Unfortunately the Phoenix does not rise from the ashes in the real world

ROVER’S DIARY: Politics of floods and meeting the challenge —Babar Ayaz

Two major reasons for the lack of trust in the government in developing economic polities are: the level of corruption is higher than the developed countries, and there is a demand and supply gap when it comes to the people’s aspiration level and what a government can deliver

Unfortunately the Phoenix does not rise from the ashes in the real world, although all major mythologies — Greek, Persian, Arabian, Chinese and Egyptian — claim so. And sadly I do not see the Pakistani nation rising from the flood-submerged plains of the four provinces to face the challenge of the colossal calamity. Already, political point scoring and bickering has started although everybody is claiming that they are not politicking.

But once again the silver lining is the response of the people from the non-flood affected cities and towns. The reaction was indeed slow because as UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon said, “The flood is a slow-motion catastrophe — one that builds over time. And it is far from over.” But once the Pakistani electronic media moved from their insatiable appetite for politics to focus on the floods, the people could fathom the enormity of the calamity. Their strong philanthropic trait has woken up.

On the political front the meeting between Prime Minister Gilani and Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) leader Nawaz Sharif was generally welcomed when both declared that this was not the time for political point scoring. The prime minister readily accepted Nawaz Sharif’s suggestion to set-up an independent flood relief commission headed by individuals who have a high credibility to supervise the relief and rehabilitation task. The suggestion was on the premise that the donors and people do not have much trust on the transparent use of flood relief funds. I believe that Nawaz Sharif did not do this purposely to trap the government and by implication establish that people have no confidence in the government. But there is also no doubt that the prime minister fell for this supposedly unintended trap. The sharp political cookies in his party, I am told, warned him of the implications.

However, there is no denying the fact that a trust deficit between the people and the government exists. From a young 25-year-old professional to the corporate chiefs of local and foreign big business, I hear that they want to donate but not through the government agencies. All said the same thing: we do not trust our donations would actually reach the people affected by the floods. So most have either supported individual initiatives or reputed non-governmental organisations (NGO).

Taking a broader perspective of the issue of lack of trust in the government, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) leadership should not feel lonely. The fact of the matter is that in developing democracies the people’s trust in their respective governments is low. This can be confirmed from a number of surveys done by international agencies and papers written by eminent political scientists like Larry Diamond and Richard Gunther. Two major reasons for the lack of trust in the government in developing economic polities are: the level of corruption is higher than the developed countries, and there is a demand and supply gap when it comes to the people’s aspiration level and what a government can deliver. In this age of information, people’s inspirations in less developed countries are almost the same as that of their counterparts living in rich developed economies. As a matter of fact, the people had expressed little trust in the Bush administration when New Orleans was hit by hurricane Katrina and more recently when Obama was put on the mat for the BP oil spill disaster.

This does not mean that the government should be complacent; on the contrary, this situation gives an opportunity to the government to prove its critics wrong. The decision to make an oversight committee to supervise the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) was a wise move. There was no need to create yet another new institution. Yes, the NDMA’s performance has been poor, but that does not justify creation of something new from scratch. The need to provide relief is urgent; there is no time for building new institutions. The government should immediately re-promulgate the NDMA Ordinance, since a session of parliament is not possible when the elected representatives are back in their constituencies.

The oversight committee should not only have people of high integrity, they should also have expertise in management to guide the NDMA and establish a transparent communication strategy. It is only through effective communication that the perception about an institution can be changed and the trust of the people regained. Induction of efficient and transparent management is the issue, not duplicating of existing organisations. Politicians and media critics are unfortunately widening the trust gap, instead of giving a helping hand. They are also playing a dangerous game by projecting the army’s efforts as an extra-governmental effort.

The second more dangerous aspect of the politics of floods is the intra and inter-provincial disputes about where breaches should have been made to ease the pressure on the barrages and save major cities. Already a dispute has started between Sindh and Balochistan over making a difficult choice of saving the largely populated Jacobabad or less populated Jaffarabad. An international political dimension has been added here by the allegations that the whole town of Jaffarabad was sacrificed to save the US-managed Shahbaz Air Base. And boy! We love US-bashing, while forgetting that it is by far the largest donor of flood relief. Within Sindh the issue of breaches has become contentious because each elected representative wanted to save his land and constituency disregarding the technical requirements. In Punjab, the southern areas have been hit hard, which would further fuel the separate province demand in the post-flood period.

Another contentious issue that has started resurfacing is the demand for building the Kalabagh Dam (KBD). The supporters of the KBD tend to forget that this flood has happened once in a century. There have been floods, but of lesser magnitude in the last three decades. There is not much water available for huge dams, particularly after the work has started on the less controversial Bhasha Dam. In any case India is building dams for producing electricity on the rivers allocated to Pakistan as provided in the Indus Water Treaty. Pakistan should join in on this venture with them and benefit, instead of fighting over the rivers.

In these disturbing times the signs of galvanising the nation to face the ongoing crisis and the post-flood rehabilitation and reconstruction task are still cloudy. Let us hope when the monsoon clouds thin out, the Pakistani phoenix proves me wrong and it rises from the rivers of the country. Amen!

The writer can be reached at ayazbabar@gmail.com

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