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Pakistan Government Leaves Villages Wallowing In Neglect

Date: 02-Nov-10
Country: PAKISTAN
Author: Michael Georgy and Augustine Anthony

Less than a kilometer from the sprawling residential complex of Pakistan's prime minister, villagers have to scrabble for firewood in the dirt if they want a cooked meal.

Noor Pur Shahan is typical of many villages in the country, where supplies of cooking gas, clean water, electricity, classrooms, and also hope for the future, are hard to come by.

Improving government services for millions of increasingly frustrated Pakistanis is critical for bringing economic and political stability to a country the United States sees as an indispensable ally in its global war on militancy.

Many say the current system of governance only benefits Pakistan's political elite and the wealthy. And it's one that drives disaffected young men to join Muslim militant groups violently opposed to the government, analysts say.

The administration of President Asif Ali Zardari, like many before it, is accused of being too corrupt and inept to ease widespread hardship. It denies the allegations.

But in Noor Pur Shahan, where goats roam on winding roads beneath lush mountains about 8 km northeast of the capital, these denials ring hollow.

"The government only looks after the rich people," said Mohammad Aleem, an elderly man with a long white beard, as he clutched his cane.

Conditions are unlikely to improve anytime soon. The cash-strapped government slashed development spending after summer floods caused nearly $10 billion in damages.

Securing reconstruction funds may not be possible unless Pakistan persuades Western donors spending will be transparent and accounted for.

The International Monetary Fund, which has kept the economy afloat since 2008, wants Pakistan to implement politically sensitive economic reforms such as imposing new taxes and eliminating electricity subsidies.

WHERE IS THE AID?

Washington has pumped billions of dollars into Pakistan since the country joined the U.S. war on militancy after the September 11 attacks on the United States.

Little seems to have trickled down to the poor.

In the center of Noor Pur Shahan is a water purification plant inaugurated in 1963 by former Pakistani military leader Ayub Khan. The water largely flows to government offices in Islamabad. That means most residents are deprived of clean supplies.

Mukhtiar Hussain, a worker at the plant for 32 years, says villagers break pipes to steal water for their homes. "Things have gone from bad to worse," he said. A spokesman for the Capital Development Authority (CDA) said the government was working on an urban development program to relocate people from places like Noor Pur Shahan so they can get better services.

Critics accuse the government of neglecting education as well, and warn that social ills will deepen.

At Noor Pur Shahan's state-funded boys secondary school, over 1,000 students are taught in 12 classrooms.

"There are only 20 computers and one teacher for computer studies," said principal Iqbal Khan Niazi. The facility has not had clean water for three years. There are no playgrounds.

Umair Akhtar, 18, a villager, believes the army, which has ruled Pakistan for more than half of its history, would do a better job running nuclear-armed Pakistan than civilian governments, even though that would hurt the country's democratic credentials.

He applied for a job in the CDA but says he has "no money to bribe people."

Pakistan's government may be too preoccupied with a host of problems to notice the plight of people like him.

It faces stubborn Taliban insurgents who continue to carry out bombings despite army offensives, a possible showdown with the powerful Supreme Court, and relentless U.S. pressure to help stabilize war-ravaged Afghanistan.

For some Pakistanis, God alone is the answer.

"We want to instill the fear of God in the students and want then to follow the life of the holy Prophet Mohammad. That is the answer to all problems," said Niazi, the village's school principal.

(Editing by Chris Allbritton and Miral Fahmy)

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