh neighbourhood tumbled down in a wink, leaving him badly wounded and one of his two younger siblings dead. His parents and another sibling miraculously escaped unhurt.

Junaid remained under treatment in different hospitals over the next six months, following which, the family returned to Muzaffarabad and acquired a small house on rent.

It was the uncertainty about the official plans to widen different streets and roads under a master plan prepared by Japan International Agency for Cooperation (Jica) that prevented Junaid for a long time from utilising his small piece of land for inhabitation.

While the genuine beneficiaries do not see light at the end of the tunnel, the 20 percent plots for the previous landowners are said to be shifting hands ... without any formal allotment process, 233 plots have so far been sold out by previous owners in connivance with some unscrupulous officials in DAM.

At the end of his tether, he somehow managed to erect a tin-roof shelter on his small empty plot, and shifted therein. In the meanwhile, his parents died and he tied the knot and fathered a girl. He, too, desperately awaits allotment where he can move himself or his younger brother whose wedding plan has been put on hold because of their cramped accommodation.

THE SLOW CRAWL

Houses have sprung up on both sides of the Gojra Nullah. The watercourse was as vast as a playground about two decades ago, but today, it has been narrowed by constructions on both sides. Authorities say there are at least 1,000 families living in red zone, high hazardous areas and watercourses | Photos by Tariq Naqash
Houses have sprung up on both sides of the Gojra Nullah. The watercourse was as vast as a playground about two decades ago, but today, it has been narrowed by constructions on both sides. Authorities say there are at least 1,000 families living in red zone, high hazardous areas and watercourses | Photos by Tariq Naqash

 

Given the skyrocketing prices of real estate in Muzaffarabad — almost at par with the federal capital — it became next to impossible for a vast majority to buy a piece of land within the municipal limits and then build a modest house on it.

With landlessness a concern in almost every household in the old city, the government stepped in to provide relief. Or at least it pretended to having stepped in.

Official figures detail that there were as many as 750 families in the old city who used to inhabit multi-storey houses that are technically unliveable now. The government decided on constructing satellite towns and shifting the affected out of the old city and into the new settlements.

But things didn’t pan out the way citizens expected them to.

Three years passed after the quake before the federal government in 2008 released funds for the acquisition of land for these satellite towns. By that time, their number had been slashed to two.

Consequently, 1,625.4 kanals in Langarpura Village and 669.17 kanals in Thotha Village were acquired against 608.697 rupees and 266.211 million rupees, respectively [a kanal is approximately 500 sq metres]. Both villages are located some 10 kilometres south of Muzaffarabad along the right bank of the River Jhelum, and fall in the AJK Legislative Assembly’s constituency number 29.

According to initial plans, the affected families were to be gradually relocated from the most vulnerable and hazardous areas within the municipal limits of Muzaffarabad to the proposed towns. In the main old city, open spaces were to be created where people could rush to safety in the event of a similar calamity.

Things crawled ahead and three years after the money was released, a policy document was finally issued by the AJK government on July 30, 2011, to identify the categories of quake affectees who were eligible for allotment of plots in the two towns.

They included affectees of the (implementation of) master plan of Muzaffarabad city; projected population required to be accommodated in satellite towns; affectees of (possible) landslides in the municipal area of Muzaffarabad; affectees from the red zone/high hazardous areas; and 20 percent of the total acquired land (for satellite towns) for its previous owners.

October, 2005: Medical supplies being dispensed from a tent pharmacy manned by police officers
October, 2005: Medical supplies being dispensed from a tent pharmacy manned by police officers

 

According to that document, such affectees whose houses or tracts of land have been acquired by government for any official purpose, after payment of compensation, will be allotted plots in the satellite towns against the officially determined cost and development charges. However, it also adds that if they do not receive compensation of their house or piece of land, they will be provided plots free of cost.

The document also stipulates that affected persons living “out of compulsion” in the red zone or hazardous areas or along the main boundary thrust (MBT) where a minor jolt or torrential rains can wreak material and physical losses will also be entitled to free-of-cost plots in satellite towns, provided they surrender their vulnerable house or piece of land to the government without receiving any compensation. The landless or shelter-less survivors who have not received any compensation for their lost land will also be entitled to free-of-cost allotment of plots. It also categorically states that the previous landowners will be given 20 percent of land/plots against the determined cost of development charges.

These towns were subsequently developed by a Chinese company under Muzaffarabad City Development Project (MCDP), which was directly supervised by the Earthquake Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Authority. According to official figures, the development work cost Rs1,625 million and Rs737 million in Langarpura and Thotha, respectively. The allotment process was to be carried out by Development Authority Muzaffarabad (DAM), the controlling authority of the master plan.

ALLOTMENT AFTERSHOCKS

October, 2005: Structures seemingly constructed on strong foundations came tumbling down
October, 2005: Structures seemingly constructed on strong foundations came tumbling down

 

Things seemed in place till it got to the allotment stage.

The drawings obtained from DAM show that 1,652 plots had been created in Langarpura on about 43.5 percent of the total acquired land there. The remaining 56.5 percent was used either for roads or as open spaces. Similarly in Thotha, 1,135 plots were carved on 45 percent of the total land.

However, in January last year, the PPP government decided that previous owners whose land had already been purchased to construct satellite towns would be given “20 percent of the total acquired area, in the shape of plots, without any charge.”

A shoddily drafted official handout had stated at that time that AJK Prime Minister Chaudhry Abdul Majeed was of the view that “since these people have sacrificed their fertile land for their quake-affected brethren, they should not be charged any amount for the plots, pledged to them at the time of acquisition.”

This is in sharp contrast to the July 2011 allotment criteria.

On March 17 last year, the PPP government constituted a nine-member committee for allotment of plots in the said towns, under the then DAM chairman — a novice in administrative affairs appointed on the recommendations of Zardari House. The committee included Chaudhry Mohammad Rasheed, then minister for works and communications, and Barrister Syed Iftikhar Gillani, then opposition PML-N lawmaker from Muzaffarabad city.

Around the same time, the DAM asked “deserving persons” through newspaper adverts to obtain allotment forms from a state-owned bank against a non-refundable amount of 3,000 rupees and refundable pay order/demand draft in the sum of 10 percent of the plot’s cost as first instalment. The price was fixed at 100,000 rupees for one marla [approximately 25 sq metres].

“Preference will be given to the families affected by the master planning of Muzaffarabad city or by the landslides,” read the adverts, adding, “Landless survivors or those families with scant residential space will also get plots on priority basis.”

By the first week of June, as many as 2,264 applications against Langarpura plots and 89 against Thotha plots landed in DAM, along with pay orders worth 250.795 million rupees. Separately, the DAM generated 8.5 million rupees from the sale of brochures.

Not all applicants were genuinely affected or deserving persons, according to insiders.

“Most of the affected persons were unable even to deposit the first instalment of one to two lakh rupees along with their application,” laments Ziauddin Pirzada, a survivor from Madina Market, who now lives in a rented accommodation ever since the catastrophe that left his mother, younger sister and sister-in-law dead. “I can safely say that it’s mostly the well-off people already in possession of sizeable property in different parts of the state who have applied for these plots.”

THE CITIZENS’ COLLECTIVE

On July 28, 2017, Kashmiri, whose satirical pieces on social and political issues in mainstream and social media draw huge attention, convened a first-ever meeting of the intended allottees at Upper Adda Muzaffarabad, in the wake of worrying pieces of information about the process. A second such sitting was organised by him at the same place on August 25, and attendees decided to launch a campaign on this issue.

“Those meetings were held in the wake of confirmed information that some people are attempting to delay the allotment process to facilitate the influential land mafia,” Kashmiri says.

The concerns of these citizens are not unfounded.

While the genuine beneficiaries do not see light at the end of the tunnel, the 20 percent plots for the previous landowners are said to be shifting hands. According to DAM records, 331 out of the 1,652 plots in Langarpura were set aside under 20 percent quota of previous landowners. But without any formal allotment process, 233 of those 331 plots have so far been sold out by previous owners in connivance with some unscrupulous officials in DAM.

“I wonder how DAM kept on issuing the so-called istehqaq [entitlement] certificates to the previous landowners, intending to sell out the plots to anyone with deep pockets,” asks Kashmiri.

Similarly, in Thotha, 20 percent quota for previous owners has been worked out as 369 plots, notwithstanding the fact that 730 out of the total 1,135 plots had already been handed over to post-1990 migrants.

So far, officials from the DAM have issued istehqaq certificates of 296 plots to previous owners. After the issuance of the remaining istehqaq certificates, only 36 plots will be left in Thotha for other survivors.

Chaudhry Mohammad Raqeeb, a management group official who has recently been posted as chairman DAM, claims that a negligible number of Muzaffarabad residents affected by the implementation of the master plan, or falling in the categories of landless and shelter-less survivors or from the red zone, hazardous or landslide-prone areas have applied for plots.

“Perhaps because people were gradually allowed to make constructions in all such areas in keeping with the requisite precautionary measures, they did not apply for these plots,” he maintains. “It’s why allotments had to be thrown open to everyone living within the municipal limits, regardless of their being earthquake victims or not.”

However, survivors disagree with his notion.

“Muzaffarabad is not a big city like Karachi where hardly anyone knows his neighbour, it’s a small city of not more than a five-kilometre radius and thus almost everyone knows everyone,” argues Junaid.

“Why couldn’t the concerned officials prepare a list of genuinely affected and deserving persons for provision of plots on priority. Given the present practice, all well-heeled people who have submitted multiple applications with different identity cards will clinch these plots, leaving people like us in the lurch at the end of the day.”

Ghulam Muhammad, a survivor from Shahnara Mohalla, makes another point. “The conversion of just 44 percent of acquired land into plots means one marla costs at least 150,000 rupees to the government,” he says. “Since this money was meant for earthquake victims, the authorities are under an obligation not to dole it out to unaffected people, including the previous owners. Those who possess one kanal or more in their name anywhere in AJK should be declared disqualified outright for these plots, if the government really wants to help out the genuine victims.”

All said and done, however, there are more shocks in store for the quake-affected.

While 331 plots out of 1,652 plots in Langarpura were set aside under 20 percent quota of previous landowners, Raqeeb argues that if the calculations were made on 20 percent of the total land acquired “in the shape of plots,” then previous landowners will be entitled to 916 plots, rather than the 331. This is where the scandal exists: previous land owners are demanding more land than has been earmarked for them, and are justifying the demand on a mathematical lacuna. In effect, only 736 plots will be left for the rest of the survivors. Similarly, the share of previous owners in Thotha scales up to 623 plots. “If previous landowners are to be given 623 plots, the DAM will have to create another 72 plots (of bigger size) to meet that figure,” adds Raqeeb.

However, in a cautious manner, he argues that balloting for the 736 Langarpura plots should be held without further ado, before these may also become unavailable for any reason.

Many wonder how such a big number of plots for previous landowners has been determined, particularly when there is no such precedence anywhere in AJK. Unlike the land acquired in Mirpur for the Mangla Dam Raising project and Mangla Dam Housing Authority, a different yardstick has been put in place in Muzaffarabad allegedly under the influence of the “plot mafia” working hand-in-glove with some unscrupulous elements in DAM. The plot mafia allegedly includes some political figures.

The wheeling-and-dealing by the corrupt lot in civic bodies of Muzaffarabad, which sits on two major fault lines, has already exposed a sizeable portion of the town’s population to disaster, and a fresh wave of unrest is on the cards, thanks to the faulty allotment policy on satellite towns.

Even though the master planning of Muzaffarabad had recommended relocation of survivors from landslide-prone areas as well as from along the watercourses, the past decade has witnessed an upsurge in constructions on such sites in part due to the oversight and connivance of the officials concerned. Take for example the Gojra Nullah which used to have a vast span only around two decades ago. Such was its width that back in 1995, a playground was developed on it where local teams would play cricket matches. However, today, its span has shrunk to hardly 10 feet, as buildings have sprung up on both sides.

Similarly, during reconstruction of their homes, the majority has not surrendered a single foot of land and resultantly the pathways are as cramped as they used to be before the quake.

“God forbid, if we are again struck by any natural calamity, such as an earthquake or a cloud burst, the losses in such areas would be colossal,” warns environmentalist Shafiq Abbasi. However, suppose the authorities decide on relocating the most vulnerable of these people at some point of time, where will they resettle them is a big question. Kashmiri believes that the authorities are literally cheating the survivors.

“It seems the plots have already been distributed among the favourites in a secretive and illicit manner at the behest of corrupt politicians and bureaucracy.” “The way we are being deprived of plots reminds me of 1846, when one fine morning the Kashmiris came to know that they had been sold out by the British to Dogra ruler Gulab Singh along with their land.”

The writer is a member of staff

Published in Dawn, EOS, October 8th, 2017

LAHORE: Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif on Sunday unveiled the first train of the Orange Line Metro Train Project (OLMTP), regarded as vital by the ruling PML-N to retain its vote bank in the province .

The Punjab government plans to bring it into operation in December, although 25 per cent of work is still incomplete due to litigation over the train route’s proximity to some historical places.

The Supreme Court has yet to announce its verdict.

The ceremony to celebrate the arrival of the first batch of five carriages and an engine was held at the Dera Gujjran depot.

 
The mega project was launched in May 2014. It will cover a distance of 27.1 kilometres from Ali Town to Dera Gujjran and reduce travel time from two-and-a-half hours to 45 minutes.

The train corridor comprises an elevated portion of 25.4km and an underground portion of 1.72km (cut and cover sections). There will be 26 stations — 24 elevated and two underground — depots and stabling yards.

Shahbaz says PML-N’s opponents were conspiring to get the project stopped

The project consists of 27 trains — each consisting of five carriages — an energy-saving air-conditioning system and systems configured to handle unstable voltage. Each train has a capacity to carry 1,000 passengers.

The government says the metro train will run on electricity and transport up to 250,000 passengers daily and its capacity will be raised to 500,000 in stages.

According to the government, the estimated cost of the project is Rs165 billion, of which a

major chunk of Rs150bn has been provided by China under a soft-loan agreement outside the financial framework of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).

Speaking on the occasion, Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif said the project would provide a modern, safe, swift and affordable transport to commuters.

He said the PML-N’s political opponents were levelling “false allegations against us” and conspiring to stop the project by filing petitions in the court.

He recalled that “these very people had called the metro bus plan a failed project”, but could not prove any corruption.

Referring to the Khyber Pakh­tunkhwa government’s announcement about a metro bus project for Peshawar, he said it had done nothing to start the project.

“Those political leaders who speak about ‘tabdeeli’ (change) did nothing to provide any relief to the people,” Shahbaz Sharif said.

He said his government would accept the SC verdict in the Orange Line case.

Referring to apprehensions that the project would harm historic buildings. he said: “We have completed 75 per cent of the work and are waiting for the court’s decision to complete the remaining part.”

Earlier, Mass transit Authority Managing Director Sibtain Fazal Haleem explained different aspects of the project. The chief of the steering committee, Khawja Ahmed Hassan, and Chinese officials were present on the occasion.

Published in Dawn, October 9th, 2017

ISLAMABAD: A special corps commanders conference that reportedly lasted around seven hours was held at the military’s General Headquarters (GHQ) on Tuesday.

Chaired by Chief of the Army Staff Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa, the huddle reviewed the security challenges facing the country, as well as the preparedness of the armed forces to deal with any situation that may develop.

Sources told Dawn that the forum considered the continuing unprovoked ceasefire violations committed by India on both the Line of Control (LoC) and the Working Boundary, as well as the irresponsible statements emanating from New Delhi.

But in a rare move, the army’s PR wing Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) did not issue any official statement following the marathon special meeting of top military commanders.

The ISPR usually issues a brief statement outlining the crux of the discussion, but the lack of an official account of the huddle triggered all sorts of rumours about what transpired behind closed doors on Tuesday.

This echoed what happened a day earlier, as there was no official announcement from the ISPR regarding the meeting.

ISPR Director General Maj Gen Asif Ghafoor did not to respond to queries about what was discussed in the meeting and whether the corps commanders talked about the prevailing political situation in the country.

The meeting took place a day after former prime minister Nawaz Sharif appeared before an accountability court in connection with the corruption references filed against him on the orders of the Supreme Court.

On that day, ministers, PML-N leaders and supporters were barred from entering the judicial complex by Rangers personnel, who inexplicably took over security of the courts from the police, even though their deployment had not been requisitioned by the relevant authorities.

The army chief is believed to have taken the corps commanders into confidence about his recent visit to Afghanistan and his interaction with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.

Published in Dawn, October 4th, 2017

ISLAMABAD: Police have registered an FIR against property tycoon Malik Riaz, his son Ali Riaz, and the Bahria Town management in a land-grabbing case more than a week after a local court issued orders to this effect.

Additional district and sessions judge (ADSJ) Sikandar Khan had ordered local police on Sept 21 to book the accused on the complaint of a widow and other residents of Phulgran, located in the suburbs of the federal capital.

Bhara Kahu police registered the FIR on Sept 29 under sections 109, 341, 379, 427 and 447 of the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC), which deal with theft, wrongful restraint, mischief and criminal trespass.

Advocate Yasir Ali, one of the complainants, told Dawn he had inherited just over eight kanals of land worth approximately Rs80-90 million in the Phulgran revenue estate, which was illegally occupied by Bahria Town.

 

He said that when he visited his family land on July 26, he found them occupied by Bahria Town guards. He claimed that he also approached the Bahria Town office located on Murree Expressway, near Satra Meel.

“I showed them the ownership documents, but they said the matter was not in their hands,” he said, adding that when he initially approached Bhara Kahu police to lodge a complaint, the station house officer and other officials refused to entertain him.

He said that he had approached the district courts and filed a petition seeking the registration of a case.

The complainant told the court that the property tycoon had illegally grabbed his inherited land and included it in his private housing scheme.

Mustafa Tanveer, counsel for Malik Riaz, told the court that the issue regarding the ownership of the land in question was pending before a civil court.

He alleged that the complainants had filed the petition for the registration of an FIR against Malik Riaz and his son in a bid to blackmail them, and argued that since the matter was pending before a civil court, criminal proceedings could not be initiated.

In the order, however, the ADSJ observed that pendency of a civil suit is not a bar against criminal proceedings, as both can proceed simultaneously.

But in his order, the judge noted that it was not necessary to arrest an accused as soon as the FIR was registered, and directed that police should only take the accused into custody when a cognisable offence was proven during the course of the investigation.

“It is to be clarified here that when an FIR is registered it is not necessary that in all cases the accused should be arrested. The accused may be arrested only in those cases where sufficient evidence comes on record against the accused,” the order read.

Moreover, “if during investigation, the information provided by the petitioner is proved false, local police may initiate strict proceedings under Section 182 (invoked against false accusers) of Pakistan Penal Code against the informant for providing false information”, the order further states.

When contacted, Bahria Town spokesperson retired Col Mohammad Khalil told Dawn that the housing society had lawfully purchased the land in question.

He admitted there was a minor dispute between the society and locals, adding that the case was pending before a civil court in Islamabad.

However, he alleged that locals had filed an application seeking the registration of an FIR against Bahria Town high-ups with mala fide intent, to pressure the housing society into giving them a better deal.

Published in Dawn, October 1st, 2017

Ousted prime minister Nawaz Sharif was elected the president of PML-N unopposed on Tuesday, reclaiming his position as the head of his namesake party.

PML-N leader Dr Tariq Fazal Chaudhry submitted Sharif's papers for party president in the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) while no one other candidate from the party contested the election.

The commission will formally announce Sharif as the party president in a meeting of PML-N's general council taking place today.

Hundreds of PML-N members are attending the meeting.— DawnNews
Hundreds of PML-N members are attending the meeting.— DawnNews

 

Hundreds of members of the party's general council, including ministers, MNAs and senators are attending the meeting taking place at the Convention Centre in Islamabad. Sharif will later address the meeting, which is being attended by all senior PML-N leaders including Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif and Finance Minister Ishaq Dar.

On Monday, the PML-N took full advantage of its position as the ruling party as President Mamnoon Hussain signed the controversial Election Act 2017 into law hours after it was bulldozed through the National Assembly amid pandemonium on the opposition benches.

The law was passed to allow the party to re-elect the disqualified former prime minister as party chief, on the eve of a party convention called for the express purpose of electing Nawaz Sharif to the post.

The party also reposed its complete confidence in Sharif’s leadership when members of its Central Working Committee (CWC) also approved an amendment to the party constitution, removing the bar on disqualified members from contesting the election to any party office.

The bill was cleared by the lower house within minutes amidst ugly scenes, as opposition members gathered around the speaker’s pod­ium, chanting slogans, tearing up copies of the bill and flinging them towards the dais.

Sharif had relinquished the position of PML-N chief after his ouster from power under the July 28 verdict of the Supreme Court in the Panama Papers case.

I still remember my first time,” says Jugnu*, her face pale under the white tubelight of her cramped room. “I was only 13 but was dressed to the nines. I wore jewellery and makeup, and even though I was told I looked beautiful, I felt shy and embarrassed and did not want to go dance.”

Jugnu’s paternal aunt, who was a dancer like Jugnu but had retired by then, had a talk with her niece to settle her nerves. “She said, this is our family profession and that our women had been doing it for ages. Why should I feel ashamed of it? As she spoke, something inside me began to melt. Slowly I felt much better.”

She remembers entering the small room called the ‘time-kamra’ or ‘office’. Two or three ‘tamashbeen’ [spectators] sat there, while her own troupe — the musicians and her aunt — accompanied her. It was a small private baithak [gathering], and once Jugnu began her dance she forgot all her fears. “I don’t remember which song I danced to,” she grins, flashing paan-stained teeth under her dark lips. “But I do remember it was Madam’s song.”


Aside from being a red-light area, Heera Mandi was once renowned for culture and courtship in the Mughal tradition


Like all dancing girls in the Shahi Mohallah, or specifically in the red light district called Heera Mandi, there is a money-throwing ritual at dance performances. Back in those days, the going rate for a new dancer would have been around 400 to 500 rupees. But Jugnu danced so well that she herself got around 2,500 rupees. “That means 2,500 rupees each — for everyone in that room,” she says. “We always distribute equally after a baithak.”

Jugnu still retains her attraction but has become a little plump, after bearing two children with different men – which can be a downfall for dancing girls. It is possible to think that this woman could have done better by making a living out of dancing. But after official sanction against red light districts, her family, like many others, moved away to another neighbouring area known as Baagh Munshi Ladda. It is now also known as the ‘new Heera Mandi’ although nothing in the new locality is reminiscent of the old area.

Old properties in Heera Mandi have been renovated and reused as restaurants (top) and other shops. Some others are up for sale (below). In the few brothels that have survived (left and bottom), much of the activity happens under the shadows
Old properties in Heera Mandi have been renovated and reused as restaurants (top) and other shops. Some others are up for sale (below). In the few brothels that have survived (left and bottom), much of the activity happens under the shadows

 

To call it a baagh [garden] is an overstatement, however.

Jugnu’s own house is windowless and grotty. With four children and three adults as occupants, it is in a constant state of disarray. Her room is cramped and empty but for a whirring pedestal fan, a very thin and stained mattress and pillow, and tiny oil lamps sitting in a row on a bare concrete shelf.

For Jugnu’s mother Zeba*, who is from Gujrat but was married to a man known only superficially to her father, it was a shock to discover that her in-laws were from a paisha [vocation] that was considered taboo.

“But in Kanjar families, daughters-in-law are not meant to carry on the tradition of singing and dancing,” says Zeba, now 47. “So my other two daughters were trained in singing, but they both died. Now I only have Jugnu.”

There are two majority communities who reside and work in Heera Mandi. One of them is the Kanjars, whose women carry on the tradition of singing and dancing. The other is Mirasis — musicians and trainers of the Kanjar women. Irrespective of whether they sell their bodies, however, Kanjar women are viewed as prostitutes even though that might not always be the case.

“A girl’s birth brings celebrations,” says Zeba. “When a boy is born, however, there is sorrow. Even today, it is Jugnu who is the breadwinner of this family. She is taking care of her own children as well as her sisters. Her brother only earns daily wages.”

 

Like all Kanjar women, Jugnu too has been ‘married’ but without a nikahnama [certificate of marriage]. She has had a business contract with the three or four men she married, which she says lasts for a night in return for a large sum of money. “My father arranged it with a gold businessman the first time, and he paid around 30,000 rupees for it. Even our servants were paid 5,000 rupees each. I was only 13 and embarrassed, hurt and scared. But I got over it fast.”

Like all such men, that businessman too did not return.

“It was not easy for a man to come too close to a woman in a kotha back in those days,” she says. “We were surrounded by our tabla player, sheesha player, dhol wala, naika [a senior woman chaperone], and the flower man would come and so did the money seller,” she says. “There was a courtship ritual in getting to know the woman first and then coming closer. The man could not just use and abuse. We were protected by our community.”

A REGAL FIXATION

Even today, the idea of Heera Mandi remains as exotic as ever to most. Many believe that even now, they might catch a sight of some dancing girls or perhaps hear a mujra in the distance. It seems thrilling and adventurous, tinged with the secrecy of illicit excitement.

 

But today, a trip down the lane opposite the regal Badshahi Mosque and the Lahore Fort shows that the age-old culture of the bazaar has vanished. In its place now are shoe shops and warehouses, many of them manufacturing set-ups. All the buildings which once used to be kothas are now decrepit, dusty skeletons. The time-kamra is now just home to piles of sawdust and leather.

“Local culture and music are important for all civilizations,” says Mian Yousuf Salahuddin, better known as Yousuf Salli. “But the way ours was killed off, it is indeed a very tragic thing.”

Salli lives smack in the centre of the Taxali gate area. His ancestral Haveli Barood Khana was originally built by the Sikhs during their rule in Punjab and was meant for storing gun-powder, weapons and ammunition, hence its name. But after the first Muslim mayor of Lahore, Mian Amiruddin, bought it in 1870, the haveli has stayed in the family and has been passed down generation after generation. If Salli’s paternal grandfather was the mayor, then his maternal grandfather was the great poet Sir Muhammad Iqbal. And through the times, Salli has become renowned for being an unofficial patron of the arts and culture.

“Good singers are not easy to find anymore,” argues Salli. He talks of the great musicians who came out of this area, including Ustad Taafu, whose entire family still lives at Bhaati Gate — a place famous for musicians’ residences and music shops. “There was Ustad Barkat Ali Khan, Fateh Ali Khan, Amanat Ali Khan,” he says. Besides there were some great gaikas (women singers) including Farida Khanum and Noor Jahan who received their training from the ustads here.

In the old days, kotha singing had a very particular style of ghazal singing. It was more experimental and flexible — a slight step further than that of ‘thumri’.

Photos by Xari Jalil and Murtaza Ali,  M Arif / White Star
Photos by Xari Jalil and Murtaza Ali, M Arif / White Star

 

“If you really want to see that ghungroo dance or listen to that calibre of singing again, you cannot find it,” argues Salli.

After the Zia regime when all this was banned, there was obviously economic depression in the area,” says Dara Anjum, historian and Director of the Lahore Fort. “Building owners who were charging, say 5,000 rupees in rent from a Kanjar family, were not being paid timely because business for the Kanjar community was slow. When other businessmen like the shoe manufacturers offered double the rent, the building owners were forced to evict their tenants.”

There was a third and worse option — dropping to the lowest of the low and selling sex for however much it took. But because Kanjar girls knew the skill of performing arts, many were picked to go to the film industry. Others became renowned singers. The ones who weren’t as talented simply moved out. Some including Jugnu even tried their luck at dancing in the Middle East.

Although most people refer to General Ziaul Haq’s Islamicisation drive for cracking down on prostitution in the area, Fouzia Saeed in her groundbreaking research book titled Taboo! The Hidden Culture of a Red Light Area says that it was General Ayub Khan who placed severe restrictions on the activities in the Shahi Mohallah.

Later on, only the musicians and dancers were allowed back to perform for a restricted time. Since Tibbi Gali, one of the major by-lanes housing brothels, did not offer any performing arts, it could never reopen for mere prostitution. Saeed writes in her book that every regime since then has retained the policy but it was strictly enforced by the police under General Zia.

“Bazaar-i-Husn moved many times before it reached Heera Mandi here,” says Salli. “Before this it used to be at Purani Anarkali and also Choona Mandi. The basic fact is that in those days, there was no radio or TV and obviously live singing was the only entertainment among all classes of people.”

Photos by M Arif / White Star
Photos by M Arif / White Star

 

In those times, singers were held in such high esteem that they were given associations from their place of birth. From Akhtari Bai Faizabadi (later known as Begum Akhtar) to Khurshid Bai Hujrowali, who was Iqbal’s favourite and was known for singing Shikwa and Jawab-i-Shikwa, these gaikas won the hearts of many.

But despite the cultural capital being provided by Heera Mandi, Salli remembers when the curtains began dropping in the baithak doorways during General Zia’s regime. In the 1988 by-elections after the rise of the PML-N, several people working at the kothas were picked up overnight and held in custody. “That was the turning point. I was an MPA at the time with Jahangir Badr was the MNA. Although our area was the Data Darbar, we both tried to explain to the police and authorities to let those poor people go.”

Was the government successful in its objectives?

“They talk about shutting down prostitution in Heera Mandi,” says Salli, “And I am not supporting sex work, but today half of Gulberg and Defence have become Heera Mandis in their own way.”

DEATH OF AN ECONOMY

Tablanawaz Tauqueer Hussain hails from the Mirasi community of Heera Mandi. He began playing the tabla at the age of 13 and laughs out aloud when he is asked to remember the good old days. “Thank heavens my father made me learn a different skill,” says the now 50-year-old. “Nowadays I fix musical instruments.”

Hussain owns a cramped shop outside Tibbi Market, and his son helps him too, along with studying and expanding into the DJ business. But for Hussain, his soul and spirit were playing the tabla in an atmosphere where it was appreciated.

 

“At least 200 people were involved in every dancing session: the audience,” he claims. “These included the flower boy, the money seller, the musicians and the dancer.”

Indeed, the artists and musicians from Heera Mandi all lament the slow suffocation faced by the red light district. While the trained lot found one opportunity or another, a newer generation of dancers and musicians also emerged. The older lot accuses them of having cheapened the art.

For instance, Jugnu’s voice drips of derision as she speaks of the new breed of dancing women. “We were taught by great musicians, and every sur and taal of their tabla was studied,” she says. “We moved according to these beats. We earned with our feet. Today these dou-numberies [copycats] are doing vulgar dances.”

And what of the events she performs at?

“In private gatherings, we encounter the worst of the lot,” says Jugnu. “Most men behave with us as if we are ordinary whores.”

END OF AN ERA

It is often said that the women of the red light district are in command of their sexuality as well as their skills in art. But today, the demand for something crasser has come up and even they cannot do anything about it.

“Today men — who are our market — do not want art. They do not wish to woo the women here in the grand old tradition,” says Jugnu. “Today all they look for is instant sexual gratification, and that is what has resulted in a desolate Heera Mandi. [Our clients] used to come only to be in our company, to see an art being performed live.”

But the fact of the matter is that the market itself has changed. Nobody seems to want these women’s company any more. High culture left the area and was replaced by a crass demand for sexual services.

It is for this reason that the dark, shadowy area of Tibbi Gali is still dotted with girls as young as 15 and women as old as 60, toothless and wrinkled, standing in the doorways beckoning any man who passes by. So desperate are they to make ends meet that some will have sex with strangers for as low as 100 rupees. Others charge much less, as low as five rupees in some cases. The exchange purposely happens in the dark, often behind a grimy curtain, so that the faces and bodies of the prostitutes are hidden and their age cannot be ascertained.

Zeba sums up the situation aptly: “Heeron ka bazaar aaj mochion ka bazaar ban gaya hay [The bazaar of diamonds has been relegated to a bazaar of cobblers].”

*Names changed to protect privacy.

The writer is a member of staff.

She tweets @XariJalil

Published in Dawn, EOS, April 30th, 2017

In April 2016, Waseemullah, a second year student at the Aga Khan School of Nursing, hanged himself from the ceiling fan of his room. According to his friends, he was a lively boy who had come all the way from Gilgit to pursue his studies on a full-term scholarship. Friends say he had a promising career to look forward to.

Waseemullah isn’t the only suicide victim in this dorm — some news reports claim that around five students have taken their lives in the same dormitory in the last few years. In fact, a 21-year-old medical student from Chitral committed suicide in the very same room as Waseemullah’s in April 2010.

Waseemullah’s case and those of his peers are indications of an unaddressed and seemingly increasing problem among Pakistani youth. The Karachi-based Madadgar police helpline national database shows that in the first six months of 2015, around 1,061 suicide attempts were reported, which are speculated to be almost double this year. National media reports and anecdotal evidence also indicate a rise in suicide rates in the 14 to 30-year-old age group.

According to a 2012 World Health Organisation (WHO) report, “There are around 15,000 suicides committed in Pakistan annually.” Dr Murad Khan, chairman of the Department of Psychiatry at Aga Khan University Hospital, Karachi, earlier estimated that there are “5,000 to 7,000 suicides yearly. Of these, approximately 25 per cent of the cases would be in teens and over 50 per cent occur in youth under the age of 30 years.”


Anecdotal evidence suggests there might be a growing problem among Pakistani youth but there has been little public debate about the reasons behind it


Youth suicide has been emerging as a threatening issue in recent years across the world. A 2014 WHO report estimated, “around two million teenagers commit suicide worldwide while four million adolescents attempt it.”

South Asia is considered the world’s suicide focal point. In India, according to a 2012 National Crime Bureau Report, “around 20 students kill themselves everyday due to stress related to exams and competition for admissions in reputable educational institutions.”

While high suicide rates among Pakistani youth remain a concern for the public and authorities alike, the exact extent of the problem is hard to determine. The deep social stigma attached to suicide means a large number of such cases are swept under the carpet.

In addition to suicide being prohibited in Islam (as it is in other religions), it is considered a criminal offence punishable with imprisonment and financial penalty in Pakistan. This means most suicide survivors and families of suicide victims are reluctant to discuss the topic in public or to admit to it on record which makes it difficult for researchers and authorities to ascertain the exact number of suicides and attempted suicides in the country.

According to the Royal College of Psychiatrists, around 29 percent of youth displayed clinical levels of psychological distress while suicide had increased by 170 percent globally in the last two decades up to 2015. In the local context, Dr Khan estimates that almost 34 percent of Pakistani population suffers from mental disorders, and depression is implicated in more than 90 percent of suicide cases.

In absence of any authentic official national data on suicide, researchers like Dr Khan agreed that one has to rely on the accumulating anecdotal evidence that suicide rates have increased in Pakistan over the last few years.

Stuck between a rock and a hard place — do students at campuses have anyone to turn to for help?

If one looks closely at many of the suicide cases to get national attention, authoritarianism and the high pressure environment of academia seems to have played a role.

In February 2016, Saqiba, a 17-year-old college student, first position-holder of Matric Board from district Qila Saifullah, Balochistan, swallowed sleeping pills when, according to her statement, her college principal refused to send her an examination form she needed. The principal allegedly did so as retaliation for Saqiba leading a protest against the negligence of school authorities regarding the arrangement of teachers and classes for almost a year.

In April 2016, 27-year-old Abdul Basit, a final year dental student at Hamdard University, immolated himself in front of his university campus when barred from appearing in the final exam for arriving late. According to his college principal, Basit was enrolled in the four-year Bachelors of Dental Sciences programme since 2007, but failed every year.

These incidents are just the tip of the iceberg and are among the few that have come to the public attention due to extensive media coverage.

But while much has been covered on the incidents, there is little public conversation about what could have been done to prevent suicides and what drove Waseemullah, Saqiba and Basit to commit suicide on what might have been considered minor setbacks by many.

Could Basit have been steered away from his plans of self-immolation if he had a counselling service on campus that he could turn to for help? Would Saqiba still be alive if she had a university board to appeal the alleged unfair treatment meted out by the college principal? Or had someone to discuss her quandary with? How much pressure did these students face on campus? These are essential questions that still remain unanswered in the national narrative around suicide among youth.

Despite the evidently rising demand for mental health services by the educated youth of Pakistan, there are hardly a few educational institutions that offer consultation and mentoring facilities to its students with psychological and emotional issues. Though some private schools, colleges and universities partially hire educational psychologists on a need-basis, the role of student counsellors is often limited to disciplinary matters and student activities in most educational institutions.

What pushes so many youth over the edge?

A large majority of victims apparently attempt suicide on issues related to domestic affairs, academic challenges and financial crunch.

“Youth of this age have to handle multiple pressures, cut-throat competition and unrealistic parental and social expectations,” says Dr Uzma Ambreen, a renowned psychiatrist and medical director of Karachi-based Recovery House. “Most youngsters are just pushed into the rat race of grades and prominence irrespective of their aptitude and capacity. Patience, stress management and problem solving required for handling such challenges of life are simply missing at this tender age especially in the absence of supportive family, friends and mentors.”

The details of each case might be somewhat different. However, most suicide attempts revolve around fear, hopelessness and unrealistic expectations related to academic and professional success, social acceptance and relationships.

What is disturbing is the growing involvement of juveniles in such cases. In February 2016, for example, two disturbing incidents were reported where 14-year-old Salman in Peshawar and 16-year-olds, Navroz and Fatima, in Karachi shot themselves when their parents refused to accept their childhood affairs.

The second incident specifically raised several questions about society’s deteriorating value system, in which a 10th grade student killed his girlfriend and himself in school. Apparently inspired by recent Bollywood movies, the victims left a suicide note requesting for adjacent graves like filmy lovers.

Dr Anusha, a clinical psychologist based in Kerala, South India (with the highest literacy and suicide rate) said “Our children are living under immense pressure to deliver, succeed, live their parents’ dreams and make them proud.”

Dr Nosheen Shahzad, an educational psychologist and director of Karachi’s Neuro-Psychology Center identifies three dimensions of suicidal-thoughts including personality type, parent-child relationship and environment (having many factors such as peer pressure, need for social acceptance, companionship and sense of purpose).

PhD scholar and faculty in a private university in Karachi Dua shared her teenage suicide attempt in the following words: “At the age of 13, I struggled with my studies. I used to be an average student with a low self-esteem. My father always compared me with the high-achiever children of his friend. One day I failed a math test and hid my result from my parents. However, during a parent-teacher meeting they learnt about it and really got mad at me. I was so upset that I took some pills to die. Apparently, the pills were not harmful so I didn’t end up in the hospital and overslept only.”  

The disturbing fact is that Dua attempted suicide due to immense parental pressure but they remained unaware of her agony for long. She did not go for any therapy; however, her mother has been her biggest supporter throughout her teenage year.

“As I grew up, I have made peace with the fact that no matter what I do, I can’t please my father. I am grateful that I survived and came out of this miserable state,” she added.  

Ideally, education should make the young generation mentally stronger, enabling them to develop coping strategies for facing the challenges of life. On the contrary, our existing knowledge-based education system and isolated family set-up somehow fail to nurture the survival skills in our youth. While a few, such as Dua, survive, until we have a public conversation on how better to support our youth emotionally, it’s only a matter of time till another story similar to Waseemullah’s or Saqiba’s hits the headlines.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine

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