The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Poverty engine pulls elite train

Karachi, Dec. 15: “You are lucky sitting in this air-conditioned compartment which has windows, lights and water in the toilets. Our ordinary trains have no windowpanes, no lights and no water in the toilets. The faces of passengers are caked with dirt and when they reach home even their children can’t recognise them,” a Pakistani friend said.

The air-conditioned lower class compartment of the Karachi Express indeed seemed luxurious in contrast. Equivalent to our three-tier AC, the berths were narrower but well cushioned; the compartment was brightly lit and clean. And there was plenty of water in the toilets.

There were 234 Indians travelling to Karachi on this train — delegates to the joint convention of the Pakistan India People’s Forum for Peace and Democracy. Pakistani friends ran up and down the train to ensure that everyone got mineral water and food.

Ek non-vegetarian packet do,” shouted an elderly Pakistani volunteer standing next to someone who had not got dinner. “But I am a vegetarian,” she protested. “That is what I am asking for — ek naan vegetarian. You will get a naan with vegetables,” he laughed at his own joke.

A visibly tired Pakistani volunteer sat down next to us. People began asking her about her perceptions of her country. She talked at length but did not want to be identified in print.

“I was born in 1962. I find that in the last 40 years, our standard of living has declined. My own brothers are selling their land bit by bit to stay afloat. Agricultural productivity is falling but this is also a result of our feudal mentality. My brothers can’t sever their link with land and set up a factory instead,” she said.

The Pakistani elite, she said, had a vested interest in poverty and illiteracy. “Poverty is the oxygen on which our elite thrives. I can show you government schools in Lahore where the buildings exist but there are no teachers, where local notables tether their cattle or use the classrooms for private storage,” she said.

The space vacated by the government was being occupied by non-government organisations, she said and then jocularly shouted: “Is there anyone here who is against NGOs' I want to meet them.”

Then she playfully started identifying NGO activists in the compartment without knowing who they were. She was spot on. “I can recognise them from their clothes and their body language,” she said.

But why was she against NGOs' “Because, in Pakistan, they are a terrible de-politicising influence. They prevent people’s energy going into politics. Besides, our NGOs are family enterprises. Their control passes over from a mother to a son or from an uncle to a nephew. Most of their budget goes into salaries and transportation,” she replied.

About four hours into the journey, the train reached Khanewal. Our Pakistani friend got down to buy a bagful of Kino oranges. “They are Rs 14 a kg and I bought five kilos,” she said. They were juicy and fresh.

As the train started, so did our discussion. “Our biggest problem is our young people. They are largely uneducated. If they are lucky they manage to go to the Gulf, otherwise they go into jihad,” she said.

Do they still do that' “With the Americans taking charge of Afghanistan, the jihadis are getting a beating there. It has also become difficult to go abroad. So the big question is: What are we going to offer them' This is the time bomb ticking in our society,” she said.

The future of Pakistan was dependent on peace with India, she felt. “If there is peace, it will weaken the army’s influence. We are a small country with no conflict with anyone except India. As long as this conflict stays, the army retains its importance. Otherwise, why do we need it'” she asked.

Suddenly, it was time to go to bed. “Anybody wants to play cards'” our Pakistani friend shouted. There were no takers.

Then came the nasty surprise — no bed-sheets or blankets are provided on Pakistani trains — except in the “Chinese train”, the Karakoram Express.

The air conditioning only cools. And you can’t switch off the lights. It was so cold at night that one had to get up to put on a cardigan. I put a towel over my face to block the light, wrapped a muffler around my feet to keep warm but could hardly sleep.

The train reached Hyderabad in Sindh at nine in the morning. There was Ashok Mitra on a lower berth freezing with a tweed jacket thrown over his dhoti-clad knees. The tea at the railway tea-stall was sweet and refreshing. After that, people were ready for Karachi where a tumultuous welcome awaited them.

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