Crucial tasks ahead - I.A Rehman August - 19, 2010

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THE flood ravage is going to be Pakistan`s dominant concern for quite some time. The threat of fresh devastation by surging waters has not receded and anxiety is increasing that lack of clarity in policies and firmness in carrying out priority tasks could aggravate the crisis. However severe the blow dealt by the natural calamity the government must not fall prey to self-induced paralysis. The highest priority must of course be given to flood-related activities but the essential tasks of governance must not be ignored. There can be no justification for the dragging of feet over the fate of the Balochistan High Court judges or additional judges at other high courts. Nor can the postponement of the meeting of the 18th Amendment Implementing Commission because of some ministers` non-availability be condoned.

It seems the ministers have been led to believe that their extended travelling across the flood-affected areas brings relief to victims. That is not always the case. Quite often visits by high-ups only cause annoyance to the flood-affected people and raise controversies about their efforts to divert floodwaters from one area to another and add to the costs of their security. It should not be impossible to draw up a plan to ensure that while some ministers do public relationing for the government, others should attend to responsibilities that cannot be abandoned under any circumstances.

That the gigantic task of relief and rehabilitation confronting the country demands a revision of resource allocations is understandable but this is a critical issue and demands highly judicious responses. The government has a deplorable tendency to slash social-sector allocations in any emergency. It is time such inclinations were resisted and reversed. The disappearance of schools lying in the path of angry rivers must not become an excuse to disrupt children`s education. The holding of classes in tents, on any raised ground or in the open will be a demonstration of the will to overcome any calamity. Likewise no cut in healthcare plans should be contemplated. Indeed, the threat of epidemics to children, as underscored by the Unicef, shows the need for increasing the health budget.

The situation demands an imaginatively drawn up programme of austerity cuts. For many years Pakistan has been presenting an example of non-productive expenditure that is utterly indefensible. The plain fact is that the people have been made to sacrifice their basic needs for the sake of an over-extended and extravagant establishment which is also inefficient and corrupt. Therefore, let the axe fall on departments that are redundant and on the privileges of the little nabobs that have proliferated for many years at a high rate.

Every sensible person is convinced that in the present situation Pakistan needs the greatest possible unity of political actors. Thus there was reason to welcome the meeting between Prime Minister Gilani and PML-N chief Nawaz Sharif with the objective of preparing agreed plans for recovering from the flood catastrophe. But the prime minister seems to have been carried away by the prospect of government-opposition cooperation and he promptly announced the formation of a commission of independent, `apolitical` citizens of good reputation to oversee the utilisation of aid resources.

He may regret acting in haste because if the commission idea does not work the government will be left alone to take the blame while Mian Nawaz Sharif will be free to claim credit for advancing a capital idea the establishment could not benefit from.

Unfortunately, the terms of reference of the proposed commission have not been spelt out. If the commission is only going to be an advisory board, without any executive authority, as a news report on Tuesday indicated, it is doubtful if any of the eminent jurists named without prior consultation would be willing to join it.

However, the commission could fill the role of a policymaking authority that may scrutinise damage-assessment reports from the provinces and evolve a fair formula for the distribution of resources. In order to ensure that the commission`s decisions enjoy the fullest possible public backing it may be helpful to include in it, besides the independent jurists already mentioned, both government and opposition representatives.

While the creation and effectiveness of a high-level commission on post-flood reconstruction may reduce Pakistan`s trust deficit in the eyes of the international community it will be a talisman of limited efficacy. The trust deficit that quite a few parties are trying to publicise in narrow partisan interests is a fact. The present government may not be considered capable of doing better than the Musharraf regime`s handling of foreign aid after the 2005 earthquake but it would be a costly folly if the world`s lack of sympathy for Pakistan were to be attributed solely to the identity of its rulers.

The fact is that Pakistan has lost the goodwill of a large part of humankind because of the policies it has been following for decades irrespective of the change of faces under the ceremonial canopy. Anybody claiming to be devoted to Pakistan and its people must carry out a dispassionate appraisal of the national policies, the nature of the polity Pakistan has degenerated into, and the causes it has thoughtlessly held sacrosanct. Without radical changes in the nation`s purpose and the means of realising it the spectre of the trust deficit cannot be laid to rest.

In the ongoing debate on the price Pakistan is paying for its high ranking among corrupt states premium is naturally being placed on the honesty and integrity of the agents of recovery and progress. While honesty is a basic factor of a public functionary`s eligibility it is never a substitute for knowledge and efficiency. Thus Pakistan needs human material that scores high not only for honesty but also in terms of the capacity to deliver, to meet challenges.

However, the country cannot depend wholly on individuals; it must establish a system of governance that can meet the demands of survival in an unfriendly environment and also absorb the shocks caused by the elected representatives` inadequacies and failures. This is a long-term objective but the subject has relevance to the present situation too. There is an urgent need to revamp the institutions of disaster management and create new mechanisms.

Nobody involved with flood relief should forget that the success of this enterprise depends on public participation in it. The affected people should have their say in institutions at all levels — national to district — otherwise no administration will be able to meet the flood of the aggrieved population`s expectations. Official-public joint groups should be formed at the local level so that full advantage can be derived from the local communities` assessment of the problems faced by them and the remedies. The recruitment of the flood affectees to work on civil works in their area will pay big dividends.

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