Challenges to the leadership

This Article was published in
The Post (August 24, 2010)

By Sahibzada Hussain Mohi-ud-Din Qadri

The devastating floods that continue to sweep through all the four provinces of Pakistan including AJK have left behind stories of miseries, pain and anguish. According to the UN assessment, the total damage done by these floods is more than the combined devastation of the Tsunami in 2004 and earthquake 2005, which rocked KP and AJK. In his urgent dash to Islamabad, UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon held meetings with the Pakistan leadership to review the flood situation and visited the flood affected areas. The UN has already appealed for $460m on emergency basis to cope up with the challenge. It warned that in case of slow response, there would be huge humanitarian crisis as around 20 million people face the prospects of starvation, and outbreak of epidemics. There is no denying the fact that nothing can be done to avert the natural disasters. However, it is the rescue and relief phase by which the damage can be minimised and many precious lives saved. This is the area where the government and its leadership has major role to play. It is an unfortunate commentary on the state of affairs in Pakistan that raging floods exposed the inadequacy, incompetence and lack of vision of the ruling elite with the result that millions of people including women and children were left on their own to fend for themselves. Following points are instructive in this regard:

Firstly, the earthquake 2005 brought this lesson home the hard way that the government needed to put in place a swift and state of the art damage control mechanism with trained personnel to cope up with any natural disaster in future. As the recent tragedy shows that when the floods started inundating cities and villages, the government sat inactive not knowing what to do. The havoc caused by raging floods and monsoon downpour could have been minimised had the state equipped itself with state of the art rapid response mechanism. But the ruling elite whether in the government or opposition, seemed to have different priorities. In the wake of devastating earthquake 2005, our government should have focused on acquiring modern gadgets and training rescue personnel to help people in case natural tragedies struck in future. People are justified in concluding that our political parties and governments are more interested in finding ways and means to perpetuate themselves in power. They give a damn to what happens to people. A country that prides itself on being the seventh nuclear power of the world does not have the equipment to cut stones and trees as was evident during the search operations following the unfortunate air crash of Air Blue plane in the Margalla Hills.

Secondly, National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) is the only federal agency responsible for spearheading the relief and rescue efforts and coordinating the same with the provincial governments. Given the magnitude of the flood disaster, NDMA is simply ill equipped to undertake the operations in a befitting manner. There is a dire need of upgrading the status of this Authority to make it more responsive and efficient to meet the future challenges.

Thirdly, there has been a marked lack of coordination and cooperation between the provincial and federal governments during the recent floods. This resulted in dissipation of energy, duplication of functions and wastage of resources with little output and more miseries for the suffering people.

Fourthly, despite the fact that the MET office had predicted unusual monsoon rains this year, the warning was not taken seriously by the government. Had there been a proper system of information collection, analysis and its dissemination to the relevant quarters, the damage could have been minimised. Perhaps it is not in sync with the mindset of our officialdom which believes in acting once the tragedy strikes.

Fifthly, there is a systematic flaw in the response pattern of the government. It has been well over many months since the local government system was disbanded but no elections have been held so far. The unimaginative and lousy bureaucrats continue to lord over the district governments. In the absence of a sound and efficient local government system duly represented by elected leaders of people from the grassroots, relief and rescue operations became well-nigh difficult. There was little community mobilisation. The problem would become even more critical once the rehabilitation process kicks off. Sixthly, political class once again showed that the welfare and interests of people are none of their priority. The President’s ill-timed and ill-advised trip to the UK and France to launch the political career of his son was symbolic of indifference politicians have for their electorate. Both mainstream parties resorted to ‘flood politics’ and traded blames aimed at deriving political mileage out of the human tragedy of the gigantic proportions. The occasion demanded that political parties of all hues and colours should have forgotten politics and converted their grassroots representation into a huge force of volunteers to help the people stranded in water.

Couple this disdain for the lives of common people with the criminal official inaction in Karachi, Pakistan’s financial hub. While the target killing spurred on by the murder of a local MPA was name of the game, the state was totally absent. Both federal and provincial governments chose not to intervene out of political considerations. The message sent to people was loud and clear that they matter little in the calculations of the political elite for whom capturing power at any and every cost remains the top most priority. Mmedia again played major role in exposing the follies and lack of inaction of the government. Media’s outreach to and reporting from the far-flung and unheard-of areas forced the governments to act reactively. Also contrast abysmal performance of political brigade with the rescue and relief operations carried by the Pakistan’s army, Navy and Air Force and result would be crystal clear.

Our government needs to work out concrete rehabilitation plans that may be presented to the international community. The foreign missions of Pakistan have a huge role to play in awakening the local and expatriate community to the reality of tragedy in the country, thereby urging them to come forward and contribute their bit. Above all, the government needs to deal with the questions of credibility and trust so that the money and donations could be channelised for the benefit of its end-users. The government’s belated decision of establishing a national commission to oversee the spending of aid money is a good step.

At least, it would ensure transparency and proper use of money. Once relief and rescue operations are over, the government needs to be get busy over plugging the visible lacunae in the response system and coming up with a national disaster management policy. The people of Pakistan deserve better.

(The writer is Australia-based PhD candidate)