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Rags to riches and vice versa

(Click on images and videos to enlarge)

There is gloom here at the Sundar Industrial Estate, my first stop over. It is just outside Lahore and adjacent to the sprawling Sharif Palace at what is known as Jati Umra. People are not happy and it's not about the routine rants against mehngai and bijli.

Lahore is bursting at its seams. This spillover of urbanisation is brashly displayed in the suburbs. There are posh gated colonies with private golf courses, grand campuses of expensive universities and industrial complexes that are mega by Pakistani standards. All of these have encroached upon agricultural land. If you venture out on Raiwind Road for a long drive these days, you will find intermittent yet vast stretches of golden wheat fields all around. But don't get deceived. The crops are just 'the caretakers' of the land that is destined to graduate to the status of real estate.

This transformation of a livelihood resource into a commodity that is traded and speculated upon is a major determinant in the politics of this area. There is no comparison between the price of a piece of agricultural land and its price after commercialisation. The midas touch can easily convert a lakh into a crore or even more. The amounts that the land developers can pay farmers are mind boggling. The novo rich ex-farmers are abound here, and jostling for political representation.

On my way, I met an upstart leader of the Gujjar biradari who is aspiring for a ticket of the Pakistan Tehrek-I-Insaf for the Punjab provincial seat, PP 161. His family has been with PML-Nawaz for years. He claims to have the support of a number of Gujjars dealing in real estate and inhabiting at least 20 villages here, according to his calculation. His grandfather was a councilor in this area and his father, the nazim of the Union Council. They have been struggling for an elevation to the MPA level for the last 10 years but haven't had luck.

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There are winners and then there are losers in the real estate game. The two extremes shape up the politics of the suburbs.

But the Gujjar is on the winning side of the estate game. It didn't take me long, however, to meet a loser. At first, I thought that he was from among the labourers; he was serving tea from his makeshift stall that consisted of a stove and a few pots. These labourers gather at the back gate of a factory that runs a free-lunch, langar, service – the local version of corporate social responsibility.

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On my first day, I found the deras all set, tea and drinks ready, and campaign vehicles geared up but waiting for the final queue - the party tickets.

He told me that his family owned 25 acres in the area before the establishment of the industrial zone. Their land was force-evacuated and the price offered was too little. Then the cumbersome and corrupt system of payment, involving patwaris and others, made the amount so paltry that they had to look for other means to make a living. With hardly any educational qualification, the zamindar sahab ended up serving tea to poor laborers.

But Nisar Khan is a campaigner. He is talkative and articulate. He, along with the other affectees has approached many fora and all political leaders, staged protests and knocked at courts as well. Their politics moves solely around this issue.

The labourers who surround him are not interested in his politics. This is an alien country for them as they have migrated from far away areas looking for work. Some companies actually recruit labor from areas other than where their factory is located as a policy. A worker told me that some factories in the estate have blacklisted certain local villages and have placed notices on their gates to announce it, while others have instructed their suppliers to be mindful about this.

The employers find the locals quarrelsome and unreliable, while the captive migrated labourers are hardworking and their outputs can fit a decided schedule. So while the locals lost their prime possession, they now can't even avail the least lucrative of the new opportunities.

There are others who narrowly escaped the tragedy, as their land fell just outside the boundaries of the estate, and are now excited that the value of their land has skyrocketed. The increase, however, is imaginary and rarely translates into reality.

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Employers prefer labour from the areas other than where their production facilities are located. Some even make them move places and indirectly force them to live away from their homes. Migration improves their productivity but also deprives them of many rights, including the right to vote. Langar for migrant labour at Sundar.

A small yet more real, new business in the area is providing the migrant workers residence. Thousands of the labourers live in shanty quarters here. I had a free lunch from the langar with a group of labourers who have come from Rahimyar Khan. They travel as ordered by their company that pays them a fixed daily wage instead of a monthly salary ensuring that they do not go on frequent and unplanned leaves.

They will not cast their vote in the coming elections as there vote is not registered in this constituency that includes the Sharif Palace and the recently completed Bilawal House in Bahria Town. I find the fuss about the 'voting rights' of overseas Pakistanis really absurd when we can't ensure the same for these 'in-land' Pakistanis.

Two important observations from my stay in Kot Radha Kishen Town.

The debate here was all about party tickets, the way these are awarded and the behavior of those aspiring for one. One worker was grumpy that while struggling to win favours of a party, they all promise that they can render any sacrifice for it but once denied, they contest as independents.

Rao Mazhar, the PML-N parliamentarian from the area, was disqualified for having a fake degree and the party refused him the ticket. His wife is now contesting as an independent.

More interesting was, however, the second observation, the explanation of a campaigner for Begum Rao when I asked him how his Rajput biradari found the idea of a woman from their clan contesting elections. "Once decided, it becomes a matter of honour for them to not let their woman get defeated (which is a kind of a dishonour)," said Rao Shamshad. You can call it honour voting!

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This huge charpoy is the stage for all the political debates in Kot Radha Kishen. With two of it legs sunk in the small canal passing through the town, it remains crowded all day.

Whatever the emotions, people at large have no problem with woman contesting elections. An important candidate here is PPP's Nasira Meo. Besides her biradari credentials, she is respected for her foreign education. The Meo are considered an important clan, along with the Raos. However, I doubt that biradari associations play a crucial role in political and voting decisions. But how many have I met yet? I better put this issue pending and gear up my motorbike for the next lap.