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Footprints: Norway in Pakistan

Updated September 26, 2014

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Life in  Aalam Pur Gondlan village after sunset.— Photo courtesy: panoramio.com
Life in Aalam Pur Gondlan village after sunset.— Photo courtesy: panoramio.com
.— AFP file photo
.— AFP file photo
.— AFP file photo
.— AFP file photo

IT’S just a leisurely drive from Islamabad, some 140 kilometres on the Grand Trunk road.

Leave the GT road in the middle of Kharian town in Gujrat district and pass through a narrow road that winds through a busy bazaar and eventually comes out in a welcoming landscape of acres and acres of lush green wilderness. Pass behind a military base as the road takes you deeper into the rural area. Here, tractors and trailers run with noisy engines and Attaullah Essakhelvi’s Punjabi and Seraiki songs blare from their speakers.

One expects to end up in a traditional Punjab village with smoke curling up from the earthen hearths, buffaloes grazing, and goats and sheep running around. But there is a surprise in store. There is no village here.

Instead, there are sprawling villas as you enter the main street. Teenage boys are in fine trousers and T-shirts and have spiky hairstyle. Luxury cars are parked in and outside the villas, air conditioners are installed on the top storeys and generators are running to provide electricity during loadshedding hours.

This is a mini Norway in Pakistan.

Out of around the 2,000 people who officially live in Aalam Pur Gondlan village, 400 are settled in Norway. Others have gone to the United Kingdom, Spain, Greece, Canada, Italy and the Gulf to earn a living.

This migration to Europe and other parts of the world has completely changed the dynamics of life in this village, where now only 400 people live permanently. The majority is in Norway, whose total population is a little more than five million. This fact has made Aalam Pur Gondlan a point of interest for the Norwegians as well as those inhabiting neighbouring villages. The place is frequently visited by Norwegian diplomats.

“Many of the young men who have gone to Norway have also arranged for their aged parents to join them there as they could be covered by social security and healthcare programmes and be provided pensions,” says Muhammad Asghar Naseem, an elder in the village. “This village has no poor person now because everybody is earning in krones in Norway. But once upon a time, they were impoverished and deprived.”

The story behind so many people from Aalam Pur Gondlan migrating to Norway revolves around a failed politician: Chaudhry Naik Aalam.

Having graduated in agriculture from the University of Pune (India) and having served as deputy director in Punjab’s agricultural department after the partition of the subcontinent, Aalam developed sympathy for the small farmers and labourers working around him. His sympathy turned into a mission to eradicate poverty from the area. He decided to contest elections from the platform of his own political party, Musawat (Equality), against his classmate and later president of Pakistan, Fazal Ilahi Chaudhry, in 1956, and lost.

“In those elections, Fazal Ilahi defeated him by mustering the support of all the heavyweights and big landowners of the area while Aalam was supported only by a few labourers and the poor,” explains Naseem, who is also a nephew of Aalam.

But Aalam was not deterred by the defeat. He kept contesting every election until 1977 but was never able to fulfil his ambition of reaching parliament. But this failure motivated him to help the deprived and he started pondering on finding a way.

In 1960, he asked his son Ijaz Aalam, a Pakistan Air Force flight lieutenant, to resign from his job and go to the UK to look for work opportunities. Ijaz reported from London that conditions were favourable.

Aalam started sending people to the UK. Soon he discovered that Norway had more opportunities, so he diverted his focus and now the destination was Norway.

“At that time, travel to Europe cost Rs2,000,” Naseem recalls. “People used to go via buses through Kabul, Iran and Turkey.”

But the problem for Aalam was that most of his village people didn’t have even that money. So, he arranged loans from the cooperative bank on his own personal and financial guarantees.

“Around 35,000 Pakistanis live over there now. Of them around 10,000 were sent by Aalam. Everybody paid back his debt,” explains Naseem, who has documented Aalam Pur Gondlan’s history.

Aalam transformed his Musawat party into the Bhook Kadh (Remove Hunger) party at the time of the 1970 elections. He contested the last elections of his life in 1977 and lost that, too. He died in 1981.

Today, the majority of people in his village are very rich. They have built huge palaces in the vicinity, but many of them don’t live there. They have employed caretakers to look after these houses, creating jobs for the poor of the surrounding localities. They also contribute funds for development and social welfare projects in the village.

Meanwhile, an association of the migrants of Aalam Pur Gondlan in Norway commemorates Aalam’s anniversary in Oslo every year. Aalam’s children and grandchildren all are in Norway.

But the man who changed the lives of thousands of people and opened paths for them to the world never left his country himself. He was born and buried on his own soil.

Published in Dawn, September 26th, 2014