By Babar Ayaz
Getting out of mega-cities silos and visiting villages and rural towns is an opportunity every journalist, worth his/her salt, cannot miss. So when Chairman of the Rural Media Network (RMN) Ehsan Ahmed Seher invited me to Liaquatpur for training the journalists of the Tehsil, I was unable to resist the offer. It’s not that our lungs need the fresh rural air; our minds also need some oxygen to think objectively.
Reason: I have been of the view that the Pakistani media is imbalanced as it is mainly focused on the urban life, politics, social issues and economics. Over 65% people of Pakistan live in the rural areas, around 42% labour force is associated with the agrarian economy and 21% of the GDP is directly contributed by the agriculture sector. This indeed is an understatement because many of our industries are dependent directly on the production of cash crops like cotton, sugar, wheat, rice, milk processing industry, fertilizer, seed, pesticide etc. On the other hand those of us who live in big urban cities and contribute to the media are often far removed from the reality of life in the rural area. Thus many times the political and economic Pundits’ analyses go wrong.
First let me share with you the views of the Liaquatpur journalists who were participants of the workshop on “Journalists’ Safety and Security” organised by RMN in association with UNESCO. These journalists like their counter-parts in other tehsils and districts are usually part time workers. Their common complaint is that the big media groups who judge others from a high moral pedestal seldom pay their rural correspondents. Hence the quality of reporting suffers and we do not get the type of reports we expect to have a better understanding of the rural society.
Their second complaint was that they are harassed or false cases are registered against them if they report about corruption of the local officials and politicians and on filing reports about coercion of big landlords. The media houses they work for do not provide them any support once they are in trouble. But after working with them for two days I felt that the media organisations like PFUJ, CPNE, APNS and the electronic media should invest in training these journalists. This would not only bring a variety of interesting stories to the media but will also equip the rural area journalists to report more objectively. The common mistake these journalists make is that they mix their opinions, and at time harsh statements, with the facts stated in the story. This brings them the wrath of the people who are exposed by the story.
Now let’s move to some other observations of the area. My trip took me to Liaquatpur, Ahmedpur Sharqia and Bhawalpur. In this region I wanted to test my two assumptions that have been put forth in my previous columns: First, has there been more inflow of money from urban to rural areas in the last three years because of better crop prices and higher prices of milk? Second, whether the corruption at high places change the rural voters preferences?
To my first question most people across the board agreed that purchasing power of their area has gone up. Even the small farmer has been benefitted by the rising prices of agriculture produce. However, they did complain that the prices of inputs have also risen accordingly. But the net benefit cannot be denied. You see more people riding new motorbikes than you see in Karachi and the people are seen better dressed.
This does not mean that the landless peasants’ life has improved much. According to the farmers, women workforce which is the labour for cotton picking gets only Rs150 to 200 per 40 KG picking. As it is tedious work most women manage to pick around only 20 KG of cotton a day. The cotton picking is done for three months and each woman thus takes home a petty sum of Rs9000 to 12000 at the end of three months of hard labour. Almost same is the case with sugarcane and wheat harvesting although the rates are different. In the case of wheat the sharecropping is still in vogue — a rural worker gets about 30 Kg for harvesting one acre. However, in these two crops men are also involved in the Bahawalpur Division. Poor farm wage workers say that though the prices of Phutti have gone to over Rs5000 per maund, their wages have not been increased. The workers trade unions and activists have little work in these areas and hence the farm wage labour is not organised to bargain better rates.
Now my second assumption: whether corruption charges on politicians would disenchant their voters in the rural areas, as our middle class journalists and intellectuals say in talk shows? I asked many people in Liaquatpur, which is the constituency PPP MNA Syed Hamid Saeed Kazmi that will he be voted back in spite of alleged charges about the Haj scandal? Incidentally, he was in the city when we were holding the workshop and decided to drop in to thank the organisers for holding a capacity building workshop for the local journalists.
Most voters I talked to in the first place do not believe the charges against him and feel that he was a victim of sectarian bias. Hamid Saeed Kazmi has his own ancestral following in this area and coupled with PPP following he can win the election. But it is not sure whether PPP will give him the ticket for the coming elections in 2013. The journalists were happy that he kept his promise and got them grant for the extension of the Press Club, the shop keepers and people on the road I talked to were happy that he got natural gas to the town. (Isn’t it amazing the country is short of gas and the network keeps expanding to meet the politicians’ promises?) I would be writing about my interaction with the politicians and about the rising demand for Bahawalpur province next week, so till the coming Tuesday. (firstname.lastname@example.org)