SUNDAY MAGAZINE

The `other' Pakistan

KALPANA SHARMA

The crossing at Wagah and into a different world.

The crossing at Wagah and into a different world.  

IMPRESSIONS of a city, or a country, change drastically according to the mode of transport you choose to arrive there. In the past, I have always taken a flight to Pakistan. By air, Karachi is closer to Mumbai than Delhi. But today, thanks to the stand-off between our countries, the route between these two cities — sister or brother cities, if you will — is long and circuitous. The only advantage of this trouble is the change in perspective it provides the itinerant journalist.

I write this from Karachi, having travelled by air from Mumbai to Delhi where I had to spend a night because the "Dosti Bus" for Lahore leaves at the crack of dawn. After around 10 hours on a very comfortable bus that is ushered through Delhi, Haryana and Punjab at great speed, thanks to pilot police cars clearing all traffic on the busy roads, you arrive at the Wagah border. And there you remain, for another couple of hours as you go through the tedious ritual of unloading your bags from the bus on the Indian side, going through immigration and customs, reloading your bags on the bus, driving through the gates that mark the border, past the smartly dressed border troops of both sides who are getting ready for the evening ritual of lowering the flags and locking the gates, to another round of unloading bags, immigration and customs and reloading bags on the other side. The Pakistanis then sweeten the ordeal by giving you an excellent cup of tea, sandwiches and cookies, before you head off for Lahore, this time accompanied by a pilot car of the Pakistani police. Within half an hour you are at the historic Faletti's Hotel, where room number `18' bears a plaque announcing that the founder of Pakistan, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, had stayed there. Thus, in around 13 hours you have crossed borders. But there is no strangeness, only the familiarity of a shared past.

The arrival in Karachi by another route is even more dramatic. We take a train from Lahore to Karachi, a journey that is supposed to take 16 hours but extends to almost 19 hours. You enter this bustling city of around 12 million, with a huge working class population, and see the scenes that are the hallmark of cities in most developing countries — slums by the railway tracks and piles of garbage. If one enters Karachi by air, you arrive at a spanking new airport, and drive on well-paved roads that lead you into the centre of the city. By train, you see the other side, the real Karachi that consists of slums, or katchi-abadis as they are called, of poverty, of wealth in the distance. There are also mountains of discarded plastic bags flying around with abandon with every breeze, or clinging precariously to the bare branches of trees like so many pale blue and pink plastic flowers.

I arrive in Karachi with a bunch of trade union representatives from India, another departure from the norm. To greet us at Karachi cantonment station are hundreds of workers, carrying red flags and banners declaring their desire for peace with India, and dozens of fragrant rose garlands that they heap on every arriving passenger from India.

But once the boisterous greetings are over, you hear another side of the story. You realise that in fact, most of these workers belong to unions that have been declared illegal. That they now live under a regime where they have no rights. That years of struggle by their leaders to wrest the right to collective bargaining, the right to strike, have been erased through a single ordinance.

The voices of these workers are not heard today. They have been rendered invisible. And even less visible are the women who work, at home, in factories, in fields. There is much that we share with Pakistan. But we also share the misery of our working classes. The stories have a familiar ring. Women, who do home-based work in the slums of Karachi, are directly affected when violence breaks out in the city, as it does at frequent intervals. They cannot step out to handover their finished products; the contractors cannot enter the area to give them their raw materials. Many days of earning thus disappear under this cloud of urban violence. Yet, no one hears their voices, their stories are rarely told.

We have heard similar stories from India and Bangladesh. But perhaps some of the most poignant examples of the price women workers pay for the absence of peace come from Sri Lanka. Here I quote from a report about garment workers in Sri Lanka, a country that has a tenuous peace today:

"It is close to 7 p.m. and as the sun sets on another ordinary day, Shanti and her colleagues prepare to close down their machines to complete the day's work. But they will not be going home. They will not be paid for the entire day's work. They have already punched their time cards at 5 p.m. They will eat their evening meal, provided by the employer who will in turn deduct the food cost from their salaries. They will take a scrap piece of fabric lying on the factory floor and find a small space between machines to lie down and sleep until 6 a.m. when they will rise and start work again. Outside of the factory it is quiet. There is no movement in the street. Government forces have retired to their barracks for the night. Night-time is when militant groups have `control' of the area. Residents remain indoors after 6 p.m. It is less safe to move around in the dark. Shanti's family may wonder where she is, but they will not come looking for her. Their home is one and a half hours by bus from the factory and the roads will be closed for the night already. They will assume she is still in the factory as the community grapevine passes information from one household to the next, but it will not remove their worry. At the end of the month, Shanti will receive her salary, in cash, with no pay receipt. It may be as little as Rs. 485, even though the minimum wage in her country for garment workers is Rs. 2,500. She will not know her rate per hour or per day. It will probably not even meet her travelling expenses. This is the life of a garment factory worker living in a war zone. The war zone is Batticaloa, in Sri Lanka's eastern province."

There are many women like Shanti in all our countries. Real peace should mean an end to the kind of violence women like her experience every day of their lives.

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