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Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Changing times: Before the urbanite invasion, Bani Gala was a rustic haven for shepherds


Changing times: Before the urbanite invasion, Bani Gala was a rustic haven for shepherds

Published: October 30, 2012
There are few open spaces left for herds to graze in after settlers began moving to villages on the capital’s periphery. PHOTO: MUHAMMAD JAVAID/EXPRESS
ISLAMABAD: 
When Bani Gala was still an idyllic little village on the banks of Rawal Dam, Razia and her siblings used to shepherd goats all day long. They would set off early morning with a tea kettle and a picnic hamper, playing games and swinging from tree swings.
The series of rolling hills and fertile plains dotted with streams in the capital’s suburbs were once ideal for herding. A spillover of urbanites has changed the face of the villages on Islamabad’s periphery and their residents’ lifestyles.
As settlers poured in, attracted by the proximity to the city, locals-turned-realtors attracted by skyrocketing real estate prices, grabbed all the shamilaat (common land) earmarked for pastures in Bani Gala. With the result that herds can only graze on government land now.
While Razia has great childhood memories of the time she herded goats, she is worried her family cannot continue with their ancestral trade. She is full of stories of strange spirits who would wander after dark and soldiers who came for shooting drills. “We would collect spent cartridges and sell them to buy biscuits and sweets.”
There were a few scattered homes of landowners in the fields and forests. There was no traffic, except for a few bikes and donkey carts and the goats wandered freely. Once, our herd entered the woods, she said. “Forest officials drove up before we could divert them.” I threw stones at the goats to scatter them and they sped downhill right past the officials waiting to intercept them, she recounted with glee.
“Had the officials caught one of us or our goats, Father would have had to pay a fine. But we dispersed and hid in the undergrowth.” Now the hills are practically bare and houses have sprung up everywhere, even on the slopes, she added wistfully.
Herdsmen hadn’t anticipated the rapid development that ensued and did not diversify their livelihood or invest in their children. “It’s impossible now to keep large herds; there are hardly any open spaces where we live,” said Razzaq. There are not enough pastures for them to graze in and we cannot afford to feed them, his son, Esa chimed in.
The water is now polluted and the village littered with garbage. Every summer, deliberately-ignited fires scorch hectares of forest.  What was previously a profitable trade with guaranteed returns, is now risky business. The night before Eid, alerted by the dogs, his grandfather foiled an attempt to steal their goats.
Esa has been shepherding goats from the age of six or seven. I would not know what to do without them, he said. “There are frequent thefts thanks to the greater number of vehicles and our goats choke on the plastic disposed in the open.” He lost his prize goat to a polythene bag a few days ago. It would have fetched Rs20,000 on Eidul Azha.
Esa’s father is a labourer and barely makes enough to feed the family, while Razia’s father lives off the income from selling goats. With prices of goats doubling over the past few years, the business is mostly seasonal, hitting its peak on Eidul Azha. Her mother died from cancer, because they couldn’t afford surgery.
It’s the same story in Shadara. For Abid, development has come at the price of his only means of livelihood, while not benefitting him in any way. For the past two years, he has to spend the pre-monsoon summer in Kaghan, where his herd can graze in the meadows and drink their fill at considerable expense. But not everybody can afford the trip. Naturally, he recovers the cost by demanding higher prices for his goats on Eidul Azha.
Despite changing circumstances, there is little realisation that education might offer alternative opportunities, considering the youngsters are not inclined towards hard labour, the only alternative option.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 30th, 2012.

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