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QUETTA: Surrounded by lavish apartment buildings and houses in downtown Quetta, lower-caste Hindus – who once helped the southern Pakistani city rise from its ruins after a deadly earthquake – live as if time had stood still a century ago.
The Hindu community of Lachi Baradari settled in the Shanti Nagar district of Quetta, the capital of the province of Balochistan, at the end of the 19th century.
While poverty is chronic in Balochistan – Pakistan’s largest province in terms of area but the most underdeveloped in terms of almost all social indicators – the cycle of deprivation in Shanti Nagar seems unbreakable.
The neighborhood’s population has more than doubled over the past decade, but homes in the area only expand vertically, with new stories built on top of tiny makeshift structures. Today, more than 10,000 people live in the slum, which spans just 20,000 square feet. Most families live in homes no larger than 300 square feet.
Ironically, when a deadly earthquake destroyed Quetta in 1935, it was the men and women of Lachi Baradari who worked as masons to rebuild the city.
“We have rebuilt the city for the people of Quetta, but today we are not able to build houses for ourselves,” community leader Chaudery Kumar Chand told Arab News.
Chand himself has added three more floors to his house in recent years to accommodate the families of his three married sons.
“We can’t buy more land because the majority of our people are unemployed,” Chand said. “The provincial government allocated land to Christians, upper class Hindus and Sikhs, but we were never offered resettlement. “
Other community members shared the same stories of helplessness.
Allah Rakhi lives in a 250 square foot house with his five children and nine grandchildren.
“My oldest son and his seven children live in the basement while I live with my youngest son and daughters,” she said.
Chronic poverty has fueled social problems such as child marriage that only perpetuate the status quo. In families with limited resources, child marriage is often seen as a way to secure the future of their daughters.
Sheela Devi got married 35 years ago when she was barely 11. She and her husband now live with one of their married sons and his family in a one-room house built two decades ago.
“We cannot save our income because instead of spending money on a separate house, people here are forced to save for the timely marriages of their children,” she said. “I have spent my whole life looking for a better life and now my children and my grandson will suffer here without the basic water, gas and electricity facilities like I did.
Local priest, or pundit, Nadeem Chand said even the Shanti Nagar temple, the only one in the neighborhood, was too small to accommodate the community.
“People often stand outside during the winter and the rainy season to participate in community rituals,” he told Arab News. “Barely 200 people from Lachi Baradari participate inside the temple during our weekly prayer while the others stand outside… We don’t know what sins we have committed.
Chand, the neighborhood community leader, said it was not only the government, but also the wealthier and upper castes of the Hindu community in the province who refused to support its poorer members.
But Raj Kumar, president of the Quetta Hindu Panchayat, has denied the accusations.
“We live as one Hindu community without keeping any division of lower and upper castes,” he told Arab News. “The population of Shanti Nagar has doubled in the last decade, but they prefer to live together in a specific place like Shanti Nagar. Even some people from Lachi Baradari of Sindh province also migrated to Quetta. “
“The Lachi Baradari live in very appalling conditions, but we are helping them to the best of our ability,” Kumar said. “We allowed them to come to our temples during religious holidays. “
Dhanesh Kumar, a senator from Balochistan who served as the province’s minorities minister until early this year, admitted that the Lachi Baradari had been overlooked by local and central governments for the past seven decades, but added that recent developments offered hope.
“The provincial government of Balochistan developed the streets and sewerage system of Shanti Nagar in 2020 with an allocated fund of Rs 20 million ($ 117,000),” he said. “Now we have built a big temple for the community inside the neighborhood. “
Kumar added, “We have taken all possible steps to uplift this neglected Hindu community. “