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Footprints: where the heart is

Updated August 29, 2017

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Pipes meant to provide gas connections to the residents of Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi's village are piled up near Dewal.— Photo by writer
Pipes meant to provide gas connections to the residents of Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi's village are piled up near Dewal.— Photo by writer

MURREE: The Dewal union council is situated on the edge of Pakistan, 14km short of the Kohala bridge that is our border with the Kashmir region. The main highway from Islamabad to Muzaffarabad in Azad Jammu and Kashmir reaches Kohala bypassing Dewal from the east. Another nicely carpeted road — curiously branded the ‘Kohala Bridal Road’ — runs from the north of Dewal and connects Kohala to Murree’s Jhikagali.

Dewal now has the honour of being the prime minister’s village. But the grand Islamabad-Murree expressway turns into a dilapidated stretch of potholes as it reaches this hamlet. Accidents occur fairly often. On the north, the Bridal Road, which is now called the Khaqan Abbasi Road, narrows and chokes up as soon as it reaches Dewal bazaar, posing a challenge to commuters and supply trucks coming to and from Kohala.

In the summers, when the tourist season is at its peak, passing through the congested Dewal bazaar is a nightmare. And when the population of the village increases — such as when the immigrant sons of its soil return to spend their vacations here — water falls short since there is no efficient water supply scheme. In the winters, the stoves turn cold because there is no gas connection.

The Dewal union council has a population of around 30,000 people (according to the locals), but no college. A basic health unit has only one doctor without medicines and a female medic, so women suffer particularly badly.

When Mr Abbasi, one of Dewal’s sons, was appointed prime minister on Aug 1, the people of the village celebrated in the anticipation that he would soon visit and announce a development package for the area. Almost a month later, they are still waiting. The only change that has occurred is that after Mr Abbasi stepped up to the prime minister’s chair, work on the gas supply scheme, which he launched as minister for petroleum and natural resources, has sped up.

“We now hope to get gas before the coming winter,” says Muhammad Sufian Abbasi, a trader in the bazaar. He sees Mr Abbasi’s new job as a source of pride for the whole Abbasi clan, and hopes that development schemes for the area will soon be forthcoming. “He was previously known as a gentleman, yet a simpleton, because he did not meet the people’s expectations,” he says. “This title was given to him also because he rarely spoke in the National Assembly. Once, during a session in which he was invited to talk, he was found snoring. But now I believe he will improve his image.”

Zia Hussain, secretary general of the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf (PTI), Dewal, says that times have brought compounded jubilation for the people here. “First Nawaz Sharif was ousted, and then Shahid Khaqan Abbasi was designated the prime minister,” he says, adding that Mr Abbasi should now utilise this opportunity and solve the problems of the people of his area. “There are no roads, no water, no gas, no school and no hospital. He should provide all these facilities otherwise the PTI will defeat him in his home constituency in the next election.”

The polling agent of Prime Minister Abbasi and his father Khaqan Abbasi, 71-year-old Basharat Abbasi, terms the whole family “noble”, but cautions that this is the time when the younger Abbasi needs to prove himself a servant of the people by addressing the area’s deficiencies. “In his election speech, Mr Sharif had announced a university and a major hospital for Murree, but he did not fulfil his promise in four years. Now, PM Abbasi should establish these institutions,” he says.

However, Shamim Abbasi, an uncle of the prime minister, feels that the latter can’t meet everybody’s individual demands. “He follows merit and is unable to fulfil the wishes of every individual, such as by providing jobs,” he argues. “As far as the development of the area is concerned, all schemes are in various stages of completion. A budget of Rs2.47billion for the extension of the Islamabad-Murree expressway to Kohala has already been approved and work will start very soon. The gas supply will also start in three months’ time and the establishment of a university and a hospital is under consideration.”

A few hundred metres from the choke-point, the Khaqan Abbasi Road widens at a turn. There on a hill, a sprawling villa stands behind a thatch of flowerbeds and towering trees. This red-roofed building is the ancestral home of the new prime minister.

“Mr Prime Minister is very kind. His father was, too. The father asked us to live in their house and the son provided jobs to my brothers, one in PIA and two in Air Blue,” says Khalid Rehman, caretaker of the Abbasi villa.

Talk in the town is that Mr Abbasi’s father rescued Nawaz Sharif at the very beginning of his career when Gen Ziaul Haq decided to remove him from the office of the chief minister of Punjab. The caretaker explains, “As a friend of Zia’s from his Jordon days, Khaqan Abbasi told him that Nawaz Sharif was his man. Zia spared him and Sharif continued climbing the ladder of political power.”

Published in Dawn, August 29th, 2017