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Radio Reports From Historic GT Road in India, Pakistan

America's popular public radio network, the National Public Radio or NPR, sent several correspondents last month to India and Pakistan to travel along the Grand Trunk Road and report on the contemporary life along the ancient route in the South Asian subcontinent.

Stretching 2500 kilometers from Kolkata in India to Peshawar in Pakistan, the Grand Trunk Road (GT Road) is one of South Asia's oldest and longest major roads. Built in the 16th century, the credit for its original creation goes to Pashtun emperor Sher Shah Suri who ruled much of northern India.

GT Road Bridge Over Jhelum River, Pakistan

NPR correspondent Philip Reeves did the Indian part of GT Road, while the journey in Pakistan was covered by Steve Inskeep and Julie McCarthy. The show was produced by an Indian-American Madhulika Sikka, the executive producer of NPR Morning Edition.

Talking about Indian youth, NPR correspondent Philip Reeves in India explained how difficult life can be for many young people along the Grand Trunk Road in India, and the efforts being made to help them. He adds, "to survive and prosper requires luck" and hard work. Many of the young must drop out of school to work, some in factories that produce leather goods and other products for other countries' markets.

NPR correspondent Julie McCarthy, who joined Inskeep on the Pakistani stretch of GT Road, explained the situation of Pakistan's youth in the following words:

The South Asian nation's younger generation is not only large -- 58 percent of the total population of more than 174 million -- but also deeply divided among itself. It's in the midst of a battle between fundamentalism and secularism, inward versus outward orientation -- the influence of which will most certainly play a significant role in Pakistan's future.

To the same question about what Pakistani youth want, Madhulika Sikka answers as follows:

"I think, that young people are concerned with the same things you'd think young people are concerned with. In fact, when I came home, the immigration officer asked me about Pakistan, and she said, well, what are they thinking about?

And I said, well, I met a lot of young people, and they're thinking about jobs, and they're thinking about the fact that the power goes out regularly, gas costs a fortune. They're really thinking about what their prospects are and the conflict with India, the war on terrorism, isn't at the top of their list."


The NPR team went to Peshawar, the gateway to the insurgency-hit tribal belt in Pakistan's FATA region, that has seen more suicide bombings and violence than any other place in Pakistan. A number of youth at Peshawar University expressed a sense of frustration with the rising violence, but there are some, like student Jawad Zeb, who remain optimistic. Zeb said, "As far as Pakistan is concerned, we are still carrying on our fight, and we are optimistic about that. We are still positive about it, and we know that we can come out of it as a strong nation".

The Grand Trunk was unpredictable. At some points "our heads were just bobbling back because the roads were in such poor shape," says freelance photographer Kainaz Amaria hired by NPR to cover the Indian side, but at other points it was smooth sailing along a well-kept modern thoroughfare.

On the Pakistani side covered by photographer John Poole, more than a hundred years seem to separate the old Grand Trunk Road from the modern M-2 Motorway that runs parallel to it.

Reeves told listeners about how difficult life can be for many young people along the route in India, and the efforts being made to help them. As he says, "to survive and prosper requires luck" and hard work. Many of the young must drop out of school to work, some in factories that produce leather goods and other products for other countries' markets.

May 12, 2010 Kolkata, India:

The NPR journey starts on May 12, 2010, in Kolkata where correspondent Philip Reeves has trouble locating the starting point of GT Road. As Reeves put it, "We don't know where to start. Every time we stop to ask, there's an argument".

May 13, 2010

The journey continues westward to Pakistan as Steve Inskeep, the host of NPR Morning Edition, explains on May 13, 2010:

"Drive through cities along the Grand Trunk Road, as we're doing this week and next on MORNING EDITION, and you will pass many religious shrines, like the three onion-shaped domes that loom over this city block in Pakistan. You will also pass an endless procession of storefront schools, grammar schools, accounting schools, English-language schools, and more. These are all signs of people's drive for a better life, especially young people."

In Dhanbad, Bihar, India's coal mining capital, Reeves meets a young man Anuj Kumar who is from a village with widespread illiteracy. He is studying hard for his exams. Anuj wants to be a tour guide and to travel.

Reeves reports that "Anuj Kumar is cramming for his exams. The classroom's not much bigger than a closet. There's a power cut, so the room's unbearably hot. Anuj's day is just beginning. His days are usually long".

Reeves adds, "This is a private coaching sector. It's down an alley, squeezed inside the top floor of a narrow, grimy building. The center calls itself the Oxford Institute. Anuj is 20. He's from a village a couple of hours from here. All over India, young people toil away in private tuition centers like this one. Competition for jobs or a place in a good college is ferocious. Exam results matter. Anuj says he's driven by what he's seen in his village".

Reeves says Bihar "is part of a huge sweep of impoverished rural India where so-called Maoist guerrillas are waging a war against the state. The guerrillas are also often young people, people excluded from the country's economic boom, who are championing the cause of the dispossessed, including tribal people driven from their lands by mineral companies and other government-backed industries. Many Indians sympathize with the Maoists, though not usually with their violent methods".

May 14, 2010:

Outside Aligah, UP, India, Reeves meets an Indian-American Sam Singh, who returned to his Indian village and plowed all his savings into setting up a school for girls. He seems delighted with what his school has become. Singh's school has close to 1200 girls.

Reeves reports that "They're being trained to make home furnishings: cushions, tablemats, bed covers and so on. They also make sanitary pads. The absence of these in rural India is a significant threat to the health of women. Products made by older pupils are sold to raise funds.

Singh's biggest battle is keeping the girls in school. Child marriage is common around here. The school has an ingenious solution. Each girl has an account into which about 20 cents is paid every day she attends school. If she makes it through 10th grade, she keeps the entire fund, accessing from the age of 21. Singh says this has been successful, though not with Muslim families. Muslim girls almost never stay beyond the onset of puberty."

Reeves also reports from a government village school in Uttar Pradesh, India, which has no teachers and there and hardly any students. There are no girls.

Reeves goes to another government school which "has hardly any desks, and no chairs. We see no shelves or books. There's no electricity. The school's power line was stolen 10 months ago. The principal has more than 60 kids in his class. Luck is not on the side of these children, though you wouldn't know this from the happy sendoff they give us".

May 24, 2010 in India:

Reeves is at the Sikhs' Golden Temple in Amritsar, where thousands from across the world gathered inside the Langar, or "free kitchen" for their communal meal. Regardless of caste, status or religion, they sit side-by-side in rows.

"It's an extraordinary scene," NPR reporter Phil Reeves explains on Morning Edition. "Hundreds of men, women and children coming together to peel vegetables, bake chapati and set out plates. Once they've finished their meal, together they clean".

India-Pakistan Border Crossing at Wagah:

India and Pakistan have fought several wars during the past 60 years, and there's always an underlying tension in the relationship. The Wagah border crossing along the Grand Trunk Road is the only place where the Indian and Pakistani militaries meet face to face -- every day.

Here's how Sikka describes it:

You can feel the pulsing rhythms of the entertainment on the Indian side, their bleachers full to the brim. The music is loud and the crowd is in full chant. It's difficult to see much of what's happening on the "other" side, but the Pakistani side is clearly not to be outdone.

Macho Pakistani flag-wavers whip their crescent moon flags in a frenzy accompanied by a drummer. The crowd is egged on with a patriotic chant. The loudspeakers blare patriotic songs extolling "peace for all," reminding the crowd "never forget, Pakistan is ours."

This ruckus is the preamble to the ceremony. Soldiers from the Pakistani Rangers, in a precision formation of high kicks and foot stomping, march to face their Indian rivals across the gate that divides them.

They wear splendid dress uniforms, the traditional salwar kameez. Their black turbans sport a wide peacock-like plume -- these guys are clearly on display.

The Indians perform a similar ritual. The respective flags are lowered and folded, and with a handshake, perhaps a glimpse of a smile, the pomp and circumstance is over for the evening. The satisfied throngs in both countries head home.


Here's Inskeep's description of the Wagah border crossing:

"Here at the border, the Grand Trunk Road stands as an expression of hope. Both nations have built it up to a modern highway. The road is ready for the time when better relations allow more trade across the line where India and Pakistan have repeatedly fought wars since their independence in 1947.

It's still just a hope. The reality is a tiny stand beside the road, where Mohammad Shoib works. He's a clean-shaven 16-year-old in a striped gray shirt. He spends his mornings in high school and his afternoons here in the sun. He sells toy cars, Chinese-made MP3 players, and miniature soccer balls to the trickle of travelers who pass through. Shoib says the stand brings in the equivalent of about $12 per day, which he gives to his parents."


May 21, 2010 in Pakistan:

Time travel is not impossible in Pakistan. More than a hundred years seem to separate the Grand Trunk Road from the modern M-2 Motorway that runs parallel to it. But progress brings tradeoffs. Though you gain time and relative safety on the Motorway, you lose the cacophony of life that embodies the Grand Trunk Road. In short, the Road makes you realize how boring road travel has become in the age of the automobile.

Some university students NPR talked to are surprised they are driving the Grand Trunk Road. "You should drive the motorway!" they exclaim. We have modern, good roads, they explain. And it's true, if your definition of a good road is one that gets you from point A to point B as quickly as possible.

But older drivers seem to have a different perspective: "It puts you to sleep," says NPR translator Shabbir. NPR reporter agrees, even if the alternative might involve a near-death experience with a camel and a rickshaw.

May 21, 2010, Peshawar:

The NPR team is in Peshawar, the gateway to the insurgency-hit tribal belt in FATA, that has seen more suicide bombings and violence than any other place in Pakistan. A number of youth at Peshawar University express a sense of frustration with the rising violence, but there are some, like student Jawad Zeb, who remain optimistic. Zeb says, "As far as Pakistan is concerned, we are still carrying on our fight, and we are optimistic about that. We are still positive about it, and we know that we can come out of it as a strong nation".

Trip Summary:

On NPR's Talk of the Nation radio talk show on June 3, 2010 Madhlika Sikka described the main concerns of young Pakistanis follows:

"I think, that young people are concerned with the same things you'd think young people are concerned with. In fact, when I came home, the immigration officer asked me about Pakistan, and she said, well, what are they thinking about?

And I said, well, I met a lot of young people, and they're thinking about jobs, and they're thinking about the fact that the power goes out regularly, gas costs a fortune. They're really thinking about what their prospects are and the conflict with India, the war on terrorism, isn't at the top of their list."

Finally, she summed up her assessment of the current situation in Pakistan in the following words:

"Well, I think that I think that there's no doubt that if you live in a city like Islamabad or Peshawar, certainly where Julie McCarthy was, you know, they live and breathe this tension every day.

But let's take a city like Lahore, where we were just a couple of weeks ago. And last week, there was a huge attack on a mosque in Lahore, 70, 80 people were killed. You can't help but feel that tension, even though you are trying your best to go live your daily life as best you can. And I think that that push and pull is really a struggle.

But one thing I do want to talk about in the, you know, what is our vision of Pakistan, which often is one dimensional because of the way the news coverage drives it.

But, you know, we went to visit a park in the capital, Islamabad, which is just on the outskirts, up in the hills, and we blogged about it, and there are photos on our website. You could have been in suburban Virginia.

There were families, picnics, picnic tables, you know, kids playing, stores selling stuff, music playing. It was actually very revealing, I think for us and for people who saw that posting, because there's a lot that's similar that wouldn't surprise you, let's put it that way."


Here is a video clip featuring GT Road in Pakistan:


Related Links:

Pakistan's Foreign Visitors Pleasantly Surprised

Escape From India

Reflections on India

After Partition: India, Pakistan and Bangladesh

The "Poor" Neighbor by William Dalrymple

Pakistan's Modern Infrastructure

Video: Who Says Pakistan Is a Failed State?

India Worse Than Pakistan, Bangladesh on Nutrition

UNDP Reports Pakistan Poverty Declined to 17 Percent

Pakistan's Choice: Talibanization or Globalization

Pakistan's Financial Services Sector

Pakistan's Decade 1999-2009

South Asia Slipping in Human Development

Asia Gains in Top Asian Universities

Pakistan's Multi-Billion Dollar IT Industry

India-Pakistan Military Comparison

Food, Clothing and Shelter in India and Pakistan

Pakistan Energy Crisis

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