Chabahar project not in competition with CPEC: Iran’s ex-foreign minister

Kamal Kharazi

Iran’s former foreign minister Kamal Kharazi

KARACHI: Iran’s former foreign minister Kamal Kharazi has said the perception in Pakistan that Iran’s Chabahar port, including subsequent development of roads and railways networks for enhancing the country’s trade, is a ‘rival project’ of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), is not correct.

He was speaking at a roundtable discussion with journalists, former and current diplomats and research students at the Pakistan Institute of International Affairs, a foreign policy think tank, here on Friday. A multitude of foreign policy issues related to Iran and Pakistan relations and their impact on the region came under discussion during the programme.

Speaking on the occasion, Mr Kharazi was of the opinion that though it was true that India had massively invested in the Chabahar project, it was an open platform for all regional countries to participate in. “The Chabahar project is aimed at connecting Iran with Central Asia, and the ultimate goal is to uplift the Iranian economy,” he said, adding that the project was under deliberations for a long time, hence, it was not correct to link its launch with that of the CPEC.

“While we are engaging with India on the economic front and India is investing in Chabahar, we have not given exclusive rights on the project to them,” he said, adding that Iran “was considerate of the situation of Muslims in India and in the region” while making economic partnerships. “We have urged India a number of times to resolve the Kashmir dispute in a peaceful and justly manner,” he said.

Kharazi says Tehran is ready to mediate between Islamabad, New Delhi on Kashmir dispute

“We are even ready to mediate between Pakistan and India on the 70-year-old dispute, but we haven’t got a positive response from India on it ever,” he said. “But if we talk about economic partnerships, then Pakistan also has relations with the United States which has put a number of sanctions on us, but [Iran] doesn’t mind it,” he said.

He was of the opinion that bilateral trade between Iran and Pakistan suffered due to a number of reasons, including reluctance of Pakistani banks to do business with Iranian entities due to a fear of US sanctions. “It is one of the most important factors that has affected the trade relations between the two countries,” he said. The two governments are in talks with each other to enable small Pakistani banks that don’t deal with the US so that more trade could be carried out between the neighbouring states. “The Free Trade Agreement between the two countries is currently under negotiation, and once signed, it will open doors for more business,” he added.

Mr Kharazi, who served as Iran’s foreign minister from 1997 to 2005, said that another issue that had negatively impacted the bilateral trade was the “lack of political will from Pakistani side due to intense pressure from the United States and middle-eastern countries”.

“We have completed the Iranian side of the gas pipeline project, but the Pakistani government seems to be under international pressure [which is] stopping it from proceeding any further,” he said, adding that the perception created by some circles that the projects were stalled due to Iran offering gas at exorbitant rates was based on speculation.

Talking about the US presence in Afghanistan, he said that in his view, the US would not be leaving Afghanistan any sooner as it had ambitions to stay in the region because of its strategic goals. “Iran supports any kind of peace negotiation that is held between the Afghan government and the Taliban, and if such a deal is reached its conclusion, the US may not have any excuse for its continued presence in the country which it invaded 17 years back,” he said. “All neighbouring countries have a role to play [in bringing stability to Afghanistan]”, because, he said, all the [regional] countries were suffering from the conflict at the heart of the region.

In reply to a question about Iran’s alleged interference in regional conflicts, he said that one of the pillars of Iran’s foreign policy was to oppose the interventions of world powers in other countries, especially the Muslim ones. “We did support Iraq [after the US invasion] and we are supporting Syria as well, but governments of these countries invited [Iran] to help them defeat the militant Islamic State group. It would have been intervention had it been an uninvited exercise,” he said.

In response to another question, he said economic sanctions had hurt the Iranian economy for a long time, however, it was still doing better than the economies of other countries which were not under US sanctions. “Our people have tolerated the sanctions for a very long time and have suffered at the hands of it, but we are fighting the problems with our intelligence, wisdom, and resilience,” he said.


Published in Dawn, March 31st, 2018

How will the women from Mianwali who do not have CNICs vote in the upcoming election?

 

An official receives CNIC application from a woman at Nadra’s mobile registration vehicle in Kalabagh. — Photo by Bilal Karim Mughal

72-year-old Khayal Marjana lives in a mudhouse on a hill about ten kilometres from the centre of Kalabagh in district Mianwali. She doesn’t remember how long she has been living in the same house, but recalls that her parental house used to be on a hill opposite to where she lives now. She has spent her entire life in this small settlement of Kuchhtundar Khel.

This year is the first time that Marjana has ever applied for a computerised national identity card (CNIC), or an identity card at all for that matter.

Also read: ECP launches campaign to register 12m female voters

She has been an active voter in past elections but at this age, it is hard for her to recall whom she voted for. It is necessary for her to get a CNIC now if she is to vote in the upcoming general elections which are due to be held in late 2018.

Khayal Marjana sits in her courtyard. — Photo by author

Khayal Marjana sits in her courtyard. — Photo by Bilal Karim Mughal

Marjana's son, Niaz Mohammad, shows the token his mother received from Nadra. — Photo by author

Marjana’s son, Niaz Mohammad, shows the token his mother received from Nadra. — Photo by Bilal Karim Mughal

She, too, realises this fact and the other benefits of having a CNIC apart from being able to vote. “My children don’t have CNICs yet. Since it is now mandatory for a blood relative to authorise the kith and kin, I am worried that if I die, they will have no means to get their CNICs”, says the now-widowed Marjana, adding that having a CNIC might enable her to get a stipend from the Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP).

Marjana knows that she won’t be able to vote in the upcoming general elections too if she doesn’t have a CNIC to her name. “I will vote in the elections, I haven’t decided about the candidate, but if I won’t vote, how will I be able ask [the elected representatives] for development [in our area]?” Ironically, to this day, there is no gas or water connections in their area, and the family uses donkeys to fetch water from a nearby community tank erected by the government.

Shaheen, a 25-year-old from another part of district Mianwali, has a similar story. On a Thursday afternoon this month, she is visiting the residence of the Nawabs of Kalabagh, locally known as the Bohar Bangla. Here, a mobile registration van (MRV) of the National Database and Registration Authority (Nadra) is parked in one corner, and is taking applications from women applicants who cannot travel to far-flung Nadra centres.

Read: Sindh Assembly demands registration of 13m women voters in country

Shaheen is one such applicant and plans on voting for the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) candidate in their area.

Women form queues to get a CNIC from Nadra's mobile registration van in Kalabagh. — Photo by author

Women form queues to get a CNIC from Nadra’s mobile registration van in Kalabagh. — Photo by Bilal Karim Mughal

A social activist guiding women on how to get a CNIC made. — Photo by author

A social activist guiding women on how to get a CNIC made. — Photo by Bilal Karim Mughal

She is well-aware of what a woman’s vote can do. “If the women of our area won’t vote, the [winning] candidates will ultimately have lesser incentive in carrying out development works,” she says.

Ambitious about voting for the candidate of her favourite political party to be in the parliament, she says she will vote as she likes even if the family males decide otherwise. “Although it is the males who decide the community’s collective vote, I will vote for my favourite candidate. I know that there is a secluded space for voting,” she says.

Qamar Abbas, 21, is a resident of Kalabagh. He is accompanying his wife, 20-year-old Shamim Bibi to help secure her a CNIC. Abbas, who works in a textile mill in Chakwal, has sacrificed his three-day wage so that he could be in town when the Nadra van was visiting his area.

“I realise the financial loss, but it is equally important to get yourself a CNIC”, he says. He says his wife will also vote in the upcoming elections. “When you vote, there is always a hope behind it that [the representative] will do something for you, hence women should vote too.”

A very real problem, however, makes the participation of women in the upcoming general elections doubtful. An overwhelming number of them do not have Nadra-issued CNICs.

A woman applicant shows the documents she has brought as supporting evidence. — Photo by author

A woman applicant shows the documents she has brought as supporting evidence. — Photo by Bilal Karim Mughal

Qamar Abbas shows his wife's CNIC form. — Photo by author

Qamar Abbas shows his wife’s CNIC form — Photo by Bilal Karim Mughal

A December 2017 fact-sheet published by the National Commission on Status of Women (NCSW) in association with a programme called Tabeer-Consolidating Democracy in Pakistan, estimates that over 10 million [adult] women in Pakistan are missing from the electoral rolls of the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) because they do not have a CNIC.

Consequently, if these women fail to register themselves with Nadra soon, they will not be able to vote in the upcoming election.

Explore: House of cards: Why NADRA’s system is far from being flawless

The voter eligibility requirements as stated in the Election Act 2017say that a person shall be entitled to be enrolled as a voter if he [or she] “possesses a National Identity Card issued by the National Database and Registration Authority at any time till the last day fixed for inviting claims, objections and applications for preparation, revision or correction of electoral rolls.”

Read: Eight districts account for over 3 million male-female voters gap

This last day for preparation, revision or correction of electoral rolls is fast-approaching and is due in April, whereas draft electoral rolls will be up for display starting March 26.

Having a CNIC was not always the requirement for voting. The ECP earlier used to prepare electoral rolls by undertaking a door-to-door exercise in a census-like manner, but the rolls were tied to Nadra’s database in 2006, and ultimately in 2011, producing a CNIC at the time of voting was made compulsory through an amendment in the Electoral Rolls Act 1974 (XXI of 1974)

Official statistics point out that the gap between male and female voters has increased over time from 10.97 million in March 2013 to 12.17 million in the rolls of September 2017. There is a consensus among the officials and civil society activists that although patriarchal norms, where women are repeatedly barred from participating in the electoral process in some areas of the country, this single provision of excluding non-bearers of the CNIC will bar a large number of women voters.

Social activist, Arshia, guides a woman about the process of obtaining a CNIC. — Photo by author

Social activist, Arshia, guides a woman about the process of obtaining a CNIC. — Photo by Bilal Karim Mughal

Shaheen, resident of Kalabagh is eager to vote in upcoming elections. — Photo by author

Shaheen, a resident of Kalabagh is eager to vote in upcoming elections. — Photo by Bilal Karim Mughal

Lack of incentive

A female applicant at the Bohar Bangla, Shehnaz, says that although she will exercise her right to vote, the primary incentive for her to get a CNIC was so that she can apply for government loans, and receive a monthly stipend under the BISP. At 30, Shehnaz, single and an orphan, believes that having a CNIC will ease her financial difficulties.

Tahir Mehdi, a researcher on elections and governance associated with Tabeer, says that although lack of an incentive in gaining CNIC plays an important role in the accumulation of the gap between male and female voters in the electoral rolls, incentivising it is not a practical solution and ultimately, ECP and Nadra will have to register the women voters by themselves.

A pamphlet issued by district vice Ameer of Jamat e Islami in Mianwali, encouraging people, especially women to get their names on the electoral rolls as it is a 'national obligation'. — Photo by author

A pamphlet issued by district vice Ameer of Jamat e Islami in Mianwali, encouraging people, especially women to get their names on the electoral rolls as it is a ‘national obligation’. — Photo by Bilal Karim Mughal

"If I will vote then why shouldn't my wife? Times have changed now" says Qamar Abbas — Photo by author

“If I will vote then why shouldn’t my wife? Times have changed now” says Qamar Abbas — Photo by Bilal Karim Mughal

Tabeer, with which Mehdi is associated, is working in close collaboration with ECP, Nadra and civil society organisations including Aawaz-Voice and Accountability Programme to register as many women as possible by arranging MRV visits to far-off areas, and through public outreach sessions.

To fulfill the huge gender gap in electoral rolls, the ECP along with Nadra and civil society organisations, have launched an emergency campaign in 79 districts of the country. Mehdi, however, also outlines that the gap is so high that it is virtually impossible to bridge it until April when the electoral rolls are finalised for the 2018 elections.

Khalid Ismail, senior assistant election commissioner of Mianwali says that his department was working in tandem with Nadra, religious scholars, community leaders and civil society activists.

The draft electoral rolls, he says, will be available only after March 26, that is when, according to him, there will be some clarity on the number of women ‘missing’ from the rolls, after comparing them with the census results. “We do not know the exact number yet, however, I am confident that we will be able to bridge the gap by [a huge extent] because of the efforts that we are making,” he says.

District Commissioner Mianwali, Shozab Saeed, echoes his views. “A coordinated effort by all stakeholders will help us reach our goal swiftly,” he says, adding that his office was providing all possible support to ECP and Nadra to ensure that as many women as possible are registered as elections approach.


Published in Dawn, March 23rd, 2018

Families of the ‘disappeared’ hear nothing but silence from officialdom

KARACHI: On a sunny weekend afternoon, the road leading to New Rizvia Society in Karachi’s Safoora Goth area has very thin traffic. A huge billboard overlooking the visitors at the society’s main gate demands the recovery of Engineer Syed Mumtaz Hussain Rizvi. Rizvi’s wife and nephew talk and share the details of his disappearance in the living room, decorated with religious inscriptions and photos.

Rizvi ran a business of computer hardware and was on a “business trip” to Quetta in January, when he lost contact with his family on the 23rd of that month. His wife, Zehra, recalls the day when she last talked to her husband.

“He had said that he was going to be in Karachi by 9pm. We waited for him throughout the night, and when he didn’t show up, we inquired his friends, partners, and other acquaintances, but he was nowhere to be found,” she says. “I last talked to him at 5.30pm that day, and his mobile phone went off shortly afterwards. We are not in contact with him since then.”

The family then approached the Sachal police station, which registered a complaint — not an FIR. “We have also filed a petition in the Sindh High Court where our case has been heard once, and the next hearing is on March 8.” The complaint filed says that he had “left home for work on Jan 23, but didn’t return”, which is different from the narrated story according to which he was returning from Quetta. She attributes the discrepancy to the fact that the family at that time “didn’t know where he went missing from. We don’t know his last whereabouts to this day”, says his wife.

‘Holding someone in illegal confinement is a violation of human rights’

A doctoral student at a private university in Karachi, Rizvi also served in the editorial board of a monthly Urdu magazine which carried scientific and educational articles. The disappearance of the father of five — four daughters and a son — has traumatised the family. “Education of my children is suffering and so is our daily routine; our lives have been completely altered after this incident,” says Zehra. “To this day, we have received no phone call or any piece of information from any person, group or law enforcement agency which would inform us about him.”

The family stresses that he was not part of any religious or political party, concerned with only “welfare work”.

Samar Abbas

“He used to help people in need and kept others before himself. How could a man with such a busy schedule be involved in any [subversive] activity?”, she questions, demanding that he be produced in court with all available evidence if he was wanted by the state.

Boys are winding up their game of cricket in a street in Abbas Town, a Shia neighbourhood in Karachi’s Gulshan-i-Iqbal area. The home of Syed Samar Abbas is not difficult to locate as it is fairly close to a community clinic-cum-mosque. Some children of the family are studying in a courtyard as Abbas’s brother, Ghazanfer, talks to this writer. Abbas, he says, was on a routine trip to Islamabad for his “business-related” work in January 2017’s first week. Jan 7 was the day when the family last heard from Abbas, who has been missing since.

Father of three, Abbas had previously worked as an IT professional in Saudi Arabia, and had returned to Pakistan a few years ago, after which he had set up his own software development business. It was in this connection that he had been to Islamabad from where he never returned. The FIR registered at Ramna police station of the federal capital quotes his family that he was last known to be in Sector G-11.

His disappearance coincided with the disappearance of online activists in early 2017, most of whom made it back to their homes shortly afterwards, but Abbas’s trail has only grown colder over time. The family insists that Abbas’s case was not in any way connected with that of the online activists.

“Abbas was a field activist who used to work for community welfare, and had good coordination with the law enforcement agencies”, says Ghazanfer. His father, an income-tax adviser at the Lahore High Court, has been ailing and so is his mother; his parents demand the recovery of their son.

Promises made

“Sindh Home Minister Sohail Anwar Siyal had assured us that he will be recovered when we marched for his recovery back in October 2017”, says his mother, adding that they had contacted the National Commission for Human Rights, and Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearance — informally known as the Justice Javed Iqbal Commission — but they had received no positive news yet.

The family of the 40-year-old has also filed a petition in the Islamabad High Court for his recovery, but no headway has been made. Like Rizvi’s family, Abbas’s family also said that they wanted to see him tried in court if he was involved in any act of sabotage. “He was a loving father, a caregiver to his ailing parents, and a patriotic citizen, his disappearance has pushed his children and us in a perpetual state of trauma.”

‘Not in CTD’s custody’

Senior official of Sindh Police’s Counter-Terrorism Department (CTD) Raja Umar Khattab says that the two missing persons were not in the custody of the CTD. “We have a system in place, through which we legally arrest the suspects, and produce them in court,” he says, adding that he had no knowledge of the whereabouts of the mentioned persons as his unit was not dealing with the matter. “Abbas had helped law enforcement in producing witnesses in some cases a while back, however, the CTD doesn’t have any intelligence on his disappearance.”

On the other hand, vice chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) Sindh chapter, Asad Iqbal Butt believes that the so-called ‘missing persons’ were in custody of law enforcement agencies. He estimates that about 150 people were missing from Sindh of which about 60 hailed from Karachi. He said that a fair trial was the basic right of all the citizens, and holding someone in illegal confinement was a violation of human rights. “Activities like these bring bad name to otherwise respectable institutions, therefore if [the persons] have done anything wrong, let the courts decide the matter,” Butt says.


Published in Dawn, March 6th, 2018

Girls take lead in the regional round of Math Challenge 2018 in Karachi

Mathematics is an interesting subject — or at least it is expected to be around the world. However, if you hated math at school, it is probably because you grew up learning it in a boring, textbook-based environment.

Pakistan is not known for its prowess in math internationally and lags behind many Asian countries in the subject. Students in Pakistan are often found complaining about difficulty in understanding the mathematical concepts, and the practical applications of the different formulae are almost never taught. It is a common observation that most of the time even teachers are clueless how concepts like probability and algebra can help design smarter roads that are capable of handling very large amount of traffic everyday.

To cater to this gap, the Dawn Media Group and EDeQUAL launched the Math Challenge this year, a national inter-school math competition for students of grades 7, 8, 9 and 10 to test and improve intellectual, analytical and problem solving skills using Math. The competition is based on a live game show format, and over 150 leading private and government schools and 7,500 students from across Pakistan have participated in the challenge.

It was heartening to see girls take lead in the competition with a big margin: during the Karachi regional round, for example, Habib Girls School participants clean-sweeped in the group of classes 7 and 8 and won with a total of 140 points.

Students from the BVS Parsi High School were declared runner-ups in this group with 45 points.

On the other hand, Karachi Grammar School was declared Karachi’s regional winners in the group for classes 9 and 10, while Happy Home School emerged as the runners-up in this group.

Top twelve teams from each of the two groups (for classes 7 and 8 and classes 9 and 10) across Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad will now proceed to the national finals, which will be organised at the Karachi School of Business and Leadership.

The regional competition consisted of several categories, including data problems, relationships, spaces, numbers, to name a few. The finals will be more challenging with a set of questions designed to test grip over math for students in both age groups.

The final list of qualifying teams include the following schools:

Group 1 – Grades 7 and 8

  1. EMS High School (Islamabad)

  2. Habib Girls School (Karachi)

  3. Sacred Heart Convent School (Lahore)

  4. Crescent Model School (Lahore)

  5. BVS Parsi High School (Karachi)

  6. Westminster School (Islamabad)

  7. Siddique Public School RWP Boys (Rawalpindi)

  8. Lahore Grammar School – Jr. & Middle JT Boys (Lahore)

  9. Siddique Public PWD (Islamabad)

  10. Sarghodian Spirit Trust Public School (Karachi)

  11. City School – Capital (Islamabad)

  12. Lahore Grammar School – 55 Main Gulberg (Lahore)

Group 2 – Grades 9 and 10

  1. Karachi Grammar School (Karachi)

  2. Chenab College (Jhang)

  3. Lahore Grammar School – 55 Main Gulberg (Lahore)

  4. EMS High School (Islamabad)

  5. Happy Home School (Karachi)

  6. Generation’s School (Karachi)

  7. The City School Boys North Nazimabad Branch (Karachi)

  8. Bloomfield Hall JT (Lahore)

  9. Beaconhouse School System North Nazimabad Cambridge Branch (Karachi)

  10. The City School PECHS Boys (Karachi)

  11. St. Joseph’s Convent School (Karachi)

  12. Westminster School ( Islamabad )


More details about the competition are available on their official Facebook page and website.


Originally published at Dawn.com on February 24th, 2018.

Marriages of Inconvenience: How Pakistan is failing its child brides

Fatima with her grandson in their home in Kharooro Charan, Umerkot | Photos by Bilal Karim Mughal

Umerkot is famous. Mughal Emperor Akbar was born here in 1542. His parents – dethroned Emperor Humayun and his child-bride Hamida Banu Begum – were then staying here in exile in a 14th-century fort.

Umerkot is also famous because of its ruler Umer Soomro who lived a few hundred years ago. One day while visiting the nearby desert of Thar, according to the legend, he saw a teenaged girl, Marui – generally referred to as Marvi – as she was collecting water from a well. Bewitched by her beauty, Soomro took her with him and confined her within his fort to make her marry him. Marui refused. She constantly turned down all of his offers and refused to be tempted by the pleasures of his palace. She instead kept beseeching him to let her go back to her village. After having tried everything, Soomro finally accepted his defeat and sent Marui back to Thar. Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai, one of Sindh’s most well-known Sufi poets, immortalised their tale in his 18th-century book, Shah Jo Risalo. He has included Marui amongst his seven queens of Sindh — strong female characters who resisted patriarchy in one way or the other.

Being in Umerkot, in October this year, to collect stories of child-brides, thus, looks both apt and ironic.

The city – about 308 kilometres north-east of Karachi – is bustling with activity on a hot and dry Sunday. Markets are full of shoppers and chaotic traffic is clogging local roads. Everyone seems to be in a hurry. Step out of the city and a rural quiet takes over.

The road leading out of Umerkot to the village of Kharooro Charan is almost deserted. Ameeran, the mother of a three-year-old boy, is sitting on a cot inside a mud house in the village. The house has no boundary wall. Its perimeter is marked by dried thorny, acacia branches. Its large courtyard is dotted with several unattached rooms and a traditional conical Thari hut made of dried plant stalks and reeds. The meagre means of its occupants are in plain sight. As is Ameeran’s weak physique.

Her pale yellow shalwar kameez are making her look devoid of blood. She has a faint smile on her face and does not talk much. As her mother, Fatima, narrates her story, she adds a point or two only occasionally, mostly just nodding in agreement.

Fatima does not remember when exactly Ameeran was born. “[She] was about 12 years of age when we married her off,” she says. “You know how it is in our villages. A girl hitting puberty is deemed fit for marriage.”

Hers was an exchange marriage. She was married to her first cousin, the son of her father’s brother. In return, her uncle’s young daughter, Sanam, was married to Ameeran’s brother.

Within months after her marriage, Ameeran became pregnant. Her parents brought her to their home when the baby was due. “We tried everything at home,” says Fatima as she describes the ordeal that the process of giving birth became for her daughter. “When her labour prolonged, we rushed her to a nearby hospital.” The doctors helped her deliver a baby that was already struggling to breathe. “Ameeran was nearly unconscious.”

She has been unwell since then. For about seven months after giving birth, she was unable to walk properly or do any chores due to chronic pain in her legs and back. Even now she loses her balance sometimes. “She cannot do any work that requires physical effort. She cannot even look after herself,” says Fatima.

Ameeran could also not breastfeed her son, Shakeel, who had to be brought up on goat’s milk. He looks weak and is suffering from severe malnutrition. “His diarrhoea does not go away and he does not eat any solid food. His teeth are rotting,” says his grandmother who rears him since his own mother cannot. He does not sleep at night, Fatima adds, counting the ailments afflicting Shakeel who also does not recognise Ameeran as his mother.

Rasheeda Saand, a local health worker and a women’s rights activist, looks at Ameeran and remarks sorrowfully, “Poor girl! [She has] embraced a range of illnesses and disorders and is still longing to hear the word ‘ma’ from her son.”

The road leading to Ameeran’s house in Kharooro Charan, Umerkot. — Photo by Bilal Karim Mughal

Ameeran’s husband is a labourer who earns a meagre 200 to 300 rupees per day — that too only on days when he gets work. The money is enough to procure just a daily bowl of rice for the family, she says. Her parents have sold many of their cattle to provide treatment for her and her son. “Doctors say Shakeel’s treatment is possible only in Hyderabad but we have no means to take him there,” says Fatima.

Rasheeda looks sad as she leaves the house. “Doctors here think the child will not survive without treatment in Hyderabad,” she says as soon as she gets out of Fatima’s earshot.

Nirma* belongs to the Oad community, deemed one of the lowest castes in the hierarchical Hindu social structure. She shares a mud house with several members of her family as well as with some goats and buffaloes in Kharoro Syed village of Umerkot district. A slender woman, she appears older than she is in her pink shalwar kameez.

Nirma was married off by her parents about 18 years ago. She was 13 years of age at the time. Her husband was a mere 10 years old. Their marriage was an inter-family exchange: her brother was married to her husband’s sister.

The first four months of her marriage went by like a breeze, she says. And then there was horror. “I was made to work ceaselessly,” she says. Her duties included taking care of the cattle, preparing food for the entire household of her in-laws, keeping the house clean and tidy and washing dirty utensils. “I had not done all these things at my home.”

To add to her woes, Nirma soon became pregnant. It was around that time that her brother hit his wife. Since everything, including torture, has to be reciprocated in exchange marriages, her in-laws urged her husband to hit her too. “That night my in-laws, including my husband, locked me in a room, tied my hands and mercilessly beat me up,” she recalls. This was followed by more beatings and forced labour. Even the smallest mistakes earned her the worst type of physical and psychological abuse. This included sexual assault by her father-in-law, though she mentions it only in passing — and then sobs.

Nirma would often complain to her mother who was too afraid to raise her voice lest it resulted in problems in the second marital relationship bound in the exchange. “She thought I was just lazy and did not want to do [any] chores,” Nirma says of her mother’s response. She spent nearly eight years in the hell that her in-laws’ house became for her. Then her brother died of liver complications caused by his addiction to alcohol and his wife went back to live with her parents.

This gave Nirma an opportunity to run away — she has been living with her parents since 2008. “At first my parents were very scared,” she recalls. Her father-in-law tried to take her back with him several times. He threatened her family and also offered them money. “But I did not go back.” Her husband also joined her later. The two now live together. “I have nothing against him. We were both children when we got married,” she says. Her husband sits close by, listening silently.

Nirma now works as a lady health worker in Umerkot and has five children, including a daughter who is 17 years old. She is determined not to marry her daughters off before they turn 18. “I do not want them to go through the same thing I went through.”

Abdul Karim Mangrio runs a small shop – essentially a hole in the wall of his house – in one of the residential neighbourhoods of Umerkot. He sells packaged snacks, candies and household goods. His grey hair and white beard suggest that he is in his sixties. A former associate of a Sindhi nationalist group, Sindh Taraqi Pasand Party, he now spends his spare time on social activism and is privy to the tragic story of two young girls, Hanifaan and Hawwa. The two were born and raised in the same neighbourhood where he lives. They also belonged to his Mangrio tribe.

Abdul Karim Mangrio at his shop in Umerkot.  — Photo by Bilal Karim Mughal

Hawwa’s parents, according to him, married her off sometime in 2010 in return for 1.3 million rupees to one Nizam Maher from Ahmedpur Lama area of Punjab’s southernmost district of Rahim Yar Khan. She was about 12 years of age at the time. A few months into her marriage, she complained to her parents about the poor treatment she was receiving from her in-laws but her complaints were not taken seriously. Hawwa then fled from her husband’s house and somehow managed to travel about 530 kilometres by road to get back to her parent’s home in Umerkot.

Hawwa’s in-laws followed her. They asked her parents to send her back with them. Her parents initially refused but agreed after some influential people got involved. She was handed over to the in-laws. “They gave guarantees that they would not harm her in any way,” says Mangrio.

Hawwa was found dead in July 2012.

“Her parents were told that she was accidentally electrocuted. They were given no other details,” he says. They initially tried to have a murder case registered against Maher and his family but went quiet later. Hawwa’s in-laws allegedly paid them 300,000 rupees to “keep their mouths shut”.

Hanifaan, too, died mysteriously. Her parents had married her off into a family from the Maher community in Daharki, a town in northern Sindh, while she was still a child. Her in-laws killed her after accusing her of committing adultery. Mangrio claims they paid 800,000 rupees to her parents so that they do not file a case over her murder.

The practice of selling young girls into marriage with much older men from far-off areas of southern Punjab and upper Sindh is rampant amongst some tribes of southern Sindh, alleges Mangrio. Newspaper clippings collected by him show that the frequency of such marriages in the districts of Umerkot, Tharparkar, Badin and Sanghar is alarmingly high.

Those who ‘purchase’ child-brides treat them as sex slaves and indentured servants. In some instances they are used as sacrificial lambs — as might have happened in Hanifaan’s case. They are first accused of having relationships with men from a tribe or clan that their in-laws have an enmity with. Then the girls and men are both murdered as kari and karo respectively. The parents of the girls are then paid off to keep them silent. “Not all girls who are sold in this manner get killed,” says Mangrio, “but, ultimately, it depends upon their luck.”

Nuzhat with her parents and brother in Jhang.  — Photo by Bilal Karim Mughal

Or lack of luck.

Mangrio says he has spent years providing information to the police about the selling of child-brides. He also claims to have successfully prevented many deals. “People are wary of the police now.” But they have found ways to avoid getting caught. “They go to other districts to sell their daughters into child marriages.”

The village of Wasu is about 32 kilometres south-west of Jhang city. Brick kiln worker Zafar Iqbal, his wife Haleema and two sons live here in a house off the road that links the village to its nearby town of Athara Hazari. About six months ago, Iqbal’s eldest son, Javed, eloped with a girl from a Baloch family living in Jhang city. The two later got married. Iqbal says he had no idea about their whereabouts.

The girl’s father, Aijaz Khan, approached Sarfraz Sanpaal, who is married to Javed’s sister, Rubina, for help in tracing the couple. They found them living in Faisalabad city but, their marriage being legal, nothing could be done to separate them. Aijaz then demanded that Sanpaal give his own daughter – eight-year-old Nuzhat – in an exchange marriage to his brother Ameer Khan so that the conflict between the two families could end. On September 18, 2017, Nuzhat was married to Ameer.

Sanpaal and the local police differ on how exactly the marriage took place. In an application that he submitted to the police on October 16, 2017 Sanpaal stated that his daughter was abducted and her marriage was solemnised under coercion from Aijaz and his men. He also alleged that Aijaz had kept him and his wife Rubina hostage in a village along the Jhang-Sargodha highway after the abduction of Nuzhat. He claims to have escaped from captivity 20 days later, though Rubina still remains detained by Aijaz Khan.

The sun sets over Nankana Sahib.  — Photo by Bilal Karim Mughal

The police, on the other hand, filed a report a day later, accusing Sanpaal of being complicit in the illegal marriage of his minor daughter. He is now in jail. The case is being heard by a court in Jhang that ordered that Nuzhat be recovered from her abductors and handed over to her grandfather, Iqbal.

Nuzhat rests in the arms of her grandmother as Iqbal gives the details of her ordeal. Her earlobes have marks of healing wounds that, she says, resulted from beatings she received regularly during her abduction. She also says she was made to do chores throughout the day and was given food only once in 24 hours. She does not remember what happened to her during the nights other than that she was given something to drink before she went to bed. According to her medical examination report, she was subjected to sexual torture during sleep.

Akram*, 27, is a resident of Ahmedpur Sial, a tehsil town in the southern part of Jhang district. He runs a private school in his home town and occasionally contributes to local websites and news channels as a freelance reporter. Clad in black pants, a red T-shirt and a jacket, he looks confident and relaxed.

Akram was only five years old when his parents married him off. It was an exchange marriage: his bride – who was only a few months old at the time – belonged to the family of his elder sister’s in-laws. She was to stay with her parents until their wedding took place. Such marriages, he says, are common in his community.

While Akram was in high school, he realised that his would-be spouse was receiving no education. He was also getting uncomfortable with the idea of consummating a marriage in which he did not have any say. He, therefore, refused to continue the relationship. At first his refusal was not taken seriously. He was told that dissolving his marriage was impossible because it would result in divorce for his sister — as is usual in exchange marriages. In 2014, after he had done his masters in mass communication from the University of Sargodha, his family told him to get ready for his wedding. He refused.

His family tried to convince him by talking to him. They also pressurised him emotionally. Then his in-laws threatened him of dire consequences. He recalls how they blocked the drainage of waste water from his house, inundating the rooms inside. His mother was often upbraided publicly.

Distressed, Akram left his home for Islamabad where he joined Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf’s protest sit-in. He stayed there for many months — as long as the sit-in continued. That did not lessen his family’s troubles. They were facing a social boycott and his sister was routinely ridiculed by her in-laws. He still persisted with his refusal. He was then told to divorce his bride. He obliged. Thankfully for his sister, she was spared the retaliatory divorce because her in-laws understood that Baloch had not divorced their daughter out of personal spite but due to his world view.

He does not regret his decision and happily reports that it has made his community wary of continuing the tradition of child marriages. “Parents are now afraid of marrying off their children at an early age, fearing that they will grow up to reject those marriages,” he says.

Akhtar Colony, a slum next to Karachi’s Defence Housing Authority area, is home to a large population of Roman Catholics. Well past sunset on a recent day, inadequate lighting makes it difficult to identify houses by their numbers inside unkempt streets. Asking for directions runs the risk of exposing local contacts to attention they want to avoid.

Jane* and her husband are waiting on a street to make it easier to spot their home, which is otherwise hard to distinguish from other houses in the neighbourhood. They quickly whisk me inside their home so that nobody can know that a journalist is visiting them. They have been undergoing acute mental stress since September 2016 when Jane’s daughter, Julie*, a matric student, went missing. They do not want their neighbours to embarrass them by discussing the circumstances of her disappearance again.

The lack of means evident inside the house is disconcerting as Jane recalls how Julie went to a nearby school last year but never came back. “Next day we received a call from one of our Christian neighbours who claimed his brother and our daughter had both converted to Islam and contracted a marriage out of their free will,” she says and pauses to control her sobs. “My daughter was only 15 years old at that time,” she resumes.

Jane and her husband went to the local police station to lodge a case, stating that Julie had not yet reached the legal age to get married; hence her marriage was illegal. The police instead registered a case of kidnapping. Julie’s husband Michael* moved the Sindh High Court against the case. The court quashed the case registered by Julie’s parents and allowed her to live with Michael.

The judges did not take into account the fact that Julie’s marriage violated the Sindh Child Marriages Restraint Act 2013, which does not empower a child to marry of her own will, says Jane. They also did not deem it as a contentious issue that Julie did not have a Computerised National Identity Card (CNIC) because of being less than 18 years of age, she adds.

If the police and the court had looked into the legality of the marriage, the outcome of the case could have been different, says Jane’s lawyer. Julie would have been living with her parents rather than with her husband who could have been in jail, he adds without wanting to be quoted by name. He is now fighting the case at the Supreme Court.

In a kidnapping case, however, the judges want the kidnapped person produced in front of them to ask him or her if he or she was taken away forcibly. “If the person says no, the court orders the quashing of the case,” the lawyer explains. A negative answer is generally obtained through pressure, especially when the concerned person is a child, he says.

Problems involving marriages resulting from religious conversions were, ironically, a major factor why the Sindh Child Marriages Restraint Act 2013 was legislated in the first place. After most of the Hindu girls being converted to Islam in the province for marriage with Muslim men were found to be in their early to middle teens, the law put the legal marriageable age at 18.

It is pilgrimage time in Nankana Sahib in early November. Thousands of Sikhs have descended on this central Punjab town to celebrate the birth anniversary of Guru Nanak, the founder of their religion. So has smog.

Maimoona Shahzadi’s employee card.  — Photo by Bilal Karim Mughal

A road is hardly visible through a smoggy afternoon as it leaves the town and runs about 15 kilometres westwards to a village, Chak Wattoan 638/GB. A widow named Sabira Bibi lives in this settlement by the side of a canal. Her daughter died recently in a complicated pregnancy.

Sabira’s humble home comprises of two rooms and a small courtyard. She is rearing a family of 10 people on the meagre pension of her deceased husband who retired as a non-commissioned officer from the army. “As soon as a girl starts making perfect rotis and can handle household chores, she is deemed fit to be married,” says Sabira. If some parents cannot arrange an early marriage for their daughters, the entire community around them pressurises them into doing so urgently, she says. “It is very hard to resist the societal pressure.” People fear girls will fall for wrong men and may run away if they are not married off at an early age, Sabira says.

A lawyer at a law chamber in Nankana Sahib echoes these views. “These mobile phones have exacerbated the problem,” he says. One of the reasons behind underage marriages, according to him, is increased connectivity between girls and boys. “Every other day, we find a minor girl in our chamber who has run away from her home with a man somewhat older than her. We are then requested by them to facilitate their marriage.”

Sabira married off her daughter Maimoona Shahzadi when she was 17 years of age. Maimoona was one year older than the legally marriageable age set in Punjab, but she was still too young to bear children as is evident by what happened to her eventually. Within the next four years, she gave birth to a child and had a miscarriage. Her body could not cope with these labours and she died while she was five months into her second, and unsuccessful, pregnancy. Sabira concedes that marriage before a suitable age could be the reason for her daughter’s death. “But we did not know it beforehand.” She says she will try her best to postpone the marriage of her other daughter – who has turned 16 recently – until she can fully take care of herself.

It is for the same medical reasons that Rasheeda Saand, the health worker in Umerkot, has been trying to discourage people in her area from marrying their daughters off at an early age. Women, according to her, sometimes understand the risks but men do not and they are the ones who always make decisions. What results from their decisions is nothing less than a human tragedy — as Maimoona’s death suggests.

Lubna Ikhlaq, a gynaecologist at a public sector hospital in Layyah, explains that an early marriage can have far-reaching medical effects on a minor girl. Since the girl is not fully grown and her pelvic bones are not fully developed, it is more likely that she will require a cesarean surgery to deliver the baby, the doctor says. “[A child mother] may also develop eclampsia, which results in high blood pressure and a swollen body.”

Karachi-based gynaecologist Dr Shershah Syed, who has also served as general secretary of the Pakistan Medical Association, states that underage marriages are a major reason why young girls develop obstetric fistula. “This condition is most common in underage, malnourished and physically weak girls and it develops when they undergo longer than normal labour pains, he explains. The prolonged pressure on their pelvic bones causes their skin tissues to die, creating holes between either their rectums and vaginas or their bladders and vaginas, resulting in the perpetual and abnormal leakage of stool and urine, he says.

Birth-related complications sometimes also lead to death. According to the Family Planning Association of Pakistan, one Pakistani woman dies during childbirth every 20 minutes. Our country’s maternal mortality ratio – 276 per 100,000 pregnant women – is among the highest in the world. And a major reason for this, according to family planning experts, is underage marriages.

Rani Bibi, a 13-year-old girl, lives in Budhla Sant union council adjoining Multan city. On a cold November day, she is sitting in the courtyard of her mud house. “By the grace of Almighty Allah, I turned out to be lucky,” she says, looking at the sky. As she was being married to her 25-year-old maternal cousin Nadeem Ahmed in August this year, a local human rights activist heard about it and informed the police. The marriage was stopped. “All of my family was worried but I was relieved and thanked Allah who had saved me from an unwanted marriage,” she says.

Senator Sehar Kamran of the Pakistan Peoples Party | seharkamran.com

Incidents like these are quite common across the poverty-ridden and tradition-bound southern and south-western parts of Punjab. There have been 16 reported cases of child marriages in just eight districts of this region between January and October 2017. For each of these cases, many more have gone unreported.

In some of these cases, the discrepancy between the ages of the bride and the bridegroom had been alarming. A 14-year-old girl, Salma Bibi, was married to a 76-year-old man in Dera Ghazi Khan. Similarly, a five-year-old child was married to an elderly man in Muzaffargarh district.

In other cases, the pervasive tradition of exchange marriages was to be blamed for young girls being married off to men from among the in-laws of their brothers and uncles. There are also reported instances of minor girls being given into marriage to settle disputes — as was the case with 13-year-old Shaheen Bibi, a resident of Basti Darkhan in Karor tehsil of Layyah district. She was married to Muhammad Arshad, 17, by the order of an informal local jury because her elder brother, Muhammad Usman, had eloped with Arshad’s sister Ruqayya Bibi. The jury ordered Shaheen Bibi’s father to agree to the exchange marriage or leave the village within 48 hours.

He complied.

Sindh Assembly adopted a bill in November 2016 that made it unlawful to change one’s religion before attaining the age of 18. The bill was aimed at preventing the conversion of minor Hindu girls to Islam for their marriages to Muslim men. Many Muslim religious parties erupted immediately in protest, calling the bill un-Islamic and forcing the provincial government to delay its passage into law books and official rules and regulations.

In theory, this delay should still be no hindrance in stopping Hindu girls below the age of 18 from marrying Muslim men since a law exists to stop the marriage of anyone who has not yet reached that age. In a landmark case in January 2015, the Sindh High Court showed how. It did not allow Anjali Meghwar, renamed as Salma after her conversion to Islam, to go with her husband even after she had told the judges that she had converted to Islam and contracted the marriage by her own choice. The court based its decision on the findings of a medical board it had specially set up that declared her age to be 14 to 15 years. But since she had refused to go with her parents and she could not go with her husband because of her marriage being illegal under the Sindh Child Marriages Restraint Act 2013, the court had no choice but to send her to a shelter. Why the same high court gave a different verdict in Julie’s case – as reported earlier – is anyone’s guess.

Faizullah Korejo, a senior superintendent of police in Karachi’s South Zone, says that selective and flawed implementation of the law against child marriages is partly rooted in a hazily defined role for the police. This confusion stops police officers from intervening to prevent a child marriage on their own, he says. They will not act unless there is a private complaint, he adds. The law also does not annul a marriage contracted in violation of its provisions, says Korejo who has also worked as a child rights trainer with many non-governmental organisations. “The act is completely silent about it … if a marriage has been solemnised, nothing can [undo it].”

The other problem with laws prohibiting child marriages is that they vary across Pakistan. The first such law, the Child Marriage Restraint Act 1929, was introduced by the British colonial administration. It fixed the marriageable age for girls at 14 years. For boys, it set the marriageable age at 18. The Muslim Family Laws Ordinance 1961 revised the marriageable age for girls upwards — to 16 years. The latter law continued to be in force until the 18th amendment was passed by the federal government in 2010, making the prevention of child marriages a provincial subject.

Sindh was the first province to have a law against child marriages. The legislation, passed in 2013, made child marriage a cognisable offence, empowering the police to arrest those involved in it. The act also deemed child marriage a non-compoundable offence, barring the families involved to strike an out-of-court settlement.

Rasheeda Saand, a health worker in Umerkot.  — Photo by Bilal Karim Mughal

Punjab passed its own law in 2015, retaining the age limits set by the 1961 ordinance. It empowers the police to stop a child marriage and register a case but does not give law enforcement agencies the power to make arrests on their own. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan, in the meanwhile, continue to be governed by the 1929 act that does not allow the police to even take note and register a case. None of these laws provide for the dissolution of a child marriage.

There have been a few attempts lately to have a uniform marriageable age for girls across Pakistan. Sehar Kamran, a Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) senator, recently introduced a bill for the same purpose but her initiative was turned down by the Senate’s Standing Committee on Interior, which rejected her bill by a majority vote. The committee’s head, Senator Rehman Malik, who also represents the PPP, stated that the legislation proposed by Sehar “was contrary to Islamic injunctions”.

If legislators cannot agree on the age limit that differentiates a child from an adult due to religious reasons, then it is easy to imagine why they would hesitate to declare an illegally contracted marriage as null and void since that also means entering the realm of religious edicts. Sehar, too, believes that the issue of marriageable age needs to be resolved first before we move on to addressing other problems associated with child marriages. “Underage marriages are a violation of basic human rights as they snatch childhood from innocent children and this question should be tackled as such,” she says over the phone. If you can’t drive, are ineligible to vote and contest in elections and are barred from entering into contracts before you turn 18, how can you then be allowed to get married before that age, considering how huge a social obligation a marriage is, she argued.

There have been many other suggestions to change the existing laws to make them more effective or at least to ensure effective implementation. People such as Nuzhat Yasmeen, a high court lawyer based in Layyah, Anees Jillani, a Supreme Court lawyer and founder of the Society for the Protection of the Rights of the Child and Rana Asif Habib, a senior lawyer and human rights activist in Karachi, suggest that producing the CNIC or any other official proof of the girl’s age must be made mandatory to ensure that a marriage is being solemnised in strict accordance with the law. CNICs are not produced even in marriages registered in courts. “This can be stopped only when the judicial staff knows the laws and their implications deeply,” says Habib.

Zia Ahmed Awan, a Supreme Court lawyer and a human rights activist working in Karachi, calls child marriages “community-sanctioned violence”. These marriages cannot be curbed through legislation alone, he says, but require coordinated efforts from the government, the civil society and the media. All of them should work in tandem to sensitise doctors, lawyers, teachers and other members of the society about the negative effects of child marriages, he argues.

Awan also emphasises the need for digitising all marriage records. “There is no database of marriages. You cannot know whether a person, male or female, intending to enter into a marriage is already married, has children or is divorced or widowed,” he says. We must have a database maintained by the National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA), he suggests. “[This] may help bring an end to child marriages.”

*Names have been changed to protect identities.
Additional reporting by Faridullah Chaudhry


This article was published in the Herald’s December 2017 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.


Read the above feature in Urdu here

مندرجہ بالا فیچر اردو میں یہاں پڑھیں

The woes of Bengalis, Burmese and Iranians of Karachi

By Bilal Karim Mughal (1, 2, and 4) and Saher Baloch (3) 

1

Even on a Sunday morning, Ibrahim Hyderi is abuzz with activity. Bazaars are brimming with motorcycles, cars, autorickshaws. Buyers and sellers are trading all kinds of household goods and fishing equipment.

Khairuddin, a middle-aged man with dishevelled hair and a thin moustache, is sitting outside a tea shop amid the bustle of this large settlement of fishermen in southeastern Karachi. He looks nervous as he speaks. From the side of his eyes, he is looking warily at a couple of policemen roaming nearby on a van.

The policemen stop next to the tea shop. They try to pick up his words and ask people standing on the road about him. But then they drive away without taking any action.

There is history to this mutual wariness.

A few days ago, Khairuddin was carrying fish from a local jetty to his house in a part of Ibrahim Hyderi called Sau Quarters (hundred quarters) where fishermen – mostly of Bengali origin – reside with their families.

Some policemen stopped him on his way and asked him to produce his Computerised National Identity Card (CNIC). Khairuddin did not have a valid one. He claims the policemen offered to let him go if he gave them some money. He refused, he says.

The policemen took him to the lock-up of a police station nearby. By the time they set him free the next morning, his fish had gone rotten. He claims he incurred a loss of 100,000 rupees that has landed him in heavy debt.

Khairuddin once had a valid CNIC but it expired in 2013. He still carries it with him. When he approached the National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA), that issues and renews CNICs, he was told to show his parents’ identity documents and their marriage certificate to prove that they were residing in the then West Pakistan before the secession of Bangladesh in 1971.

He produced those documents, issued during Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s government in the 1970s. NADRA officials still refused to renew his card. They told him, he was not a Pakistani but a Bangladeshi.

“I was born in Pakistan and have lived all my life here. My parents used to live in Pakistan too. We have no connection with Bangladesh,” protests Khairuddin.

He cites many other cases from his community of Bengali fishermen to allege that only those who bribe NADRA officials can get their CNICs renewed. The going rates vary widely — anywhere between 5,000 rupees at the lower end of the spectrum and 30,000 rupees at the higher end, say welfare activists working with Bengalis living in different parts of Karachi.

Those who cannot afford to pay the bribes are turned away, a local man in his thirties says as he listens intently to Khairuddin’s plaints.

2

Machar Colony (fishermen’s colony in English) is one of the largest, and also one of the most unkempt, slums of Karachi. Fenced between a rail track and Mauripur Road to the north and the Arabian Sea to the south, it has an approximate population of 85,000, according to the Pakistani Bengalis Action Committee, a community mobilisation group. Around 75 per cent of its residents are believed to be Bengali, the committee says.

Uneven, dirt-filled streets wind along tiny houses in Machar Colony. Heaps of rubbish are strewn everywhere. A horrible stench – the combination of moist sea wind, rotting fish, sewage flowing through open drains and occasional smoke emitting from smouldering mounds of trash – engulfs the neighbourhood.

On a Saturday last month, about 15 women are gathered in a compound inside Machar Colony. Each of them is accompanied by her children, some as young as four years of age. Heaps of shrimp, interspersed with layers of ice to protect them from rotting, are placed in front of each family.

Working under a hutment made of discarded wood and dried plants, they are peeling the skin off shrimp and putting them in baskets lying next to them. The compound’s floor is wet. Water, poured over shrimp to wash them, and ice melt have mixed with dirt to produce a smelly slush.

Fatima, a middle-aged Bengali woman, is sitting on a wooden plank inside the hut, cutting and peeling shrimp with help from her three small children. They all work with clockwork regularity.

A small bowl beside her carries tokens resembling poker chips. These tokens bear the name of a local fish processing company that she works for. The company gives her one token worth 50 rupees for every bucket full of shrimp (weighing about 15 kilogrammes) that she and her children peel.

Bengali woman in Machar Colony peeling shrimps | Bilal Karim Mughal

At the end of the day, she collects all the tokens, receives their collective worth in rupees and goes home: with a paltry sum of 400-500 rupees to show for her family’s hard day at work — but enough to put food on the table.

Working on ice-cold shrimp has made skin on Fatima’s fingers shrivelled and soggy. Every day after she gets back home, she dips her hands in alum water to get rid of the stench, massages her fingers with coconut oil and warms them for several minutes.

She could have avoided this, at least partially, if her husband had been working. When he could, he would go out to sea to catch fish and earn enough money to help his wife do only half as much shrimp-peeling as she has to do now. Their children also attended school then.

But now that the maritime officials are checking CNICs rigorously, he does not venture out to sea, fearing arrest for being a Bangladeshi living in Karachi illegally. “He has been unable to fish for the last six months or so,” Fatima says. She has stopped sending her children to school so that they can work with her full time.

Many other families in Machar Colony have similar stories.

Ghulam Hussain, a tall, 19-year-old resident of the neighbourhood, may not be able to continue his education because he does not have a CNIC. Wearing an old brown T-shirt with a famous brand’s logo on it, he looks older than he is — that is, if one can ignore the nascent growth of his facial hair.

Hussain’s conversation is peppered with English phrases and occasional references to current affairs. He is studying privately for his intermediate exam which he will take showing a B-Form, a proof of his birth and parentage, to education authorities but he will need a CNIC if and when he wants to get into a college or a university.

Hussain did apply for a CNIC recently. He was asked to prove that his parents were Pakistani citizens so he presented some of his father’s documents: a non-computerised identity card, a domicile certificate and a letter from the Election Commission of Pakistan showing his name on an electoral list. Officials at the NADRA office still rejected his application, he says. They told him he was a Bangladeshi.

Hussain works with his 58-year-old father at their sweet shop in Machar Colony but he does not like the work. “I want to study, not run a shop.”

Around 300,000 Bengalis were residing in Karachi in the years immediately after the Partition. Most of them worked in garments factories or as domestic workers and chauffeurs, says Khwaja Salman Khairuddin who heads a political party, Pak Muslim Alliance, that is active among Karachi’s Bengali community. His father, Khwaja Khairuddin, was one of the main leaders of the movement for the creation of Pakistan and was a mayor of Dhaka in the 1960s when the city was the capital of East Pakistan.

Thousands of these Bengalis moved to Bangladesh after it seceded from Pakistan in 1971 but most continued to stay here, says Khwaja. Many others arrived in Karachi in small groups after 1971 because Bangladesh’s economy at the time was not doing as well as Pakistan’s, he says. These migrants are estimated to be around 200,000 today.

The total number of Bengalis currently living and working in Karachi, according to an informal survey carried out by his party, is around two million. They are scattered in about 105 settlements across the city, including Orangi Town (in district west), Ibrahim Hyderi and Bilal Colony (in Malir district), Ziaul Haq Colony and Moosa Colony (in district central), Machar Colony and Lyari’s Bengali Para (in district south).

These settlements are generally located either close to the sea or next to industrial areas since most of their residents work in fishing-related businesses or as labourers in factories.

Almost every Bengali living in Karachi demands to be recognised as a Pakistani. As a way to ensure that, they have adopted a collective strategy in the ongoing national census. When official enumerators approach them, they register themselves as speakers of none of the nine languages listed in the census forms. Instead, they list their mother language as ‘others’ since the option of choosing Benagli is not there. And, more importantly, they list their nationality as Pakistani.

Census takers do not accept their claims about nationality at face value. They accept them only after checking documents such as CNICs, marriage certificates (or nikah namas) or any other proofs of citizenship, says Khwaja.

But registering themselves as Pakistanis in the census may not automatically turn Bengalis into Pakistani citizens. This is exactly what they did in the previous census in 1998, according to Sheikh Muhammad Siraj, president of the Pakistani Bengalis Action Committee, but their citizenship woes continued even after that. If anything, these woes have become worse of late.

Fatima picks up tokens that can be redeemed for cash | Bilal Karim Mughal

The other measure that many Bengalis adopted was to get Pakistan identity documents by any means possible, legal or illegal. A vast majority of them were successful in the endeavour when identity cards were made manually. Almost all of them succeeded in transferring those cards into CNICs when the government started issuing digital cards in the early 2000s.

But over the last few years, the government has started a campaign to separate legitimate Pakistani Bengalis from illegal migrants from Bangladesh. Siraj himself is one of the people being scrutinised. He came to Pakistan from Bangladesh in 1980 and, like many others in his community, possessed a CNIC until it expired in 2014. The government has rejected his application for the renewal of his card.

Activists allege the authorities are forcing many legitimate Pakistani Bengalis to register as foreigners. Siraj’s own son, Muhammad Hanif, was registered as an alien in 2005 even though he was born in Pakistan in 1988 and has a birth certificate issued by the Sindh government. His alien registration card shows his place of origin as Bangladesh and his nationality as Bangladeshi.

This seems to go against the Pakistani Citizenship Act 1951 that states that “ … every person born in Pakistan after the commencement of this Act shall be a citizen of Pakistan by birth.” The only way to deny Hanif Pakistani citizenship, under the Act, is to prove that he is the offspring of either a foreign diplomat or an enemy alien.

Mohammad Alam, a Bengali rickshaw driver residing in Rehmatiya Colony near Gulshan-e-Iqbal, spends his spare time at the Sindh High Court, assisting Bengalis registered as aliens to move court for their cause. “We are not Bangladeshis,” he insists. Why should we accept an alien registration card or any other temporary identity, he asks. “That is tantamount to accepting that we are foreigners.”

Bengalis of Karachi have had their names on electoral rolls since the 1998 national census. Those who had valid CNICs at the time of elections in 2008 and 2013 would have also voted. Khwaja’s Pak Muslim Alliance, indeed, fielded three candidates in 2008 election — one for the National Assembly and two for Sindh Assembly (none of them polled more than a few hundred votes).

In the 2013 election, the number of the party’s candidates for Sindh Assembly rose to six (though the votes they polled remained negligible). These candidates could not have contested the election without valid proofs of being Pakistani citizens.

“Our case is simple. If we are not Pakistanis then we should not have been counted as such in 1998. And if we were counted as Pakistanis back then, why don’t we have the right to citizenship now?” says Siraj. He also lists other characteristics of his community that, in his opinion, qualify them to be Pakistanis. “If we are living here, earning our livelihood here and not sending money to any other country, why can’t the government issue us CNICs?”

He has put together a huge pile of documents — newspaper clippings and letters addressed to different political leaders, government officials, state institutions, etc. He and his associates also met with Sindh Governor Muhammad Zubair on March 24, 2017. “[The governor] has promised to take our case to the prime minister,” says Siraj.

A high-ranking official of the now defunct National Alien Registration Authority (established in 2000 but merged with NADRA in 2015-2016) says the government never cancels anyone’s citizenship merely on the basis of the language they speak.

“We asked people to bring proofs of their Pakistani citizenship — anything that could prove that they fulfilled the criteria as per the Pakistan Citizenship Act 1951. If they failed to do so, what else could we do if not cancel their citizenship,” he says, without wanting to be quoted by name because he works at a post in NADRA that does not authorise him to speak to journalists.

The official concedes there could have been some mistakes and some legitimate citizens might have been wrongfully put in the ‘foreigners’ list. But, he adds, these mistakes account for just one per cent of all the cases concerning Bengalis in Karachi.

Arakanabad is home to a large number of people of Burmese origin who have named the neighbourhood after the area in Burma that they have migrated from. It is located at the end of a stony path that leads down a slope from Ibrahim Hyderi into Korangi area. Streets here are unpaved but fairly wide; houses vary in size but none of them stands out for its architecture.

Shaista*, who appears to be in her thirties, speaks from behind a metallic door of her two-room house in Arakanabad. Her parents sit outside the house on two benches in a makeshift room — it has no walls; instead, bamboo scaffolding supports a roof thatched with dried tree leaves and branches.

Depictions of Sufi saint Lal Shahbaz Qalandar look at visitors from various parts of this ramshackle structure; a bright-coloured flag adorns one of its corners. It is obvious the family does not have much solace beyond spirituality to get by.

Like almost everyone in Arakanabad, Shaista wants to become a legal citizen of Pakistan, hoping that citizenship will improve her economic conditions or at least help her get much-needed healthcare for herself and education for her three children.

Last year, she needed treatment for a gynaecological condition but officials at the Jinnah Postgraduate Medical Centre refused to treat her because she did not have a CNIC. She also cannot get her three children admitted to any school because they do not have officially accepted birth certificates.

Fisheries harbour at Machar Colony, Karachi | Bilal Karim Mughal

Baby, another 30-something resident of Arakanabad, has a similar problem. She makes her living working as a maid in bungalows near Ibrahim Hyderi and wants her three children, all under the ages of 10, to get an education so that they can have a life better than hers — a wish that cannot come true unless she gets a CNIC for herself.

Like the thousands of Burmese living in Karachi, the only option the two women have is to bribe some NADRA official and get a CNIC made. Shaista’s mother did exactly that after her original CNIC, made in the early 2000s, expired and the NADRA officials refused to renew it — saying she was not a Pakistani citizen. But she paid an agent 8,000 rupees and had her CNIC renewed. “These agents can be spotted outside the NADRA offices all the time,” says Shaista’s mother.

Both Shaista and Baby are members of the Rohingya Muslim community who came to Karachi from Arakan, officially known as Rakhine state in Burma — or Myanmar. The area has been in turmoil since World War II. Rohingya Muslims have suffered immensely at the hands of Buddhists who are in majority in both Rakhine and other parts of Myanmar. They claim that Rohingya Muslims are actually Bengalis, not Burmese.

Many Rohingya Muslims first travelled to East Pakistan in and immediately after 1947 due to its proximity with Arakan. Over time, they started to migrate to West Pakistan, especially Karachi. During General Ayub Khan’s regime, the Pakistani state welcomed them to save them from persecution in Myanmar.

They continued migrating to Karachi in small numbers till the end of General Ziaul Haq’s military government.

Today, according to Khwaja, between 200,000 and 300,000 Burmese are living in Karachi. “They have been living here for decades, mostly without proper identification,” he says.

The government is not sure what to do about them. They do not qualify for citizenship under the 1951 Act that (at least on paper) automatically granted citizenship to everyone who was born in the Subcontinent but was living in Pakistan at the time the law was enacted. Since Burma was separated from the Subcontinent under the Government of India Act 1935, Rohingya Muslims are ineligible from becoming Pakistani citizens under that provision.

“They have mostly assimilated themselves within the Bengali community in Karachi,” says Khwaja. “They don’t call themselves Burmese anymore. Otherwise they don’t have any chance of becoming legal [citizens of Pakistan].” They are, therefore, registering themselves as Pakistani Bengalis in the ongoing census, he adds.

The assimilation has not been difficult since people from Arakan and Benaglis have similar features. That, however, has not provided Rohingya Muslims with a guaranteed path to citizenship since hundreds of thousands of Bengalis themselves are struggling to get just that.

The other option for Rohingya Muslims is to apply for a refugee status. If granted that status, Baby and Shaista will be able to get at least medical care for themselves and schooling for their children through international humanitarian organisations.

But Pakistan is not a signatory to the United Nations convention on refugees and, therefore, does not have any obligation under international law to take in any refugees. Additionally, the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) recognises only Afghans as being eligible for the status of refugees within Pakistan.

3

Maula Bukhsh, a 56-year-old resident of Nawa Lane neighbourhood in Karachi’s Lyari area, is reluctant to talk to journalists. During an interview, he repeatedly asks about the confidentiality of the information he is sharing. He is worried that it may be used against him if government officials come to know about it.

Two other people in the local Iranian community flatly refuse to be interviewed for the same reason. They fear the government will deport them to Iran if their ethnic identity gets revealed or, worse, they may face accusations of spying for Iran and facilitating acts of sabotage.

Their fear is not without reason. Only days earlier, a confessional statement by Uzair Baloch, an alleged gang leader from Lyari, became public in which he admitted to being a dual national – of both Iran and Pakistan – and his association with Iranian intelligence officials. The statement was splashed in the media on April 24, 2016, when news came that Baloch was to be tried by a military court for spying on senior security officials and sensitive installations in Karachi.

About 150 families of Iranian origin are living in Lyari in localities such as Kumharwara, Chakiwara and Mira Naka. It is an open secret that they share familial and business links with Iran.

Members of these families have been travelling between Iran and Karachi, in some cases even before Pakistan came into being. Many of them are involved in exporting bedspreads, draperies, rice, lentils and vegetables from Pakistan to Iran and importing dry fruits, sweets, pickles and carpets from Iran to Pakistan — all through legal channels. Some others smuggle petroleum products from Iran into Pakistan and illegal migrants from Pakistan into Iran.

Ghulam Hussain shows his father’s old National Identity Card | Bilal Karim Mughal

Among them is the family of Muhammad Hussain who, in his spare time, works as a coordinator for Jamaat-e-Islami’s welfare wing Al-Khidmat Foundation in Lyari. His grandparents were from Iran’s Sarbaz district and he first came to Lyari in the 1950s as a child.

After completing his graduation, he went to Sarbaz as a 19-year-old to get married to his cousin. He still has many members of his extended family living in various districts and towns of Iran’s Sistan and Baluchestan province. Two of his children – a daughter and a son – are also married in Iran.

Members of these families, including those of Bukhsh and Hussain, sat up and listened as television screens flashed the details of Baloch’s confession. His arrest is confusing, says Bukhsh, because “the charge against him is of spying for a country considered friendly [towards Pakistan]”. This, he says, “makes the situation uncertain for all of us who have families on both sides of the [Pakistan-Iran] border.”

Bukhsh’s father Mohammad Ali moved from Si stan and Baluchestan province of Iran to Nawa Lane in the late 1970s. Before he passed away, he got Pakistani identity cards made for four of his seven children.

“Three of my siblings moved to Bahrain in the 1990s and settled there,” says Bukhsh.

Back then, he never thought that he might someday have to weigh his options as far as his citizenship is concerned. “There was no urgent need to migrate then.” But that need is now developing rapidly, Bukhsh says.

That is because both Iran and Pakistan have started tightening border controls and citizenship rules. Bukhsh has seen restrictions on movement between the two countries only intensify over the last three years or so.

Travel permit to Iran (known as rahdari) is now valid only for a 15-day stay, according to Bukhsh. “Previously, we could stay in Iran for about two months,” he says. Iranian government now charges 30,000 Iranian toman (about 1,000 rupees) if anyone overstays the time limit allowed by the permit, he adds. Even families with valid travel documents are often denied entry into Iran these days, he points out.

These restrictions have come about in the wake of Iranian suspicion that anti-Tehran militants sneak into Iran through Pakistan. Only on April 26 this year, 10 Iranian guards were killed in Sistan and Baluchestan province in an attack alleged by Iran to have been carried out by terrorists based in Pakistan. Similar attacks on Iranian border guards have taken place in April 2015 and October 2013 as well.

On the Pakistani side, Iranians living in Lyari and in southern Balochistan – together numbering approximately 10,000 – did not experience any problems at the hands of the government authorities; that is, until recently. That has changed after an American drone strike killed Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour in Balochistan on May 21, 2016 as he was travelling from Iran into Pakistan.

At least one earlier incident might have also been the reason behind heightened Pakistani concerns about movement of people across border with Iran. Anti-human trafficking cell of the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) arrested one Abdul Qadeer, a NADRA official hailing from Panjgur, on August 10, 2015 on the charge of helping foreigners register as Pakistanis.

He was allegedly providing Pakistani identity cards to Iranians looking to get medical treatment in Pakistan, says Hussain, and was charging 10,000 rupees per person in bribes. “Those who sought help from [Qadeer in their cross-border travels] now fear that the authorities may be coming after them,” he explains.

The arrest of an alleged Indian operative Kulbhushan Jhadav after he entered Pakistan from Iran, also last year, and Baloch’s confession have only increased official scrutiny.

The government has, indeed, cancelled CNICs of many people residing in Lyari since the revelation that Mansour was carrying a Pakistani passport and a Pakistani CNIC that identified him as Wali Mohammad. Most of the people with cancelled CNICs in the neighbourhood are of Iranian-Baloch descent, says Hussain.

He also suggests that about 40 per cent of Iranians living in Lyari and Balochistan’s Pasni and Panjgur areas may have just lost their Pakistani citizenship in the past year or so.

Since Pakistan does not have a dual nationality agreement with Iran, people whose fathers and grandfathers were born in Iran are now being asked to show documents that prove that they themselves were born here. Abu Bakr, a journalist from Lyari, mentions “a long queue outside the NADRA office” in his neighbourhood. Most of the people in the queue are there to submit documents that prove their credentials as Pakistani citizens, he says.

4

Federal Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan addressed a press conference in Islamabad on April 15 this year. The main thrust of his conversation at the event was citizenships. He said the government had cancelled 174,184 CNICs because they belonged to people confirmed to be non-Pakistanis.

Without specifying how many of these were possessed by the citizens of which country, he said that 3,641 foreigners had voluntarily retuned their Pakistani CNICs. These included Indians, Bangladeshis, Afghans and Iraqis.

Khan also said the government had blocked a little over 350,000 CNICs in total. Out of these, he said, 125,000 were held by non-Afghans — suggesting that some of them might have been held by Bengalis, Burmese and Iranians living in Karachi.

Other than the cancelled cards, the minister said, the remaining blocked cards were being unlocked for a period of 60 days during which time their holders could prove their citizenship. If they failed to do so they will be deemed as foreigners and their CNICs will be cancelled.

Vendors in a market in Sau Quarters, Ibrahim Hyderi | Mohammad Ali, White Star

The minister then listed documents that people can show to prove their citizenship — an attested document showing the purchase or ownership of a piece of land, no matter how small; a domicile certificate; an attested family tree issued by the revenue department; educational certificates; passport or identity card; arms license; or any other government-issued document, verified by the respective issuing authority.

There is only one condition for the validity of these documents: they should have been issued before 1978.

Back in Karachi, activists complain that an unknown number of cards remain blocked even when their holders have produced verified proofs of their Pakistani citizenship — as per the minister’s directions. Blocking and cancelling CNICs cannot rid the government of foreigners living in Pakistan, particularly Bengalis and Burmese in Karachi, says Rana Asif Habib, a Sindh High Court lawyer who also heads a Karachi-based non-profit organisation, the Initiator Human Development Foundation.

These communities are present in the city in such large numbers that it is impossible to deport them all, he says. Pakistan, in fact, did try to deport thousands of people to Bangladesh in 1995-1996 but Bangladesh refused to take them back. Religious parties within Pakistan also strongly opposed the deportation.

Habib, who also appears at the high court on behalf of individuals fighting citizenship cases, believes the government will sooner or later have to form a policy for accepting them as citizens of Pakistan. That policy should make a distinction between Bengalis and Bangladeshis. “Being a Bengali [in Pakistan] is not a crime, being a Bangladeshi [and illegally residing in the country] is,” he says.

Names have been changed to protect identities


This article was originally published in the Herald’s May 2017 issue under the headline “Strangers in the house”. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.


Read the above feature in Urdu here

مندرجہ بالا فیچر اردو میں یہاں پڑھیں

Behind every successful start-up, there are failures. This is one Pakistani entrepreneur’s story

Sameer Ahmed Khan, the founder of locally developed website Social Champ, had three failures under his belt before lady luck smiled at him and his current successful enterprise.

Although his current venture — a homegrown startup which provides comprehensive tools to automate and manage your social media presence — is gaining traction, the success was preceded by a series of ideas and products that failed.

Three failures before victory

His first misadventure was a gaming engine ‘GameOChat’ which could work across platforms to develop video games and give people a chance to chat and play games simultaneously. Despite three years of hard work the project did not launch, and with the release of the Unity gaming engine, it stood no chance.

Co-founders of SocialChamp from left to right: Sameer Ahmed Khan, Zohaib Ahmed Shakir, and Shakir Ghani.

Sameer Ahmed Khan, Zohaib Ahmed Shakir and Shakir Ghani

Next was Educating Dreams, an app with a noble mission which aimed to connect street children with organisations running charitable schools. The idea was simple: anyone wanting to help a child in need would snap a photo, and the app would automatically mark its location and report it to a charitable school.

Although the app was created with good intentions, it failed to pick up despite winning many competitions. NGOs excused themselves from working with this app if other NGOs were involved and street children routinely change their location, making it difficult to trace them after first contact.

But Khan was stubborn and moved onto a third venture — RemindZapp, a tool for managing reminders. This app, too, was decommissioned due to multiple problems that plagued its growth, despite being accepted into the Google for Entrepreneurs backed The Nest I/O incubator.

Enter Social Champ

Khan did not let the repeated failures discourage his dream. Why? In his words, “People only need an excuse to hold them back from doing amazing things.”

At the age of 26, today he is the CEO and co-founder of Social Champ, a successful platform which automates an individual’s social media presence.


Why the app is useful:

When it comes to social media marketing, one is faced with a range of challenges

  • identifying the correct time to post for reaching the maximum number of relevant audience
  • monitoring and tailoring your content to ensure maximum engagement and click-through rates
  • scheduling posts
  • repeating posts,
  • maintaining a strategy that is consistent with brand image.

Ironically, the journey of Social Champ began to take shape when Khan felt the need for better management of his social media accounts while trying to promote his previous startup.

Tired of having to manually repeat each social media share or post at different times throughout the day, Khan asked a friend, Zohaib Ahmed Shakir, to help design a tool which could re-post the same thing at predetermined intervals in order to maximise reach.

Khan then showed the idea to Pakistani tech website, TechJuice, which liked the idea and told the budding entrepreneurs that their company would make use of their tool.

Foreign techies take notice

Motivated by the positive feedback and workability of this project, Khan took a leap of faith and emailed Guy Kawasaki, a US-based social media evangelist, who had been a close friend of Apple’s Steve Jobs.

Kawasaki’s book, ‘The Art of Repeating’, had inspired Khan in the first place to explore and tackle the need for a comprehensive social media management tool.

To his surprise, Kawasaki responded positively.

Although at this point, the tool itself had limited features, Khan recalls that Kawasaki’s comments, feature requests and critical evaluation helped them grow to a fully functional social media management tool that could compete against global market giants like HootSuite and Buffer.

Kawasaki’s response had proven the unconventional marketing strategy to be successful and gave Khan the confidence to contact more social media marketing gurus, including the likes of Ian Anderson Gray, Peg Fitzpatrick, Neal Schaffer, and Lyndsay Phillips. Khan received positive responses from each of them.

Pakistani investors are sceptical

Khan recalls reaching out to several famous Pakistani companies with the hope of getting the breakthrough he had been seeking.

But to his dismay, Pakistani firms were sceptical of the very idea of a social media management platform, and showed little or no interest in the idea or his abilities.

The trend of investing in start-ups has not picked up in Pakistan — something Khan learnt the hard way.

Despite the lack of interest from local investors, continued mentor-ship and support from The Nest I/O allowed Khan to continue developing the tool with a focus on a wider reach.

So what did they do for money?

Khan and his friends financed Social Champ through personal savings and freelance projects until the product was complete.

“If we had investment from this market [Pakistan], maybe we would now be a year ahead. But we’re still in the bootstrapping phase. One should find ways on their own and not give up simply because others aren’t giving a break.”

“If you don’t have a payment mechanism, then make one of your own. We have an example of Elon Musk who invented PayPal. Why can’t others be like him?” says Khan.

Khan is not bitter about the lack of support in Pakistan. He acknowledges that working here teaches an individual things that cannot be learnt in other countries.

“You face so many problems and obstacles here, that you develop polished problem-solving skills,” says Khan.

“You learn how to tackle the most difficult of situations; it gives a major boost to your ability to endure and is helpful in making your nerves stronger.”

Although Khan and his co-founders have opportunities to set up camp in the US, they remain committed to working for Pakistan.

“Although I believe that my life would be really comfortable in foreign countries, I think I can do more for people here,” Khan says.

Photos courtesy Social Champ

Do you want your product/service reviewed? Email us at features@dawn.com


Originally published at Dawn.com on April 05th, 2017.

Pakistani science enthusiast’s astronomical observatory wins $5,000 grant

A Pakistani science enthusiast’s astronomical observatory has won a $5,000 grant at the National Science Week 2017, an initiative of the Government of Australia.

The Southern Cross Outreach Observatory Project (Scoop) is a domed observatory mounted on a trailer and equipped with a computerised telescope. The aim of the observatory is to make astronomy more accessible to distant and remote communities in Australia.

Dr Muhammad Akbar Hussain, a Pakistani paediatrician, is the brains behind the design and execution of Scoop.

The observatory — Dr Muhammad Akbar Hussain

Hussain, a keen amateur astronomer, is a member of the Karachi Astronomers Society and The Astronomical League of Pakistan.

He also designed and constructed the Kastrodome, an astronomical observatory in the Gulistan-e-Jauhar area of Karachi, with his brother, Mehdi, in 2013.

In conversation with Dawn.com, Dr Akbar Hussain talked about the motivation behind this project and his future plans.

“The observatory is a 2.3-metre dome equipped with an 11-inch diametre telescope. The project was completed in June 2016 and launched in August 2016. This mobile observatory is among the main features of Australia’s National Science Week 2017.”

The telescope used in Scoop — Dr Muhammad Akbar Hussain

The project will involve further outreach events, planned to include Port Augusta, Broken Hill, Mildura and smaller towns around the Adelaide region.

The mobile observatory will also travel to three states in Australia — i.e. South Australia, New South Wales and Victoria — and carry out outreach activities.

“The long-term vision is to gather interested entrepreneurs and volunteers to construct similar mobile observatories and create a network throughout Australia, either under the umbrella of Scoop or independently.”

The cumulative grant for National Science Week 2017 is $500,000. The grant awarded to Scoop will cover a part of costs incurred during conducting public outreach events.

People gather around the observatory. — Dr Muhammad Akbar Hussain

“In the future, I also have plans to build a much larger fixed observatory — similar to the Kastrodome in Karachi or even bigger — under the dark and pristine skies of the Australian outback.”

Australia’s National Science Week is country’s annual science fair. Held every August, it provides a platform to over 1,000 science events around Australia for the promotion of science among the masses.

The events are held at libraries, colleges, universities, and in communities and provide the public and professionals a chance to meet and talk science.

Partners include the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and the Australian Science Teachers Association.


Originally published at Dawn.com on February 21st, 2017

Can Bykea help you beat Karachi’s rush hour traffic?

If you don’t own a car or a motorcycle in a city as big as Karachi, commuting expenses may eat up a major portion of your monthly budget.

Standardised rates for taxi and auto-rickshaw fares are a thing of the past and we often end up paying inflated fares even for nearby destinations, on the whim of the driver.

The port city’s first mass transit system, Greenline BRT, will take at least a year before it is fully operational and when that does happen it will move along a single route. This may prove inadequate for a growing metropolis.

So what alternatives are we left with?

Depending on which consumer segment one belongs to, ‘Bykea’ may prove to be one of these alternatives.

As the name implies, Bykea is a ride hailing service that exclusively focuses on motorcycles. The startup currently offers users in Karachi a convenient pick and drop service similar to on demand ride hailing services like Uber and Careem.

In addition to catering exclusively to those who prefer to commute on a motorcycle, the service takes advantage of lower fuel consumption and maintenance costs, offering much cheaper rates than conventional taxis or rickshaws.

The company also sees itself growing in the parcel delivery space and offers users an affordable service in this space as well.

How it works

The Bykea app is pretty straightforward and has an uncanny resemblance to the popular Careem app. Once launched, you are presented with two options: whether to use Bykea for parcel delivery or for a ride.

Selecting either of the options and tapping the “Chalo” (Let’s go) button connects you to a nearby rider, who picks you up from your desired location.

The app lacks features such as fare estimate, booking the ride for later, balance accumulated and destination selection. The user experience is also plagued by some bugs which will be explored later on in this review.

My experience

On a pleasant Monday morning, I used Bykea to commute to work, even though I own a motorcycle, to see how the service really fared.

The rider who came to pick me up was a courteous young man and had a 70cc motorcycle which wasn’t too old and appeared to be in decent condition. It was comfortable.

The biker was a bit reckless as he drove through traffic and I had to assure him that I wouldn’t mind paying a few rupees extra for a longer commute time. He acknowledged and slowed down considerably and dropped me off at my office.

I was charged a total fare of Rs134 for the 17 kilometre ride, spanning over 36 minutes.

To give you an idea of the distance, I reside in Gulistan-e-Johar and my office is opposite the Governor House. That makes the total fare extremely affordable when compared to a rickshaw which may charge any amount between Rs300 to Rs400.

The rider terminated the ride upon reaching the destination, and I noticed that he took the liberty to give himself a 5-star rating. It was only a bit later that I found out he had merely recommended himself for a 5-star rating when the app asked for my confirmation for the rating. I had the option to reduce the rating.

I tried Bykea three more times over the next few days and found the commute to be both pleasant and affordable. In each instance, the riders behaved nicely and also strictly abided by all traffic rules.

The big question: is it safe?

In all four rides, the motorcycles had no rear view mirrors. That means the rider would rotate back his head every time he wanted to change a lane or overtake other vehicles.

Needless to say, this is a dangerous practice.

In Pakistan, the majority of bikers find it embarrassing to have rear view mirrors installed. Can there be any other reason for not having them?

I have been riding a motorcycle for years and have always had rear view mirrors installed on my bike. I can say with full confidence that having both rear view mirrors (and using them) can reduce your chance of an accident by a significant margin.

In two of the rides that I took, the motorcycles were really worn out and poorly maintained. I asked one of the riders about whether Bykea carries out a safety inspection before registering the motorcycle and was told that they did.

It was hard to believe as I could not imagine how these two bikes could have passed such an inspection. One even had damaged passenger footrests, making it impossible for me to rest my feet on them.

Additionally, none of the motorcycles had any helmet for the pillion passenger, even though the Bykea website claims that the pillion rider will be provided a helmet.

I had to bring my own helmet during each ride.

Quite surprisingly, one of the riders who came to pick me up, told me during the course of the commute that he had a learner’s driving licence and not a permanent one.

While he did drop me off safely, such recklessness is not acceptable from a company which wants to establish itself as a provider of safe transport services. Surprisingly, this is also a claim made on their website: that they don’t accept riders without licences or those with a learner’s licence.

App glitches

While using the app, I sometimes faced sporadic glitches. One morning when I opened the app to get myself another ride, it showed four riders around the Malir Cantonment area with their markers not moving at all. The riders didn’t call back to confirm the pick-up request.

On the fifth try, the rider’s marker was flying from Gulshan-e-Iqbal to Malir Cantonment and back continuously, as if the app was unable to determine the rider’s exact location.

There are no waiting charges or cancellation charges, so misuse of the service by non-serious customers is common which results in a waste of time and resources for the rider.

The company should work on rectifying this problem.

Another missing feature is that the rider does not set the drop-off location at the start of the ride; neither does the app ask the customer for a drop-off location.

When they close the ride upon reaching the destination, the drop-off location is then fetched by the GPS.

In case of an accident

During casual conversations with the riders, I was told that the company has assured them up to Rs 25,000 in medical assistance in case of an accident.

I was also told that the company provides ‘mobile phone snatching coverage’ of up to Rs8,000 and discourages riders from keeping very expensive smartphones.

This is really positive because bikes are more prone to accidents than cars. I was also told that in case my mobile phone is snatched during my ride, the company would also provide me the same coverage as the rider.

I asked him about the process of filing the claim, to which I was told that he was unaware of any such process as he hadn’t been through any unfortunate incident.

The verdict?

One thing is certain, Bykea is great value for money.

If you are looking for a cheap and fast ride to your destination, Bykea is worth a try. Shortcomings are a part and parcel of any startup, but what matters is their determination and will to resolve issues in a timely fashion.

The company should implement strict standards on the condition of its motorcycles and ensure that they are equipped with necessary safety features including rear view mirrors, metallic side-bar to prevent the bike from falling onto the rider in case of a slip, a helmet for the pillion rider and a frame for exhaust pipes to prevent accidental burns.

I reached out to the company to get their point of view on all these points, but I did not receive a response despite multiple requests.

Try it for yourself! And if you’re undecided, watch this awesome Girls at Dhabas video and review


Do you want your product/service reviewed? Email us at web@dawn.com


Originally published at Dawn.com on February 15th, 2017

Dear Imran, a leader who wants to fix Pakistan would never propose a US visa ban

On January 27, US President Donald Trump signed an Executive Order which barred nationals of seven Muslim-majority countries from traveling to the US for 90 days, as well as indefinitely suspending the intake of Syrian refugees.

The controversial move was widely criticised. Most world leaders, large sections of the international media, and the general public voiced their disapproval in unison.

The strongest opposition came from within the US and, within a few days, the courts struck down the Order, at least temporarily.

People in Pakistan were also critical of Trump’s decision, especially since it was suggested that the ban might be extended to Pakistan as well.

But Imran Khan, whose Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf governs Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and is the third-largest party in the National Assembly, had a different take on the issue.

Addressing a party rally, Imran Khan said he “prayed” that the US stops granting visas to Pakistanis so that “we could work for fixing our own country”.

I was not surprised at all. Imran has a habit of saying ludicrous things, which he either has to retract or clarify later.

Time and again, Imran has proven is a reactionary leader. He is keen on riding populist waves and feeds on nationalist rhetoric, all the while ignoring the realities of the country.

His views here are not too different from those of Trump, who proposes the isolationist agenda of ‘America First’.

Before making such statements, it would have helped if Imran had checked the facts.

According to the State Bank of Pakistan, the country’s foreign exchange reserves were $23.19 billion at the end of 2016. Remittances by expats stood at $19.91 billion, which is roughly 85 percent of the total foreign reserves.

Of these $19.91 billion, the highest contribution came from Pakistan’s living in Saudi Arabia at $5.96 billion. Pakistanis in the US sent around $2.52 billion back to their home country. This amount is higher than the $1.77 billion at which K-Electric was sold to Shanghai Electric.

Travel restrictions on visa and green card holders will not only be a blow to concerned individuals and families, but will also have a crippling effect on the Pakistani economy.

No sane leader would pray for such a situation, let alone a leader who promises to develop Pakistan.

According to Imran Khan, “The day there is a government that decides it has to live and die in Pakistan, it will fix this country. The biggest issue here is the corruption of bigwigs who … become ministers and loot this country, taking the money abroad.”

Yes, but the bigwigs of corruption do not need visas to stash their money abroad. There are plenty of other ways to send money to foreign bank accounts or offshore companies. If Pakistanis are banned from living and working in the US, it is the lower-middle and middle classes and students who will suffer the most – not the rich and the powerful.

Questioning the loyalty of Pakistanis living in the US is distasteful. Hardworking immigrants deserve to be respected and honoured instead of being demeaned. Their contributions to both the US and Pakistan should be celebrated.

Even if Pakistanis were barred from the US, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they will shift their wealth and families back to Pakistan. They would rather look to move to another Western country, where they will continue to find better opportunities.

Pakistan’s economic ills cannot simply be blamed on the lack of investment in the country. To attract investment from its citizens living abroad, Pakistan needs to create favourable economic and political conditions. Forcing expats to bring their money to Pakistan is no magic solution when the overall situation of the country remains dismal.

During a time of globalisation, we should be looking for Pakistanis to gain international experience. Lack of global exposure for its people will make the country a poorer place in terms of human resources.

We need to accept that Pakistan’s education system is abysmal and the country’s job market doesn’t have the absorption capacity. It’s normal that in such a situation, people will move to look for a better life. It’s their right to do so.

Imran has hit another low after his disparaging comments on Pakistani immigrants. His statement drew criticism and shock not only from within Pakistan, but also from overseas Pakistanis. One Pakistani-American attorney said that such a demand from a national leader was beyond comprehension.

In an age where the reputation of a country is measured by how many countries its citizens can enter without visas, we should be striving for Pakistanis to have an easier right of way when it comes to international travel.

Imran should realise that a ban on Pakistanis travelling to any country will only bring further humiliation and shame, not benefits.


Originally published at Dawn.com on February 7th, 2017