ANALYSIS: Disaster and the state —Salman Tarik Kureshi - Saturday, October 09, 2010

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Let us not read into this catastrophe any portents of the government being swept away by a tide of public grief and rage. Delightful as such a denouement may be to some, let it be clear that governments do not fall due to natural calamities

The people of Pakistan have been visited by one of the worst natural calamities in our recent history. Some call it the worst ever calamity. But if one thinks only of phenomena as colossal as the ecological disaster that destroyed our Indus Valley ancestors, or the periodic epidemics of smallpox, cholera, plague and TB that have wiped out whole city populations over the millennia, or even something as comparatively recent as the 1935 Balochistan earthquake, a degree of perspective begins to return.

Yes, certainly the scale and impact of the floods have been colossal and the personal tragedies uncountable. The points I want to note in today’s piece are fourfold. The first is that it is easy to blame the government of the day for anything that may have gone wrong. Doubtless, there are numerous errors of omission and even crimes of commission that can be laid at the doorsteps of Messrs Zardari, Gilani, their five chief ministers and ‘n’ number of ministers. But let us get some perspective. Take a subsistence farmer whose home, crops, capital, livestock and everything he owns have been washed away, who has perhaps lost friends or loved ones, and who stands there hungry, homeless and hopeless, with no clue at all of how he is ever going to recover any kind of life. Point a camera at this destitute human being, stick a microphone in his face and ask if the government or any other entity is doing ‘enough’ for him. What can one possibly expect his answer to be?

Let us not read into this catastrophe any portents of the government being swept away by a tide of public grief and rage. Delightful as such a denouement may be to some, let it be clear that governments do not fall due to natural calamities. This is without prejudice to the varying views about the government’s doings or misdoings or whether there should or should not be a change.

Going deeper on the issue of governmental indifference, this was certainly manifest in the complacent just-doing-my-job attitude of the various local bureaucrats and officials. Over the long decades of criminal neglect this country has suffered, the mountain slopes in the catchment areas have been stripped of their binding forest cover, dams and canals have silted up because of inadequate dredging and their water-holding capacities greatly reduced, bunds (embankments) have been built or repaired with substandard material and farms and whole villages have been built up in the Indus flood plain (the katcha), itself denuded of its ancient forests and criss-crossed by ‘private’ canals and bunds. This disaster-waiting-to-happen was exacerbated by the engineers at the Warsak, Tarbela and Mangla Dams, who paid no heed to the Met Department’s repeated warnings of exceptionally heavy rainfall and maintained water levels in the dams at customary heights instead of reducing them in advance of the expected floods.

The next point to note is that countries do not fall apart because of perceived governmental ‘indifference’ towards the victims of a disaster. Some will chortle: “Aha, gotcha! What about the calamitous Bengal cyclone, which led to the dismemberment of Pakistan?” Oh, please, does anyone imagine that the cyclone of 1970 was the principal, or even a major, reason for the overwhelming majority of the inhabitants of West Bengal to become hell-bent on achieving separation from what is now Pakistan? Let us get real. To begin with, let us understand that Pakistan was not a historically recognised entity whose people had enjoyed some kind of sense of common identity over the centuries. As between the western and eastern wings, not even the same languages were spoken or understood, nor did the diet, dress and cultures of the two halves have much in common. Anyhow, the impossible geography of what we fondly called ‘United Pakistan’ — with two near halves of population divided by over a thousand miles of a bigger, more powerful nation — had rendered achievement of national cohesion fundamentally difficult. On top of these difficulties, there was the lopsided Karachi-centric economic structure, in which the dollars earned from the eastern wing’s jute exports was invested into plant, equipment and expensive lifestyles in the western wing. Constitution-making was delayed and warped and effective administrative and executive power was wrested from the political assemblies and concentrated in the hands of a bureaucratic-military establishment that was overwhelmingly Punjabi and Mohajir, with a smattering of Pakhtuns, in its ethnic make-up. Finally, there was the abysmal stupidity of ignoring the ethnic and regional reality of Pakistan and trying to govern it as a unitary state. All of these real causes of Bengal’s secession long pre-dated the 1970 cyclone.

The final point herein is apparent from the observations above that remain pertinent to Pakistan’s later history. The kinds of processes that can lead to a country falling apart are well illustrated. Pakistan remains an ethnically and regionally diverse country and that means that special care will always need to be exercised to ensure that no region feels it is being exploited for the benefit of another region. The case of mineral-rich, gas-producing Balochistan is too obvious to be enlarged upon. The clear necessity of a high degree of provincial autonomy, with positive discrimination in favour of the disadvantaged or under-represented ethnic and regional groups, is only too obvious. There is no question that the survival of the state — whatever the quality of governance at any time — fundamentally requires rigid adherence to constitutional norms, democratic practice and equality of each and every one before the law. These principles have been repeatedly disrupted in Pakistan by a parade of usurping charlatans, posturing as saviours. The list of these begins with a governor general and moves through a major general and a field marshal to three full generals. It is these disruptions, and the mindsets underpinning them, which are the causes of the Pakistani state’s continuing instability, social backwardness and economic failure.

To return to the floods of 2010, one notes that these have already dropped out of the focus of media attention. All that massive destruction, all those immense tragedies, have been overtaken by the pontificating of the last general sent packing by the people of this country. Those of his ilk have been the worst of the disasters faced by this state and its citizens.

The writer is a marketing consultant based in Karachi. He is also a poet

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