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The glam makeovers of Pakistan's tractors show how much farmers cherish them

A Belorusian tractor laden with harvested sugarcane idles outside a sugar mill.
Diaa Hadid/NPR
A Belorusian tractor laden with harvested sugarcane idles outside a sugar mill.

Marian Lewyeka's delightful novel, A Short History Of Tractors In Ukrainian spurred NPR correspondent Diaa Hadid to tell another tractor story — the history of Belarusian tractors in Pakistan.

DHOUL RANJHA, Pakistan — There's a cache of Pakistani songs that celebrate the enormous tractors that are ubiquitous throughout the country, like this boppy tune by musician Mehboob Hussain Naaz, "I plough my field with my Russi tractor and then I meet you, my beloved."

These cheery, cherry-red beasts are known as "Russian tractors," which geographically, is close — they're from Russia's neighbor to the west, Belarus, which has been a global powerhouse of tractor production since Soviet days. Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko even gave Russia's Vladimir Putin a tractor for his 70th birthday last October.

These Soviet-designed vehicles are now an integral part of farming in rural Pakistan, where they've made many landowners rich.

The tractors journey east

The tractors' trip to Pakistan starts decades ago to the country's west. The Soviets introduced these tractors to Afghanistan in the 1970s, as Moscow tried to shore up support for the pro-Communist government in Kabul, recalls Mohammad Tahir, an employee of the Afghan ministry of agriculture at the time. The tractors were so versatile that they were deployed in roadwork, agriculture and even defense.

The Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979 at the invitation of its allies in Kabul, and as that country plunged deeper into conflict, the tractors were seized as booty by the mujahedeen, the name used to refer to many of the anti-Soviet Afghan forces. "They were trafficked out of Afghanistan and sold in other countries," Tahir says.

Indeed, it was at around that time — the late '70s and the early '80s — that smugglers began bringing Belarusian tractors into Pakistan, says Pervaiz Amir, an agricultural economist and farmer.

Amir says the demand in Pakistan for Belorusian tractors was so great, smugglers even shipped in tractor spare parts on "donkey back and camel back."

The art of the tractor

More than four decades on, they're a fixture in Pakistan's fields and its culture. And before they're put to field and road, many are given a uniquely Pakistani makeover.

In the market town of Mandi Bahauddin, in a rural part of Pakistan's Punjab province, tradesmen work in side-by-side stalls, banging, welding and painting, transforming the tractors with eye-popping art.

An artisan finely slices reflective stickers into intricate pieces to be assembled into designs on a Belorusian tractor. Side-by-side workshops line the main road of the market town of Mandi Bahauddin in the Pakistani province of the Punjab where tractors are transformed with exuberant designs.
/ Diaa Hadid/NPR
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Diaa Hadid/NPR
An artisan finely slices reflective stickers into intricate pieces to be assembled into designs on a Belorusian tractor. Side-by-side workshops line the main road of the market town of Mandi Bahauddin in the Pakistani province of the Punjab where tractors are transformed with exuberant designs.

One man, Abdul-Qadeer, 43, puts finishing touches of paint on a tractor. It has bright red poles added to the front of the tractor above its headlights. Fluorescent green chains are fixed to its side, with bells attached to the links. Colorful ribbons are tied to the gear stick, which is wrapped in gold tape. Paintings of jars filled with peacock feathers adorn the windows. Reflective stickers were sliced into tiny, intricate geometric patterns and pasted to the window frames. Multicolored, flashing lights dress up the back.

Abdul-Qadeer, who, like many Pakistanis, does not use a last name, says it took about four men a week to pull this tractor together. It was complicated, he says, but his customer's demands were simple: "The owner told me he wants this tractor to be the most beautiful in town," he says. "It should be incomparable."

"My customers like to have beautiful things. They like to show off," he shrugs.

Trucks, tuktuks, buses, and open-backed jeeps are also transformed this way.

A bumpy ride on a painted tractor

To see these tractors in action, we head to nearby fields and meet farmhand Pervais Iqbal, 24. He's driving one adorned with bells that rattle as the tractor trundles over a muddy road. He invites me in for a ride; I perch on an old ammo box that serves as an extra seat. Iqbal pads it with a jacket, and I understand why when he starts plowing a small field. We bounce so hard, I cling to a door handle so I'm not flung against the windscreen.

A few minutes later, Iqbal's churned up the field and beams with pride. "This tractor is powerful. No other tractor compares."

A Belorusian tractor ready for sale at a second-hand tractor market in Mandi Bahauddin, in the Pakistani province of the Punjab.
/ Diaa Hadid/NPR
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Diaa Hadid/NPR
A Belorusian tractor ready for sale at a second-hand tractor market in Mandi Bahauddin, in the Pakistani province of the Punjab.

Down the road, another Belarusian tractor is hitched to a trailer. One man drives it into a sugarcane field. Other workers haul the unwieldy, large sugarcane stalks into the trailer to the beat of music blasting from loudspeakers rigged to the tractor.

Nearby, landowner Wassim Baig, 46, sips chai with his two brothers and watches the men work. The brothers collectively own some 20 acres of land here, and Baig says their Belarusian tractor is the backbone of his prosperity – it makes it possible to profitably sell sugarcane, a lucrative cash crop in Pakistan. "It doesn't get stuck in the mud. You load it up as much as you want, and you can drive it for miles to the sugar refinery."

This dressed-up Soviet-era tractor has turned Baig into a committed capitalist. It's made him rich.

A Belorusian tractor with a trailer trundles through a field of freshly harvested sugarcane, as workers load it with stalks in a field outside the market town of Mandi Bahauddin, in the Pakistani province of the Punjab.
/ Diaa Hadid/NPR
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Diaa Hadid/NPR
A Belorusian tractor with a trailer trundles through a field of freshly harvested sugarcane, as workers load it with stalks in a field outside the market town of Mandi Bahauddin, in the Pakistani province of the Punjab.

How tractors have led to horse extravaganzas

Baig is one of many farmers flush with cash in this area.

In a field behind the village of Dhoul Ranjha, about a half hour's drive through sugarcane fields out of Mandi Bahauddin, farmers attend local horse races.

The wealthiest spectators sit on woven daybeds and sip chai, protected by black-clad men wielding assault rifles. Musicians play tunes around them, hoping for tips. Men hawk roasted chickpeas wrapped in newspaper cones.

An MC announces the names of teams on a loudspeaker as teams of riders in matching baggy pants and shirts, crisp waistcoats and turbans thunder down a muddy track, swinging long poles to knock fixed wooden pegs from the ground, in an ancient game called tent pegging.

Men playing the ancient game of tent-pegging. Many of the riders are landowners and family. Playing the sport, and watching it, is one way farmers flaunt their wealth, much of it they credit for being built on the back of the Belorusian tractor.
/ Diaa Hadid/NPR
/
Diaa Hadid/NPR
Men playing the ancient game of tent-pegging. Many of the riders are landowners and family. Playing the sport, and watching it, is one way farmers flaunt their wealth, much of it they credit for being built on the back of the Belorusian tractor.

Young boys excitedly crowd near the track — so close that they leap out of the way of galloping horses. Many of these riders are landowners or their sons, their fortunes built on the backs of those Belarusian tractors.

One of those riding sons is 25-year-old Chaudry Zahoor.

His family owns 20 acres of land. They plant sugarcane — and harvest it with the aid of their Belarusian tractor. He boasts that his riding team, the Husna Punjab Tent Pegging Club, has won two rounds of races so far. They all wear matching sky-blue vests and turbans. Zahoor's horse is also decked out, draped with ornate silver necklaces studded with blue stones and jangly bells wrapped around its neck.

He pats the horse and laughs, "You should see my tractor – it's even more decorated than the horse."

Chaudry Zahoor, 25, left, poses near his horse after his team, the Husna Punjab Tent Pegging Club, won two rounds. Zahoor is from a landowning family who own a Belorusian tractor to harvest their cash crop, sugar cane.
/ Diaa Hadid/NPR
/
Diaa Hadid/NPR
Chaudry Zahoor, 25, left, poses near his horse after his team, the Husna Punjab Tent Pegging Club, won two rounds. Zahoor is from a landowning family who own a Belorusian tractor to harvest their cash crop, sugar cane.

Additional reporting by Fazelminallah Qazizai in Kabul contributed to this story

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: February 10, 2023 at 9:00 PM PST
A previous version of this story incorrectly described Belarus as Russia's neighbor to the east.
Corrected: February 10, 2023 at 9:00 PM PST
A previous version of this story incorrectly described Belarus as Russia's neighbor to the east.
Diaa Hadid
Diaa Hadid chiefly covers Pakistan and Afghanistan for NPR News. She is based in NPR's bureau in Islamabad. There, Hadid and her team were awarded a Murrow in 2019 for hard news for their story on why abortion rates in Pakistan are among the highest in the world.
Abdul Sattar