Saturday December 09, 2023

Dangerous indifference

August 03, 2022

Amidst the sparring of politicians over early elections and other issues, a terrible humanitarian catastrophe is unfolding in several parts of the country, especially in the most impoverished regions of Balochistan and southern Punjab.

The latest monsoon spell has killed over 400 people, damaged around 10,000 houses, and destroyed roads, bridges and small dams.

Heart-wrenching video clips from parts of Balochistan and southern Punjab have saddened every sensitive soul. Social media is abuzz with clips where people are making passionate appeals to the government to extend help to those stranded in the remote areas of Balochistan and southern Punjab. Undoubtedly, these rains have exacerbated the sense of alienation that has already been prevalent in the insurgency-hit region.

The ruling elite is active in projecting its soft image, pretending to show that it is sympathetic to the helpless people of Balochistan. The natural calamity has exposed the utter incompetence of the Balochistan government. Although politicians in the province enjoy immense perks and privileges, when it comes to serving the people their performance turns out to be extremely pathetic. Despite being the richest province in mineral resources, Balochistan’s infrastructure is in shambles. Child mortality and malnourishment has already been haunting millions of people in the region, but with these natural calamities, these issues are likely to get worse.

The government has failed to install disaster management systems to deal with any natural disaster. This is a province where once almost all members of the assembly held portfolios of ministers and advisers. Billions of rupees are said to have been spent on various development projects during the last three decades, but the devastation caused by recent rains indicate that most of this allocated money was not used fairly.

The situation in southern Punjab, which is also considered one of the impoverished regions of the country, is not rosy either. The sense of alienation is already embedded here. Saraiki nationalists claim that the ruling elite of Lahore gives low priority to the region. Like the people of Balochistan, the people of the Saraiki belt have also been hit hard during the recent floods and torrential rains with tens of thousands of people losing their livelihoods and shelters, besides suffering other monetary losses.

This region also speaks volumes about the performance of politicians that have always been in power switching from one political party to another. While feudal families in the region enjoy immense perks and privileges and have big mansions and palatial houses located in posh areas of Lahore and other urban centres, a vast majority of the people in this impoverished region continue to live in inhuman conditions, bereft of even basic amenities. The recent monsoon spell clearly indicates that the region does not have any effective infrastructure to deal with any natural calamity.

Politicians from this region who have made it to the power corridors of Islamabad and Lahore have miserably failed to mitigate the hardships of the people. Large swaths of areas are still in the clutches of so-called spiritual leaders and brutal feudal lords. Not only are these terrible rains haunting the people of this Saraiki belt of Punjab, but the threat of an outbreak of several life-threatening diseases is also looming large on the horizon.

The newly elected chief minister of Punjab, Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi, is more interested in consolidating his power and striking deals with the PTI and other political entities than focusing on the affected areas. No substantial assistance has been extended to the affected people by the Punjab government yet. The region’s infrastructure is in shambles, flying in the face of politicians’ tall claims that they are ever ready to serve the region.

The area was especially neglected during the time when Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif held the Punjab CM position between 2008 and 2018. The Khadim-e-Ala was accused of spending billions of rupees on the development of Lahore, ignoring not only south Punjab but also other areas of the province. Later, the tenure of Usman Buzdar failed to alleviate the suffering of the Saraiki people.

The area is still bereft of modern education institutions, state-of-the-art hospitals and a proper sanitation system. Like Balochistan, it also houses millions of impoverished people. While the region produces a number of agricultural goods that could be used in industries, successive rulers of Lahore, especially Shehbaz Sharif, chose to set up industries in parts of Punjab dominated by the ruling elite of the provincial capital. The setting up of industries could have gone some way in weakening the position of feudal lords by creating a working class there, but no attention was paid to change the mode of production in that region.

Because of the myriad of problems, the sense of alienation is getting stronger in the two regions. The current catastrophe could have been used to remind the people of these two areas that the rest of Pakistan stands behind them. But instead of showing solidarity, politicians and the ruling elite have demonstrated a dangerous indifference to these two important parts of the federation. It is unfortunate that from Imran Khan and Asif Ali Zardari to Fazlur Rehman and Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi, no politician paid a visit to these areas. Even the visit of Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif could not prompt Balochistan authorities to spring into action, expediting relief work. This slow relief process is fuelling anger and fury, which could be exploited by some elements.

Natural calamities augmented a sense of alienation in various parts of the world, especially in countries brimming with sectarian, religious, ethnic and class fault lines. It was a terrible drought in Syria almost a decade ago that led to the implosion of the country, plunging the Arab state into a catastrophic civil war.

Our indifference towards the floods in East Pakistan created a strong sense of rage and fury among the Bengalis, which was later exploited by nationalists. Therefore, it is important that our ruling elite give up this dangerous nonchalance towards federating units and come up with an effective plan to carry out development work in various parts of the country.

The wounds inflicted on the souls of people in southern Punjab and Balochistan need urgent healing and attention. Any dereliction on the part of the state and politicians could be catastrophic. All provincial governments should offer their machinery, including helicopters, to the beleaguered people and extend other material support. We must put an end to this indifference before it is too late.

The writer is a freelance journalist who can be reached at: