COMMENT: Nature stalks the land —Zafar Hilaly - Friday, August 20, 2010

Source :\08\20\story_20-8-2010_pg3_2

Sadly, not even a national calamity disturbs the routine of the rich. Life continues as if nothing has happened. Even as harrowing scenes of their fellow countrymen fighting for scraps were being shown on a large screen, the rich continued stuffing their mouths with fistfuls of meat

About 40 of the approximately 100 million people who live on the margins of existence within 20 miles of either bank of the Indus have just had that margin wiped out. The irregular side of nature, the discontinuous and erratic side, is largely responsible. Of course, our guardians too must share the blame. Knowing that mass loss of life was likely during a heavy monsoon, protecting the population should have been their foremost priority. But the failure to raise and strengthen bunds, unchecked demographic growth leading to the degradation of the environment, the absence of appropriate healthcare and medicinal supplies, the strangulation of civil and economic infrastructure all coalesced to leave the victim unguarded and the wrecker to rage unhindered.

Nature is a discriminating foe. When flooding is its chosen weapon it targets the weak, the slow-footed and the poor, especially those who, for want of an alternative refuge, are loath to leave their homes. It stalks and overwhelms its prey mostly in the valleys, gorges and riverbeds of Pakistan. Hence, it was there that the greatest precautions should have been taken. But, instead, the little time that our guardians could spare from the adornment of their bank balances they devoted to the neglect of their duties.

Having wreaked its havoc, nature will depart the scene, leaving the detritus of its furious spree comprising the dead, including livestock, disease, hunger and the rebuilding and resettlement work, to the state.

“The worth of the state,” said John Stuart Mill, “is in the long run the worth of the individuals composing it.” If we accept the proposition that the state and government are for all practical purposes one and the same, then, by Mill’s yardstick, this government is worthless, so great is the ill repute and disdain among the public for those that compose it.

So what of the hope of succour that so many cling to in these desperate times? Where is that to come from if the government is not capable of delivering? Happily, a massive effort is underway by innumerable NGOs, charities, private individuals and foreign governments to fill the vacuum. And the reason is clear. People fear that in this kleptocracy, politicians and bureaucrats will steal the very teeth out of their mouths given half a chance, what to speak of the donated funds.

Usually, after a catastrophe, those fortunate enough to have escaped the destruction respond generously to the needs of their fellow citizens. And it is not only the rich who contribute, others also pitch in. To their everlasting credit, even cash-strapped Pakistanis donated generously after the 2005 earthquake. Indeed, such was the scale of the sacrifices made by some of them that it brought tears to one’s eyes and filled the heart with pride. On the other hand, there were examples of niggardliness, which make the blood boil, especially by some of the rich who donated virtually nothing relative to their wealth.

Sadly, not even a national calamity disturbs the routine of the rich. Life continues as if nothing has happened. For instance, there was not a single cancellation at the iftar dinner offered by a five star hotel in Karachi costing Rs 1,300 per head as a token of solidarity with the flood victims. Even as harrowing scenes of their fellow countrymen fighting for scraps were being shown on a large screen, the rich continued stuffing their mouths with fistfuls of meat. The leftovers alone, a waiter remarked, would have amounted to a feast for the flood affected. Such cold, untroubled, stone-heartedness never ceases to amaze. To the wealthy, it matters not that bread is so dear and the flesh and blood of their countrymen so cheap.

Benjamin Disraeli described the gulf that separates the rich and the poor thus: “The rich and the poor are two nations; between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets; who are formed by a different breeding, are fed by a different food, are ordered by different manners, and are not governed by the same laws.” His words uttered 145 years ago are as true today as they were then.

Nailing the rich and getting them to fork out must surely be a priority when it comes to garnering funds to tide over a national calamity. A 10 percent surcharge on imported goods and on those whose income exceeds Rs 300,000 per annum, which is being considered by the government, is piffle. All it will do is enable the rich to salve their consciences and get away with paying what, for them, is a trifling amount. Instead, every house owner in a posh area should be asked to fork out several lakhs in taxes and anyone paying a rent of over say Rs 30,000 should cough up a similar amount. Likewise, all those driving cars above 800 cc should be slapped with an appropriately assessed tax.

Even if the impossible were to happen and such taxes were levied, one would still not be able to hear the pips of the rich squeak, however carefully one listened. Nor would the rich eat, drink and party less or forsake golf. Their abodes will remain icy chill at the height of the summer and their begums will continue with their vacuous talk as they go about comparing the skills of tailors and jewellers while collecting jehaizes for their coiffed daughters. Of course, they will not vote for the PPP when the next elections are held, but they never do. Besides, by that time many, many more poor would have warmed to the PPP to make up for the odd rich defector.

Most feel that Mr Zardari has already used up all his nine lives. And there are fanciful theories about how and when the axe will fall. If we assume for a moment that what they say is true, then what better way for Mr Zardari to go than by demonstrating that, like his wife, he too believes that as long as his heart is with the suffering masses, he does not care where his head lies? Let us dream on.

The writer is a former ambassador. He can be reached at

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