The devastation caused by the floods is not a novel experience for people in rural Sindh. Lack of adequate reforms for social uplift has reduced the region to images of staggering poverty and deprivation
Zahoor Junejo, 50, a resident of Pangrio union council in Badin district, 180 kilometres south-east of Karachi, looks devastated.
Life has never been easy for him and fellow villagers on fringes of poverty and marginalisation in this mineral-rich district of the province. The village lacks basic amenities like electricity, cooking gas, safe drinking water, and sewerage. However, the reason for his latest misery is recent torrential rain which turned into a flood and destroyed his and fellow villagers’ possessions.
“We lost everything – homes, crops and our cattle,” says Junejo. “It is like hell has fallen upon us.”
It has been several weeks since heavy rains hit this part of the province, people are still struggling to overcome the shock and deal with the crisis left behind by the floods. According to the Met Department the province experienced the highest rains in many decades.
The losses incurred to the fragile lives, tiny properties and crops were not just because of heavy rains but also water gushing to villages from a breach in a dyke of nearby Left Bank Outfall Drain (LBOD) which wiped out everything.
The chief minister was quite quick in visiting the area. This was followed by visits by Bilawal Bhutto, the party chairman, to the district. However, the breach remained unplugged for many days after these visits as the relevant officials left the sites as soon as the dignitaries departed.
This is not a new experience for the people in rural Sindh where these visits have no effect beyond a mere photo session. “Even the PTI people visited, but so what,” asks Junejo. There has been literally no follow-up, so far, in terms of relief and rehabilitation, leave alone the issues of fixing the responsibility and punishing those whose negligence resulted in multiplying the devastation caused by the rains.
The government of Sindh has declared 20 districts of the province, including Badin, as calamity-hit areas. While big landlords will benefit from this, the announcement brought no relief no many villagers.
“Calamity-hit area? What? Would this announcement feed my children, would it bring back the cow I lost?” asks Bharo Bhel, a resident of a village near Jam Nawaz Ali in Sanghar district. President Alvi visited the area on September 12 and distributed ration bags. Many villagers including Bharo failed to make it to the list of the recipients.
The Sindh government estimates that the rain floods resulted in the death of 236 people and injuries to 86. Crops on over one million acres have been destroyed whereas over 350,000 houses were either completely destroyed or partially damaged. The villagers also lost over 62,000 animals.
These figures would keep circulating at least for some time but the situation on the ground is grimmer than these statistics alone can tell.
If you visit the flood-hit areas of the province even a month after the rains, you would find entire families sitting under the open sky outside damaged houses, naked children crying for food, bare-foot women and men with signs of helplessness obvious on pale faces.
“Calamity-hit area? What? Would this announcement feed my children, would it bring back the cow I lost?” asks Bharo Bhel, resident of a village near Jam Nawaz Ali.
People seem to have been left to themselves as the governance system has not been built to support the affected who have no clue as to whom they should approach for their needs. With the whatever local government institutions were in place gone, DC and SSP offices appear to be the only two government offices to approach for every ordeal.
A visit to a few villages in Badin and Sanghar districts and brief conversations with the affected suggest that these people were already in a bad shape and floods and rains have just exposed them to a wider audience, something that has happened many times before. In 2010-11 for instance, media attention was focused on the wide-scale devastation caused in these areas but nothing changed.
Just carefully watch the ad aired by the government of Sindh with an appeal to support the flood affected in the province. The visuals in terms of the depiction of people and the place are enough to make one wonder if these are from the 21st century? And if this is a province which is rich in agriculture and produces oil, gas and coal.
These facts are supported by the government’s own official statistics. The province has half its population of children underweight and suffering from stunted growth, over 7 million did not go to schools, whether or not there is a flood, 85 percent of the population is deprived of safe drinking water, 90 percent of the province’s villages are without sewerage system.
A majority of the population in rural areas is dependent on agriculture as their sole source of livelihood. An overwhelming majority of these rural workers are haris (peasants) surviving on subsistence farming as the system does not allow for regular payment for work.
An actual relief and rehabilitation approach would mean some genuine and key reforms that can bring about a change in the lives of the poor people enabling them to resist such shocks.
This would obviously include a participatory approach towards infrastructure development and regular communication with villagers. The introduction of an empowered local government system may be a step forward in the right direction, one that must be followed by increasing the level of literacy and education.
Thought must be put into creating sources of livelihood, and employment opportunities that can ensure regular income. If land reforms seem to be a distant dream, we can at least start with a comprehensive livestock support programme and some sort of industry development, otherwise we would have generations surviving on stipend programmes like Ehsas or Benazir Income Support, whatever you name it.
The author is a freelance journalist and human rights activist based in Karachi