By Ameer Bhutto
The UN has described the devastation caused by the floods in Pakistan as one of the greatest disasters in history. The impact of lives lost cannot be assessed by numbers alone and damage to property is bound to soar into unfathomable figures. The plight of the displaced flood victims is harrowing. They are camped out under the blazing sun on elevated roadsides, rooftops or hillocks, surrounded by the raging waters. Some have been stranded in treetops for many days. Food and clean water are in short supply and many go for days without eating. The flood water they are constrained to drink is polluted by, among other things, dead animals because of which gastroenteritis, malaria, diarrhea, hepatitis and skin diseases are rampant. With tens of millions suffering under such subhuman conditions, it is clear that intervention on an unprecedented scale is required otherwise people will start dying from starvation and diseases in numbers that do not bear contemplation.
Rehabilitation of the displaced is a task of mammoth proportions. Since most schools in many towns are full of flood victims, these schools can not reopen until they return to their homes. But most of them have nothing left and nowhere to return to, their homes having been swept away and their limited means of livelihood, in most cases this being the standing crops, having been destroyed. How will they even begin to rebuild their lives? But their lives have to be rebuilt, because otherwise, in the coming days, we will have an army of millions on our hands who will have no choice but to take to crime in order to feed their families. Grain must be imported to make up for the destroyed crops and the damaged roads, railway tracks and power generating units and grid stations must be rebuilt forthwith. The country will suffer the economic after-effects of this calamity for years to come.
It is hard to imagine how this government will cope with the gargantuan task ahead. They got into power by capitalizing on the sympathy vote, but that was the easy part. Now they have to deliver. They were having a hard enough time running the affairs of state under 'normal' conditions. How will they cope now when millions of lives hang in the balance and new effective policies have to be thrashed out and efficiently implemented at break-neck speed and the country has to be effectively rebuilt? During their two and a half year tenure, this government has done nothing to inspire confidence for this great test that lies ahead. If the government jumps into the fray earnestly and is seen to be getting things done, the whole nation will stand behind it. Failure on this count is simply not an option and for that the government will have to bear criticism.
They have already made a bad start, with the Zardari choosing to vacation in Europe as the tragedy unfolds at home and Gilani wandering about cluelessly, not being able to tell the difference between real and fake relief camps. Instead of getting things done, the government is forming new bodies to deal with the disaster because we are now told the NDMC lost its legitimacy years ago. Then why was it allowed to continue operating? Why it was not replaced earlier? Shouldn't someone be held responsible for this blunder? And where are all the useless federal and provincial ministers and advisers? Why are these so-called representatives of the people not camped out on the dikes and barrages and standing in waist deep water to help those who need help? The role of the government is reduced to issuing evacuation calls, which amounts yelling 'run!' at the first sign of danger.
One hates to imagine how bad things might be if it were not for the jawans of the armed forces. They are doing all the work the government should be doing, from providing food and medical supplies to evacuating people. Without their efforts, the death toll could have doubled or even tripled. The Sindh home minister finds an easy submissive target in a public official to scold for not having toilets cleaned, but is unable to stop flood victims from being looted and their abandoned homes being ransacked, let alone stop the incessant carnage in Karachi. What is the government there for?
The institutions and agencies of state are dysfunctional even in conditions of normalcy, let alone in crisis. Governments, over the last few decades, have not only looted the state coffers but have also systematically undermined and eroded the foundations of state structures and institutions to extract political benefits so that now only skeletons remain. Why does the government not have enough doctors, engineers, rescue and relief staff and funds? Because the money allocated for such things is probably sitting in private bank accounts of politicians and public servants. As a result, when the nation needs these institutions of public service to function on a war footing, they can not because they have been drained of their blood.
Compounding the misery is the trust deficit this government is saddled with. This is not a bogey resurrected by the government's opponents or a biased media. It has been pointed out by the UN secretary general himself. Foreign aid is reduced to a trickle in comparison to the flow of funds in the wake of the earthquake in the north because of the stigma of corruption that taints our rulers on the global level. Can there be a greater national disgrace and humiliation than our elected government having to give assurances that it will not loot the aid funds?
Suggestions abound on how to resurrect the country from the ravages of the deluge, none of which are likely to be implemented. The man on the hill cannot even stomach the creation of a transparent flood commission comprised of clean and reputable persons. How can he be expected to suddenly develop the impulse to revolutionize Pakistan overnight? The prevailing cesspit-like atmosphere suits the purposes of this lot. Besides, if Gilani is totally dependant on Zardari for his political survival, then Zardari too is totally dependant on his foreign masters who are guided solely by their own interests. There are wheels within wheels.
The key to salvation, as always, lies in the hands of the people, perhaps now more so than ever before. They are in a state of shock now and are battling to survive against formidable odds. But when the waters recede and the few ministers, who occasionally make photo opportunity appearances, stop doing so and the people realize that they are alone, then what will they do? If they continue to bow and grovel like before, then nothing will change and the country will continue its slide down the slippery slope at a greatly accelerated pace. But if the sleeping Leviathan, the people, awaken, shed all shackles of servitude, confront those who treat them like cattle, and struggle for what is theirs by right, and if civil society joins them in their struggle, then there will be hope for a brighter tomorrow.
Postscript: The brutal murder of two boys in Sialkot, who were stripped half naked, beaten to death then hanged upside down in the street before hundreds of morbid onlookers, including policemen, is an act of unimaginable barbarism that erodes one's faith in mankind. What sort of monsters walk in our midst? As proud as we should be of our nation's generous response to the flood victims, this heinous crime must make us hang our heads in shame.