THE northern parts of Pakistan have for decades had to suffer under a general lack of development and the prevalence of tribal hierarchies. Even so, there are pockets of relative progressiveness.
Such a pocket is the Murree region. From these leafy climes, over several generations, men have joined the both educated and under-educated workforces in the plains and brought ideas back to the hillsides, while intermarriages between the tribes of the hills and their equivalents in Rawalpindi and the Potohar plateau have also worked to increase awareness of the needs and nuances of modernity.
Little true academic research on the subject is available. This much, however, is incontestable: the Murree area has a relatively high literacy rate for both boys and girls. The 1998 census found a 69.3 literacy rate here amongst the 10 and upwards age group, with students being held back not by their own familial customs or abilities, but the insufficiency of opportunities for higher learning within the area. That being as it is, early mornings and mid-afternoons are comprised of the hillsides echoing with the laughter of primary and secondary school students, and a few surveys have found that both the government- and private-sector spheres of education are in fairly robust health.
The trouble with this glowing picture is the lack of detail. True, many schools report that to a greater or a lesser extent, their enrolment figures are increasing. How well these figures do as a percentage of the population that has grown exponentially over recent decades, however, remains a moot point.
The growth in the population of the area can to traced to several factors. For one thing, the population growth rate of the country remains unsustainably high, and the hills of Murree are no exception. Then, its proximity to the urban areas of Islamabad, Rawalpindi, Lahore and the many other cities of the dusty plains, coupled with improvements in the road networks, has meant a growing influx of tourists. Indeed, efforts have been made to attract such traffic such as the New Murree Development Project, as well as other interventions.
Such ‘development’ has made the sale of land to outsiders an increasingly attractive option for locals, and thus, houses, cottages, hotels and cabins-for-rent (many of them quite outlandish) have for years been sprouting up over hitherto relatively pristine slopes. On top of all this have been the consequences of the militancy, turmoil, and under-development in the north-west – internal migration on a large scale into the Murree region, by hapless people dislodged from their own areas.
‘Outsiders’, however, be they from (former) Fata or from Faisalabad, bring with them their own codes and cultures. Today, there are far more hijabs and beards to be seen where once even a burka was remarkable. This can be understood as growing conservatism, or a yearning towards the cultural indicators of the increasingly religiously inclined urban middle classes, but that does not change the facts on the ground. As just one indicator, consider this: ‘honour killings’ were unknown in these climes for decades, but over the past few years there have been at least two.
Further, tourism and the inflow of outsiders has not translated to increased employment opportunities. At the lower financial tiers, in fact, it has meant a growing scarcity of resources and competition along latent ethnic lines. This has brought crime, drugs, and violence. Where most households once raised their own chickens and grew their kitchen gardens, today many buy produce trucked up from the plains.
Recursively, the dearth of employment opportunities and competition has brought its own troubles: an ‘easy’ living as the custodian of a mosque, supported perhaps by a parent organisation that may have aims other than pure altruism; the facility of being able to send boys to the mushrooming number of madressahs where they will get a square meal or two; the resistance to tourists that expose youngsters to mores and materialism that has not come organically to the area; and above all, a lack of faith in the government-run education system that is fast being overtaken by an unregulated and increasingly conservative private sector.
Glimpses of the old Murree fabric remain, of course: a man who retired as a havaldar from the army (the hills have sent many men to fight for king and country) runs a tiny shop in a shack, selling needles and thread and spice but also, tellingly, face masks for the girls; a local woman with her children, dressed in Eid finery, makes her way up the hill, calling out greetings at the houses she passes; a redoubtable old schoolmaster, skin leathery with age, puffs on his hookah and tells me that the area has gone to seed to the extent that the Almighty himself would balk.
And a gentleman named Qamar, who sells cow bells, dog leashes, black silk abayas and other items in his wood and timber shop on the side of the road, where he also runs a tea stall. He reads the Urdu newspapers regularly and promises to look me up in the English-language publication with which I am associated. “You left the area, did you,” he asks a visitor whose family moved to the plains a generation ago. “Good for you. Here, they’re even burning down the trees to squeeze every last drop of resin out of them.”
(Note: The resin in fir trees is extracted to be used as firelighter. The damage done to the plant in the process is covered up from the (not-so) watchful eyes of the forest department by setting the base on fire, or better still, lighting fires at the base of trees in entire copses, so that the tree inevitably dies, dries up, and can be put to more useful purposes such as firewood.
The writer is a columnist and is an assistant editor at a major English newspaper
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