Published in The Nation newspaper on 20-May-2013
RUK, Pakistan - Resplendent in his gleaming white uniform and peaked cap, jacket buttons tugging his plump girth, the stationmaster stood at the platform, waiting for a train that would never come. “Cutbacks,” Nisar Ahmed Abro said with a resigned shrug, says a report in NYT.
Ruk Station, in the center of Pakistan, is a dollhouse-pretty building, ringed by palm trees and rice paddies. Once, it stood at the junction of two great Pakistani rail lines: the Kandahar State Railway, which raced north through the desert to the Afghan border; and another that swept east to west, chaining cities from the Hindu Kush mountains to the Arabian Sea.
Now it was a ghost station. No train had stopped at Ruk in six months, because of cost cutting at the state-owned rail service, Pakistan Railways, and the elegant station stood lonely and deserted. Idle railway men smoked in the shadows. A water buffalo sauntered past.
Abro led the way into his office, a high-ceilinged room with a silent grandfather clock. Pouring tea, he mopped sweat from his brow. The afternoon heat was rising, and the power had been down for 16 hours — nothing unusual in Pakistan these days.
Opposite him, Faisal Imran, a visiting railway engineer, listened sympathetically to the mournful stationmaster. This was about more than just trains — more than the decrepit condition of the once-mighty state Railway service, Imran said. It was about Pakistan itself.
“The railways are the true image of our country,” he said, sipping his tea in the heat. “If you want to see Pakistan, see its railways.”
For all the wonders offered by a train journey across Pakistan — a country of jaw-dropping landscapes, steeped in a rich history and filled with unexpected pleasures — it also presents some deeply troubling images.
At every major stop on the long line from Peshawar, in the northwest, to the turbulent port city of Karachi, lie reminders of why the country is a worry to its people, and to the wider world: natural disasters and entrenched insurgencies, abject poverty and feudal kleptocrats, and an economy near meltdown.
The election last weekend was a hopeful moment for a struggling democracy, with the party of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif winning a huge mandate amid record voter turnout of nearly 60 per cent. But the voting left undecided the larger battle against popular disillusionment. In a country forged on religion, Pakistanis are losing faith. People are desperate for change — for any improvement their proudly nuclear-armed government could make, yet has not.
Passengers crossed railroad tracks in central Pakistan.
Chronic electricity shortages, up to 18 hours per day, have crippled industry and stoked public anger. The education and health systems are inadequate and in stark disrepair. The state airline, Pakistan International Airlines, which lost $32 million last year, is listing badly. The police are underpaid and corrupt, and militancy is spreading. There is a disturbing sense of drift.
This failure is the legacy of decades of misadventure, misrule and misfortune under both civilian and military leaders, but its price is being paid by the country’s 180 million people.
To them, the dire headlines about Taliban attacks and sterile arguments about failed states mean little. Their preoccupations are mundane, yet vitally important. They want jobs and educations for their children. They want fair treatment from their justice system and electricity that does not flicker out.
And they want trains that run on time.
Peshawar: The Scarred City
At the journey’s beginning, policemen wielding AK-47s guard the train station in Peshawar, on the cusp of craggy mountains that climb into Afghanistan — one of about 40 such checkposts in a city that has long been a hub of intrigue, but that now finds itself openly at war. Since the first Taliban attacks about six years ago, the city has faced a relentless barrage of suicide bombings. No place can claim immunity: five-star hotels and religious shrines, bustling markets and the international airport, police stations and foreign consulates. Hundreds of people have died.
The train system has been deeply affected. Until a few years ago, the tracks stretched up to the storied Khyber Pass, 30 miles to the west, where one of the last steam trains chugged through the tribal belt. Now that line is closed, its tracks washed away by floodwaters and too dangerous to run even if it were intact, given the insurgent violence.
Khyber also gave its name to the country’s most famous train service, the Khyber Mail, immortalised by travel writers like Paul Theroux. It recalls the heyday of Pakistan’s railway raj, when the train was an elegant, popular mode of travel used by the wealthy and working classes alike, with liveried bearers carrying trays of tea, and pressed linen sheets and showers in the first-class carriages.
But the Awami Express, which waited at the platform, had little of that old-world charm. The carriages were austere and dusty. Porters scurried about in tattered uniforms, taking modest tips from a trickle of passengers. Only one class of ticket, economy, was for sale. The train company, lacking generators, could not offer any air-conditioning.
“We are in crisis,” said Khair ul Bashar, the Peshawar stationmaster, surrounded by giant levers that switch the tracks. “We don’t have money, engineers or locomotives. That’s why there are delays.”
The decrepitude of the 152-year-old railway system has, in recent years, been attributed largely to a Peshawar native: the previous rail minister, Ghulam Ahmed Bilour. A classic product of Pakistan’s patronage-driven politics, Bilour, 73, faced regular accusations of cronyism, using railway resources — money, land and jobs — to look after his own supporters. Meanwhile, service has floundered. Passenger numbers have plunged, train lines have closed and the freight business — the lifeblood of any train service — has crumbled. The last time the rail system turned a profit was in 1974.
Last year the national anticorruption agency placed Bilour under investigation; a court later jailed two of the railway’s top managers.
The minister avoided prosecution, and in interviews has insisted that a lack of funding was the main problem. More recently, though, Bilour has become emblematic of another aspect of Pakistani politics: the complex relationship with violent extremism.
When Peshawar erupted in deadly riots last October over an American-made video clip that insulted the Holy Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), enraged protesters attacked the city’s movie theaters, including one belonging to Bilour’s family.
A day later, the minister made a controversial offer: he would pay $100,000 to anyone, militants included, who killed the offending filmmaker. That gesture ingratiated Bilour with the Taliban, who offered to remove him from their hit list, but deeply shamed his party, which had suffered fatal militant attacks. In Peshawar, people viewed it with irony: the Bilour cinema was notorious for showing racy films that the Taliban surely would not appreciate.
But the cinemas represented more than just Western culture; they were a rare form of public entertainment in a city that is closing in on itself.
Khalid Saeed, the owner of one of the few theaters left standing in Peshawar, the Capitol, sat in the foyer of the once-grand 1930s-era building, surrounded by tatty posters advertising old action movies. Invading rioters broke his projector and set fire to the screen, he said, but mercifully the flames did not spread.
Still, he said, he understood the frustration. “This is about religion, but it’s also about poverty,” he said, sucking on a cigarette. “There’s so much unemployment here. Young people have nothing to do, nowhere to go. You can read it in their faces. They get upset.”
The rattle of Taliban violence has created a stronger curfew than the local police ever could. Saeed said his son dared not venture out after dark, fearing attack or kidnapping. And still the militants keep striking.
“Around here, nobody knows what will happen tomorrow,” he said with an air of quiet resignation. “What sort of life is that?”
In Bilour’s case, the entire episode was for naught. A few months later, in December, the Taliban assassinated his younger brother, the politician Bashir Bilour. As election campaigning got under way recently, a Taliban suicide bomber nearly killed Bilour himself at a rally in Peshawar’s old city. Then, last weekend, he lost his Parliament seat to Imran Khan — the former sports star who has said the government should negotiate with the insurgents, not fight them.
At Peshawar Station, the Awami Express slowly chugged out, brushing against the yawning canopies of gnarled trees and slicing through a crowded clothing market. The clattering grew faster, carriage doors swinging open and shut, as the train rumbled into the countryside. Its passengers — traders, government employees, large families — stretched out on aged leather seats.
Muhammad Akmal, a 20-year-old ice factory worker, was going home to Punjab for a wedding. “Hope to get married myself, soon — perhaps to one of my cousins,” he said. Hopefully, he added, the train would not be too late.
At Attock, the train crawled over a spectacular bridge spanning the Indus River, passing under an ancient hilltop fort built by a Mughal emperor in the 16th century, now occupied by the Pakistani Army.
Sepia-toned images of sweeping train journeys occupy a central place in the Western imagination of the Indian subcontinent, from movie classics like “Gandhi” to the recent “Slumdog Millionaire.” In real life, the Awami Express possessed little of that romance. The 45-year-old diesel locomotive groaned as it belched pillowy black fumes. Fine clouds of dust entered through the open windows. The carriages jerked violently on the corners.
It was not always so. Much as the American West filled out one train depot at a time, Pakistan was forged on steel rails. The state-owned train system, over 5,000 miles of track inherited from the British at independence in 1947, helped mesh a new and fractious country. Trains ferried migrants to the cities, provided a moving platform for campaigning politicians and played a role in the wars against India. It became — and remains — the country’s largest civilian employer, still with more than 80,000 employees. Today, though, decades of neglect have taken a heavy toll. On paper, Pakistan Railways has almost 500 engines, but in reality barely 150 are in working order. Most Pakistanis prefer to take the bus. Those left on the trains are often frustrated, sometimes mutinous.
Early last year, dozens of protesting passengers laid their children across the tracks in Multan, in southern Punjab Province. They were angry because a journey that should have taken 18 hours had lasted three days — and they were still only halfway to their destination. In the train engineer’s seat, Hameed Ahmed Rana, a taciturn man in a neat white shirt and a baseball cap, tugged gently on a brass handle and grumbled.
–by declan wash, NYT
The Japanese-built locomotive wheezed and shuddered. “There’s a problem with the oil pressure,” he said. “Not looking good.”
Rana guided the train into the garrison city of Rawalpindi, headquarters to Pakistan’s military, where artillery pieces poked out from under awnings. Then it pressed south, the landscape flattening as its colors shifted from stony brown to rich green, rumbling past the rich irrigated fields and orange groves of northern Punjab, the heartland of military recruitment.
Inside the train, fans hung inertly from the ceiling as the day’s heat pressed in. The carriages, filling up, were acquiring the air of a village tea shop. Men smoked and chatted; small traders boarded carrying salty snacks and hot drinks; families with women pulled sheets across their seats for privacy.
The conversation, inevitably, turned to politics and religion. An argument about the merits of various leaders erupted between a Pashtun trader, travelling to Karachi for heart treatment, and an engineer who worked in a military tank plant. “We’ve tried them all,” the engineer said with an exasperated air. “All we get are opportunists. We need a strong leader. We need a Khomeini.”
A group of jolly Islamic missionaries, known as jamaats, squeezed into a long seat, offering a foreign visitor smiles, a snack and an invitation to convert to Islam. “We’re not on this world for long,” said Abdul Qadir, a rotund man with a gray-speckled beard, proffering a plate of sliced apple. “People have a choice: heaven or hell. So they should work toward the afterlife.”
Lahore: Class and Corruption
Almost on schedule, the Awami Express panted into the grand old station at Lahore. A Hollywood movie starring Ava Gardner was shot here in 1955; today the yard is cluttered with empty freight vans.
Once the seat of Mughal emperors who ruled the Indian subcontinent, Lahore is the center of gravity for Pakistan’s cultural and military elite, a city of army barracks, tree-lined boulevards, artists and chic parties. It is also the headquarters of the 152-year-old railway empire. In the 1960s, Pakistan Railways was said to own one-third of the city’s land, and today the company is still run from a towering colonial-era palace, where clerks scurry between offices down polished corridors.
Up close, however, there is evidence of decline.
At the Mughalpura rail complex — a vast yard of workshops and train sheds stretched across 360 acres with 12,000 employees — workers were operating at 40 per cent capacity, managers complained. Electricity cuts bring work to a halt, while entrenched unions, a rarity in Pakistan, stridently oppose any efforts to shed jobs or cut benefits. Unions blame management for corruption; managers say the unions are inflexible. Strikes are frequent.
Outside the plant gates, Muhammad Akram, a railway blacksmith, wore a tinsel garland that showed he was on a “token hunger strike,” from 6 am to 6 pm.
The system was on the verge of collapse, he said: “It’s like sitting on the edge of the sea, wondering when you will fall in.”
The misfortune of the railways has, however, benefited Lahore’s elite. Traditionally, the city’s wealth has stemmed from the surrounding countryside, where feudal landlords live off the rents of poor peasants. For decades, the landlords have epitomized Pakistan’s gaping divisions: paying no tax, treating seats in Parliament like family heirlooms, virtually a law unto themselves on their own lands.
Sindh: Abiding Alienation
Charging across lush fields of wheat and cotton, the train crossed into Sindh Province, where it halted at Sukkur, on the Indus River. The Lansdowne Bridge, completed in 1889, spanned the water — one of several feats of engineering by the British colonialists who hacked through mountains, traversed ravines and cut across deserts to make a railroad in what has become Pakistan.
The railway project was foremost a tool of occupation: first to transport cheap cotton to English factories, later to move troops toward the northwestern frontier to guard against invasion from czarist Russia. Tens of thousands of construction workers died on the job, perishing in blistering summers and freezing winters, or from diseases like scurvy and malaria.
South of Sukkur, waterlogged fields mark a modern calamity: the 2010 floods, which inundated about one-fifth of the country, affected 20 million people and caused up to $43 billion in economic losses, according to some estimates. Topsoil and entire villages washed away in muddy waves, never to return.
In the Awami Express’s grimy dining car, a cook named Amir Khan stirred a greasy chicken broth over an open flame, then flopped onto a stack of soda crates. He gestured to the flood-scarred landscape.
“Zardari will show this to America, so that he can get some money,” Khan said with a cackling laugh, referring to President Asif Ali Zardari, who comes from Sindh. The cook wiped a mug clean, then paused reflectively. “Maybe if Benazir were alive, things would be different.”
The assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in December 2007 was a traumatic event for Pakistan, but also for its railways. Enraged supporters attacked 30 train stations across her native Sindh, burning 137 coaches and 22 locomotives in a sulfurous protest at the failure of the state to protect Benazir Bhutto.
Still today, the trains present an easy target for disgruntled Pakistanis. As the Awami Express pushed south, the railway police passed through the train, brusquely searching passengers and their luggage. The police increased railway security after Baloch separatists exploded a small bomb at Lahore Station last year, killing two people. More recently, ethnic Sindhi separatists have singled out the train lines for attack.
At the southern city of Hyderabad, a train branch line jutted into the desert, toward the border with India. This was Thar, a desert region where, unusually, Hindus are predominant. A rural commuter service — a train with open doors and a handful of seats — ambled through irrigated farmland toward the desert. On board were farmers, small traders and pilgrims returning from a Hindu shrine, the bareheaded women adorned in gold and silver jewellery.
At the district’s main town, Umerkot, the local colony of snake charmers lives in the shadow of a clay-walled fort. The chief snake charmer, wearing a bright red turban and playing a flute, entranced a cobra as it curled from a wicker basket. Later, he produced a government certificate that attested to his ability to “perform a dangerous act of passing three-foot snake from nostril and mouth.”
“Half of our people are in India,” he said afterward, pointing toward the desert and the border. “But we feel ourselves 100 per cent Pakistani.”
Karachi: The Slum Patriot
Land is gold in Karachi, Pakistan’s tremulous port megalopolis: a city of migrants, filled with opportunity and danger, where space is at a premium that is often paid in blood. Political parties, mullahs, criminal gangs and Taliban militants all battle for land in the city, often with weapons. The railways offer an easy target.
Slums crowd the train lines that snake through the city, pushing up against the tracks. Migrants have been coming here for decades, seeking economic opportunity or, more recently, fleeing Taliban violence.
A short walk from Karachi’s main train station lies Railway Colony Gate No. 10: a cluster of rough shacks, pressed against a slope, bordered by a stagnant pool of black, putrid sewage.
Among its residents is Nazir Ahmed Jan, a burly 30-year-old and an unlikely Pakistani patriot.
Jan, known to friends as Janu, is from the northwestern Swat Valley, where fighting erupted in 2009. After the Taliban arrived, his family fled Khwazakhela, a village “between the river and the mountain,” which he described with misty-eyed nostalgia: lush fields, soaring mountains and his family’s grocery store, later destroyed in fighting.
Jan was an irrepressible optimist. At least Karachi was safe, relatively speaking, he said. And it had other attractions.
In the corner of his home was a battered computer, hooked up to the Internet via a stolen phone line.
“I just want to express my love for my country,” he said.
Distrusting politicians, he harbored a halcyon vision of what Pakistan could become: a country that offered justice, free education and health care, where leaders made the people wealthy, and not the other way round. “That would be the Islamic way of serving the people,” he said.
From the distance came the sound of a hooting train, pulling into the station. It was surely late.
Published in The Nation newspaper on 20-May-2013