Exporting its people brings this village new prosperity, new materialism

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Across the sprawling plains of the Punjab, men and women wrapped in blankets against the cold bring in the last of the wheat harvest. Winter is in the air. The fields are now muddied from the first rainfall, and one senses the harshness of the months ahead.

Approaching the village of Ahmdal, one is struck by an eerie calm. It appears deserted, except for an occasional woman or playful, well-dressed child. Here the houses are not of the usual Punjabi baked mud and straw, but are new, well-insulated structures of brown and red brick. Above rich arabesque arches and mosaic inlay, television antennas battle against the breeze.

Only 20 years ago the Ahmdalis were living at the subsistence level. Today they have refrigerators, radios, washing machines. What they are lacking is a male population, for 90 percent of the men of Ahmdal are working in the oil-rich Gulf states. They, along with the men of nearby villages, are sending home remittances amounting to $85,000 a month - and that's to just one of five local banks.

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They, along with 1.7 million other Pakistanis, are not only revolutionizing socioeconomic norms, they are sending home foreign exchange earnings of $2.2 billion a year - about two-thirds Pakistan's annual exports.

''Well, why not?'' asked 26-year-old Ahmad Husseini, now home on leave from his oil-rig job in the Sheikhdom of Muscat. ''I'm making 10 times the money that I could make here. Sure, we live like animals in Muscat. Ten men crowded into a tiny room. There are no women, no recreation, Muscat doesn't even have consumer goods. . . . Yes, one day I'll return to Pakistan and set up a business, but that's a long way off. For the moment, I want a new house, appliances, my own land and car. They keep telling me I should 'invest' in the private sector. No way, I'm looking after myself.''

According to official figures, 88 percent of all remittances are used for consumption, which has created a new kind of materialism, and demand for consumer goods.

The absurdity to which this has been carried was pointed out by one official in Islamabad, who said there are still some 100,000 Pakistani villages without electricity, yet some of these same villages now have refrigerators and color TV.

But to the 8,000 people in Ahmdal, Islamabad, some 55 miles away, seems a long way off.

Ahmad Khan, now approaching 90 and still working on an Abu Dhabi oil rig, is perhaps as responsible for Ahmdal's exodus as the policies of the Bhutto government which, in the early 1970s, encouraged large-scale, short-term emigration.

Mr. Khan, like most other men from Ahmdal, worked in a Pakistani refinery in the nearby village of Khuar until he was retired at 70. Then he went to the Gulf. Today, 80 percent of Ahmdali migrants are in the United Arab Emirates.

Thrice married, with children as young as his great- grandchildren scurrying about his house, Khan is a living legend to Ahmdalis, but he also illustrates an ominous trend among this new vastly wealthy yet uneducated class. They are having larger families, which Pakistan can ill afford. The country's annual population growth rate, already nearly 3.3 percent, is even higher than India's.

Although Pakistan is now a net exporter of food, this year's 4 percent growth in the agricultural sector barely stayed ahead of the population rise. And Western economists say the increased output was caused by an expansion of acreage, rather than better management of land: Except for wheat, today's yield per acre is exactly what it was in 1976.

Well aware that serious efforts are needed to increase agricultural production, the government allocated 20 percent of its development budget to agriculture this year, continued its policy of gradually reducing subsidies on fertilizers, and has redirected public expenditure toward new programs in agricultural education, seed improvement, and water management. Today, seepage alone costs Pakistan 40 percent of its water supply, and 30 percent of its cotton seed is infected before sowing by the pink bollworm. Yet there are no pesticide factories in this country, even though agriculture directly or indirectly supports nearly 75 percent of the population, and its share of the gross domestic product is 30 percent.

Here in the Punjab, which is Pakistan's agricultural heartland, the plains are now brown and yellow. Dark storm clouds hang ominously overhead. Dhaban Khan , his wizened face staring at the bleak landscape, complains that an American oil company won't hire him for the Gulf because he has just had his 83rd birthday. But he still wants to go. He would go even without a contract if he could pay his fare. But his meager earnings, from tending Ahmdal's flocks, do not even give him the national per capita income of $300 a year.

But the young men, like Ahmad Husseini, working on an oil rig in the Gulf, are guaranteed starting salaries of $1,300 a month. Many Ahmdalis are now making don't make such donations to those beyond the village's old stone walls, unless they themselves move to the cities, which nearly all the migrants can afford to do.

The present government finds itself betwixt and between. It is dependent upon use of the migrants' foreign exchange - though it makes no income on the remittances - yet it is increasingly frustrated as it sees the money frittered away.

It will thus open by the end of the year three massive duty-free shops in Karachi, Rawalpindi, and Lahore, stocked with a plethora of consumer goods. It hopes that the Gulf workers will satisfy their appetites here. The only stipulation: payment only in foreign exchange. The villagers of Ahmdal scoff at the notion. They can buy the same items in the Gulf, and what they don't use they sell on Pakistan's thriving black market, at two or three times the cost.

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