Shakespeare has reassured us in Hamlet that ‘character is destiny’ but it is not always as is written in the books. Colour of skin and geographical origins also shape one’s destiny to a larger extent. Have a glance at the armies of domestic help, a glorified term for modern slaves in Pakistani context, that mill towards swanky mansions in Islamabad in the morning and melt into the shadows on the edges of the city in the evening, and you will find some striking similarities. You will find that much of the most of them are malnourished, their jaundiced yellow eyes floating on their dark, damp and oily faces, their hands and feet giving out the dirt they have been in through the day and their clothes frayed and fading. These are men, women and children from southern Punjab and they have one blanket term for identification — Massali.
They are a ubiquitous sight at construction sites, brick kilns, auto workshops, bus stops as well as crime scenes. In all big cities, they are caught for petty crimes and languish in jails for long time because of poverty. They are rivalled only by Afghan refugees of whom the authorities have religiously tried to purge the federal capital of, wiping off their settlements and making sure that they do not return. There are a lot of national and international organizations working for improving the lot of these refugees and the people living in war-hit areas bordering Afghanistan.
But unfortunately, there is little such activism for the dark-skinned labourers of southern Punjab. I have spent two decades in Lahore and Islamabad and in these two decades I have understood that these big cities are incomplete without their servants. But hope always rekindles and I have always been encouraged to talk to educated youth from southern Punjab who are struggling to turn the fate of the poor of their area.
Recent encounter with Mr. Chaudhry Sultan, Mr. Sattar Baloch and Mr. Tahir Buzdar has once again given me a reason to believe that one day these armies of servants with jaundiced yellow eyes and dark faces will change their fate. The three guys have been working hard to establish a university in Alipur tehsil where poor people can get admission in. Education is a thriving business in this area, which is at the centre of the southern Punjab, but these guys want to make a difference. Over the years, they have met heads of many public sector universities, who are willing to open their campuses in Alipur but due to officialdom they cannot afford to lower fees which the people of this neglected area can afford. They have met failure upon failure but never gave up.
Mr. Chaudhry Sultan told me that they have met leaders of all political parties to pursue their dream of opening a university but none has given them as positive response as Punjab Chief Minister Usman Khan Buzdar. He said the CM is well aware of the needs of this region and has a vision to lay down a network of educational institutions there. Mr. Tahir Buzdar says that their journey will not end with setting up of one university. “We will then go to set up a medical college in Uch Sharif,” he said. Sattar Baloch is the brain behind this movement and he talks less and works more. But he talks well whenever he does. They have recently met the CM in his office and are satisfied that he will help them find an out-of-the-box solution.
At the same time, international organisations can play their part if they are interested in going beyond making documentaries on slums of Islamabad. They have to go to the head of the snake to fix the problem for a longer duration. — Hassan Shehzad