Trouble in Pakistan’s Heartland

Faisalabad, the industrial hub of Punjab, is ailing -- badly. And militant groups are reaping the benefits.

Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images
Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images

FAISALABAD, Pakistan — Standing in the corner of his large factory, textile magnate Mian Aftab Ahmed pondered the future. "I am completely helpless and hopeless," he said.

His giant textile machines produce a deafening noise when in full swing, but Ahmed spoke amid pin-drop silence. Since 2007, when Faisalabad started facing crippling shortages of electricity and natural gas, his factory has been running at 35 to 40 percent of its capacity.

Ahmed’s predicament could well describe the situation across Faisalabad, Pakistan’s third-largest city and its industrial hub. The deteriorating economic climate is transforming the city into fertile ground for Islamic extremist movements, and a potential base of terrorist activity in Pakistan’s heartland.

Pakistan’s growing electricity demands have exceeded what its power grid can supply, resulting in sporadic shortfalls. But the primary reason for the power outages is not only lack of capacity, but the government’s inability to make payments to private power producers. The aging electricity distribution system, which breaks down frequently, also aggravates the situation further.

The official statistics tell a grim story. According to the Faisalabad Chamber of Commerce and Industry (FCCI), the city’s industrial sector has seen a 50 percent reduction in its production capacity. The district office of the Enterprise and Investment Department estimates that the energy crisis has forced more than 300 textile factories to shut down. Industrialists and labor leaders, however, believe the department is underreporting the number of closed-down factories. Sheikh Abdul Qayyum, a former FCCI president, said that at least 600 textile factories in the city shut down for at least three days every week due to the disruption in the natural gas supply.

Industrialists, however, are loath to go on the record to discuss how Faisalabad’s deteriorating economic conditions are helping extremist and sectarian groups. "I will only speak about street crimes and the negative impact they are having on the business environment," said Ahmed. The city’s businessmen enjoy seeing their names placed next to those of religious and sect leaders on the banners that adorn the city’s main markets. Any kind of relationship with sect leaders, who sometimes appear more powerful than the state itself, is seen as a source of security in Faisalabad’s unstable social environment.

As industrial activity in Faisalabad comes to a gradual halt, unruly public protests are becoming the new normal. Slogan-chanting, window-smashing crowds have taken to the streets in recent months to protest the lack of jobs. A protest in early March continued for a week and on some occasions turned violent, with workers burning down the office of the power utility company and attacking a local bank. The incident was similar to the January 2009 electricity protests in the city, when industrial workers, traders, and even some small-mill owners brought life to a standstill for three days.

Faisalabad, the backbone of Pakistan’s textile industry, is home to hundreds of large-scale and medium-sized businesses, as well as a cottage industry of 60,000 power looms. Conservative estimates from labor organizations and industrialists suggest that the industry provides jobs to more than 2 million skilled and unskilled people. But over the past three years, the city’s businesses have suffered at least a 20 to 25 percent increase in the cost of production.

"I don’t think I will be able to sustain the production process at the present cost until coming December," said Sheikh Saeed, a leading producer of cotton cloth. He says his factory is on the brink of closure while at least five other factories located next to his have already closed down. "We are thinking of shifting to trading."

An industrialist of Saeed’s financial standing has the means to shift to another profession. But no easy alternatives are available for the workers he employs. Mian Abdul Qayyum, a labor leader who runs the Labour Qaumi Movement, a local organization comprising textile workers, claimed that more than 100,000 industrial workers in Faisalabad have already lost their jobs during the last two years.

Muhammad Sarwar, a 28-year-old power-loom worker living in Faisalabad’s huge residential slum of Noshahi Park, is well aware of how living conditions for workers have drastically deteriorated over the last three years. Living in a small, dilapidated house amid streets that stink of rotting food and overflow with sewage, he has seen a three-fourths decrease in his monthly income — from 12,000 rupees ($141) in 2007 to around 3,000 ($35.29) today. "We hardly work three days a week, and that too depends on if and when electricity is available," Sarwar told me.

In the second week of March, Sarwar joined thousands of industrial workers at Ghanta Ghar square to protest against gas and electricity shortages. Both workers and industrialists joined hands to protest the ruling party’s failure to address the energy shortages. Ahmed, the textile magnate, said that industrialists of Faisalabad met in his office to plan the protest. "We were under pressure from our workers to come on the street," he said. "I sat with the laborers on the roads."

Punjab’s leading mainstream parties, the Pakistan People’s Party and the Pakistan Muslim League affiliated with former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, are in the government and therefore deliberately try to keep their followers away from the protests. But religious groups, some of which have a history of involvement in sectarian violence and militancy, are happy to use the issue to prop up their image as supporters of the Pakistani worker.

Jamia Rizvia, the oldest and one of the largest madrasas in Faisalabad, is one of those organizations. Its headquarters are situated inside the maze of narrow alleys of a cloth market. Behind its closed gates, three policemen with automatic weapons conduct full-body searches of visitors before granting them entry. Fear of sectarian violence has compelled the local government to post police guards at the gates of each seminary and mosque.

"There are around 800 mosques and madrasas in Faisalabad who receive orders and directives from Jamia Rizvia," Hammad Raza, the principal of the school, explained. "During the last three months we have issued directives for protests over the desecration of the holy Quran in the United States, the Raymond Davis issue, the power-loom crisis, the gas and electricity shortage, and attacks on the shrines of Sufis and saints."

This mix of anti-Americanism, religiosity, and agitation over the dire economic situation has found a receptive audience among unemployed youths residing in Faisalabad’s industrial slums — and Pakistan’s traditional institutions are doing a poor job of responding to the threat. A group of industrial workers led by Sarwar went to meet Punjab’s chief minister in July 2010 in the open court — usually an occasion when Pakistani rulers meet the common folk to dole out favors. The police, however, refused to allow Sarwar and his friends into the meeting. "The police demanded a bribe to let us in.… There is nothing for us in this system," Sarwar said.

The dismal economic climate is also souring Faisalabad residents on Pakistan’s civilian government. "They say democracy is for all," said Anwar Ali, a power-loom owner whose looms have remained shut during most of the last six months. "I have suffered badly during the last three years of democracy."

There are indications that the Taliban is using Faisalabad’s radicalized youth to extend its network into the city. In March, a massive car bomb detonated near the local office of the Inter-Services Intelligence directorate, Pakistan’s top spy agency, killing at least 25 people. The Tehrik-i-Taliban claimed responsibility, saying that the attack was revenge for the killing of Omar Kundi, a Taliban commander, by Faisalabad police in 2010. Usman Anwar, Faisalabad’s police chief, confirmed those accounts of the attack and said it was carried out by the Taliban with the help of local citizens.

Anwar is intimately familiar with the difficulties of policing Faisalabad’s sprawling, and increasingly poverty-stricken, neighborhoods. "It is a large city," he said. "There are unplanned housing societies and unchecked travel and stay in the city is possible."

Security officials pinpoint two trouble spots: Ghulam Muhammadabad, which houses large numbers of unemployed industrial workers, and Punjab Medical College, which senior officials warn is coming under the control of militant organizations like Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jamaat-ud-Dawa.

Despite these disturbing trends, Faisalabad hardly registers a mention among the laundry list of concerns plaguing Pakistani society. Government leaders appear helpless to address the energy shortage that is at the root of the city’s economic deterioration and the consequent rise of religious extremism. Immediately after the weeklong protest, President Asif Ali Zardari assured a group of Faisalabad’s businessmen that there would be an uninterrupted supply of gas to the city’s industry for five days a week. But this promise has never materialized, Ahmed said.

If Pakistan’s leaders do not act soon, Pakistanis may soon discover that the militant threat has reached the political and economy heart of their country.

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