Sep 4, 2010

Our culture of neglect

Babar Sattar
The writer is a lawyer based in Islamabad.
Over the last 63 years our skewed priorities have perpetuated a culture of neglect in Pakistan that infringes the citizens' right to life, dignity and livelihood as a matter of routine. As a nation we continue to struggle with huge contradictions. We are comfortable with an unsustainable defense budget and dismiss the guns-versus-butter debate as idealistic rambling of bleeding heart liberals. Yet without investing in risk-reduction and disaster management institutions and capabilities, we expect the state to miraculously weave together a social safety net in the aftermath of a disaster. Our collective blunders of the last six decades however do not excuse a heedless government that continues to tread along disaster lane. Amidst the biggest natural disaster of our history, our government has portrayed a unique combination of arrogance, complacency and plain idiocy.
But what amounts to criminal neglect is that the PPP government not only allowed the National Disaster Management Ordinance to lapse but has done absolutely nothing over the last five weeks to bring back to life a national disaster management framework that is crucial to undertaking recovery, relief, rehabilitation and reconstruction efforts. The National Disaster Management Ordinance, promulgated on November 26, 2009, has been a dead law since March 2010. We have seen the prime minister continue to issue instructions to the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA). He has chaired a meeting of the National Disaster Management Commission (NDMC) in August to take stock of the flood situation. And yet these bodies are mere ghosts for they have no legal authority.
NDMA - that has undeservingly come in for a lot of flack - presently has no legal mandate to undertake relief work. Is it pardonable that this crucial organization has been in limbo for over five months now and the executive and the parliament have made no effort to breathe life into it? Our prime minister, poor thing, is consuming precious brain cells thinking up smart ideas such as a yard sale of his designer suits to raise money for flood victims, and no one is telling him that the formal state mechanism established for utilisation of funds for relief and rehabilitation efforts is in a black-hole? Or is keeping the disaster management law in suspension a deliberate measure to try out a personalised cash distribution service run directly by the president and prime minister?
We have had a long and bitter debate on setting up an independent flood commission and yet no political party is campaigning to bring back to life the disaster management law that had put in place a half-decent institutional framework for Pakistan. Why reinvent the wheel instead of reforming and strengthening a structure that exists? The NDMC comprises the prime minister, all relevant federal ministers, chief ministers of all provinces, the chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee and members of civil society. Why can people of integrity not be appointed as representatives of civil society to enable NDMC to perform the role for which an independent flood commission was being conceived? Would such a commission not help allay fears of inequity in distribution of relief funds and goods amongst the federating units?
Why can the NDMA not be granted such autonomy by the law that it is capable of functioning independent of the whims of the ruling elites? Would we not be embroiled in less controversy had such an authority been responsible for oversight of all emergency measures, including the rupture of dikes, duly approved by a representative NDMC as part of a national disaster management plan required to be prepared under the disaster management law? Could we not have come up with a comprehensive national disaster management plan had the NDMC and NDMA been advised by a National Institute of Disaster Management comprising experts from relevant fields that is required to be set-up under this law? And why do we still not have a National Disaster Response Force for providing specialist response in the face of a disaster?
Let us not kid ourselves any longer. We have serious problems and we need serious people to address these. The PPP-led government's credibility is in tatters not just because its leaders are perceived as stinking corrupt but also because they are either making hay or running helter-skelter without any sense of purpose or direction. More photo-ops with the destitute or high-pitched beggary in international forums will do the ruling regime no good. The magnitude of the flood damage is such that cosmetic measures will simply not work. The personal reputation of the ruling political class has become the focus of all attention because there exists no independent and transparent institutional mechanism to undertake risk reduction, relief and recovery work.
Private charitable initiatives largely rely on the personal reputation and integrity of its sponsors, as evident from the Edhi and Imran Khan campaigns. In case of the government, it is the transparency, accountability and efficacy of institutional arrangements put in place for service-delivery that fosters public confidence. And it is not just a question of enticing people to cough up money. How is the money raised going to be utilised in an efficient and effective manner to benefit those who need it? How can ordinary citizens willing to devote their time to volunteer work make a tangible improvement in the lives of disaster victims?
Disaster prevention and management is a science. Notwithstanding the generosity of fellow citizens and the vitality of the civil society, the role of the state (and the government running it) in leading, facilitating and coordinating disaster management cannot be eliminated. Consequently, while the civil society and ordinary citizens have rightly decided to step up and fill the gaping hole created by our defunct system of governance, the need to rebuild state institutions responsible for citizen welfare and service delivery cannot be overestimated.
It has been said before and needs to be reiterated again and again that in our social and legal setting the de facto position is that losses lie where they fall. Citizens are left to their own devices when confronted with physical, social, economic and environmental vulnerabilities. This reality rubbishes the commitments that our Constitution makes to each citizen and needs to be changed. We need sustainable mechanisms to assess, reduce and manage potential hazards and the vulnerabilities of our society and its various segments and build social safety nets that lift up the unfortunate that fall on hard times. Let us start with disaster management.
The first crucial step for the government and thinking members of our parliament is to promulgate the lapsed disaster management law with retrospective effect to enable the NDMC and the NDMA to function as legal entities. The second would be to vest these bodies with the financial and human resources needed to fulfill their mandate. Instead of the president, prime minister, speaker, governors, chief ministers and army administering separate disaster relief funds, all funds raised for flood relief should be vested in the federal and provincial disaster relief funds constituted under the disaster management law and utilised at the federal, provincial and district levels in accordance with needs assessed by the NDMC in consultation with the Council of Common Interest.
Once we are past the imperative of conferring legal authority on the federal, provincial and district management authorities and equipping them with resources, let us study in detail other effective disaster management laws from around the world (such as that of South Africa and Indonesia) and learn from international guidelines and best practices (such as Hyogo framework). And in view of such learning let us amend our law to fill in the gaps that presently exist and ensure that our disaster management framework has at its behest the human expertise, the financial resources, the legal authority and the teeth to save the lives, dignity and livelihoods presently being lost due to sheer human negligence.

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