Priority in Pakistan: Turn On Lights

By Saeed Shah for The Wall Street Journal

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When Nawaz Sharif starts his new term as Pakistan’s prime minister on Wednesday, 14 years after he was ousted in a military coup, he will focus on turning on the lights in a nuclear-armed nation that has been increasingly starved of electricity.

Power outages of 12 to 20 hours a day have crippled industry and made life miserable for households, a problem that worsened under the previous government of the Pakistan Peoples Party. Electricity shortages cost Pakistan some $13.5 billion a year, equivalent to knocking 1.5 percentage points off the economic-growth rate, Lahore’s Beaconhouse National University said in a report this year.

After Mr. Sharif is sworn in, he will deliver a speech outlining his strategy for solving the electricity emergency through wide-ranging intervention, bond sales and privatizations, aides said. The financing of the electricity rescue plan would be laid out in the budget to be announced next week by incoming Finance Minister Ishaq Dar, they said.

The new administration plans to pay off what it says is $5 billion in debt that has paralyzed the industry, build new power plants and privatize the sector in a multibillion-dollar overhaul that could attract foreign investor interest, the aides said.

The challenges are great. The previous government poured billions into the sector without eliminating the debt or significantly increasing the supply of electricity. The industry is riddled with corruption and depends on expensive oil for power generation, instead of cheaper gas or coal.

The most pressing issue is the chain of so-called circular debt that runs through the sector: The government keeps the price of electricity to the consumer below the cost of production, but can’t afford to make up the shortfall. It means that oil importers are owed money by power plants, which are owed money by distribution companies, which in turn are owed money by consumers.

“First, we need to write a check,” said Miftah Ismail, an energy adviser to Mr. Sharif, who drew up the energy policy in the party’s election manifesto. “We will pay off the stock of circular debt. It is choking the system. No fresh investment will come into Pakistan unless you get rid of circular debt.”

Although the incoming government has given the level of this debt at $5 billion, a government think tank, the Planning Commission, issued a report in March this year placing it at $9 billion at the end of 2012.

The new administration would borrow the money from banks and also take on the debts owed to the banks by various energy companies and government-owned entities, Mr. Ismail said. Then the government would plan to tap domestic and international bond markets.

A domestic bond issue picked up by local banks would be the most likely scenario, said Ashraf Bava, chief executive of Nael Capital, a brokerage in Karachi. Pakistan would need to improve its credit rating and balance of payments before approaching international capital markets, he said.

“The local banks will have no choice. They’ll have to do it,” said Mr. Bava. “Obviously they’ll be offered a decent return.”

Pakistan, a country of 180 million people, is currently producing some 11,000 megawatts of power, though that dropped last month to less than 9,000 megawatts, compared with demand of at least 17,000 megawatts.

By comparison, installed generation capacity in Indonesia, a country of 240 million people, is 41,000 megawatts, according to a 2012 report from PricewaterhouseCoopers.

Pakistan’s supply shortfall results in power being switched off to households and industry for part of each day on a rotating basis across the country—outages known as “load shedding.”

After paying off the debt, the new government plans to pursue a three-pronged strategy, the aides say. The government would aim to cut line losses and electricity theft, shift power plants from oil to coal, and eliminate subsidies to consumers. Pakistan currently charges consumers around 9 cents per kilowatt-hour for electricity that costs 12 to 14 cents to produce.

Those who use minimal amounts of electricity would continue to get power cheaply, a cost that would be borne by the full fare paid by heavier users—including the middle classes, who form Mr. Sharif’s core constituency, as well as Pakistan’s elite. But if the plan works, Mr. Sharif’s aides said, the cost of power production and prices would come down again.

“There’s no reason why we should be subsidizing those who can afford to run air conditioners,” said Mr. Ismail.

Mr. Sharif’s plan envisages converting three or four of the biggest power plants, which currently burn oil, to coal. Experts estimate such a plan would cost about $2 billion but would pay for itself in savings in about a year.

New coal-burning power stations would also be commissioned, which the incoming government says would take around three years to come onstream. Government-owned generation plants and the grid companies would be put under new management and privatized.

“We will nibble at this problem from many angles as we go along,” said Sartaj Aziz, an adviser to Mr. Sharif on finance and a former finance minister.

Foreign companies rushed into Pakistan’s electricity sector in the 1990s, when new private generation plants were allowed, on lucrative terms. Oil prices were low at the time, so oil-burning plants were built.

However, frequent changes in governments and policies that followed, together with the circular debt issue, chased away most of the foreign interest. The last major American investor, AES Corp.,sold out in 2009.

GDF Suez of France and Malaysia’s Tenaga Nasional Berhad are the remaining foreign firms active in Pakistan’s energy sector.

Naveed Ismail, an independent energy-sector expert who previously worked with the government, said that 48% of Pakistan’s thermal generation came from burning furnace oil, the highest such proportion among any major countries, while contribution from much cheaper coal, the main source of generation in India or China, was close to zero.

“Pakistan just has to learn from the rest of the world. It doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel,” he said. “The issue is producing affordable electricity. No new capacity should be added unless it brings down the average cost of power.”

Helping Pakistan with its electricity crisis has been a major focus of American aid in recent years. Since October 2009, the U.S. has spent $225 million on energy projects in Pakistan, according to the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad, adding more than 900 megawatts to the country’s generation, with schemes for upgrading power plants and dams.

Reflections On Pakistan From A Recent Visitor

By Alan Jones for The Huffington Post

Pakistan is in the news – not least because of the violence leading up to the elections. H.L Mencken told us that “for every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.” Sometimes something happens and we’re hit between the eyes not only with complexity but with a sense of both urgency and humility. Last month I traveled to Pakistan as part of a UPIC (US-Pakistan Interreligious Consortium) delegation led by the Reverend Robert Chase who runs a remarkable project — Intersections International – which is part of the Collegiate Church of New York.

My involvement came through a sponsoring organization called Convergence, a bi-partisan group centered in Washington DC. Before I went to Pakistan, I thought I was reasonably informed. Now that I’ve had an absurdly short but intense five days there, I find that I know even less, except for two things: one, how intensely tribal human beings are, not least those who wouldn’t admit to belonging to a tribe at all; and two, there is no substitute for personal contact and one-on-one relationships.

Not very profound insights in themselves but significant nevertheless, because my sense of tribe was greatly extended through finding new friends. The intense tribalism on the planet is fed by the lust for power by means of violence and death. But there’s a countervailing “tribalism” which is convinced that if we are to survive and flourish we’d better realize that there really is only one tribe, one ethnic group and that’s all of us. That surviving and flourishing will involve more and more of us in the pursuit of justice and peace.

I found myself in Islamabad sitting next to the scariest looking Muslim in the room (given my prejudices and assumptions – surely modeled on Osama Bin Laden – white turban and dress — suitable for hiding a weapon?). He had a large beard and an intense presence. I found out he was born in Bolton in the UK and now lives in Maryland where he has a farm, a body shop and an Islamic center. We hit is off right away and have become good friends. He is spiritually grounded and intellectually critical and we found that our approach to the great mystery of our different (but not so different) traditions were, in crucial respects, not so much sympathetic as identical.

I came away with two basic insights – one discouraging, the other bright with promise. First, the discouraging part. In some ways Pakistan is a basket-case of a nation. Public opinion polls reveal much that is neurotic and paranoid (not unlike other nations we might mention nearer home). One of our hosts – a distinguished academic – outlined for us the perceptions many Pakistanis have of us. There is overwhelming anti-American feeling revealed in the polls in Pakistan (it wasn’t always so) Why? There are deep problems of perception that have been internalized.

Many are convinced that the War on Terror is really a War on Islam. Moreover this war is being encouraged by a deep conspiracy of Jews and Christians. The US government is not to be trusted because the US wants to break up Pakistan and take control of Pakistan’s assets (the nuclear issue). Finally, the US wants to impose India’s hegemony over Pakistanis. All of the Pakistani delegates agreed with the analysis but also insisted that the perception was distorted – a caricature.

The encouraging insight was our interaction with Pakistani university students and faculty both in Islamabad and Lahore – particularly the women, who were passionate, critical, articulate and energized. What was particularly striking was their clear and biting honesty both about their own country and their severe critique of the appalling ignorance of what is going on in the world and in our name on the part of the US populace.

Alasdair McIntyre some years ago in an essay “How to be a North American” wrote: “We become people one of whose aims is to make sure that we please others, so that they are pleased at being pleased by us. And this wanting to be liked is one of the great American vices that emerges from this refusal of particularity and conflict. Americans tend under the influence of this vice to turn into parodies of themselves – smiling, earnest, very kind, generous, nice people, who do terrible things quite inexplicably. We become people with no depth, no depth of understanding, masters of technique and technology, but not of ourselves.” Colonel Tuan of the Republic of Vietnam once called Americans well-disciplined and generous but a people without a culture. He was not referring to high culture McIntyre commented,, “He meant that he could not recognize what it was about them that made them Americans in the way that he was Vietnamese. And I think that is what happens to people with no story to tell themselves, people who do not confront their future as a narrative future. They, or rather we, become superficial people, people with surfaces, public relations people.”

It struck me that these young Pakistanis were speaking from the point of view of a culture – a culture to be sure that was being challenged by change but a culture nevertheless. Where to begin? It might seem rather thin simply to affirm that there are now strong ties and friendships between members of the two delegations. But these relationships are strengthened by a deep commitment to go on meeting both here and in Pakistan; and not only to meet but to work on projects which will build bridges between our two countries.

It isn’t as if we have to start from scratch. There is already a strong corps of Pakistani-Americans who are dedicated bridge-builders. What comes through when I reflect on my trip to Pakistan is my conviction of the urgency of a new vision for humanity. How can the best of religion be galvanized for the common good? One of my colleagues at the seminary where I taught for many years, often used this aphorism: “Don’t let the demons set the agenda.” It seems to me that this is a good injunction for our age both in our country and in our relations with others. It’s time to jump into the complexity of things with a sense of urgency, humility and humor and realize that there is, in the end, only one ethnic group, only one human race.

Coca-Cola Vending Machines Bringing India & Pakistan Together

After Decades of Neglect, Pakistan Rusts in Its Tracks

By Declan Walsh for The New York Times

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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.

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.

Mr. 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, Mr. 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 percent. 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.

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.

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, immortalized 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, Mr. 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 Mr. 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, Mr. 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 Prophet Muhammad, enraged protesters attacked the city’s movie theaters, including one belonging to Mr. 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 Mr. 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. Mr. 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 Mr. 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 Mr. 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. The Japanese-built locomotive wheezed and shuddered. “There’s a problem with the oil pressure,” he said. “Not looking good.”

Mr. 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, traveling 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 percent 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 a.m. to 6 p.m. 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. But things are changing. Of late, the landlords are being nudged aside by a new elite, one that has found a home in a gilded country club built on railway land.

The Royal Palm Golf and Country Club, a lavish facility with an 18-hole golf course, gyms, 3-D cinemas and cigar rooms, opened in 2002 at the height of the military rule of Gen. Pervez Musharraf. The club, which costs $8,000 to join, has become a showcase for new money: families that made their fortunes from property and industry, contacts and corruption.

The Royal Palm’s glittering social functions, attended by men in expensive suits and women in ornate gowns, are a staple of local society magazines. The opening of a local Porsche dealership was celebrated here in 2005 with a gala dinner featuring exotic dancers flown in from Europe. Some events even offer alcohol, although guests are encouraged to drop their wine glasses when the cameras show up.

“This is a family club, and a lifestyle choice,” said the manager, an architect named Parvez Qureshi, sitting in his stained-wood office overlooking the golf links.

But the Royal Palm was also built on the bones of the railways.

The rail minister at the time was Lt. Gen. Javed Ashraf Qazi, an ally of General Musharraf’s and a former spy chief who leased the railway’s land to a consortium of businessmen. Critics accused him of giving the land away at a sweetheart rate.

“It was not a clean deal. Absolutely not,” said Nasir Khalili, chairman of the Gardens Club, an officers social club with 1,400 members that had to surrender its property.

The National Accountability Bureau, which investigates official corruption, concluded last year that the Royal Palm deal had cost the government millions of dollars in lost revenue.

It was not the first time that the military had chipped at the rail system. Back in the 1980s, the military ruler Gen. Mohammad Zia ul-Haq diverted train freight business to the National Logistics Cell, a military-run road haulage company that cornered the market for transporting wheat and other commodities. Less publicly it smuggled C.I.A.-financed weapons destined for mujahedeen rebels fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan.

“With freight gone, the railway was doomed,” said Salman Rashid, a travel writer who has specialized in the train network.

One evening, a raucous concert took place on the Royal Palm driving green. Thousands of teenagers crowded onto the grass to see Atif Aslam, a popular singer, in a performance sponsored by a cellphone company. Militant violence has curtailed public events in Lahore; most take place in such cloistered circumstances.

Before a crowd of about 4,000 young people, some joined by their parents, Mr. Aslam, wearing skinny jeans and a fur hat, bounded across the stage in a sea of testosterone, fluttering vocals and crashing guitars.

To a foreigner, many posed a rhetorical question that betrayed their wounded sensitivity to Pakistan’s international image. “Do we look like terrorists?” asked Zuhaib Rafaqat, a 21-year-old computer student. “The West seems to think we are. But look at us — we’re just enjoying ourselves, like anyone else.”

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,” Mr. 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 Ms. 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.

Sindh is the hub of Pakistan’s Hindu population, which, like other minorities, has suffered from deepening intolerance in recent years. Stories of forced conversion of Hindu women at the hands of Muslim zealots have caused media scandals; last year some Hindu families, complaining of prejudice, left for India. But they were an exception: most Hindus remained behind, and some are quietly thriving.

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 jewelry.

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 percent 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.

Mr. 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.

In contrast, Karachi is gritty and ugly, he acknowledged. He made his money selling “chola” — a cheap bean gruel — as he guided his pushcart through the railway slum. It earned him perhaps $3 a day — enough to feed his two infant children, if not much else.

But Mr. 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. He used it to write poetry, mostly about his love for Pakistan, he said, pulling out a sample. One couplet read:

“If you divide my body into 100 parts /a voice will cry from each one: Pakistan! Pakistan!”Mr. Jan’s face clouded. He had contacted national television stations, and even the army press service, trying to get his work published, he said, folding a page of verse slowly. But nobody was interested; for now the poetry was confined to his Facebook page.

“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.

Mr. Jan smiled and, clasping his hands across his chest, excused himself. He had to work. The mountain migrant vanished down the street behind his pushcart, children scurrying around him. He whistled a Pashto folk tune, his soup jostling in the cart.

From the distance came the sound of a hooting train, pulling into the station. It was surely late.

This article was reported and written before Declan Walsh’s expulsion from Pakistan by the Interior Ministry on May 10.

Imran Khan’s accident triggers wave of sympathy in Pakistan

By Jon Boone for The Guardian

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Imran Khan, a leading candidate in this week’s general election in Pakistan, was rushed to hospital with a skull fracture and injured back on Tuesday after falling off an improvised platform attached to a forklift truck at one of the final rallies of his campaign.

The images of the dazed and bloodied leader of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party (PTI) being rushed to hospital with a skull fracture and back injuries has added another element of uncertainty to an election that even seasoned observers are hesitating to call.

But just hours after falling from an overcrowded platform attached to a forklift truck, Khan was recording video messages from his hospital bed, urging his countrymen to vote for his party in the coming polls on Saturday.

“I did whatever I could for this country,” Khan said while lying flat on a hospital bed, his neck partially restrained by a brace. He went on to urge people to vote for the PTI.

“Now I want you to take responsibility. If you want to change your destiny, I want you to take responsibility.”

Earlier yesterday the 60-year-old politician had been pulled off the platform used to raise him to a stage at a political rally in the city of Lahore after one of his guards lost balance and toppled over the side.

The accident triggered a flood of concern and support on social media, where Khan already has a passionate following.

Crowds gathered outside the Shaukat Khanum hospital, a private cancer hospital named after his mother that Khan established, after he was transferred there.

When news came through that a scan had shown Khan had not suffered internal bleeding, the gathered supporters cheered and waved cricket bats, the official symbol of the PTI which will appear on ballot papers next to candidates’ names.

The extraordinary twist to an already drama-filled election complicates the guessing game over how many seats the PTI, a relatively young party that has only ever held one seat in the past, will win.

Although most analysts do not think the PTI will emerge as the biggest party, Khan had appeared to be gaining momentum in recent days with a frantic schedule of back-to-back campaign events that have helped to galvanise a young, middle-class fanbase with huge numbers of supporters flocking to his events.

The more seats he wins, the harder it will be for frontrunner Nawaz Sharif, a two-term prime minister who heads a wing of the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N), to win an outright majority or even enough seats to form a strong coalition.

Sharif’s campaign was quick to respond to events, announcing the cancellation of all campaign events on Wednesday and the dropping of all ads attacking Khan. The country’s interim prime minister, Mir Hazar Khan Khoso, also expressed concern over Khan’s injury and wished him a quick recovery.

Khan’s political rallies have been full of energy but also chaotic at times, with security guards powerless to prevent the PTI leader throwing himself into heaving crowds despite the terrorist attacks that have cast a shadow over the election.

In 2007 the former prime minister Benazir Bhutto was killed after she was attacked by militants. The incident helped her party, the Pakistan Peoples party (PPP), ride to power on a wave of sympathy.

The runup to the elections has been marred by near-daily violence by militants targeting candidates and their election offices.

On Tuesday 12 people were killed and more than 40 injured by a suicide bomb attack on a candidate for Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam, a rightwing religious party, in the north-western province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Later in the day a roadside bomb killed another five people, including the brother of a PPP candidate standing for the provincial assembly.

So far more than 100 people have been killed by the Taliban’s campaign of violence, largely directed against candidates standing for secular parties that back army operations against the militants.

Khan believes the Pakistani army should withdraw from the tribal regions bordering Afghanistan and resolve the conflict through negotiations. He has also been an outspoken opponent of the US drone programme targeting al-Qaida and Taliban militants in northwest Pakistan.

Some of Khan’s supporters, pictured left, took the accident as a good sign, citing the example of the 1992 cricket World Cup, in which Khan led Pakistan to victory despite suffering acute pain in his shoulder.

“Imran Khan won 92 World Cup with a shoulder injury, this time he’ll win Elections 2013 with a head injury,” said one Facebook commenter.

Dr Mohammed Shafiq, who treated Khan after the fall, told Geo News the former all-rounder had received seven stitches to a 15cm wound in his head, but expected him to recover. “He is fully conscious and he was complaining of backache,” he said. “He is fine, but he must have some rest for one or two days.”

“Imran Khan wants his supporters to remain peaceful and united, and he says he will soon be among them,” his sister, Rani Hafiz Khan, told the Pakistani ARY news channel. According to a recent poll by the Pew research centre, 60% of respondents viewed Khan favourably. However that figure was slightly down on a year ago, and now Khan is slightly outranked by Sharif.

The election will mark a historic transfer of power from one democratically elected government fulfilling its full term to another, something that has never happened in Pakistan’s history.

Sarabjit Singh Dies in Lahore, India Blames Pakistan

As Reported by The Hindustan Times

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Indian death row prisoner Sarabjit Singh, who was comatose in a Lahore hospital after a brutal assault by four to five prisoners on April 26, succumbed to injuries on Thursday, officials said. “I received a call from the doctor on duty (at Jinnah Hospital) at 1am (1:30 IST) informing me that Sarabjit is no more,” Mahmood Shaukat, the head of a medical board that was supervising Sarabjit’s treatment, told PTI.

Officials of the Indian High Commission in Islamabad said they had been informed by officials of Jinnah Hospital about Sarabjit’s death.

Singh’s lawyer Owais Sheikh confirmed the 49-year-old’s death and said that his body “has been moved to the hospital mortuary”.

The doctor who spoke to AFP said arrangements were under way for an autopsy.

Singh sustained several injuries, including a fractured skull, when six prisoners attacked him on Friday last week, hitting him on the head with bricks.

“(His death) was already feared. His condition was more than critical and he had less chances of survival,” Sheikh said.

Sarabjit was on life support since April 26.

Sarabjit slipped into a “non-reversible” coma on Wednesday.

A source said Sarabjit’s heart was beating “but without brain function” because of the extensive head injuries he sustained when he was assaulted by prisoners at Kot Lakhpat Jail in Lahore.

Sarabjit was completely unresponsive and unable to breathe without ventilator support.

Sarabjit’s wife Sukhpreet Kaur, daughters Poonam and Swapandeep Kaur and sister Dalbir Kaur, who went to Lahore on Monday to see him, returned to India on Wednesday.

On Wednesday, doctors treating Sarabjit at the state-run Jinnah Hospital said that his condition had further deteriorated though he had not been declared brain dead.

Returning from Pakistan, Sarabjit Singh’s family accused the government of doing little for the death-row prisoner battling for his life after a brutal assault.

“I am disappointed with the government. The Prime Minister should resign as he is not able to bring back an Indian citizen.You failed to protect your citizen… They (Pakistan) got freed (Pakistani citizen Dr Khalil) Chishti and you (India) released their other prisoners,” Dalbir said.

Dalbir had demanded that Sarabjit be brought to India immediately and given proper treatment.

“I want the government to immediately step in. I want to bring him back. If Malala (Yousafzai) can be treated abroad, why not my brother. I have doubts about the treatment they are giving to him, but I have full confidence in the doctors back home,” Kaur said.

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) condemned the attack on Singh as a “dastardly act” and called on the government to make a thorough inquiry into the matter and punish the guilty persons.

“The authorities have obviously failed to do their elementary duty” of providing him safety and security, the commission said in a statement.

Sheikh earlier told AFP that his client had received threats following the execution of a Kashmiri separatist in India. Mohammed Afzal Guru was hanged in New Delhi on February 9 for his part in a deadly Islamist attack on the Indian parliament in 2001.

Singh was convicted for his alleged involvement in a string of bomb attacks in Pakistan’s Punjab province that killed 14 people in 1990. His mercy petitions were rejected by the courts and former president Pervez Musharraf.

His family insisted he was a victim of mistaken identity and had inadvertently strayed across the border in an inebriated state.

Pakistanis for Peace Editor’s Note- Thus is another blow to peace between India and Pakistan. The attack on Sarabjit Singh and his subsequent death does little for trust and friendship building measures between the two nations.

 

India Anger Over Sarabjit Singh Attack in Pakistan Jail

As Reported by The BBC

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There have been protests in India after an attack in a Pakistani prison left convicted Indian spy Sarabjit Singh in a coma.

Singh, a high-profile prisoner on death row for more than 21 years, was attacked by inmates armed with bricks in Lahore’s Kot Lakhpat jail on Friday. Singh is in intensive care with severe head injuries. Two inmates have been charged and two officials suspended.

Indian PM Manmohan Singh described the attack as “very sad”. Former foreign minister SM Krishna said a strong protest should be lodged with Pakistan. He said such conduct should not happen “in a civilised world”. Protests erupted in the city of Jammu, in Indian-administered Kashmir.

One protester, Chetan Sharma, told Reuters: “This was a conspiracy to kill Sarabjit Singh in which they have meted out inhuman treatment to him. This was well planned by Pakistan.”

‘All alone’

A doctor at Lahore’s Jinnah hospital told Agence France-Presse news agency: “Singh’s condition is critical with multiple wounds on his head, abdomen, jaws and other body parts, and he has been put on ventilator.”

India’s government informed Sarabjit Singh’s family that Pakistan had granted visas for four family members to visit.

His sister, Dalbir Kaur, told AFP: “We want to be with Sarabjit in this difficult time. He is all alone.” Sarabjit Singh was reportedly attacked as he and other prisoners were brought out of their cells for a one-hour break. Two prisoners have been charged with attempted murder.

The BBC’s Jill McGivering says that over the years the Singh case has been raised at the highest political levels and his fate has often seemed caught up with the broader relationship between India and Pakistan.

Sarabjit Singh was convicted of spying for India and involvement in a series of bomb blasts in 1990 in which 14 people died. His family say he is innocent and merely strayed across the border in Punjab by accident.

Tensions have increased in the past six months with the execution in India of Kashmiri Afzul Guru over the attack on India’s parliament 11 years ago and of Mohammed Ajmal Qasab, the sole surviving attacker from the 2008 Mumbai attacks.

Sarabjit Singh’s lawyer Owais Sheikh told AFP his client had received threats after Guru’s execution.

Pakistanis for Peace Editor’s Note- Another sad chapter in the depressing Pakistani-Indian saga. We hope that Sarabjit Singh is able to recover and Pakistan needs to release him to Indian custody. Whether he truly is a spy or not, he has served his time and now needs to be released to Indian custody in a goodwill gesture towards India.

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