May 2, 2011

The village that vanished

People of a remote village of Rangpur near Muzaffargarh have learnt to survive in the absence of aid and government support

By Irfan Mufti

“Gather round, my people, gather round!

And hear the voices of your ancestors in this tale of courage and sacrifice.”

These are the words from a masterpiece of Ann Grifalconi titled, “The Village that Vanished”. Bravery and ingenuity flow from this exciting story of an entire village hiding from slavers -- a story from the heart of Africa -- told by Ann Grifalconi, a great storyteller. It is an inspiring tale of three women’s’ courage and a village that refuses to die.

A similar story was told by a group of women from a remote village of Rangpur near Muzaffargardh that also refused to surrender to the wrath of nature and blunders of rulers aiming to destroy their lives, culture and habitat. Their spirits are high and they are ready to fight back.

Recently, my on-going search for flood affected communities took me to this strange land. After seeing the level of devastation and the history of disasters that hit this town, I was impressed with the determination and resolve of the local people.

A group of courageous women narrated their story while sitting in a make-shift camp near Muzaffargardh. The town of Rangpur, gradually vanishing from the landscape, was badly-hit by flash floods. History of this town goes back to more than 180 years and, as local accounts say, this used to be district headquarters and comprised of cluster of towns inhibiting western side of river Chanab and eastern side of river Indus.

In 1822 with the canal system set up in this area. Later, in early 20th century two main barrages were built. The local population has been hit by floods several times and has faced destruction of both nature and rulers. Floods in recent history (1973, 1976, 1995, 2000, 2010) have drastically changed the landscape of the area and badly altered the geography and population of Rangpur.

In 1938, the construction of Sidhnai Barrage turned out to be a turning point for this town. The barrage provides a link between the rivers Ravi and Chanab, especially to divert water during flood times. Heavy water discharged from river Ravi has been pushing the land mass that comprised of more than 43 villages toward western side of river Chanab. Taunsa Barrage also connects river Chanab with the Indus. Engineering defects in the barrage and canals connecting those have made these people vulnerable to shocks and disasters and threatened their lives in the area they have been living for two centuries.

After repeated incursions of water in the area and administrative adjustments with other tehsils and districts, Rangpur is now only a union council that used to be a district. In 2008, government spent more than Rs2 billion for remodeling of river embankments and canals from Taunsa Barrage. However, the efforts were to save the farmland of few influential families that illegally occupy the land on river bed. Flood protection walls around local villages were ignored.

The selective approach caused damage to lives, houses, farmland, cattle and livelihood of millions of people living around Muzaffargardh, Multan, and D.G. Khan. In Rangpur union council alone, more than 20000 people were directly affected and are still living in temporary shelters.

The engineering blunder, as the locals put it, was the main cause of damage to the population around Taunsa Barrage and Sidhnai barrage. If those engineering defect had been rectified on time, the flood would not have caused such devastation in this area.

Eight months after Rangpur was entirely submerged by floods, people are still in shock. They tell us that it feels as if they are still living in the midst of an ongoing disaster. Nothing has changed in the months except that the winter came and diseases hit them.

“Instead of things getting better, we are now in debt because we had to pay for all the medical treatment our families needed,” say the local people. Certainly, walking through the destroyed village, one observes that things are not very different. The waters haven’t yet receded after eight months. Not only were our crops destroyed, but also all water channels and infrastructure,” add the local farmers.

“In newspapers, the government makes promises to help but on the ground they are putting more pressure on us. They refused to accept their responsibility. But we refuse to live in misery will rebuild our villages once again,” says a women in the group.

The worst is yet to come; however, as villagers would need to cross the river to get to the destroyed land of their ancestors. This is a huge problem since they do not have resources to rebuild their village or recover their lives. There seems to be no hope that resources promised to these people will reach them in near future.

Similar stories are told by flood affectees in other parts of Punjab, Sindh, and Balochistan where the blunders and conscious selection of flood course caused devastation and, ironically, this was done to protect the interests and properties of a few influential.

Natural disasters are a regular phenomenon and difficult to control. However, with human efforts and ingenuity the effects can be mitigated. This lesson has been learnt by many countries that are now well-prepare for such disasters. The recent Tsunami in Japan showed the strength of a society that refused to bow down to the natural disaster that hit them. The system provided them timely support, rescue and relief.

Our people know the art of survival and have strength to rebuild their lives. People have heard false promises, faced broken commitments, and tolerated oppression but have learnt to survive in these circumstances. The bottom line is that people are in spirits and will continue to live despite all odds.

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