We call it the Petaro experience

by Abdullah Khadim Hussain

Published in the Daily DAWN, October, 2001

Mr. Abdullah Khadim Hussain was one of the first five members of the teaching staff inducted into Cadet College Petaro in 1957. He now lives in Karachi. Currently, he is the President of an NGO called Social Sector Support Service, located at A-7 Darakhshan Villas, DHA Phase 6, Karachi, tel: (021) 584-3590, mobile: (0333) 214-7674, email: tau@cubexs.net.pk

ABOUT 30 kilometers from Hyderabad on the right bank of Indus, located on the Kotri-Dadu highway is the premier educational institution of Sindh, the Cadet College, Petaro. It is now 44 years old, has about 700 cadets with an annual intake capacity of about 150 cadets.

During the forty-four years of its existence it has, all the way along, symbolized high academic merit, an exemplary standard of discipline, and most importantly, devotion to duty coupled with commitment to the national cause. The institution has produced high-level personnel for the armed forces and civil departments.

A recent worthwhile initiative by a group of well-off Petarians, from far off places within the country and abroad, assembled at Petaro from September 7 to 9, 2001, met each other, walked around the campus, interacted with the students, and provided a substantial financial support to the institution for different purposes like academic enrichment programmes, recreational activities, etc. We have heard of Harvard and Columbia graduates supporting their institution, also about LUMS graduates providing scholarships and grants to LUMS. But this is for the first time in Sindh that the alumni of an institution have gone back to it with the specific purpose of supporting it.

This article aims to capture the creation of this great institution, what went into making it, what it is, and how the courage and commitment helped in its initial establishment and how dedicated management influenced the faculty and students in the training program for more than four decades.

It was a team of five inexperienced young teachers who were suddenly called upon to establish Cadet College. Since there was no building at Petaro at the time, the college classes were initially arranged in borrowed buildings at Mirpurkhas. The time allowed for its establishment was a month-and-a-half in which, books, uniforms, crockery and cutlery had to be bought so that the college starts to function.

Whenever its practicability was questioned, the simple and firm answer was that Sindh needed a Cadet College. With this motive a cadet college was established in August 1957. As there was no building at Petaro the college was started at Mirpurkhas in temporary buildings. Equipment like furniture, books, stationary, crockery, cutlery, and uniforms were bought. The staff was hired. The entire operation was undertaken on war footing. Since no one knew what a cadet college was, the Vice Principal of Cadet College Hasan Abdal, was flown to Mirpurkhas to supervise operations, as well as to brief the new staff about the Cadet College objectives.

Days passed in doings things, modifying and clearing up the premises, buying things etc. At last, 30 students were selected for the first entry and on August 25,1957 the college started functioning. It stayed at its Mirpurkhas campus for two years.

In May 1958, Col. Coombes, its first Principal, joined. With his small team of teachers, he visited Petaro, which was an abandoned runway, built during the Second World War. There was nothing else, except a very small village of Petaro with 10-15 families located about 6 kilometers from the airstrip.

In August 1959, with the road link between Hyderabad and Petaro broken because of floods, heavy rains and hurricanes hindering our way, we did move to the new campus in unfinished buildings, with uncertain water supply and locally generated electricity.

This was a miracle achieved because of the devotion, courage and commitment of two individuals, Allah Bux Nizamani, the Provincial Director of Public Instruction, and Col. J.H.H Coombes, the Principal. Miracles happen and Cadet College, Petaro, is a living example of it. The interesting and perhaps unintended out come of this, with very far- reaching impact, was that with 6 or 7 faculty members and the 60 odd cadets between the ages of 11 and 13 years who were going through this strange but very fascinating phenomena, a huge institution of Petaro rose out of the dust. The real training, besides that which occurred in the class rooms, the playground, the parade ground, was the adamant “obstinate optimism” to live, survive and grow in the midst of all these apparently disastrous circumstances. This, briefly, is the Petaro experience.

In 1959, Petaro was a flat plateau without any vegetation, not even a blade of grass. The wind, especially in the evenings, blew very harsh and hard, for there were no trees to obstruct it. The campus was water-locked because of the floodwater, which had washed away the road and was threatening to wash away the railway line as well. There was no transport link with Hyderabad due to non-existence of road facilities. The only link was a contractor’s “four wheel drive” pick-up which had to go almost daily to Hyderabad to get food supplies, vegetables, meat, bread etc. The electricity generators used to be turned off at 9.00pm, after which Petaro plunged into pitch darkness. It was generally safer to stay in hostel rooms on these dark nights because the place was rampant with snakes and scorpions.

The food, in spite of all efforts to maintain quality, was, at best, of “acceptable quality” but generally very poor and sometime insufficient also. The kitchen staff found it very difficult to work in these difficult and challenging circumstances. Therefore, they usually left their jobs and at times one or two cadets were called in the kitchen to cook and to serve food in the dining hall. Initially, there was no doctor, so if a cadet was seriously sick he was taken to Hyderabad in the pick-up which went daily to Hyderabad.

Besides this, there were a few wonderful things about the place; the beautiful moonlit nights, and the cool, fresh breeze, but the most wonderful occurrence was the daily routine starting from the morning parade down to school classes and games.

The first three years were very difficult, almost impossible. But later things started to settle.

The Petaro experience consists of four elements. One, the determination, courage and charisma to achieve what you have set yourself to achieve, however difficult and impossible it may appear. This was how Petaro came into being. Two, the wonderful experience of seeing an institution rising out of the dust. Three, to do your duty under all adversities and against all temptations. Four, the companionship and affinity that is born out of being together, eating the same food, facing the same problems, sharing the same pleasures.