THERE are cracks in Karshat. In your host’s hujra, the roof above your head is held up by walls with fissures in them. They cut through concrete like lightning forks. This building along a mountain incline is not the first to remind you of the natural disasters Shangla has withstood. It will not be the last. From villages to markets along the mountain road meandering through the district, there are other rooms and roofs held in place by a breath — held before another earthquake strikes.

If Shangla has more cracks than any other place in the Malakand division, it’s not because it has weathered more natural disasters or worse. The earthquake in 2005, the floods in 2010 that almost entirely washed out Shangla, and the 2015 earthquake has left a trail of destruction across the mountainous north — Swat, Shangla, Dir and Chitral. In 2008 a man-made disaster, the Taliban, also shattered the region.

Shangla’s cracks run deep only because it is the hilliest of all the hilly districts in the division. And one of the poorest.

In May this year, Shangla buried 23 miners in one day. They had died in coalmines in Balochistan and Punjab, poisoned by methane gas.

“When they leave, they are 25 or younger,” says Sajjad Shah, a social activist in Alpurai, headquarters of Shangla district. “Within months, they look like they are 45. It’s the gas. It poisons them slow.”

On average, says Fiaz Mohammad Khan Papa, a Karshat notable who works with the union councils, Shangla receives a dead miner a day. From Cherat, Hangu, Quetta, Chua Saidan Shah and other places with coalmines, the miners are caught in a cycle of death and poverty: They pull their children into mining because there is no opportunity here. They stay poor, they die. As per the 1998 census, says Shah, 79 per cent of the district’s population works in mines.

Death’s an occupational hazard. If they survive it, miners come back incapacitated, with pulmonary disease and spinal injuries. The local Mine Workers Association says there are 40 of them, the paraplegics, bedridden somewhere in the mountain villages, waiting for medical treatment. But there isn’t a single hospital for them. In terms of health, the UNDP Human Development Index 2017 puts Shangla just above Kohistan, the least developed district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

“If there is a medical emergency,” says Shah, “we either rush to Swat or to Abbotabad.”

Amir Muqam, the PML-N politician, could have built the Nawaz Sharif Kidney Hospital in Shangla, the locals say. After all, voters here took him to the National Assembly twice. And twice his brother Ibadullah, also a PML-N politician, including during the 2018 elections. The hospital went to Mangalwar in the neighbouring Swat, from where Shahbaz Sharif contested and lost elections this year. So did Muqam. He didn’t contest from his native Shangla.

Muqam and his brother have a reputation for riches, for buying voters. When people name him, they add the title “Musharraf’s brother” as if an honorific. He was “Maulana” Ameer Muqam when he won NA10 (NA31 from 1977 till delimitation in 2018) as MMA candidate in 2002, only to defect to the PML-Q, the King’s Party. A grateful Musharraf called him “My brother Amir Muqam.” People complain that he could have used his influence with the general to shine a light on the disadvantaged Shangla. Gripes aside, voters still went ahead and elected Muqam’s brother this year to NA10.

To be fair, addressing Shangla’s low human development indicators — on the UNDP HDI for 2017, it is 82nd out of the 114 districts in Pakistan and 20th of the 25 in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa — should not be a single representative’s obligation. But voters’ expectations from Muqam’s family are high.

“Engineer” Amir Muqam was elected from here again on a PML-N ticket in 2008. His brother Ibadullah Khan won the 2013 elections from NA10 as a PML-N candidate. He was the district nazim here under the PPP government that came to power in 2008. An unelected Muqam, who contested and lost the 2013 elections from Swat, was appointed as an adviser to prime minister Nawaz Sharif in October that year. Muqam’s son Niaz Ahmad Khan was elected district nazim in the local bodies elections 2015.

From 2002 to 2008, Muqam was the minister of state for water, power and political affairs. And yet more than half of the district population is without electricity. “In Shangla, villages generate their own electricity through hydropower generators,” says Khan. However, it was during Muqam’s stint as a minister for water and power that work on the Khan Khwar Dam near Besham in Shangla was started. Finished in 2012, the dam has a generation capacity of 72MW. That power, people say, goes elsewhere and the villages here stay in the dark.

The district has plenty of water, says Shah, but 71pc of the population has no access to it. “The majority of cases in the courts are water-related crimes.”

Following elections in 2008, Muqam became the federal minister for industry and production, and in 2013 adviser to the prime minister. As MNA, his brother Ibadullah Khan served as federal parliamentary secretary for planning and development. But there is no local industry to speak of.

“Shangla has held important positions in policy and decision making, our representatives have been close to the army and the federal government,” says Khan. “And still, a miner dies anywhere from Sindh to Balochistan and he is from Shangla.”

Khan says the MPAs and councillors in the local government are all contractors. And that is the approach they bring to politics. “They hand out water-pipes and build streets instead of giving people rights.”

Outside Karshat, a roadside board announces trees planted under the PTI’s Billion Tree Tsunami. In a place like Shangla, where forest cover is substantial, it is hard to tell how many trees have been planted. The locals would rather the PTI protected the existing forests. In 2017, a massive blaze destroyed 700 acres. The forest was allegedly set on fire by the timber mafia.

“Other than health and education, the authorities need to look into Shangla’s potential for tourism,” says Zakir Hussain Hijazi, chronicler of Shangla’s literature, history and politics. People in the picturesque district often bring up the need for developing tourism. But they also fear that unregulated and unplanned development will destroy Shangla’s beauty and resources like in the neighbouring Swat.

Shaukat Ali Yousafzai, the PTI candidate from Shangla who won the PK23 seat from here in the recent elections, is often lauded for bringing millions of rupees for development projects during the PTI’s first stint in the provincial government (2013-18). He has built a modern school on a hilltop above Besham and spread a network of roads to villages in the mountains. But the little development that happens here is constituency-centric. “What the PTI and other parties need to do, alongside growing trees and building mountain roads, is to work together to help the human potential of the district grow,” says Khan.

But human development was not on anyone’s manifesto in Shangla in the 2018 elections. Doles, oaths and excavators were. To get votes, rich candidates like Muqam, the ANP’s Sadeedur Rehman and PTI’s Shaukat Yousafzai had money, construction materials like plastic pipes and excavators on the ready to build roads to villages. Villagers who knew they couldn’t get anything more from politicians were only too willing to make the most of election bonanza. They signed election compacts, took oaths to assure candidates they would vote for them. Others pledged away marriages, vowing their wives would stand divorced if they didn’t vote for a certain candidate.

And in the process, the cycle of poverty and death in Shangla may have got another lease of life, for another five years. Let’s hope the PML-N and PTI politicians who got elected here have a plan to avert and reverse it.

Published in Dawn, September 2nd, 2018