SOCIETY: SHANGLA’S WAIT FOR GODOT

Published March 7, 2021
Hussain Ali teaches students at his house | Photos by the writer
Hussain Ali teaches students at his house | Photos by the writer

In Dehrai, Shangla district, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), Fahad Qemos leaves home every morning in a wheelchair with the help of his young children. Despite being physically challenged, he sells snuff to earn a living, at his little shop in the town’s bazaar.

Qemos’s spinal cord was damaged in a coalmine incident in 2006, over in Cherat in Kohat district. “At the time, one of my sons had just been born and the other was four years old,” he says. “I cannot afford to educate them anymore so they have left school. They take me to my shop and help me make snuff.” Between customers, chit chatting with other shopkeepers keeps Qemos busy during the day.

Qemos is hardly unique in Shangla, which has a high population of physically challenged people, including women. Shangla stands out particularly because it’s the particularly poverty-stricken area where many of Pakistan’s hardy coalminers come from. They go to work as far afield as Sindh and Balochistan. The physically disabled men here were mostly injured in coalmine accidents, and spinal injuries are not uncommon.

According to the social welfare department (SWD) in Shangla, 7,456 physically challenged people were registered until January this year, but none of them have received any financial assistance from the government for the last four years.

Ihsanullah, an assistant at the SWD, Shangla, says they continue to receive applications from physically challenged people but, since the KP government has a shortage of funds, no stipends have been paid over the last four years.

After four months of married life, Malang Jan, 36, was injured in a landslide while working in a coalmine in Chakwal in 2006. He has submitted several applications to the Pakistan Bait-ul-Mal and the SWD for help in finances and treatment, but has received no response. Jan has now moved to a rented house in Swat because of the lack of facilities in his hometown, Olandar. “My father and four other brothers also work as miners and, along with some philanthropists, they help financially for my treatment and livelihood,” says Jan.

A physically challenged community, comprising mostly of poor coalminers who had crippling accidents,wait for the government to walk its talk

Aziz Gul, district officer at Bait-ul-Mal, Shangla claims that there are no funds available for disabled persons at the district level, but some people in Shangla who applied for stipends at the Islamabad office of the Bait-ul-Mal have received cheques of 10,000 to 20,000 rupees after their details were verified.

Hussain Ali at his women’s apparel shop
Hussain Ali at his women’s apparel shop

Niaz Badshah is an invalid whose seven-year-old son Naimatullah has been battling kidney disease for the last four years. “He means the world to me but I can’t do much for him, so my father takes Naimatullah to hospital once a month, for which he has to borrow money,” says Badshah. He is waiting for the prime minister’s December 3, 2020 Twitter announcement to materialise, according to which a monthly stipend of 2,000 rupees for two million differently abled people was announced under the Ehsaas Kafaalat Policy for Special Persons. The local SWD and Bait-ul-Mal have yet to receive any official order in this regard.

Abdul Zahir, a 47-year-old matriculate who became disabled after a coalmine accident in 2010, and his son — who has polio — make another tragic father-son story. Zahir and his son spend time together at home but they long to live like normal people. “My relatives take us on a charpoy to the Langbar Road in Chakesar for going to the hospital,” he says. “They also help us financially to buy groceries and medicines.”

Bakhtmen, another mine accident victim, lives in the Puran area with his seven children. “I want my daughters to get married and my sons who are in primary school to get educated, but my finances may not allow either of my wishes to come true,” he says, adding that his applications to the government and NGOs for financial support have received no response to date.

Muzdalifa, a physically challenged widow from Chakesar tehsil stitches clothes to feed her family and, like Bakhtmen, is also keen on getting her sons educated. After she fell from the stairs, she spent two months at a paraplegic centre in Peshawar. Now Muzdalifa only manages to do her domestic chores whilst sitting in the wheelchair. She has registered herself with social welfare department and applied twice for stipends but received nothing as yet.

The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Deserving Widows and Special Persons Welfare Foundation Act, (Act No. VI of 2014) was passed on January 22, 2014, to assist widows and special persons in the province financially and through trainings, equipment, shelter and setting up of enterprises. But it is not been implemented in Shangla yet.

In such a dismal scenario, where there is an endless gap in government policies and their implementation, there are also people such as 35-year-old Hussain Ali from Mian Kalay, who actually makes an effort to help others despite his own disability. Ali also has a spinal cord injury. In 2016, working a hundred feet deep in a coalmine in Cherat near Kohat, a portion of the mine fell on Ali, burying him underneath the rubble. Ali regained consciousness at the Lady Reading Hospital, Peshawar.

A few days later, Ali had spinal cord surgery in a private hospital in Peshawar, as his family could afford private hospital expenses and wanted him to get the best treatment possible. When Ali eventually returned to his high altitude village, he was unable to climb up the 133 steps to his home, from the road he had walked all of his previous life. He still lives in the same house and his brothers help him on the steps, sometimes with or without the wheelchair.

Ali also needs assistance to get to a nearby shop that he set up after his rehabilitation, where he sells bridal dresses, women’s apparel, shoes and cosmetics for a living.

“Before my injury, I would meet people with coalmine accidents and they would tell me about their miserable lives,” says Ali, sitting in his wheelchair outside his mud house. “That is when I decided to work for their welfare.”

Ali has collected the data of 200 people with spinal cord injuries in Shangla. They mostly have children in their families and are financially constrained. He uses the data to support his pleas at the SWD or the deputy commissioner’s office. Besides helping physically challenged people to become physically and financially independent, Ali also teaches some 25 students at his house, free of charge.

Recently, Ali has also started a social media campaign, appealing to philanthropists for financial support and the provision of wheelchairs for the disabled people in Shangla. He says there has been a small but positive response.

Shaukat Yousafzai, Minister for Labour and Culture in KP, was elected a member of parliament from Shangla. Besides working for the welfare of coalminers, he says he plans hold a meeting with the social welfare minister to include Shangla in the PM’s Ehsaas Programme schemes, through which stipends would be given to Shangla’s physically challenged community.

But as Ali Bhash Khan, a social activist from Shangla, points out that stipends are not a solution to the miserable lives of the physically challenged community of Shangla. “The government should devise a policy for this marginalised community and implement a skills training programme, so that these people can earn a living for themselves and their families.”

Incidentally, a September 2019 study, conducted by the Pakistan Journal of Medical Sciences, and based on data collected from 16 government departments in KP by volunteers of the Friends of Paraplegics, shows the scale of governmental apathy.

Out of a total 171,137 government employees, only 1,151 (or 0.67 percent) were people with disabilities. None of these government departments had even managed to fulfill the two percent job quota allocated for people with disabilities.

The writer is a journalist based in Shangla He tweets @Umar_Shangla

Published in Dawn, EOS, March 7th, 2021

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