A peep into rural Pakistan

By Babar Ayaz

Trainer RMNP-UNESCO  Journalists Safety Training Workshop

Getting out of mega-cities and visiting villages and rural towns is an opportunity every journalist, worth his/her salt, cannot miss. So when the Chairman of the Rural Media Network (RMN) Ehsan Ahmed Sehar invited me to Liaquatpur to train the journalists of the tehsil, I was unable to resist the offer. It is not just our lungs that need the fresh rural air; our minds also need some oxygen to think objectively.

I have been of the view that the Pakistani media is imbalanced as it is mainly focused on urban life, politics, social issues and economics. Over 65 percent of the people in Pakistan live in rural areas, around 42 percent of the labour force is associated with the agrarian economy and 21 percent of the GDP is directly contributed to by the agricultural sector. This indeed is an understatement because many of our industries are directly dependent on the production of cash crops like cotton, sugar, wheat, rice, milk processing, fertiliser, seed, pesticide, etc. On the other hand, those of us who live in big urban cities and contribute to the media are often far removed from the reality of life in the rural areas. Thus, many times the political and economic pundits’ analyses go wrong.

First, let me share with you the views of the Liaquatpur journalists who were participants of the workshop on ‘Journalists’ safety and security’ organised by RMN in association with UNESCO. These journalists, like their counterparts in other tehsils and districts, are usually part-time workers. Their common complaint is that the big media groups who judge others from a high moral pedestal seldom pay their rural correspondents. Hence the quality of reporting suffers and we do not get the type of reports we expect to have a better understanding of rural society.

Their second complaint was that they are harassed or false cases are registered against them if they report the corruption of local officials and politicians, and on filing reports about the coercion of big landlords. The media houses they work for do not provide them any support once they are in trouble. But, after working with them for two days, I felt that media organisations like the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ), Council of Pakistan Newspaper Editors (CPNE), All Pakistan Newspapers Society (APNS) and the electronic media should invest in training these journalists. This will not only bring a variety of interesting stories to the media but will also equip the rural area journalists to report more objectively. The common mistake these journalists make is that they mix their opinions and, at times, harsh statements with the facts stated in the story. This brings them the wrath of the people who are exposed by the story.

Now let us move to some other observations of the area. My trip took me to Liaquatpur, Ahmedpur Sharqiya and Bahawalpur. In this region, I wanted to test two of my assumptions that have been put forth in my previous columns. First, has there been more inflow of money from the urban to the rural areas in the last three years because of better crop prices and higher prices of milk? Second, whether corruption in high places changes the rural voters’ preferences.

To my first question, most people across the board agreed that the purchasing power of their area has gone up. Even the small farmer has benefitted from the rising prices of agricultural produce. However, they did complain that the prices of inputs have also risen accordingly. But the net benefit cannot be denied. You see more people riding new motorbikes than you see in Karachi, and the people are seen better dressed than before.

This does not mean that the landless peasants’ life has improved much. According to farmers, the women’s workforce, which is the labour for cotton picking, gets only Rs 150 to Rs 200 per 40 kg of picking. As it is tedious work, most women manage to pick around only 20 kg of cotton a day. The cotton picking is done for three months and each woman thus takes home a petty sum of Rs 9,000 to Rs 12,000 at the end of three months of hard labour. Similar is the case with sugarcane and wheat harvesting although the rates are different. In the case of wheat, sharecropping is still in vogue — a rural worker gets about 30 kg for harvesting one acre. However, for these two crops, men are also involved in the Bahawalpur division. Poor farm wage workers say that though the prices of phutti have gone to over Rs 5,000 per maund, their wages have not been increased. The workers’ trade unions and activists have little work in these areas and hence the farm wage labourer is not organised to bargain for better rates.

Now, for my second assumption on whether corruption charges on politicians will disenchant their voters in the rural areas, as our middle class journalists and intellectuals say in talk shows. I asked many people in Liaquatpur, which is the constituency of PPP MNA Syed Hamid Saeed Kazmi, whether he will be voted back in spite of alleged charges about the Hajj scandal. Incidentally, he was in the city when we were holding the workshop and decided to drop in to thank the organisers for holding a capacity building workshop for local journalists.

Most voters I talked to in the first place do not believe the charges against him and felt that he was the victim of sectarian bias. Hamid Saeed Kazmi has his own ancestral following in this area and, coupled with the PPP following, he can win the election. But it is not sure whether the PPP will give him a ticket for the coming elections in 2013. The journalists were happy that he kept his promise and had gotten them a grant for the extension of the Press Club, the shopkeepers and people on the road I talked to were happy that he had brought natural gas to the town. Is it not amazing that the country is short of gas and the network keeps expanding to meet the politicians’ promises?

Source: Daily Times

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