The recent local government elections rewrote Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa’s political history in several aspects. While the public went through a somewhat violent grass root devolution for the first time, under the umbrella of a democratic set-up, captivating stories of those who managed to cross the barriers of privilege and class echoed from across the province.
As questions of inclusivity in our public spaces remain unanswered, as many as 2,000 residents of the remote Salam Khand village of Haripur’s Kundi union council elected an LG representative who is differently abled. Yet, kissan (peasant) councillor Nehmat Khan, 43, can see what most cannot.
Although he knows little about what the LG Act 2013 holds for his role, Nehmat is prepared to serve the agrarian community. “As the country’s first visually-impaired councillor, I want to help those who have deliberately kept their eyes closed,” the spirited representative told The Express Tribune. However, a candidate with similar disability has also won in Swat.
When the world turns upside down
Nehmat used to work as a junior surveyor with Ghazi Barotha Contrators.
Back in March 2001, he quit due to recurrent headaches which were quite debilitating. Little did he know it was the onset of an irreversible, progressive impairment.
The disease continued to inflict damage and despite years of treatment at various hospitals, it deprived Nehmat of his vision completely. It brought the man to his knees, a man who always valued putting in that extra effort to earn a living.
Nehmat recollects the initial months as the toughest. “I got registered with the Benazir Income Support Programme for a stipend but soon my name got dropped from its list,” he said. “Our society marginalises differently-abled people, adding to their abjection,” he said.
Nehmat soon developed the ability to navigate his way through his indifferent surroundings and began shepherding livestock. “I even worked in the fields with the help of my brothers and my wife,” he said.
When impairments can empower
Nehmat’s villagers have always admired his sense of judgment and looked up to him in matters of dispute.
“One day an old woman visited me, seeking help with some litigation,” he said. Guided by his white cane and his determination to help, Nehmat accompanied the woman to the local court. “I began mediating between government officials and my fellow villagers.”
Five years of not being able to see did not stop the former surveyor from heading Khushaal Taraqiati Tanzeem – an organisation set up with help from an NGO. “We launched micro-financing schemes and helped dozens of farmers start their own businesses.”
Nehmat attended numerous training programmes and learned how to implement development schemes keeping local specifics in mind.
He believes cutting through till you hit bone is the only way to bring about change. “I was never satisfied with the performance of our elected representatives.” As soon as local government elections were announced, Nehmat decided to test his luck and contest as a kissan councillor.
Announcing his candidature was a tough call for Nehmat as politics essentially has little to offer to the have-nots. His people were encouraging but warned him of what limits him at the end of the day. “Most of my family members and villagers were of the view that my public image and contribution will help me overcome all obstacles,” he said. And it seemed they were not wrong – Nehmat edged out his rival, by a thin margin of 70 votes.
When experience counts
Although Nehmat has not been trained in agricultural sciences and nor does he have any academic expertise in geography, the kissan councillor is still aware of underlying reasons behind the decreasing land productivity.
“Our farmers largely depend on tube wells for water. This gives rise to salinisation,” he said. With his head held high, Nehmat boasts of a list of calculated measures he will undertake during his tenure. “Levelling of uneven hilly land, provision of certified seeds and pesticides and farming machinery against flexible financial plans and the renovation of irrigation channels will be my priorities,” he said.
Nehmat will also work with his fellow elected representatives to carpet routes to urban areas. “I want to establish a fund for widows and orphans of my village so they can help themselves out of the cycle of poverty,” he said.
Nehmat is a believer of the ‘greatest good for the greatest number of people’ philosophy and for the differently-abled man, Salam Khand village is an ideal place to start implementing his vision.
Published in The Express Tribune, June 9th, 2015.
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