Away from the madding city life, stars shine bright above the historic Derawar Fort in Cholistan. Soon there is a burst of colour in the otherwise uninterrupted black skies. Crowds cheerfully take photos and selfies as fireworks erupt to celebrate the closing of this year’s Cholistan Jeep Rally.
Held from Feb 9 to 12, the event attracted hoards of people (mostly men) from all over the country. Sixty-one drivers and navigators participated in the rally, including three women and two foreigners.
This year too seven-time winner Nadir Magsi managed to finish first. He covered the 253-kilometre-long track in 2 hours and 26 minutes. “We have long brilliant tracks and expert drivers, but lack the resources to promote the game internationally,” Magsi told the media after his win.
While the racers hope to look outside to promote their sport, locals from Cholistan want organisers and attendees to look inwards. “The elite enjoy the mega event, fireworks and long drifts in the rally, while we suffer,” says Muhammad Irfan, a villager.
The crowds make the sparse Cholistan population feel like outsiders during the rally.
Once the event is over, it is the locals who are left to deal with the consequences.
Hoardings of sponsoring multinational brands sway in the desert wind. Wrappers, bottles, cigarette butts and shoppers can be seen flying in abundance.
Locals allege that as the waste makes its way towards the cattle, the animals looking for fodder ingest it and die. These animals are often the sole source of livelihood for Cholistan’s semi-nomadic community.
Asjad Ghani, general manager tourism development corporation of Punjab (TDCP), tells Dawn.com that he has not heard about any loss of animals in Cholistan. He adds that the organisers will further investigate the matter.
On the bright side, the rally gives the locals a chance to earn a few extra bucks. Taj Muhammad, a Mazda driver who brought visitors from Bahawalpur to the rally says, “Locals rent their homes to visitors at a minimum cost.”
Shopkeepers too stand to benefit — or at least they did in the past. But this year the starting point of the rally was eight kilometres before the Derawar town. “Visitors did not approach our stalls, which caused a loss in business,” a shopkeeper tells Dawn.com.
On the third day of the event, the traders staged a protest and chanted slogans against the TDCP.
“There is only one event in the year, during which we can do good business,” the protesters reportedly told Daily Duniya, a local newspaper. They further alleged that they had bought goods worth lakhs of rupees, which went to waste.
Ghani dismisses the complaints. These protests happen because people have “nothing better to do,” he says. The TDCP general manager further says that the organisation’s focus is on expanding the event and taking it to a “national level”. Indeed, many locals wonder, at what cost.
Manoj Genani is a photographer and cinematographer.