The Classic Car Collectors of Pakistan

By Sonya Rehman | Photos by Saad Sarfraz

Although you’ve probably never seen a news report where a procession of classic motor glide through the streets of Lahore, there is in fact a thriving community of vintage petrol heads in Pakistan. Here are three of the men at the heart of that group.

With a cigarette dangling from his mouth, a rugged-looking Roger Beckermann, played by Italian actor, Rossano Brazzi, drives a blazing orange Lamborghini Miura neatly through the Italian Alps. “On Days Like These”, the Quincy Jones composition, softly plays throughout the stunning, dreamlike introductory scenes of the 1969 film classic, The Italian Job.

It was this scene that last year inspired 13 vintage car aficionados from Lahore, Pakistan, to recreate Beckermann’s romantic solo drive through Europe. They booked tickets, made arrangements to rent nine classic cars and then traced their route on Google maps. The plan was to arrive in Rome, drive up to Florence, then make the 400km drive north to Lake Como, before climbing up through the mountains in a north easterly direction to Stelvio Pass – a route voted by Top Gear as ‘the greatest driving road in the world.’ For these middle-aged car enthusiasts, it was a dream come true.

That group included Mushahid Shah, Kamran Hussain and Haydar Kirmani. A year on from that trip, the three of them are seated in Shah’s cozy living room in a posh neighbourhood in Lahore. It’s a quiet, clean residential area with lots of trees and Shah is able to live here thanks to a chicken feed mill that he owns. (Hussain works as a neurosurgeon in the city while Kirmani, who is distantly related to Shah, runs his own software development company and also has a workshop that restores classic cars). “We would watch The Italian Job clip again and again,” Kirmani says of his passion for cars. “At some point one of us asked, ‘Why aren’twe doing this?’”

Haydar Kirmani - Photo: Saad Sarfraz Sheikh
Haydar Kirmani – Photo: Saad Sarfraz Sheikh

The men are part of a popular Facebook group, the Vintage & Classic Car Club of Pakistan (VCCCP) a forum for hobbyists to engage with one another about their shared interest in exclusive automobiles from the golden era of motoring. The page currently boasts over 10,000 followers and also operates as an association where classic car enthusiasts organise and advertise motoring events for the public at large, such as the annual VCCCP rally. This runs all the way from Karachi over 1,300km to Lahore in the north, a further 400km up to the capital, Islamabad, and then east to Peshawar, the rally’s final destination. The event functions as a moving museum where the flotilla of vintage vehicles showcases a part of the country’s national heritage that is otherwise barely visible.

The three men are open and engaging when explaining how they developed their shared passion for classic cars. Shah and Hussain have known each other since childhood and they recount how, growing up, they’d visit old bookshops near their school in Lahore to buy dated copies of motor magazines. “We dreamed about owning the cars we’d see in the pictures,” says Hussain, who finally decided to seriously pursue his childhood passion when he returned to Pakistan after completing medical degree in the UK. “One day I was sitting around and feeling rather depressed about the state of affairs in the country and thought; I’m working and living here, but I’m not really following any of my interests.”

Kamran Hussain - Photo: Saad Sarfraz Sheikh
Kamran Hussain – Photo: Saad Sarfraz Sheikh

The 56-year-old neurosurgeon bought his first classic car, a Fiat 124 Sports Coupe in 1998. In the years since he has added a 1977 Porsche 911 SC Targa, a 1969 Mini Cooper, a 1963 Mini Cooper, a 1966 Porsche 912 SWB, a 1970 Mercedes 250S W108, a 1975 Alfa Romeo Alfetta GTV, a 1975 Toyota Celica GT, a 1963 Ford Cortina, a 1966 Mercedes 190 and a Caterham 7 replica.

The provenance of each vehicle tells its own story. For example, Hussain mentions that his Mini Cooper once belonged to a Brigadier in the Pakistan Army, Syed Akram. “He had the distinction of capturing Ramkot, Rajasthan, during the 1971 war with India. He loved cars and had five Mini Coopers. The car is a preservation of history,” Hussain says proudly.

Both Hussain and Shah come from respectable middle class families who were relatively successful. While Hussain studied hard to become a neurosurgeon, Shah was busy studying for his MBBS degree. “We both had very strict parents,” says Shah, speaking candidly about himself and Hussain. But that discipline brought with it financial benefits. “I was lucky enough to start collecting cars at the age of 20,” he admits.

Shah started out with a 1964 Mercedes-Benz 220SE Coupe, and then quickly added a 1966 Ford Mustang Convertible, a 1964 Jaguar Mark 2 and a 1964 Ford Thunderbird. This impressive start to his collecting career ended just as rapidly when he was ordered to sell off all his cars at the age of twenty-two as his parents wanted him to focus on his studies instead.

But three years ago, with Shah having now firmly established himself in business, the forty-eight-year-old decided to give his hobby another go. Today, he’s the proud owner of a number of original vintage beauties. “I have a 1972 MGB GT, a 1976 Mercedes-Benz 280 S, a 1959 Austin-Healey 3000 Mark 1 and a 1980 Mini Cooper; this one’s special,” he says, speaking of the latter model. “It has an automatic gear box and factory-fitted air-conditioning.” Rounding off the collection is a 1969 1750 GTV Alfa Romeo, which he boasts is “one of the most desirable Alfa Romeos at the moment”.

Mushahid Shah - Photo: Saad Sarfraz Sheikh
Mushahid Shah – Photo: Saad Sarfraz Sheikh

Unlike Shah and Hussain, Kirmani’s appreciation for vintage cars developed much later. Having spent the majority of his life in London, UK, the 46-year-old moved back to Pakistan roughly 10 years ago to set-up the off-shore office of his UK-based IT company in Lahore. He’d long been around classic cars as his father was a collector. Growing up, the family would often travel across Europe in one of his father’s classic cars on holidays. “Initially I hated them,” he admits. “I used to ask him, ‘What’s this load of junk?!’ Perhaps it’s a sign of old age, but you start to appreciate things in a different way as you get older.”

At present, Kirmani owns a 1981 Jaguar XJS, a 1973 Mercedes-Benz 450 SL (purchased by Kirmani after being inspired by Bobby Ewing in the TV series, Dallas, that he’d watch back in the day), a 1972 E-Type Jaguar and a 1974 Ford Cortina. “It has a personal value for me,” Kirmani smiles, speaking about his Ford, “Because when I was very young my father bought a car like that and made a road trip from the UK to Pakistan.”

Explaining why the hobby has kept them interested all these years is a little more complicated. Hussain compares the preservation of cars to the way people preserve art or houses, or anything else of historical and cultural value. He bemoans the obsession for all things new in Pakistan. “There’s less emphasis on history and culture in Pakistan nowadays. Everything is considered transitory, to be done away with. The culture is becoming too materialistic. People want the newest, the flashiest, the most expensive things. I wouldn’t call it crass modernism, but people aren’t willing to spend so much money on older vehicles.”

As a result, Hussain mentions that he knows of numerous valuable cars that were eventually junked, cut up and melted down – especially since Pakistan’s economic troubles of recent times. “People have lost the appreciation for the finer things in life,” he sighs.

When asked why people would choose a costly, weathered, classic car when one can ride in style and convenience in the latest, swiftest model of vehicle, the men are, unsurprisingly, quick to respond. “Modern cars have become so good that they’ve isolated the driver as much as possible,” Kirmani says leaning forward, “The steering, the suspension, even the atmosphere in the car, isolates you from the mechanics. It’s just a toy — you jump in, drive 200 miles and jump out. Classic cars aren’t like that, they’ve got personalities, and the reason they have personalities is because they’re imperfect. They’ll be loud, noisy, some may have a hard steering, but something about that endears you to it.”

Hussain nods in agreement. “Just the other day ago a friend called me up and said; ‘Doc, let’s go for a drive’. He’d bought one of the latest Aston Martins and wanted to take it for a spin. So we drove and I was doing about 185 mph, but it felt like a 100. Since it was unsafe I slowed down. You can have the same level of excitement in a classic car at a much slower speed.”

“…At 50 miles per hour!” Shah pipes in with a chuckle.

“It’s not that the car is unsafe at that speed,” agrees Hussain. “But it is giving you more sensation. That’s the key to the enjoyment.”

“You have a connection with a classic car and it makes you feel good,” Kirmani adds.

Out of the group, Kirmani is alone in having taken his passion a step further. After re-locating to home turf, he recounts how he was appalled at the level of car service in Lahore. “I used to send my Mercedes to a dealer here but they never got it right. In the UK if you go to a Mercedes showroom, they throw out the red carpet for you,” he says with a twinge of exasperation. This led Kirmani to start a car workshop, INH Motor Company, eight years ago with the help of two relatives. It functions as a workshop for everyday car repairs but also serves as a classic car restoration hub in Lahore. “The truth was this: we thought it was a big laugh. We thought this was something we could mess about with and tell our wives that we’re busy on the weekends!” he laughs.

But an idea that started out as a shot in the dark soon became a roaring success. “We thought one person per week would stumble in and we’d tinker with his car,” Kirmani says. “What shocked us was the fact that in the first month alone we had 99 cars.” Having started out with only three mechanics, INH now employs over 100 staff. They even have another branch located in Sharjah, UAE.

Haydar Kirmani - Photo: Saad Sarfraz Sheikh
Haydar Kirmani – Photo: Saad Sarfraz Sheikh

“Look, there’s no real money in restoring cars,” Kirmani replies, when asked about the thoroughly niche market that his workshop caters to, “Let’s say a bashed-in modern car comes in for a paint job – you can have it fixed up within a week, tops. If a classic car comes in for restoration, it would take a good five months just to get the denting and painting done. Plus, you’d need to have three or four mechanics working solely on that one car.”

Kirmani maintains he’s in it for the pleasure, nothing more. To be able to not only purchase a piece of history, but also utilise it, is a high in itself he says.

But surely there has to be a downside to the hobby, apart from the cost, what with the arduous hunt for spare parts for decades-old cars…

“Oh dear, oh dear,” Hussain exclaims dramatically, leaning back in his chair.

“That’s half the fun!” Shah chuckles.

The eloquent neurosurgeon emphasises his point by recounting how complicated it was to  search for classic car parts in Pakistan two decades ago hwen he first got started, primarily because, pre-internet, no one had ready access to solid information. Back then, enthusiasts would have to resort to cold-calling car companies to track down who their suppliers were. Looking for a certain spare part was like sifting out a needle in a haystack. But eBay and the rise of the internet changed the game, thankfully.

These days, perhaps one of the biggest roadblocks for vintage car collectors in Pakistan are the convoluted customs’ regulations, vis-à-vis the import of car spare parts. “It’s obvious that if a car’s been out of production for 30 or 40 years, you’d be unlikely to find a brand new spare part of that very car, in fact you’d be lucky to find a used one,” Kirmani says. “Imagine, in Pakistan it’s illegal to import a used car spare part! Also, you cannot import cars that are more than three years old.”

So what does one do?

“We break the law,” Kirmani says. He’s grinning, but his tone is bitter.

“These are people who’d be shocked at running a traffic light,” Hussain exclaims comically, pointing at Shah and Kirmani.

“We would not run a traffic light, but this country has made criminals out of all of us,” Kirmani laughs.

“…But smuggling a car part,” Hussain interrupts, “absolutely!”

“We walk through customs in big overcoats with parts hidden in our pockets, hoping we don’t get stopped!” Kirmani jokes.

“Bribing people left, right and centre,” Hussain continues, “Using connections!”

“We’re reluctant criminals,” says Kirmani.

The three crack up.

Kirmani recounts how he once imported a set of rims for a classic Mercedes that had been out of production for over three decades. However, a customs official told Kirmani that it was illegal to import them and that he couldn’t allow it to pass through customs. The rims, the official had stated, would have to be auctioned off in a few months by the authorities.

“It was only through a concerted effort that I ended up convincing them – and you know what I mean by convincing,” Kirmani says knowingly. “And I paid a huge fine on top of that. We’ve all had bad experiences.”

“It’s interesting, you know,” Hussain says. “The government passed a law stating that if you went abroad, came back, and, for example, had a car and its registration papers, you could import used car parts, but in a reasonable quantity. The only thing is that customs don’t actually follow their own rules.”

Kamran Hussain - Photo: Saad Sarfraz Sheikh
Kamran Hussain – Photo: Saad Sarfraz Sheikh

Corruption and bribery within the government machinery is rampant in Pakistan. According to a 2011 survey, the not-for-profit, Transparency International, listed Pakistan’s judiciary and the police as the most corrupt institutions in the country. In practice this means that if a law exists, a loophole to exploit it will usually be found; and if you can’t find a loophole then paperwork can be fobbed or deals made… there’s always a way. But you cannot get around the system without being a part of it – not in the simplest or the most elaborate of endeavours – be it entrepreneurial, hobby-related or indeed, just day-to-day living.

Given the limitations of the way Pakistan’s bureaucracy functions, Kirmani maintains an unflinching confidence in his workshop. “I would be willing to put a car restored by us against a car restored by anyone else in the world. We have that level of quality here in the country.”

When they’ve done with their stories about the search for car parts, the conversation swings towards to one the central arguments among collectors. Some vintage car enthusiasts are purists, striving to restore a vehicle to its original form, from the engine to the paint. The other school of thought is to not be tooconcerned with originality. Hussain explains how the modern take on vintage car restoration is to preserve the exterior and interior as much as possible, yet with modern mechanics.

“I’m not a purist,” he admits. “People the world over are junking old engines and putting in a modern set-up; so you have this beautiful vintage car that drives like a modern vehicle.” Hussain recounts how he wound up plugging a Mazda engine into his Ford Cortina, but only because the original engine proved extremely hard to find.

Shah, on the other hand, prides himself as a purist and, unsurprisingly, uses a medical analogy to explain his reasoning. “I would transplant the heart of a man with the heart of a man, not acow,” he responds acerbically. The trio bursts out laughing.

“I think it’s important to add we call him Mr. Frankenstein,” Kirmani quips, looking over at Hussain and chuckling.

“The monster is not Dr. Frankenstein; he’s the one who creates the monster,” Hussain retorts in mock indignation.

“So we’ve got it right!” Kirmani says. The room again erupts in laughter.

Thanks to public activities arranged by the likes of VCCCP and others, and the enthusiasm of men like Mushahid Shah, Kamran Hussain and Haydar Kirmani, the appreciation and awareness for the art of vintage cars is more popular than ever before in Pakistan. The events and activities in public spaces have created the possibility of a new hobby and a new interest, to inspire and evoke a sense of wonder within youngsters, just as Shah, Hussain and Kirmani were moved when they were children.

Citing an example, Kirmani mentions a public car show that was held in Lahore a few years ago. “We took along three classic cars and allowed the public to get their pictures taken in them. It was incredible; there were queues of up to two hundred people against each car, waiting to see the vehicles!”

One of Mushahid Shah'd beauties - Photo: Saad Sarfraz Sheikh
One of Mushahid Shah’s beauties – Photo: Saad Sarfraz Sheikh

He speculates about how much he could grow his business if the rules and mindset were different. “I could employ 1,000 people if the government allowed people like me to import, refurbish and sell classic cars; it’s a multi-billion-dollar industry,” Kirmani says enthusiastically, “We as a nation have incredible skill and talent. I have an old man working for me, who, with a hammer and press can make you any fender out of any metal. We have a Pagoda Mercedes in the workshop and half of that car was made by him. Doing that abroad would have cost you at least $150,000 to restore it to the level we did. We did it at a fraction of that amount.”

Unfortunately, in Pakistan, thanks to the corruption and a lack of vision, the government hasn’t taken any interest in the immense potential that classic car restoration has to offer on home turf; even with rich skills, acumen and technology at hand.

“If you look at classic cars from the point of view of investment, they are making more money over stocks and shares, real estate, paintings…,” says Hussain. “The value of vintage cars is rising more than anything else. This is something we as a country need to latch onto.”

Pakistan’s growth potential is tremendous, thanks to its strategic geographical location, a large working-age populous, and rich natural resources. What holds the country back is a lack of mature governance, and little accountability or transparency with each successive regime. Provincial rivalry, lack of education, job opportunities, rising national debt and the unequal distribution of wealth have also continued to hinder economic growth. All this has kept the country in a socio-economic chokehold for the past few years.

Ultimately, however, for these three men, car collecting is not about business or economics or politics. It is simply a passion that all three have shared since boyhood. Which begs the obvious question of whether any of them are looking at acquiring more cars for their personal collection?

“Let me tell you a closely guarded secret,” Kirmani says, lowering his voice in a mock conspiratorial manner. “A classic car enthusiastnever stops buying cars!”

“It’s a sickness,” Hussain nods in agreement.

While the search and eventual procurement of a particular model always remains on the horizon for a classic car enthusiast, Shah, Hussain and Kirmani declare that a true hobbyist continues to rotate his or her cars for the benefit of others. “Unfortunately some people are hoarders,” Hussain says.

“Vintage car collectors don’t appreciate hoarders taking the cars away from the public eye,” agrees Kirmani. “You own a car for a while, enjoy the experience and then sell it off to let someone else enjoy it. Yet we have some owners here who have 70 or 80 cars and that’s just criminal, especially when you can’t import more classic cars into the country. But imagine, 70 cars could be looked after by 70 enthusiasts and enjoyed by the public too.”

Given that the trio is strongly affiliated with the classic car community in the city, perhaps they could use their influence to discourage the hoarders?

Shah, who has remained quiet for a long time, chortles. “They’re our friends!”

And in a country battling extremism and socio-political instability, finding solace and a sense of relief in a shared passion is a very useful thing to have.

Published in Esquire [Middle East] April 2016

Punjab’s fields of change

Calling for rescue: Emergency services in Punjab

Published May 16, 2016 10:11am
Rescue 1122 workers extinguish a fire blazing at LDA Plaza in Lahore | Saad Sarfaraz
Rescue 1122 workers extinguish a fire blazing at LDA Plaza in Lahore | Saad Sarfraz

Sahrish Ahmad is a clinical psychologist at Lahore’s Jinnah Hospital. In 2013-2014, while she was doing her masters, she proposed a research study on Rescue 1122, a public sector emergency service set up to help people caught up in accidents, fires and other emergencies. Her teachers at the Centre for Clinical Psychology at the Punjab University, Lahore, accepted the proposal immediately.

To start working on her research project, Ahmad first contacted Rescue 1122 to get the contact information for possible respondents. Senior officials at the rescue service, however, turned down her request on the grounds that all contact information of the callers who seek help is kept confidential. She then contacted her class fellows, friends and relatives for help in reaching out to anyone known to have sought – and received – help from the rescue service. Finding such people turned out to be quite easy.

Hundreds of thousands of people in different parts of Punjab have used services provided by Rescue 1122 over the last 10 years or so. Between 2004 and 2014, the rescue service has handled over 1,159,667 road traffic accidents, responded to 1,465,344 medical emergencies, dealt with 121,387 crime incidents, managed some 5,918 collapsed buildings, provided rescue in 6,904 cases of drowning and responded to 70, 232 fire incidents in all districts of Punjab, a Rescue 1122 performance report, issued in 2014, reads.

After getting to scores of people who were behind some of those calls for rescue, Ahmad identified five of them through sampling methodology advised by her supervisors, Tehreem Arshad and Dr Rukhsana Kausar. These respondents were all young – aged between 22 and 27 – and belonged to middle class families. She interviewed them in detail, asking both quantitative and qualitative questions.

Thematic analysis of those interviews revealed that the overall level of satisfaction with Rescue 1122 performance was high. The respondents regarded the rescue workers as “professional, empathetic, dedicated and calm.” They also rated the rescue service as having better infrastructure in comparison to other emergency services in Lahore.

A firefighter in Joseph Colony, Lahore | Saad Sarfaraz
A firefighter in Joseph Colony, Lahore | Saad Sarfraz

Ahmad’s hard work notwithstanding, this is not a conclusion that one needs a research project to arrive at. Opinion on the streets of Punjab in general, and Lahore in particular, about the quality of Rescue 1122 services is mostly positive. People like Dr Yaasir Ijaz, a Lahore-based anesthetist in his early thirties whose friend met an accident after Eid last year, go to the extent of saying they would have lost their near and dear ones had there been no Rescue 1122.

Arslan Raza, a young telecom professional in Lahore, is similarly full of praise for the rescue service. “I called Rescue 1122 after I witnessed a roadside accident in front of a cinema recently. The ambulance arrived in less than five minutes to provide first aid,” he says. “This is a very quick and efficient response, even by international standards.”

Shaukat Niazi, a 53-year-old language and linguistics expert in Rawalpindi, cannot agree more. “Once a cousin of mine fell from the stairs and broke her nose. [I called Rescue 1122 and its staff] was there in five minutes to administer emergency medical aid,” he tells theHerald. “They were very professional.” Niazi also talks about how the rescue service helped him shift his father to a hospital. “We could not do the shifting because of his spinal injury so I called Rescue 1122.” The ambulance arrived in a few minutes, with stretchers and all. “Four rescuers handled the situation like no other ambulance crew could,” Niazi says.

The story told by Riaz Azhar, a 40-something banker based in Lahore, is no different. He recalls how Rescue 1122 took less than 10 minutes to arrive at his Defence Housing Authority home when his mother had a heart attack five years ago. “I asked them about charges and they told me that it is a free of cost [public] service.”

Meet Irfan Gull. Dressed in an olive green uniform, he looks set to step into a battle zone. With his hands tightly clutching the steering wheel of a red-striped white high roof van, he only needs to turn the key in the ignition – and get orders from his seniors – to speed off to his mission. Not to save the borders or fight the terrorists, though. He, instead, fights fires and other emergency situations that can arise anytime anywhere within the municipal boundaries of Lahore, where he works. He is an ambulance driver for Rescue 1122.

Only 12 years ago, Lahore – as well as the rest of Pakistan – did not have an ever-ready, resourceful and dedicated workforce to take care of such emergencies. There was, of course, a fire brigade in every big city but its staff was not trained to do anything beyond spraying water and other liquids on a raging fire. They could neither provide first aid nor did they have ambulances to transport the injured to a hospital and the dead to a mortuary.

Those who met road accidents had no government department to look for help, leaving it to the passers-by to use either their own vehicles or hire rickshaws or taxis to carry the dead and the injured to nearby medical facilities. And this, too, was only possible when the passers-by were able to shrug off the apprehension that helping the victims of the accident could entangle them in legal and police proceedings which nobody has the time and stomach for. Wherever ambulances were available, mostly at government hospitals, they were generally ill-suited to tackle emergencies because they neither had equipment for first aid nor trained human resources to administer first aid.

For Gull and his colleagues, lack of availability of equipment can determine the difference between life and death.

In 2004, all that changed — first in Lahore and, a few years later, in many other parts of Punjab. That year, the Punjab government set up Rescue 1122 as the country’s first specialised emergency service, running ambulances driven by highly skilled drivers, and providing emergency healthcare through certified paramedical staff. In 2007, Rescue 1122 started operating its own fire brigade, equipped with water bowsers, ladders and fire trucks and manned by a trained workforce. The Rescue 1122 performance report claims that the service has “saved millions of lives” over the last decade and “has an average response time of six minutes.” In the same period of time, the report claims, the rescue service has “saved losses worth over 185 billion rupees through professional firefighting on modern lines.”

Rescue 1122 team at work | Saad Sarfaraz
Rescue 1122 team at work | Saad Sarfraz

What does Gull feel about this great work that the rescue service has done? He says he is tired. Being among the first people to respond whenever there is an emergency in Lahore, a sprawling, chaotic, ill-planned city of more than 10 million people means he has to be on high alert all the time. The action, he says, can take place anywhere on the street, at someone’s office or home, or on the road. “We take care of the people caught in emergency situations before” anyone else does. “This happens every time someone dials 1122.”

As his colleagues try to breathe life back into the rescued persons inside his ambulance on bumpy roads, Gull has to navigate the mean streets of the city where traffic never gives way. Having to spend endless hours on the wheel, ensuring a quick response time and safe driving simultaneously, is extremely stressful, he explains.

And that is just one source of his exhaustion. Gull contends that the rescue service does not have all the equipment, money and human resources it requires. This shortage puts the existing resources in serious stress. For one, there are not enough ambulances, Gull says. “And we are paid salaries so low that they provide no motivation to continue with the high alert, high stress and high risk job that we do,” he goes on. “The government is paying peanuts to people who save endangered lives and who make life and death decisions every time they are out in the field.”

Gull’s colleague Faisal, a medical technician, bitterly remarks the government pays no attention to improving wages and working conditions at Rescue 1122. “We are often promised revision in our service structure. We also hear that a commission will be set up to identify the problems in the service structure but at the end of the day everything remains the same,” he tells the Herald.

Rescue 1122 workers watch as the fire is extinguished at the LDA Plaza | Saad Sarfaraz
Rescue 1122 workers watch as the fire is extinguished at the LDA Plaza | Saad Sarfraz

Faisal also talks of a catch-22 situation: the hiring of more staff to reduce the workload on the existing workers will also lead to the worsening of the already bad financial status of the rescue service because the provincial government has failed to increase annual monetary allocations for it.

A part of psychologist Ahmad’s research concerns exactly that: the stress the rescue workers have to endure. A high proportion of Rescue 1122 staff that participated in her research was found to be experiencing psychological distress, she says.

“No, we are not God,” says Gull with a sigh when asked how difficult it is to maintain a high level of performance under working conditions he does not like. “We are humans. When we get exhausted, we can make mistakes too,” says Faisal.

Opinion on the streets of Punjab in general, and Lahore in particular, about the quality of Rescue 1122 services is mostly positive.

Furqan Noor is a telephone operator at Rescue 1122 in Lahore so, unlike Gull and Faisal, he does not have to venture out on the streets to help people in distress. Yet, he feels immense emotional and psychological pressure whenever he is on the phone receiving calls for help. “Often, I am holding back tears when I am answering calls,” he says. “Someone’s baby’s heart is not beating and the mother is screaming on the phone,” he narrates one of the many heart-wrenching stories he is privy to.

A woman once called him and said she wanted to commit suicide. She told him that she had been beaten up by her husband and that she did not want to live anymore. And then she asked him about the easiest way to die. He tried to talk her out of it but he is not trained to handle such a situation. “We are trained to be calm and cooperative while at the same time trying to extract information like the address and directions,” says Noor.

Ahmad’s research finds that fielding such distress calls is an emotionally draining assignment. When rescue workers have to deal with highly emotional and tragic situations as a matter of routine, that can make them insensitive, she argues. Clinical psychologists call it “compassion fatigue”. She recommends that immediate steps should be taken to monitor the psychological and mental health of rescue workers and instant remedies should be provided to those who require them.

Dealing with emotional problems of those seeking help, and also their own, is not the only worry that operators at Rescue 1122 face. To deal with a huge number of fake calls for help is a much bigger problem to them. In Lahore, for instance, only seven per cent to 10 per cent calls received at 1122 helpline are genuine requests for help. All the rest are fake alarms that lead to the unproductive deployment of scarce rescue resources. A prankster reporting a fake fire would make five to six fire engines, an ambulance and many rescuers rush to the site. Some callers even try to flirt with female operators or female medical attendants dispatched to help them, says a Rescue 1122 official in Lahore. Those making fake calls, according to the law, can be arrested and imprisoned for six months besides being liable to pay fines ranging from 50,000 rupees to 70,000 rupees. But senior officials at the rescue service say they have no time and resources to pursue the fake callers in courts of law.

Those working in the field say they sometimes experience much bigger insults than the embarrassment caused by fake alarms. We have been “attacked, bitten, spat on” by the irate public, claims Gull.

When Rescue 1122 was first set up in Lahore, Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi was Punjab’s chief minister and his Pakistan Muslim League–Quaid-e-Azam (PMLQ) was the ruling party both in the province and at the centre. Though his family and him have been living in Lahore for decades, they are known as the Chaudhrys of Gujrat, where they come from, and are usually elected from. They do not have a constituency in Lahore to call their own and are considered rank outsiders compared to the Sharifs, the family of the incumbent chief minister, Shahbaz Sharif. Setting up Rescue 1122 in the provincial capital before anywhere else is seen by political pundits as a calculated move by Elahi to attract at least some public support in the biggest city in the province.

That still rankles with the Sharifs, goes the widely circulated conspiracy theory among the residents of Lahore when asked about why the Punjab government is reluctant to increase the annual budget for Rescue 1122 and improve the working conditions of its staff. There appears to be at least some truth to these theories. Recently, newspapers in Lahore carried Rescue 1122 ads seeking donations to improve the service’s finances.

The firebrigade at LDA Plaza | saad Sarfaraz
The firebrigade at LDA Plaza | Saad Sarfraz

Many in the city were upset over the ads. Why is a government department asking citizens for donations, they wondered, and lashed out at Shahbaz Sharif for ignoring Rescue 1122 while spending generously on his own public transport projects. Others were confused. Is a government department even authorised to seek donations? Senior officials at the rescue service respond to that by citing the Punjab Emergency Service Act of 2006. “The service shall have the authority to accept donations in the shape of land, vehicles, equipment and other such items which may facilitate the functioning of the service,” reads a section in the act. Seeking donations, the officials say, is perfectly legal.

While the provincial administration almost ignores calls from Rescue 1122 staff for more money and machines, it is aware that the rescue service is quite popular and shutting it down will be a politically disastrous step. This neither here nor there kind of approach is creating a situation where the quality of the rescue service will only go down as population increases and human resources and machinery required to cater to its needs become exhausted and worn out.

Many people already have complaints. Salman Muzaffar, an Islamabad-based banker in his mid-forties, got into a fight a few years ago and needed Rescue 1122 help to get to a hospital. He says the rescuers came to him quickly but their ambulance had severe hygiene problems. It was in a shambles, requiring cleaning and maintenance.

Others have more serious grievances. Arooj Zahid, one of the editors at a popular magazine in Lahore, called Rescue 1122 recently after her grandmother had experienced severe breathing problems. The rescuers took more than 45 minutes to reach her home. By that time, her grandmother had passed away. “They were late because they could not find the address,” she says.


Elishba Karis Abel, a 28-year-old teacher in Lahore, faced a similar problem when she called Rescue 1122 for help. The rescuers were required to shift her grandmother to a hospital at 4 am, she says, but they could not find her home. After wandering around the area for quite some time, they called her brother to seek directions. And then her mother had to drive in front of the rescue ambulance to show them the way to the nearest hospital. “Even a short delay can be critical for a patient who needs immediate medical care,” says Abel and suggests that the government should equip the rescue service with a navigation system so that rescue workers do not lose their way.

Abel also wonders about the problems that the rescue workers could be facing while trying to rescue people in the countless narrow lanes of Lahore’s Walled City which are not even mentioned on the maps available in the markets. There have been a number of horror stories of people living in the Walled City not receiving timely help in emergency situations, she says.

One such tragic story unfolded on January 14 this year. At least five members of a family were killed as a house caught fire in the Lohari Gate area of the Walled City. The nondescript narrow lane where the house was located was so difficult to locate and so inaccessible that it took the rescuers too long to reach there in time to save lives. In a similar incident on May 17, 2015, six children belonging to another family lost their lives after their house had caught fire in Lahore’s Shad Bagh area which is not even in the Walled City — though it is equally densely populated and difficult to navigate.

Rescue workers at the sight | Saad Sarfaraz
Rescue workers at the sight | Saad Sarfraz

Gull apportions some of the blame for problems in service delivery to the condition of the ambulances available. When he started his job, he says, he was given a Mercedes-Benz Sprinter to drive. The second batch of ambulances was all Toyota Hiace vans but lately most vehicles procured in the first two batches have been replaced by Chinese Kinglong Hiace vans. These are five to six times cheaper than the Sprinters — and twice as inefficient, he says.

Even where the equipment exists, it is woefully short of the numerical requirement. For Lahore, the country’s second biggest city and Punjab’s largest, Rescue 1122 has 27 ambulances and 20 fire trucks, according to its own 2014 performance report. This means just one ambulance for 370,370 people (supposing that Lahore’s population is still 10 million). The rescue service has only two turntable ladders and two aerial platforms, both essential tools for putting down fires in multistorey buildings and for tackling other high altitude disasters.

Another big issue afflicting Rescue 1122 is the lack of a service structure for its employees. In the absence of a service structure, no rules and regulations are available for raising salaries and making transfers and promotions of the staff possible. If media reports are to be believed, senior rescue service officials have promised a number of times that a service structure will soon be put in place but nothing has come out of those promises yet. A Rescue 1122 official tells the Herald the rescue service cannot take any decision on the service structure on its own and that this is causing delays in announcing it. Approval of the service structure is the prerogative of the Punjab government’s home department, he says wishing to remain unnamed.

In November 2015, a multistorey factory making polythene bags in Sundar Industrial Estate near Lahore collapsed, resulting in the death of more than 50 people, many of them as young as 14 years old. Evidence has piled up since then that the factory had a poorly planned building. It had no emergency exits and its owner had continued expanding it through unapproved extensions. Eyewitnesses told the media after the collapse that the building had developed cracks after an earthquake in October 2015 and even then the owner, who also died in the accident, was not ready to evacuate the workers and shut it down.

Many of the deaths at the factory could still be prevented if the rescuers had the right type of equipment to cut through the collapsed concrete columns and heavy cement slabs under which scores of people had gotten trapped. As it turned out, Rescue 1122 did not have the technical skills and machines to remove debris without increasing risks to the lives of those to be rescued. In the event, army engineers had to be called out to dig and smash the collapsed structure and heavy machinery – such as cranes, bulldozers and dumper trucks – had to be borrowed from private builder Bahria Town for debris removal. Even then it took close to a week to clear all the debris – a massive 17,200 tons, according to the district administration – and retrieve all the injured and the dead from under it.

While the district administration was full of praise for the private builder for providing help in tackling the disaster, there was loud criticism of the government over failing to monitor, and stop, the flawed construction of the building before it collapsed and, most importantly, for not having invested enough in rescue services.

Dealing with emotional problems of those seeking help, and also their own, is not the only worry that operators at Rescue 1122 face. To deal with a huge number of fake calls for help is a much bigger problem to them.

For Gull and his colleagues, lack of availability of equipment can determine the difference between life and death. He recounts how in December 2014 he was ordered to rush to Anarkali bazaar where a commercial building was on fire. Along with him were 16 fire engines and 80 firefighters. They reached the site of the fire in eight minutes but could not make it inside the narrow street where the building was actually located for the next 45 minutes. The building – which had only one entry and exit point – burned down in front of the rescuers as they struggled to carry water hoses and fire extinguishers inside it. Even more unfortunately, the accident resulted in the death of 13 people.

The rescuers needed to cross many hurdles before they could start extinguishing the deadly fire. Hundreds of motorcycles were parked where the narrow street leading to the building branched off the main road. Vending carts clogged both the street and the road. And there were no hydrants, no fire extinguishers close by. Even the staircases and the parking areas were turned into shops, making it impossible for the rescuers to move within the burning building. Long-neck cranes could have helped the rescuers avoid all these impediments but Rescue 1122 does not even have enough high ladders. The lack of these ladders was felt acutely when the Lahore Development Authority (LDA) Plaza caught fire on May 9, 2013. The LDA officials claimed the fire took long to extinguish because the rescuers did not have the required equipment to reach beyond the plaza’s sixth floor. In another glaring instance of equipment shortage, Rescue 1122 had only 12 life jackets and three to four rafts to rescue the entire population of Muzaffargarh district in 2010 floods.

The Sundar factory collapse | Arif Ali, White Star
The Sundar factory collapse | Arif Ali, White Star

In some incidents, the lack of proper equipment has endangered the lives of the rescuers too. Back in 2011, four firefighters fainted while fighting a massive fire in one of Lahore’s most crowded commercial areas, Shalmi Market, inside the Walled City.

Some rescuers recall the inferno on December 20, 2008, at Rawalpindi’s Gakhar Plaza with shock and horror. As this commercial building caught fire, rescuers rushed to it, but found out that they had no cranes or high ladders to be able to vacate it in time and put out the fire without having to enter the burning premises. Many of them went in as parts of the building were already crumbling around them. This resulted in 13 of them getting trapped in raging fire and falling debris. All of them were later found dead.

Suggestions vary on how to expand the Rescue 1122 coverage, both geographical and in terms of disasters it can handle. Some say it needs to equip and train itself to handle emergencies such as animal bites, disease outbreaks, chemical spills, torrential rains and storms, flash floods and terrorism. Others, like Rameez Ahmed, a textile engineer at a factory in Multan, say rescue services need to spread awareness among the general public on how to manage low intensity traumas and disasters such as non-fatal accidents and damage done by localised weather phenomenon.

Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs of the United Nations in its 2012 report on Pakistan also recommended the same. It noted that Rescue 1122 had been advised (by the UN) to spread awareness and education among common people regarding first aid, disaster and trauma management. The rescue service, indeed, is doing just that, though on a small scale, by providing training to students but the compilers of the report were not satisfied. Rescue 1122 has failed to do that because of lack of funds, they noted.

Rescue 1122 workers at LDA Plaza | Saad Sarfaraz
Rescue 1122 workers at LDA Plaza | Saad Sarfraz

Yet another suggestion is that Rescue 1122 should extend its services to remote and underdeveloped places where people are prone to medical emergencies but have next to no healthcare facilities available close by to address those emergencies. More often than not, patients die while being transferred to a far-off hospital. Rameez Ahmed recounts how his friend died recently of a cardiac arrest in Narowal, a town about 50 kilometres to the north-east of Lahore, because there was no hospital in his hometown that offered treatment for coronary diseases. If a Rescue 1122 ambulance was available to transfer him quickly to a hospital in Lahore, his life could have been saved, says Rameez Ahmed. Consider how people suffer similar tragedies in far-off places such Layya, Bhakkar, Rajanpur and Sadiqabad which are all hundreds of kilometres away from a decent healthcare facility.
To a certain extent, Rescue 1122 is already operating in some remote areas of Punjab but its services are limited to major cities and towns and the equipment available there does not even match the one available in Lahore. The expansion is also impeded by a lack of funds and absence of coordination between local hospitals and emergency service providers, sources in Rescue 1122 say.

While these issues await resolution, Gull and Faisal just keep doing what they have been doing for years — providing help to people in need of rescue. And they continue to plead to “the powers that run the country, the many health ministries, secretariats and departments, the prime minister and the chief minister” to allocate sufficient funds for the rescue service. “We might just have to rescue you someday,” they seem to be saying to all these policymakers.

This was originally published in the Herald’s February 2016 issue.



24 year old Shama and her 26 year old husband Shahzad Masih were laborers at one of the many brick kilns in Pakistan’s Punjab. Due to their inability to pay money to their employer, they were falsely accused of blasphemy and were burnt alive on 4th November, 2014. This video looks into the life of their three children, Suleman, Sonya and Poonam…

Amidst the crowd were mothers…

Gulshan Park...

Amidst the crowd were mothers looking for their kids…

Some have lost them forever, while some are still looking for them…

Its understandable that paramedics/surgeons are busy trying to save those at the site, but there should be a trauma desk where parents should be allowed to list names of their missing children and also submit their photos…

Redirecting them to hospitals isn’t enough…

Also, parents shouldn’t be thrashed or barred from obtaining access to the area…

This woman was looking for her 15-yr old… She found him alive the next day, with minor injuries…

Guardian Angel…

Guardian Angel

24 year old Shama and her 26 year old husband Shahzad Masih were laborers at one of the many brick kilns in Pakistan’s Punjab. Due to their inability to pay money to their employer, they were falsely accused of blasphemy and were burnt alive on 4th November, 2014. Their three children, Suleman, Sonya and Poonam were orphaned, so Grandpa Mukhtar (pictured here) stepped in and became everyone’s papa…

Amidst the crowd of the fortunate and less-fortunate…

Amidst the crowd of the fortunate and less-fortunate, I searched for wisdom, I searched for age... I guess I found both...  The face faded into the human mass, as I hunted with my optical contraptions...   Once caught, he whizzed past me and whispered in my ears, "you got me, didn't you!" wink emoticon — ‎at ‎Darbar Hazrat Data Gunj Bakhsh رحمتہ اللہ علیہ‎.‎
Amidst the crowd of the fortunate and less-fortunate, I searched for wisdom, I searched for age…
I guess I found both…
The face faded into the human mass, as I hunted with my optical contraptions…
Once caught, he whizzed past me and whispered in my ears,
“you got me, didn’t you!” wink emoticon — ‎at ‎Darbar Hazrat Data Gunj Bakhsh رحمتہ اللہ علیہ‎.‎