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Development and decay in Indian PM's Pakistani village

August 21, 2012

Gah-village-AFP-670
This picture taken on August 4, 2012 shows children in a street in Gah village, where Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was born. — Photo by AFP

GAH, Pakistan: For years, Ghulam Muhammad Khan thought his brilliant classmate had been killed in the bloodbath that gave birth to India and Pakistan in 1947, the deadliest end to British colonial rule in history.

But when the world's biggest democracy elected the softly-spoken Manmohan Singh as prime minister in 2004 and he told an interviewer he had been born in a remote Pakistani village, Khan was over the moon.

“He was our class monitor and we played together. He was a gentle and brilliant child. Our teacher always advised us to get his help if we couldn't understand something,” Khan recalled, striding through village maize fields.

Even more incredibly, Singh wanted to help the 2,500 villagers in Gah, on a plateau of muddy rock and bushy forest 100 kilometres southeast of Islamabad near the ultra-modern motorway that runs almost to the Indian border.

“I never imagined Manmohan would one day bring so many blessings to our village. He did what our own government still refuses to do,” recalled Khan, who is Singh's last surviving classmate left in the village.

But the last eight years is a tale of generosity, squandered opportunity and political short-termism that leaves Pakistan with an embarrassing predicament now that President Asif Ali Zardari has invited Singh to visit later this year.

The model village that Singh dreamt of lies in tatters. Buildings that cost tens of thousands of dollars stand empty and unfinished. The only question is what, if anything, will Pakistan do to fix it?

Empty schools, empty hospital

Not long after taking office, Singh wrote to Pakistan's then ruler, General Pervez Musharraf, asking that Gah be earmarked for development.

Musharraf, at the time working on peace talks that he hoped would resolve India and Pakistan's conflict over Kashmir, was happy to oblige.

The provincial government in Punjab built a decent road from the motorway to the village, high schools for boys and girls, a hospital, veterinary clinic and hooked the village up to the water supply.

Singh sent an Indian firm to install solar-powered street lights, solar-powered lights to 51 households that did not have electricity and a water heating system at the mosque close to the site of his destroyed home.

But the project stalled after elections in 2008 swept former prime minister Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League - Nawaz to power in Punjab, booting out of office Pakistan Muslim League - Quaid and Musharraf stepped down.

The high schools and hospital stand empty. No teacher or doctor has been appointed, because the villagers say, credit for the development would have gone to the previous regime and not the new government.

“We contacted the district administration and members of the ruling party time and again. They say there are no funds for the facilities and that they are trying to get it from the government,” said Ashiq Hussein, the mayor of Gah.

But a Punjab government spokesman said it was “absolutely baseless” to suggest it had abandoned the Gah development project for political reasons.

“No scheme has been stopped anywhere in the province on such a basis,” Pervez Rasheed told AFP.

“The hospital in the village is still under completion and the boundary wall plus equipment is being provided this year. Staff will be recruited when it's completed,” he said, referring to plans to open the high schools in September.

“He is the son of our soil”

Villagers young and old are united in their hope that the return of their lost boy sometime later this year will be the spur.

“Everybody wants to see him and say thank you. We also want him to come soon because we think the abandoned development will be completed for his visit and we will get staff in our schools and hospitals,” Khan said.

The mayor hopes that if Punjab chief minister Shahbaz Sharif, brother of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, attends village celebrations for Singh's 80th birthday in September, development work will resume.

Hussein, whose late uncle Raja Mohammad Ali met Singh in New Delhi, is pushing full steam ahead with preparations to welcome home the “great son” of Gah.

“We are going to bring all the musicians, drum beaters and flute players here to perform at his arrival. We will dance and celebrate.

“We want him to establish an unbreakable friendship between India and Pakistan.”

No matter Pakistan and India's bitter rivalry, most people in Gah are proud of Singh for going on to govern 1.2 billion people in the world's largest democracy.

“He is the son of our soil and we want him to become the hero of India-Pakistan friendship. We would like him to solve the Kashmir issue and I will talk to him about this when he comes here,” Khan said.

In Singh's old primary school, which unlike his home is still standing, his mark sheet has been put up on the wall, exhorting the next generation of children to take his lead, and go ahead and rule the world.