Shahoo, a resident of Kacha Area Tehsil Rojhan in Rajanpur, Southern Punjab, was desperate to take his wife to the other side of the Indus River. “My wife was pregnant and she had to be taken to Sheikh Zayed Hospital on the other side of the Indus River for childbirth,” he tells TNS. Her case was complicated. Shahoo, 30, tied his wife with a bedstead (charpoy) with the help of his brothers and took her to the bank of the river. But the boatmen there refused to take them as it was too late to sail. No one was ready to operate the boat because the timings are fixed from 8am to 6pm everyday.
At night, dacoits and absconders sail in the river and take over the area. With no other option, Shahoo said, he took out his gun and forced the boatman to take them to the other side.
Shahoo is one of the hundreds of thousands of poor people living on the bank of the Indus River who face such hardships daily. A school teacher, Ata Hussain, who belongs to Kacha Area of district Rajanpur, goes on boat to withdraw his salary from a bank in Rojhan every month. “I am afraid of crossing the mighty Indus on rickety boats, but I have no other choice,” he tells TNS. “The owners of boats overload people for some extra money which is a risk to life. They get harsh if anybody tries to stops them from overloading.”
Tehsil Rojhan is a place in Rajanpur, Southern Punjab, where people are too backward and poor. It is divided into two parts by the Indus flowing through it. There are over 200,000 people on the side touching Balochistan called Kacha Rojhan. This side is under-developed and people are forced to sail to other side at the risk of their lives. There are no banks or health facilities, or local government offices or schools on this side of the river. Literacy level is also low.
Locals complain that all the money is spent in Lahore and other big cities but the government has no funds to build a much-needed bridge here. The demand has been there for years and promises are made, but the bridge is still a far cry.
Muhammad Murad Rawhari, owner of a motor boat in Rojhan, says that sometimes water enters the boat and passengers panic. A four or five-member crew immediately starts draining out water using small pots. He charges Rs100 per passenger, and if a passenger has a bike he charges Rs200. One boat can carry 50 passengers and 50 bikes easily from one side to the other.
The distance between the banks on either side of the river is one kilometre, but the time required to cross is two to three hours because a boat has to zigzag through the river. It opts for a route where the flow of water is not too strong. The ride is so risky that passengers offer thanks to Allah when they reach the bank.
Indus River is rightly called the mighty Indus because, for centuries, it has helped civilisations develop next to its banks. Even today, the people living on the banks of Indus have affinity towards each other. They share common identity and want to stay connected.
Many communities are divided due to the Indus flowing in between. But people defy barriers and take steps to stay connected. They also need to travel from one side to the other for official and personal work — going to hospitals, using banks and travelling to other cities for doing business and jobs etc.
Ideally, a number of bridges should have been constructed here to facilitate the local people. Latest boats should be made available at different points on the Indus to transport people. Unfortunately, due to government apathy the river has become a barrier. As people on both sides of the Indus have one history and one culture, therefore they cannot be separated by any natural impediments. So they have carved out tools of communications. They are using old boats and sometimes boat bridges tied by ropes. Old boats are dangerous and many have turned turtle due to overloading.
Boat bridges are made when the water level is low by putting boats upside down in a row. Milkmen and other small vendors living on one side of the bank swim across the river and sell their products to the inhabitants of localities on the other side of the river.
Though Rescue 1122 is operational in the area with three vehicles on the guard, the people who are mostly illiterate do not know who to call in case of emergencies. Muhammad Murtaza, an officer of Rescue 1122 Tehsil Rojhan, tell TNS if any casualty happens people do not inform 1122 service. “Although we have three boats to save the lives of people in the river, we have not used them in the past one and half year, except during a search operation carried out by the Punjab police against the Chhotu Gang.” Nine policemen were kidnapped and one of them was killed by the Chhotu Gang in the area.
Najaf Mazari, a social worker of Tehsil Rojhan, says that temporary boat bridges are installed by the Sheikhs of UAE who come here for hunting. Light traffic and pedestrians use it but they are removed when the Sheikhs leave or the water level rises.
Jamshed Fareed, a programme officer in HELP foundation, a local NGO, says it is in the interest of feudal lords that this bridge is not constructed. “If it is built, the people of Rajanpur will get access to Rahimyar Khan whose literacy rate is high and offers good job opportunities with six sugar mills.” They fear locals will get education and find jobs and will no longer depend on them, says Fareed.
Former parliamentary secretary power and MNA of PPP, Mir Dost Muhammad Mazari, says that a bridge between Bangla Icha (part of tehsil Rojhan on the other side of the bank) and Rojhan is as necessary for the area as blood for human body. “It will connect Punjab, Sindh, Balochistan and KPK and will be a gateway of progress and prosperity.”
He complained the government of Punjab is not paying attention to this crucial issue and spending billions of rupees on metro buses.
A Seraiki nationalist, Sain Ashiq Hussain Buzdar, says “We are slaves of Lahore’s crown (assan takhat Lahore de qaidi hen). Poor people are scared. If they raise a voice, their livelihood will be snatched and they will be imprisoned by feudal lords. I request people from other parts of the country to come and visit Rojhan to see people living in caves.”
Pakistan Muslim League-N MPA Sardar Muhammad Atif Khan Mazari tells TNS this bridge between Bangla Icha and Rojhan is very crucial for national economy because it creates a linkage among the four provinces of Pakistan. Dera Bugti, a city of Balochistan, is just 30 kilometres away, Kashmor in Sindh is only 40 kilometres while Dera Ismail Khan in KPK is 215 kilometres away from here. Atif Mazari says he has requested Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif twice to release funds for the construction of this bridge on the Indus. He says the chief minister has assured him that he will give Rs 4.17 billion for this project from the Punjab budget.