Is there a way out?

ANALYSIS: Is there a way out? —Dr Hasan-Askari Rizvi

What has happened in Pakistan during the last two weeks represents the abysmal failure of the political class to first quickly recognise the dimensions of the tragedy and then come forward with ways and means to cope with it

The floods have increased Pakistan’s vulnerabilities at a time when it is already combating Islamic extremism and terrorism that threatens the Pakistani state and society. The floodwater will start receding in a week but the post-flood human tragedy is expected to haunt Pakistan for a long time.

The most challenging task will be rehabilitation and reconstruction of the flood-affected people and areas. If this work is not done in a systematic, efficient and transparent manner, it will produce catastrophic consequences not only for the present PPP-led federal government but also for the future of the current civilian political arrangements.

The opposition political parties may be getting grudging satisfaction out of the federal government’s current predicament. The opposition’s performance is equally disappointing because they did not come out quickly for helping the distressed people. What has happened in Pakistan during the last two weeks represents the abysmal failure of the political class to first quickly recognise the dimensions of the tragedy and then come forward with ways and means to cope with it.

Most political parties could not get out of their narrow partisan mindset and the PML-N took the lead in resorting to political attacks on the federal government. Every visit to the flood-affected areas by Nawaz Sharif included an outburst against the federal government. President Asif Ali Zardari did not demonstrate political acumen by undertaking a trip to France and the UK that provided a good opportunity to the opposition to take a swipe at him and the PPP. The whole controversy was a waste of time, both for the opposition and the government, shifting the focus away from the tragedy. One wonders if the political leaders in power and in opposition would ever develop the capacity to work together in a situation of national calamity.

The Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) limited its relief work to Sindh. The Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) and Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD) undertook limited relief work in some areas. A few other Islamic parties like the Jamaat-e-Ahle Hadith, Khaksar Tehrik and some other Islamic charities issued appeals for funds and goods for flood-affected people. They were not seen anywhere in the flood affected areas in the first two weeks. The Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) is not involved in rescue and relief operations.

Pakistan’s civilian federal and provincial administration responded to the challenge in its traditionally lethargic manner. It took the administration as well the federal and provincial cabinets several days to realise that they were facing a massive tragedy.

The federal and provincial governments and the bureaucracy were not prepared to deal with the emergency. The new bureaucratic set up, the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), did not perform any better. They found it difficult to coordinate the relief work and pull together resources quickly for that purpose. The most unfortunate fact is that no one in the political leadership (federal and provincial), the top bureaucracy and the NDMA is willing to take the blame for the poor initial response and inefficient management of the relief work.

The federal government made the right decision to summon the military for rescue and relief work. The three services — army, navy and air force — came forward to help. The army, being the principal service, took the lead and employed its discipline, professional skills, technical know-how and the relevant equipment to cope with the challenge, and won goodwill at a societal level.

The above criticism aims at making the political leaders and the administrators conscious of the public perception of their performance and that they should not repeat these mistakes when they undertake post-flood rehabilitation and reconstruction work. Given the tradition of corruption and nepotism in the government and outside, if the rulers and administrators do not earnestly and transparently work for rehabilitation and reconstruction, Pakistan will face a greater disaster than the floods.

Pakistan is expected to face food shortages in 2011. Various important crops like rice, cotton, vegetables and fruits have been destroyed in the flood-affected areas. It is not clear as yet if the land will be ready for sowing new crops in the coming fall. If wheat is not available in April-May 2011 in sufficient quantity, the consequences are going to be extremely troubling. Agriculture-related industries and businesses will be adversely affected if the crops are not available. The loss of livestock means that the prices of meat and dairy products will skyrocket.

The prices of food items have already gone up. If there are shortages of rice and wheat flour next year, the shortage of essential commodities and price hike will plunge Pakistan into a food crisis. The experience of the last two-three years suggests that the government lacks the capacity to manage supplies and control prices. This means that the traders and profiteers will cash in on the agony and sufferings of the people and the government would look away.

There is a need to depoliticise the administration at the district level. Nowadays, good postings depend on loyalty to the chief minister and his close associates. This has undermined professionalism and commitment to service among civil servants who are more interested in getting into the good books of the chief minister and his close associates. This is one reason that the district level administration has mostly performed poorly in the course of the floods, although one can always find some good example by way of exception. The rehabilitation and reconstruction work should be undertaken with the cooperation of the communities and their elected representatives. The priority should be the restoration of roads, bridges and communication network.

Restore professionalism in the bureaucracy at the district level and give them special training for disaster management. Some relief material like tents, boats, plastic sheets, and earthmoving equipment must always be available with the district administration. Civil defence department should be reinvigorated with sufficient training in first aid and rescue. Fire brigade and medical aid facilities should be strengthened. High schools should be provided with funds to re-launch the Boy Scout and Girl Guide schemes.

The long-term strategies should also include a dispassionate thinking regarding water management. Do not talk of the Kalabagh Dam because it has become an emotional issue both for its supporters and opponents. Think of building small or medium size water reservoirs in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Punjab and Sindh for storing monsoon rainwater. As climatic changes are taking place at a fast pace, new strategies for water management are needed. Pakistan’s prospects for salvaging its troubled economy and coping with terrorism depend to a great extent on addressing the post-flood issues.

Dr Hasan-Askari Rizvi is a political and defence analyst

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