Sunday June 04, 2023

Learning from catastrophes

August 31, 2022

Monsoon rains and floods continue to wreak havoc across the country. More than 1,000 lives have been lost and over 1,500 people wounded in the calamity that saw the destruction of bridges, small dams, schools, hospitals besides the inundation of millions of acres of land.

The recent floods have not only exposed the flawed development models but also put a question mark over the tall claims of the ruling elite that pretends to be altruistic.

The heart-wrenching scenes of five young men making desperate appeals for help in a town of Khyber Pukhtunkhwa (KP) and the images of children swept away by merciless waves of floods in Balochistan have moved every sensitive person. The grief of those who saw their loved ones drowning in front of their eyes as they called authorities for help is unimaginable.

Such tragic incidents must have inflicted deep wounds in the hearts of those who lost their relatives. This tragic loss has become an integral part of their life, which will make them heartbroken every time they think about their loved ones.

What is even more unfortunate is the fact that these flood victims do not seem to have respite any time soon. The spectre of diseases, which are likely to break out in several parts of the country, is haunting millions of flood victims. Poor hygienic conditions in camps and temporary shelters are also multiplying their misery. It seems that it will take years, or maybe decades, for these people to rebuild their shattered lives.

But far away from the grief and misery of these unfortunate people is a ruling class which is busy enjoying its carefree life. The ‘champion of change’, whose party is ruling four out of the six regions that have been devastated by floods and torrential rains, has nothing to do except repeating the foreign conspiracy allegations. His teams in Punjab, KP, Gilgit-Baltistan (GB) and Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK) seem to have a hectic schedule that forces them to visit every place except the areas that are inundated because of the incessant downpours and overflowing rivers.

These people are defending the logic of the ‘revolutionary leader’, who unabashedly asserted that he would hold public gatherings even in the middle of war. The pious leader firmly believes that his struggle for real independence will immediately tame the furious waves of the River Indus, warding off the danger posed to Nowshera and parts of KP. Imran Khan has a dogged determination to prove that if a leader is clad in shalwar qameez, repeats the mantra of corruption and addresses mammoth public gatherings, the misery of flood-affected people would evaporate within no time. Such an approach will immensely help rebuild destroyed houses, drain inundated land, repair damaged bridges and restore extirpated roads. Therefore, he thinks it is justified to squander billions of rupees on larger-than-life billboards, thousands of panaflex and giant screens to propagate the message of the modern emancipator.

These floods have also exposed the performance of the party that claims to be the champion of the general will. Its pathetic handling of the situation in Sindh has infuriated tens of thousands people who are struggling to get relief. The way the party’s feudal lords treated grief-stricken people has unleashed a torrent of criticism. Video clips of a politician distributing Rs50 among the affected have prompted many to criticize the party that has been ruling over the province for over a decade now.

In the last few days, we saw how angry mobs surrounded provincial ministers who went to flood-affected areas for photo sessions, questioning these modern barons over the lacklustre response of the provincial government. Instead of responding to these questions, some of these government’s representatives misbehaved with the affectees.

Unfortunately, these members of the ruling elite, whether they are from the PTI, the PPP or the PML-N, will continue fooling the people unless the people rise against them demanding a model of development that does not benefit just a few companies, contractors and politicians but the vast majority of the country. From Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif to PPP Chairperson Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, all are trying to give the impression that they really care about the plight of the people, but, in reality, no politician is ready to take responsibility for the loss of over 1,000 lives.

Several reports suggest that the government knew about the severity of the rains. However, the measures it took were not enough to ward off the losses that have had devastating effects on the lives of millions of people.

Many argue that the ruling elite is responsible for the destruction and devastation caused by the floods and torrential rains. The ruling class failed to make concrete efforts to clear off waterways, which could have minimized losses to a great extent. In 2019 the government was informed that the existing waterways were so broad decades ago that one million cusecs water could easily pass through them but their size has shrunk now because of encroachment and unplanned development. Now only 100,000 cusecs of water can pass through these waterways. Rivers have been encroached upon by the builder mafia, and even sewerage drains have not been spared.

What has been done cannot be undone, but the government can at least identify the waterways that are occupied by various vested interests and make efforts to clear the same so that future floods and rains do not turn out to be as devastating as the current ones. The timber mafia, whose greed for profit has also complicated the situation, should also be reined in.

As far as relief efforts are concerned, it is not the federal body or the provincial disaster management that should be handling these activities across the country. Instead, the local bodies should be tasked to deal with the situation. But unfortunately, our politicians have unjustified contempt for devolution of powers.

The PPP which takes credit for the 18th Amendment is not ready to transfer powers to districts, towns and union councils. In Sindh it has effectively defanged local government institutions, concentrating all powers in the hands of the provincial government.

Imran Khan had promised to devolve such powers, arguing that legislators should not be given any development funds at all as local governments were responsible for taking care of such development work, but he opened the gates of the national exchequer for elected parliamentarians, showering billions of rupees to carry out uplift projects.

The visits of Prime Minister Sharif and Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari are commendable, but there is no point in squandering precious state resources on VIP movements, aerial visits and advertisement campaigns that are meant to project politicians as messiahs. If our politicians are really sincere in preventing precious losses in the future, they must purge disaster bodies of non-professionals, clear all waterways and empower local bodies.

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