In province known for deadly mining accidents, a Pakistani man invents anti-risk helmet

Ali Gul, a student of Balochistan University of Information Technology, Engineering and Management Sciences, receives an appreciation letter for his prototype of the Smart Eye Helmet at the Islamabad Startup Club held in February this year. (Photo courtesy: Ali Gul)
Updated 25 July 2019

In province known for deadly mining accidents, a Pakistani man invents anti-risk helmet

  • Ali Gul’s Eye Smart Helmet uses sensors to monitor coal mine conditions, toxic gases, explosion risks, location and health vitals of miners
  • At least 120 workers die on average each year in mining accidents in Balochistan, 94 killed in first seven months of 2019 alone

KARACHI: A school bag slung over his shoulder and a dream in his eyes, little Ali Gul would often stop by at the coal mine where his brother worked on his way to school each morning in the mining town of Sinjawi in Pakistan’s southwestern Balochistan province. 
There he would sit for a while among the acrid smell of burning coal and quietly watch the miners, their faces caked in toxic dust and dried sweat from working up to 1,200 feet underground on grueling 8-hour shifts. 
As he would walk off to school moments later, Gul couldn’t help but wonder if he too might end up working at the mines like his brother Gul Muhammad and so many other relatives and friends from his village in Ziarat district, a few kilometers from the coal-mining center of Duki.
Instead, Gul traveled far away from home every single day for many years to attend school and eventually university in Quetta, resolved never to set foot in a coal mine.
In February 2015, Gul’s family received news that his brother had passed out in a mine after a toxic gas leak. Though Muhammad survived, the incident so shook Gul that he decided he had to do something to improve the precarious conditions that Balochistan’s 300,000 coal miners worked in at 3,000 mines across the province.
Just last week, rescue teams saved two miners and retrieved the bodies of eight others after a methane explosion trapped the 10 in a coal mine in Balochistan. Safety standards are widely ignored in the coal-mining industry in Pakistan, leading to numerous deadly incidents.

Ali Gul, a student of Balochistan University of Information Technology, Engineering and Management Sciences, works on the design of the Smart Eye Helmet project, which earned him a Rs14 million grant from Pakistan's Higher Education Commission on May 2, 2019: Photo taken on July 23, 2019. (Photo courtesy: Ali Gul)

“After my brother’s injury, I would think I have to do something to stop these lethal incidents from happening,” Gul, 24, told Arab News via telephone from Quetta. “It was usual for us to keep hearing about a new accident or that an acquaintance had died or was seriously hurt.”
When Gul moved to Quetta to study computer engineering at the Balochistan University of Information Technology, Engineering and Management Sciences (BUITEMS), his roommate, Gul Ustad, turned out to be a former coal miner himself, providing Gul with an even greater impetus to put his plan into action. 
Soon after, Gul started to conduct research and found that at least 120 workers died on average each year in mining incidents in Balochistan. Gul thus began to work on a prototype for what would come to be called the Eye Smart Helmet: a special headgear that uses sensors to monitor mine conditions, the presence of toxic gases, explosion risks, and the location and health vitals of miners working in a particular mine. 

Ali Gul, a student of Balochistan University of Information Technology, Engineering and Management Sciences, won a Rs14 million grant from Pakistan's Higher Education Commission on May 2, 2019 for his Eye Smart Helmet project to protect coal miners in Balochistan province, Pakistan. (Photo courtesy: Ali Gul)

Gul’s landlord in Quetta, who also happened to be a mine owner, saw the prototype of the helmet in his room one morning in 2016 and ordered him to make 20 samples. Gul delivered the order in 2017 but could not make any more helmets due to a lack of funds.
At the start of 2018, Gul took his helmet to Islamabad’s Startup Cup, a nonprofit venture that aims to foster entrepreneurial spirit in Pakistan. Here he met Jawad Khan and Muhammad Azeem who had brought their own startup, Qayaam, a platform for short-term renting, to the tournament. The three men got talking and exchanged numbers. 
“His prototype was brilliant but he didn’t know how to generate funds,” Azeem told Arab News, saying him and Khan shared their number with Gul and they all began working together on the project’s financial assessment.
The teamwork paid off. In May this year, Gul and his partners won a Rs14 million grant from the High Education Commission (HEC), which will be released incrementally for product development between July 1, 2019 to June 30, 2020. Gul and his team will be required to conduct primary research on mines, working conditions as well as the nature of the work and of the mines. They will also use the funds to improve their prototype in light of their research findings before testing it in Balochistan’s mines. After a successful test, set to be carried out before June 30, 2020, the product will begin to be produced for commercial use.

In this photograph taken in January 2018, a coal miner at 98 Quetta Mine Area is wearing a helmet designed by Ali Gul, a student of Balochistan University of Information Technology, Engineering and Management Sciences, whose Smart Eye Helmet project won a Rs14 million grant from Pakistan's Higher Education Commission on May 2, 2019. (Photo courtesy: Ali Gul)

“This [helmet] will help us to save the lives of coal miners and enable owners to increase their productivity,” Gul’s colleague Khan said, adding that the headgear would also help predict mine collapses more accurately in the future. 
“Once the project is completed, we will move toward the stage of mass generation and marketing,” said Azeem, whose role in the venture is to strategize and generate funds.
The team says though they have already been approached for orders by clients in Europe, their primary focus is Pakistan.
“We want to save the precious lives of our countrymen first,” Gul said. “We want to save lives and millions of rupees in losses and at the same time tell the world that there are some awesome, innovative made-in-Pakistan products available.”
Gul’s work, he says, is gaining in urgency as the number of mining deaths have gone up in recent years, from 120 deaths on average each year to 172 workers between July 2017-2018. Around 94 people have died in mining accidents in just the first seven months of 2019, according to the All Pakistan Labour Federation Balochistan.
“I had resolved as a young kid that I would never have anything to do with coal mines, that I would make a better life for myself,” Gul said. “I had never imagined I would even enter a coal mine. But now I have,” he said smilingly, “to take safety helmet for miners.”

Pakistan appoints sixth revenue chief in less than three years

Updated 10 April 2021

Pakistan appoints sixth revenue chief in less than three years

  • Under IMF spotlight, country’s tax machinery is tasked with increasing tax collection by 27%
  • Tax collection is a perennial problem in Pakistan, where less than 1 percent of the population files income tax

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan’s government appointed its sixth tax chief in two and a half years on Friday, as International Monetary Fund (IMF) scrutiny increases on the country’s woeful tax collection record in recent weeks.
The new Federal Bureau of Revenue (FBR) chief, Asim Ahmed, formerly a grade-21 officer of the Inland Revenue Service, will take over a less than coveted job in a country where tax collection is a perennial problem, and where less than 1 percent of the population files income tax.
Since coming to power in 2018, Prime Minister Imran Khan made boosting tax collection a top priority for his government, appealing to overseas Pakistanis to invest in the country and urging the wealthy to pay more income tax.
But under the spotlight of a renewed IMF program, this is a critical hour for the country’s tax machinery as it is tasked with the impossible-- to increase the collection of taxes by a whopping 27 percent in the next fiscal year while focusing collection on the basis of people’s ability to actually pay up.
With his hands tied due to an agreement between Pakistan and the IMF on the broader contours of next year’s budget, a huge challenge for the new chairman will be to finalize a balanced taxation budget while achieving a tax collection target of nearly Rs6 trillion.
Ahmed will replace Javed Ghani, who attained the age of superannuation on Friday after remaining the FBR chairman for 100 days.



Pakistan says ‘happy to host’ SAARC summit subject to conditions

Updated 28 min 2 sec ago

Pakistan says ‘happy to host’ SAARC summit subject to conditions

  • Foreign Office spokesperson says onus now on India to create environment for Kashmir oriented talks
  • Says fate of this year’s summit ‘hangs in balance’

ISLAMABAD: The Pakistan foreign office on Friday said it was ‘happy to host’ Indian and other regional leaders at the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) scheduled for October, but only if ‘artificial obstacles’ were removed, in a veiled reference to New Delhi.
The original 19th SAARC summit was to be held in Islamabad in 2016, but was boycotted by Indian PM Narendra Modi in the wake of the Uri militant attacks. Following this, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Bhutan, Maldives and Sri Lanka also pulled out, which led to the regional summit’s postponement.
“Pakistan considers SAARC an important organization for enhancing regional cooperation. As we have ascertained earlier, whenever artificial obstacles created in the way of SAARC summit are removed, we will be happy to host,” Foreign Office spokesman Zahid Hafeez Chaudhry told a press briefing on Friday.
He further said the onus was now on India to create a conducive environment for result-oriented talks between the two countries.
“We believe that durable peace, security and development in the region hinge on peaceful resolution of the long-standing Jammu and Kashmir dispute,” the spokesman said.
India and Pakistan have fought two of their three wars over Kashmir, and the disputed Himalayan region has been the focus of an increased flare-up between the two countries since 2019.
On Aug. 5, 2019, Modi’s government took away Jammu & Kashmir state’s special privileges, provoking anger in the region and especially in neighboring Pakistan.
Jammu & Kashmir was until then the only Muslim-majority state in mainly Hindu India.
“The spirit of the SAARC Charter is violated when a member state casts the shadow of its bilateral problems on the multilateral forum for regional cooperation,” Pakistan had said in 2016 in response to India’s pull-out from the summit.
For now, the FO spokesman said, the fate of this year’s SAARC summit ‘hangs in the balance.’

Pakistan’s Hazara women strike back with martial arts

Updated 10 April 2021

Pakistan’s Hazara women strike back with martial arts

  • In Quetta’s two largest martial arts academies, a majority of students are young Hazara women
  • Say karate makes them feel safe and confident amid the violence

Hundreds of Pakistani Hazara women are learning how to deliver side kicks and elbow blows as martial arts booms within the marginalized community.

Hazaras, who are mainly Shia Muslims, have faced decades of sectarian violence in the southwestern city of Quetta, living in two separate enclaves cordoned off by checkpoints and armed guards to protect them.

In this picture taken on January 31, 2021, students of the Hazara community take part in a martial arts training class at the Kazmi International Wushu Academy, in Quetta. (AFP)

Women must also contend with routine harassment from men, with groping commonplace in crowded markets or public transport.

“We can’t stop bomb blasts with karate, but with self-defense, I have learnt to feel confident,” 20-year-old Nargis Batool told AFP.

“Everyone here knows that I am going to the club. Nobody dares say anything to me while I am out.”

In this picture taken on January 31, 2021, female students of the Hazara community warm-up before a martial arts training class at the Kazmi International Wushu Academy, in Quetta. (AFP)

Up to 4,000 people are attending regular classes in more than 25 clubs in Balochistan province, of which Quetta is the capital, according to Ishaq Ali, head of the Balochistan Wushu Kung Fu Association, which oversees the sport.

The city’s two largest academies, which train around 250 people each, told AFP the majority of their students were young Hazara women.

Many of them go on to earn money from the sport, taking part in frequent competitions.

In this picture taken on January 31, 2021, martial arts student Fatima Batool of the Hazara community practices Shaolin Kung Fu during a self-defence martial arts training class, on a mountain on the outskirts of Quetta. (AFP)

It is still unusual for women to play sport in deeply conservative Pakistan where families often forbid it, but martial arts teacher Fida Hussain Kazmi says exceptions are being made.

“In general, women cannot exercise in our society... but for the sake of self-defense and her family, they are being allowed.”

The uptake is also credited to national champions Nargis Hazara and Kulsoom Hazara, who have won medals in international competitions.

In this picture taken on January 31, 2021, students of the Hazara community take part in a martial arts training class at the Kazmi International Wushu Academy, in Quetta. (AFP)

Kazmi says he has trained hundreds of women over the years, after learning the sport from a Chinese master in the eastern city of Lahore.

The 41-year-old offers two hours of training six days a week for 500 rupees ($3) but gives free classes to women who have lost a relative to militant violence.

“The Hazara community is facing many problems... but with karate we can begin to feel safe,” said 18-year-old student Syeda Qubra, whose brother was killed in a bomb blast in 2013.

Some Pakistani journalists find breathing room on YouTube as censorship grows

Updated 10 April 2021

Some Pakistani journalists find breathing room on YouTube as censorship grows

  • Information minister Shibli Faraz says no censorship in Pakistan, press enjoys “complete independence and freedom to report” 
  • In digital age, growing number of Pakistani journalists turning to Internet, particularly YouTube, to tap into platform’s ever-growing audiences

LAHORE: The last news channel renowned Pakistani journalist and TV anchor Najam Sethi worked for received several warnings from the country’s electronic media regulatory authority over the contents of his show, including one in April 2019 saying the show would be banned and the channel’s license revoked if Sethi did not apologize to Prime Minister Imran Khan for spreading “false news” about him. 

The Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority did not specify what news it had found to be false but said Sethi was being served the notice over a complaint filed with PEMRA council of complaints by Prime Minister Imran Khan. 

After Channel 24 was taken off air at least four times between 2019-20, Sethi knew it was time to move his talk show, Sethi Se Sawal, to YouTube where he now has over 250,000 subscribers. 

Explaining why he switched over to YouTube, Sethi told Arab News in a phone interview: “After various TV channels were restrained from hiring me in 2019 because of pressure from the government or establishment.” 

“YouTube is a breath of fresh air to avoid censorship,” he added. 

Indeed, Sethi is among a growing number of Pakistani journalists who have turned to the Internet, particularly to YouTube channels, amid what editors and reporters call a “widening” crackdown on the media. 

Journalists’ complaints range from direct edicts to editors and producers not to air opposition voices or publish news critical of the government or the military; pulling TV stations from transmission or newspapers from circulation; and targeting the advertising revenue of dissenting media. In 2018 alone, over 3,000 journalists and media workers were laid off. Thousands more have been dismissed since, according to the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ).

Muhammad Usman, Director News at Neo News, a mainstream TV channel, said government advertisements to news channels had decreased by more than 50 percent since the government of Khan came into power in 2018. Two other journalists, part of senior management at top-tier news channels, also confirmed this. 

“For mainstream channels a big chunk of their revenue came from government ads,” Usman told Arab News. “Due to cuts of ad revenue, there were layoffs … In the coming days things will only get worse.”

In 2019, responding to criticism over the government reducing ad revenue for the media, then Information Minister Chaudhry Fawad Hussain said Pakistani media houses needed to revamp their revenue models to reduce reliance on government advertising. 

The Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority did not reply to text messages seeking comment for this story. But Information Minister Shibli Faraz denied there was censorship in Pakistan. 

“There is no concept of media censorship in the country, whatsoever,” he told Arab News. “Media in Pakistan enjoys complete independence and freedom to report, be it politics, economy or any other sphere.” 

Journalists like Matiullah Jan disagree. 

On June 4, 2018, then Pakistan military spokesperson Major General Asif Ghafoor, held a press conference and showed a graphic linking a number of prominent journalists to an alleged troll account on Twitter through which he said they had shared anti-state and anti-army propaganda. The journalists featured on the graphic included Jan, then an anchor with broadcaster Waqt News. 

In October that year, Jan left his job amid speculation he was forced to resign over his critical views of the military. The Pakistan army vehemently denies it censors news outlets. 

Shut out from the country’s mainstream media, Jan started a YouTube channel. 

“The reason I started the channel was that at the time I had left Waqt TV; I could not write in any publication,” Jan told Arab News. “There was no job for me.” 

“What we can say on our YouTube channels would be difficult for anyone to say on a TV channel today,” he said. “In this crisis of censorship, YouTube is like a ventilator for us journalists.” 

But censorship is not the only factor pushing journalists toward platforms like YouTube; in the age of digital media, many have launched YouTube channels to tap into the platform’s ever-growing audiences. 

A 2019 profiling study by YouTube showed 73% of Pakistanis who were online watched YouTube every month and 78% of YouTube users in Pakistan said the platform was their first stop when looking for any kind of video. ‘News’ is among the top eight categories of content Pakistanis watch on YouTube, the study said. 

Journalist Imran Shafqat said YouTube had become a viable option for many Pakistani journalists, especially in an environment of censorship, because it gave them access to large audiences. 

That’s why, Shafqat said, he had rented out a small studio in Lahore and started making YouTube videos after the news channel he worked for folded due to financial constraints in 2019. 

“I have no other job right now,” he said. “I am making more money on YouTube than I ever did at any media channel.”

But authorities are beginning to keep a close eye on social media content as well now, journalists say, increasingly using laws such as the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, 2016 (PECA) to crack down on those who had gone online with criticism of the government and the military. 

Sethi also said he had received numerous calls about the content of his YouTube channel, with authorities warning him to “be careful, please.” 

“To which I reply: ‘Sir, when we were talking on mainstream media you pushed us here [to YouTube]. This is not how it will work now.’” 

Pakistan says bodies found of 16 miners missing since 2011

Updated 09 April 2021

Pakistan says bodies found of 16 miners missing since 2011

  • Forensic experts carried out the exhumations after a villager in Kohat district alerted them to what he assumed was a burial site
  • Authorities said police would continue investigating the deaths and try to determine who killed the miners

PESHAWAR: Pakistani police said they found a mass grave on Friday containing the bodies of 16 coal miners who went missing in the country's northwest a decade ago and were believed to be abducted by militants.
The miners went missing in 2011 while on their way to work at a mine in the district of Kohat, about 75 kilometers (45 miles) south of Peshawar, the provincial capital of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province bordering Afghanistan.
No one had claimed to have abducted the miners, but militant groups were active in the area at the time.
Forensic experts carried out the exhumations after a villager in the remote mountainous area alerted them to what he assumed was a burial site, said police official Aleem Khan.
Family members of the victims were able to identify the bodies from the clothes and remains, Khan said, and the remains were handed over to the families for burial. The miners were from the town of Shangla in Swat Valley.
Khan said police would continue investigating the deaths to try to determine who killed the miners.
Although attacks on miners and other laborers are common in the southwestern Balochistan province, such violence is rare elsewhere in Pakistan.
Earlier this year in Balochistan, militants from the Islamic State group abducted and killed 11 coal miners, members of Pakistan's minority Shiites.