Unveiling Bahawalpur: A Journey of Discovery and Reflection

In August 2023, my colleague and I travelled to district Bahawalpur in Punjab province to conduct an outcome assessment of a project titled “Accelerating Access to Finance and Increasing the Income of Small Farmers” implemented by the Pakistan Microfinance Investment Company (PMIC), a national apex institution, in collaboration with AgriTech (Grow Tech Services Pvt Ltd), aims to empower small-scale farmers by providing financial and technical support, ultimately boosting crop yields and incomes. The purpose of our visit was to assess the outcome of this project in the Gujranwala (Komoki) and Bahawalpur districts of Punjab.

As I reminisce about our visit to Bahawalpur, I realize how many biases we carry that can shape our perceptions. While this trip was undoubtedly work-related, it became much more than that for me. Hailing from an urban background, my exposure to rural life had largely been through books, social media, and travel blogs. I often found myself idealizing the clean, green environments, the proximity to nature, the absence of traffic, and the perceived slowing down of time in rural areas.

Our journey commenced with an early morning departure from Islamabad, the capital city. The road to Bahawalpur stretched for eight hours, a journey that allowed us to delve deep into the heart of Punjab. During our two-day stay in Bahawalpur, we ventured into the villages on the outskirts of the city, primarily to engage with the local farmers.

The contrast between rural and urban life was striking. The village landscape was characterized by lush greenery and cleanliness, a stark departure from the bustling cities. The absence of heavy traffic was notable, and the air quality noticeably improved. During our interactions with the farmers, one of them graciously offered to show us his farm, providing a guided tour of the fields he diligently tended. These fields were dedicated to cotton cultivation and offered stunning views of lush green landscapes. The tranquility and simplicity of rural life, devoid of the complexities of the metropolis, were evident.

Our main purpose in Bahawalpur was to engage with the farming communities. The people we met were hospitable and open-hearted, readily welcoming us into their lives and sharing their challenges. As a gesture of their warm hospitality, they even offered us fresh dates as souvenirs.

During our conversations with the farmers, we learned about their aspirations to diversify their income sources, driven by the lingering fear of climate catastrophes like the devastating 2022 floods. They spoke of adopting crop diversification and early sowing techniques as adaptations to climate change. Notably, in Bahawalpur, a region traditionally centered around cotton farming, farmers were transitioning to crops like sugarcane and maize.

Within the rural landscape, we observed the prevalence of “Arthi” (moneylenders charging exorbitant interest rates) as the primary financial lifeline for farmers. These Arthi not only provided capital for agricultural inputs but also supported farmers’ day-to-day expenses. Despite their awareness of the exploitative nature of these arrangements, limited access to timely financial services left them with no alternative.

Beyond the scenic beauty and picturesque landscapes, our discussions with the community members and our observations exposed us to their everyday struggles. Each member of the community had a unique story to share. Accessibility to essential services, such as education and healthcare, remained a significant challenge. Transportation costs to reach markets added to their burdens. Moreover, the women in rural areas faced mobility restrictions, and there were limited recreational opportunities for women, children, and youth. The poorest members of the community were particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Rising inflation, limited skills, and employment opportunities added to their challenges, making it difficult to provide for their families while managing their farms.

Our field visit was followed by an exploration of Bahawalpur City’s local market. Guided by a knowledgeable local, we embarked on a journey through the city’s stores, where quality products were readily available. From clothing and pottery to crockery and jewelry, the market offered a rich tapestry of items. Bahawalpur’s reputation for handmade embroideries was evident, and we discovered intricately embroidered clothing pieces and dresses. The attention to detail on these clothing pieces was impressive. I couldn’t resist purchasing the famous traditional “Chuniri dupatta,” a testament to the city’s artistic craftsmanship.

In conclusion, our visit to Bahawalpur provided valuable insights into the lives, challenges, and aspirations of the rural communities. It was a journey of discovery and reflection, where we encountered the stark contrast between urban and rural life. While the natural beauty of rural areas is undeniably captivating, we gained a profound appreciation for the resilience of these communities in the face of adversity. As we departed Bahawalpur, we carried with us not only the memories of picturesque landscapes and intricate embroideries but also a deepened understanding of the challenges faced by those who call this place home. Their determination and adaptability serve as a testament to the strength of rural communities.

Through initiatives like the one led by PMIC and AgriTech, there is hope for bridging the gaps and empowering these communities to build brighter futures. Our journey was a reminder that true progress lies in understanding and addressing the real needs and challenges faced by those in rural areas.

Authored by Fizza Batool.