Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Reconstructing Lives

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When the Indus River rose in August 2010, Wahid Buksh and his family fled their village Malhar Sheikh near Gambat (Sindh) for their lives. From the high ground of the raised bed of the road leading to the new Khairpur-Larkana bridge across the river, Wahid watched the fertile farmland around his village go under the swirling, brown eddies. But the water would not stop rising and by and by his poor mud brick home too was lost.

When, two months later, he returned from the displaced persons’ camp to what was his village, he found few homes standing and all of his four acres of sugar cane and two of cotton wiped off the face of the earth as if they had never existed. In his twenties, Wahid was no land owner, merely a sharecropper. Even so, his loss was great. As the summer drew to an end, he had little hope of raising enough funds to purchase wheat seed and fertiliser for the December sowing. But a man needs to win bread for the family and so Wahid Buksh resorted to daily wage labour in nearby Gambat.

In February he heard that Participatory Village Development Program (PVDP), an NGO based in Mirpur Khas, supported by Church World Service (CWS) of Islamabad was offering three-month skill training programmes at the newly-established Construction Trade Training Centre (CTTC) in Gambat. The training on offer was for the trades of plumber, electrician, welder, carpenter or mason. There was no educational requirement other than the ability to read and write Urdu which suited the man. Wahid applied and was selected to train as a mason. Earlier, CWS had run similar training courses in Mansehra and nearby districts after the earthquake havoc of October 2005. Consequently, a large work force of young construction workers has since been at hand rebuilding the damaged villages. The centre in Gambat was on the lines of those that had been so successful in the north.

Classes were from eight in the morning until three in the afternoon leaving no time for a daily wage earning labourer like Wahid to work after hours. The upside was that there was the two hundred rupees-per day stipend for all trainees. Even though he was required to pay fifty rupees for the lunch provided by the centre, Wahid was still able to take home some money for the family to get along by. At the end of the three months, the government’s Trade Testing Board examined the trainees and issued certificates. Each successful candidate was to receive from CWS-PVDP a complete toolkit appropriate for his trade on the day the testing board issued the certificate.

Early in June, Wahid Buksh, the unskilled labourer of only a few weeks earlier, went to work with a building contractor as a brick layer. I found him in a Gambat back street in the shade of a building preparing iron bars for the construction of columns at a nearby site. He pointed to the under-construction building with visible pride and said it was all his own handiwork. And it has to be admitted that the work was neat.

In late July, seven weeks after he had graduated from the training centre, though he had passed the test, Wahid Buksh had not received his certification from the Trade Testing Board. Delays being normal in governmental working, he is not bothered. However, because of that he was still deficient of his mason’s kit and was obligated to work with a contractor.

‘I get six hundred rupees per day because I use my contractor’s tools. When I get my own equipment, I’ll be making eight hundred per day,’ says Wahid.

That is a darn sight better than being either a farm labourer or even a sharecropper. If things were good, he had to cope only with market fluctuations and his landlord’s cavalier attitude. Otherwise there was always the danger of floods or drought or crop failure. For the number of man hours he put in as a sharecropper, his net earnings were less than meagre. He also remembers times when he went into debt because of poor harvests – debts that took years to pay back. Now Wahid takes home a steady income and has a weekly day off to boot.

Almost bashfully he notes that having been born in poverty and with only five grades of schooling, the end-all of his life once seemed to be farm labour or hauling bricks at constructions sites. He could not imagine himself a skilled brick layer so early on in life. Neither could the other seventy-four young men, all of them locals whose lives were destroyed by last year’s floods. With fifteen in each class, the Gambat centre turned out seventy-five trained technicians in the first batch. All of them immediately went either into self-employment or were hired by construction firms.

Dominic Stephen of PVDP says that given the educational level of these young men, there was no way they could have been gainfully employed. They would never have been anything but unskilled labourers, shop keepers or sharecroppers But now with just three months of training, they are useful members of the society sought after for their technical expertise. When I was there, the second batch of seventy-five was half way through their session. Raza Hussain of village Khemtia was a shopkeeper until last year. Then the flood took his village shop and set him back by about three hundred thousand rupees. There was no question of being able to restart the business and so with a family to support, he resorted to unskilled labour until he enrolled in the training programme in June.

With a high school certificate to show for himself, he joined the electricians’ class and was doing rather well. ‘The way I see it,’ says he, ‘the stipend is equal to what I earned as an unskilled labourer. Then I had no future to look forward to. But now, after I graduate from the centre, I’ll be a trained and properly equipped electrician ready to go to work.’

Initial funds provided by CWS for the CTTC were for only two sessions of seventy-five students each. However, even half way through the second session, the value and utility of the programme became more than evident and it was extended for a third session due to begin in September. But then funds will dry up and the centre will fold. Already dozens of young men come calling every day to ask why only flood-affected men are being trained and if there will be sessions for others as well.

Dominic who supervised the establishment of the CTTC at Gambat is worried. At the end of the third session there will be two hundred and twenty-five technically trained men in the field. Going by the beneficiaries’’ own reports, the training and the complimentary toolkit has set them up as entrepreneurs as they could not have done on their own. Now the sky is the limit for these skilled technicians.

But the flood did not only disrupt the lives of these two hundred and twenty-five. There are countless more. There are also all those young men who have the will to learn but lack the required education to join the government’s poly-technic institutions. It is them that Dominic is looking out for: why should this facility not be extended to them?

Even as you read this, PVDP is hard at work to raise funds to sustain this unique and very useful programme. The funds will arrive, that much is certain, but from where, it is hard to say. Meanwhile, the number of youngsters waiting in the wings to join grows by the day.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 5 April 2014 at 15:10, Anonymous Muhammad Athar said...

If the Govt plan such programme in the rural area a quite useful force can be prepared, which is clear from this Article

At 7 April 2014 at 12:43, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

No government in Pakistan neither central nor provincial have the brains to think of these things. They only attempt to block the efforts of such NGOs.


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My Books

Deosai: Land of the Gaint - New

The Apricot Road to Yarkand

Jhelum: City of the Vitasta

Sea Monsters and the Sun God: Travels in Pakistan

Salt Range and Potohar Plateau

Prisoner on a Bus: Travel Through Pakistan

Between Two Burrs on the Map: Travels in Northern Pakistan

Gujranwala: The Glory That Was

Riders on the Wind

Books at Sang-e-Meel

Books of Days