TOPICS > Politics

Reporter’s Notebook: Rough Road for Rural Pakistanis

August 31, 2007 at 5:15 PM EDT

SIMON MARKS: Hello, once again from Pakistan. I’m NewsHour producer Simon Marks with senior correspondent Margaret Warner. And that low rumble that you can hear in background is the sound of our van’s motor, as we sit going nowhere fast on the journey from Lahore to Islamabad. We were told this journey would take us around four hours, but midway through the trip, we’ve come to a dead halt, blocked, we’re told, by tractor drivers angry over the police ticketing them.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, Simon, it’s been that kind of day, this fifth day of ours in Pakistan, offering us the first taste of the life that ordinary, non-urban Pakistanis live. A life of tremendous inconvenience, privation and hardship.

SIMON MARKS: We’re driving, or trying to, along the Grand Trunk Road, a 16th century roadway built originally by Afghan ruler Sher Shah Suri to run all the way from Kabul to the Indian city of Calcutta. We’re told it was originally constructed as a sunken road so that horse-borne riders couldn’t be shot at with bows and arrows.

MARGARET WARNER: And judging from the depth of some of these water-filled ditches that the huge trucks are now fording beside us, but we’re afraid to in our van, the road may be sinking again.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. One reason we’re in this mess is that we stopped in a highway-side village along the way to film a huge vegetable market and lots of Punjab-region local color. Two boys were pumping water into large coolers from what looked like the communal water pump. Two men were bent over a forge in a small open-front stall fixing a piece of machinery, and the women were walking, carrying bags of food or supply with their heads covered in some fashion, whether a loose scarf or a hijab, and doing, really, what women in traditional societies everywhere do: gathering for their families.

SIMON MARKS: But on the side street, which was a dirt road, like all the other side streets, we saw a different story.

MARGARET WARNER: We certainly did. Along with the goats and the occasional stray dog, there were boys everywhere, from ages five to, I don’t know, 16 or 17, with apparently not much to do. Some of the older ones were playing pool on a pretty nice pool table under a makeshift awning, others were playing skittles, and the little ones were simply wandering past standing pools of water left by the monsoon season, which we’re still in, now buzzing with hatching mosquitoes. We snapped a photo of a 3- or 4-year-old boy clutching a large, empty green plastic soda bottle as his toy.

SIMON MARKS: Now, there were so many boys around for good reason, we learned. Through they were supposed to be attending the local public school, they cheerfully told us they’d scaled the walls around the open dirt playground, and finally, the teacher in the school had just let the rest of them go.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, Friday is an early let-out day anyway in Pakistan, but not this early. We got some insight into just how deprived the public schools are by visiting the girls’ primary school nearby. A man who said he was the watchman pounded on the corrugated tin gate and let us into the courtyard, and there were dozens of little girls sitting in the dirt around the edges against the wall, talking and laughing. Now, when the teacher caught sight of us, she came rushing out of the building and she clapped her hands, and the girls scurried over to sit in a cluster and leaf through an English-language workbook. Though, only about half of them had books at all.

SIMON MARKS: But, at least a school teacher was there. Our local producer, journalist Ghulam Hasnain, tells us that Pakistan has tens of thousands of what are called “ghost teachers,” public school system employees who only show up on pay day to collect their checks. The government regularly promises to solve the problem, but the problem is that most of these ghost teachers are apparently political party members, appointed essentially to sinecures for patronage reasons only, and therefore, very hard to fire.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, this teacher this morning told us she’d been there 14 years and she had little support from the government. These are public schools. The one-room schoolhouse has no electricity and no water, she said, and no, really, proper classroom. And whatever she tried to have built, a toilet, for example, is quickly vandalized by the local toughs to scale the wall after hours. She took me into the dark and single schoolroom to show me, and a dozen girls were sitting on the cement floor, actually did seem to be studying, but it was just appalling conditions. Along the far wall, there was a huge, wide crack. The plaster ceiling above had large holes in it. The teacher said she’d been wounded, as she put it, by falling debris.

SIMON MARKS: And after that, for us, it was back on the open road, which of course, didn’t turn out to be quite so open. And that’s where we find ourselves right now.

MARGARET WARNER: Ah, yes, the joys of sitting, for more than an hour, next to the large, colorfully painted local trucks, and watching the lucky motorbike riders scoot by, and then these frustrated drivers risking their cars’ undercarriages by scaling the foot-high concrete median-strip to go over and get into the Lahore-bound lanes. But, you know, it’s clearly a business opportunity for the locals. As we crept along, I spotted one of those damaged cars being worked on already by a local auto mechanic who had thoughtfully came roadside to deliver the service. We’ve already been offered break, juice, and fried vegetable and potato samosas by walking roadside vendors, and at least we’re in the relative comfort of air conditioning. Lots of the Pakistani passengers in similar vans are sitting, crammed four or five to a seat without any relief from the heat and the diesel fuel.

SIMON MARKS: Well, it looks like we’re finally about to move. The road has been none too smooth with dips and bumps that have had us lurching back and forth. The reason such a major highway is so poor, we’re told, is that the local contractors take as much as 50 percent off the top for themselves and bribes to local officials.

MARGARET WARNER: And yet, the Pakistanis persevere amidst the hardship with an energy that seems quite remarkable. It will make for a daunting challenge but also an exciting opportunity for whoever emerges out of Pakistan’s current political drama to govern this fascinating country.

SIMON MARKS: And that’s an issue that we will be exploring all next week in our series of reports from Pakistan for the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer on PBS. If you’ve enjoyed listening to these podcasts, and we hope you have, and you’d like to see some of the pictures that Margaret and I have been filming over the last week, you’ll get a chance all next week on the NewsHour. It’s been great fun for both of us bringing you these podcasts. We’ll do it again from somewhere else on another occasion. For Margaret Warner, I’m Simon Marks. Good-bye from Pakistan.