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Opinion

January 30, 2011

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Wretched of the earth

Wretched of the earth
In the midst of all these flaming headlines about conflicts and disorder as well as revolutionary conflagrations, I was shocked by one that relates to a forlorn territory far from the reach of television cameras and satellite beams. I read it on Thursday on The Guardian website.
And what was this headline? It said: “Pakistan flood crisis as bad as African famines, UN says”. There was a sub-heading: “Unicef survey shows almost a quarter of children under five are malnourished in Sindh province six months after floods”.
Incidentally, the report was sent by Declan Walsh, the Pakistan correspondent of The Guardian and it noted that a “humanitarian crisis of epic proportions” is unfolding in flood-hit areas of southern Pakistan where malnutrition rates rival those of African countries affected by famine, according to the United Nations.
It quotes deputy head of Unicef in Pakistan, Karen Allen, as saying: “I haven’t seen malnutrition this bad since the worst of the famine in Ethiopia, Darfur and Chad. It’s shockingly bad”. Dorothy Blane of Concern said: “This sort of thing doesn’t happen overnight. It indicates deep, slow-grinding poverty”.
Though there have been some other news items about the Unicef survey, it was this report that highlighted a situation that many of us are vaguely aware of. I had some premonition of this disaster on the basis of eye-witness accounts I had from my wife, Sadiqa, who works with marginalised communities in some rural areas of Sindh in her association with an NGO that mainly promotes education of girls. But the floods came as a massive distraction, necessitating urgent attention to relief operations.
Last week, Sadiqa had an occasion to visit a number of flood-affected villages of Shahdad Kot near Larkana. What she told me about the state of poverty and helplessness of the people was unbelievable. I was particularly surprised because I had thought that the floods had really brought into focus the monumental deprivations of the landless farmers of the area and that it would certainly oblige the provincial officials and the local feudal lords to come to the rescue of their own people.
This expectation was also based on the fact that the floods had generated unprecedented private and organisational assistance, including from international donors. I had expressed my optimism that the entire experience would be instructive for those who exercise their power in the affected areas. In fact, I was waiting for some indications of a progressive social change in rural Sindh.
Alas, that silver lining was swallowed up by the enveloping darkness. One wonders: what would it take to rouse our obscenely rich rulers from their deep slumber? As for the accounts of poverty and utter helplessness of the farmers of Shahdad Kot’s villages, you should know that this is the constituency of the leadership of the Pakistan People’s Party. We know about the spoils system and how activists, when the PPP is in power, grapple for privileges. Be that as it may, the dreary lives of the poor in Sindh’s villages have not really changed.
This does not, however, mean that the level of poverty across the land is not equally depressing. Indeed, the central theme of the national discourse is the plight of the citizens of Pakistan. They are afflicted not just by poverty but also by social injustice and insecurity. Mere survival for millions and millions of them has become an awful challenge and they do not seem to have sufficient resources, including in an emotional or intellectual context, to meet this challenge.
Meanwhile, our electronic media is awash with other emergencies that are political and administrative in nature. It does have some justification for dealing with the ‘breaking news’ that unfailingly keeps popping up. Take, for instance, the gruesome incident that took place in Lahore on Thursday in which a functionary of the US Consulate shot and killed two young men who were alleged to have pointed a gun at him. A third was crushed to death by a vehicle that came to rescue the American citizen.
This dramatic episode in the present highly-charged environment is bound to raise a storm and its implications are likely to be grave. Already, popular emotions about America are very strong, sometimes lapsing into irrational excitement. This, surely, is a serious matter and we can expect a lot of protest and angry outbursts. We do not know if this may lead to any serious consequences, given the crises that are brewing at different levels.
At one level, stories of corruption involving billions or rupees are unfolding at a baffling pace. The political situation, in spite of the respite that is provided by Nawaz Sharif’s deadline to the government to initiate action on his 10-point agenda, remains alarming. Some observers see the economy tottering at the edge of a collapse.
Finally, the tumult in Egypt during this weekend, as a response to the overthrow of the Tunisian regime after popular revolt, has become a global focus. The entire Arab world is gripped by unrest and dark apprehensions. Would this surge of turbulence in the Arab world also affect the mood in other Muslim countries, including Pakistan? Well, Pakistan is disturbed for its own reasons and we have had stray incidents of protests on our streets.
Against this blazing perspective, where do the poor of some parts of Sindh, who are faced with the prospect of a famine, really belong? Do we have time to think about them? Are some emergency steps in the offing to prevent this crisis from becoming a major catastrophe?
This brings me back to The Guardian report. It said that the Unicef survey was done in early November but “Pakistan’s government, reluctant to publish the figures, delayed their publication, according to several aid officials”. We are told that figures for southern Punjab, which was also badly hit by the floods, have yet to be finalised.
The report said: “Sindh is Pakistan’s third largest province and home to some of the deepest inequalities. Karachi is a bustling business hub of more than 16 million people. But in the countryside, feudal traditions are strong, illiteracy is rife and government services are often non-existent”.
Ah, but do we need a Unicef survey or foreign aid workers to discover a reality that has always been present to us? Besides, it will never be enough to provide immediate relief to the affected people and to feed them and give them shelter. They deserve to lead a life of dignity and promise.
Let me quote the last two sentences of the report: “A majority of children in flood-affected areas suffer from anxiety, depression and phobias, according to a study by Save the Children. Of the children surveyed, 70 per cent expressed fear of ‘people, water, open spaces and darkness’, it found”.

The writer is a staff member. Email: [email protected]
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