Giving a voice to Pakistan’s flood victims

September 8, 2010

charpoyIf you were to give the flood victims in Pakistan a voice, they would tell you that they need seeds to replant the crops destroyed by the water and enough emergency relief to tide them through the winter. After that the land, newly fertilised by the floods, could yield bumper crops in the years ahead.

The children would tell you that the floods hit so powerfully that the memory of feeling in panic while loudspeakers broadcast warnings from the mosques will be forever etched on their minds. They don’t blame the government for a disaster so big that not even in the tales of their ancestors had they heard stories of such floods. They just want enough help to rebuild their homes so they don’t have to sleep in half-destroyed buildings with sunken floors, worrying about them collapsing on top of them in the night.

In the villages, people would tell you they don’t mind who helps them — whether the army, the government or Islamist charities — as long as they provide food and medicine for their families. They don’t care about politics, or Islamist militants, or the “right” interpretation of Islam. And again and again, they would stress that they don’t want to survive on handouts, but want to rebuild their lives.

It is ordinary, sensible stuff. Travelling in Pakistan, and particularly to flood-hit areas, you are left thinking that if only ordinary people had a bigger say in the running of the country, it might be a considerably better place.

Yet for all its latest experiment in democracy which began in 2008, Pakistan has yet to find a way of devolving power properly down to the people. Politics is dominated by feudal elites and family dynasties — from the Zardari-Bhutto family which runs the ruling Pakistan People’s Party to the Sharif brothers in the main opposition Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz).

The civilian government has been severely criticised over its slow response to the floods. Corruption is so endemic that even the government has been forced to admit that it might be better if international aid were channelled through other hands than its own.

It is hardly surprising then that given the devastation of the floods, people are looking for answers on the most efficient way to rebuild Pakistan.

Political leader Altaf Hussain has already called on the army to support the masses against corrupt feudal leaders in something akin to the French Revolution. His suggestion – made from exile in London – was largely dismissed within Pakistan. Yet it was also wdely reported, in part because it provided a vehicle on which to hang widespread mutterings of disquiet about democracy’s inability to act fairly in the interests of flood victims.

The Pakistan Army has taken the lead role in flood relief, burnishing an image which was badly tarnished in the final years of former president Pervez Musharraf. Nobody is expecting the army to take over. But by demonstrating its power and reach as the only national insitution with the organisational skills, manpower and resources to provide flood relief, it has served notice to the country’s squabbling politicians. If it were ever to decide to take over at some point in the future, it probably has the means, and the power, to do so.

It was because of that context that the call made by Altaf Hussain had such resonance within Pakistan.

The army, so the argument goes, tends to be more meritocratic than political parties – men from lower middle class families, including its army chief, General Ashfaq Pervez kayani, can join up and rise through the ranks in a way they could never do in the political dynasties. And given that the army has no political axe to grind, it can be trusted to distribute flood relief to those who need it, rather than to those whose votes might be required in the future.

The problem, however, is that after running the country on-and-off since independence, the army has never really allowed democracy to mature. Any return to military rule would likely take Pakistan even further away from devolving power to ordinary people.

Another suggestion doing the rounds is for there to be a government of technocrats to administer the flood relief and the billions of dollars in international aid that will be needed to put Pakistan back on its feet. In an article for the BBC, writer Ahmed Rashid develops this idea further by suggesting that the government should allow foreign technocrats to sort out the country through a Pakistan Reconstruction Trust Fund.

“No doubt the army and politicians would reject such an idea, saying that this would spell the end of sovereignty of a nuclear power and be intolerable for an independent nation,” he writes. “But the elite is already losing its sovereignty every day if it cannot put the country back together again and regain the trust of the people. The sovereignty the government has lost in the floods is the biggest loss in the country’s history bar one, when the ruling elite lost East Pakistan – now Bangladesh – in 1971.”

Yet the argument seems to fall foul of the same one that applies to army rule – how do ordinary people get to have a say in how the money that is being raised in their name is spent?

Television images can give a misleading impression of Pakistan’s flood victims – there are so many of them that the individual families get lost. The footage tends to focus on people fighting over food handouts, or on the person who complains most loudly about not being given enough.

In the flood-hit areas in south Punjab, my impression was different. I never felt threatened, never saw any sign of protests or violence. Several times we had to fend off offers of food and drink from people anxious to show their hospitality by sharing out their meagre supplies. The complaints were there of course, along with that hopeful look of anticipation you get in poor villages across South Asia — floods or not — when people  mistake visiting journalists for officials come to assess their needs.

But mostly you found people who just wanted the means to rebuild homes and replant crops; and with that the dignity of being able to survive without having to beg. From the little girl who wanted to go back to school so she could study to become a doctor to the old man who looked forward to bumper crops, they knew what they needed.

For all the difficulties facing Pakistan, and indeed the idealism of the sentiment, you have to hope that somewhere, their voices will be heard.

Comments

A very good report. Thank you, Myra. I somehow always knew that the “real” Pakistan was far removed from the popular image of “mullah, militant and military” that we’re always obsessed with. I would like to see democracy become stronger and commonsense rule.

I was also happy to read about the silver lining in the disaster — the floods have created much more fertile soil that will lead to bumper crops in future. Thank goodness for that.

Is there anything that we spectators can do, besides donating to relief organisations? I keep thinking there must be ways for Pakistan to turn the devastation into a kind of creative destruction of outdated technology and lifestyles and leapfrog them to something much more modern. Ideas are probably more important to the long-term outlook of the country than cash. But how do we harness them?

It’s unfortunate that the countries aren’t on good terms, but I can help thinking Israel could help Pakistan improve its agricultural practices. By adopting some revolutionary changes to its approach, Pakistan may develop a more productive and also more resilient agricultural base.

Regards,
Ganesh Prasad

Posted by prasadgc | Report as abusive
 

> but I can help thinking Israel could help Pakistan improve its agricultural practices.

Typo: I can’t help thinking…

Regards,
Ganesh Prasad

Posted by prasadgc | Report as abusive
 

Angelina Jolie who is in Pakistan reflects similar views about these dignified people.

Posted by KPSingh01 | Report as abusive
 

But what is needed right now is support and that too from their own elected government because that is what will let lay strong democratic foundations in country and reap long term benefits from it. And Pakistan government must forget enmities and must move on. Reject “mullah and militant” control “military” and prosper “democracy” and build a great nation. One of the most fertile delta lies in Pakistan, take help from whoever without looking at their religions and rebuild what is destroyed. Societies based on religion never progress but those based on science and technology rule the world. Turn this curse into boon. A great opportunity for Pakistan to move on. If only those sitting in Parliament had any sense of disaster. I was shocked to c Pakistan PM visiting England at times when his country is in such state. Let the common sense prevail.

Posted by 777xxx777 | Report as abusive
 

May be India should offer to help provide fertilizers and seeds to Pakistan.

Posted by 777xxx777 | Report as abusive
 

Gandhi said that the real heart of India lives in villages. Likewise the real Pakistan lives in villages as well. These people are mostly naive, honest and do not have the double speak duplicity of urban populations. I have seen this warmth in Indian villages as well. It is mostly the urban people who manipulate and divide people and nations. What has been affected in Pakistan is the countryside. That is why their dignity stands out. These people will not sell their mothers like their urban counterparts. If Pakistan has a chance to recover, it is these people who will make it happen.

Posted by KPSingh01 | Report as abusive
 

@KPSingh01
“These people are mostly naive, honest and do not have the double speak duplicity of urban populations. I have seen this warmth in Indian villages as well.”

This is just a living in fool’s world. Nobody is so honest as u say and if u want to c it come to villages in West UP in India. I have grown up here and for last 25 years I have not noticed any such high class honesty in any villager. People will not only sell their mothers but their father, wives, sons, daughters and what not for a piece of land even as small as ’2 bhiga’. The only thing that ever matters to villagers are 1. land and 2. caste

If those people are so dignified then they should probably say a big NO to help from militants but that does not seem to be the case.

So we should live in a practical world wherein we need to convert selfishness into somewhat healthy competition. And that’s the job of every national government. Direct the energy and selfishness into healthy and progressive competition that results in growth of everyone. And there is heavy flooding in India as well by the way. Both the countries suffer from same disaster at same moment. Therefore we should hold each other’s hand to navigate out of this mess. But Pakistani government’s arrogance is not doing any good to the cause.

Posted by 777xxx777 | Report as abusive
 

777xxx777,

Agree that there is a lot of backwardness in rural areas of UP, Bihar etc. I have come across villagers in many parts of India who lack the urban sophistication and go all the way to help a stranger. Rural people do not keep aloof. They reach out to you and offer to share what they have. In urban areas, people tend to be more polished and generally very indifferent. It is easier to manipulate the rural people more than the urban ones. At least that has been my experience.

The fact is that different people who have reached the hinterlands of Pakistan seem to share my experience in the hinterlands of India. There must be an element of truth in it.

Posted by KPSingh01 | Report as abusive
 

777xxx777: “So we should live in a practical world wherein we need to convert selfishness into somewhat healthy competition. And that’s the job of every national government. Direct the energy and selfishness into healthy and progressive competition that results in growth of everyone.”

Selfish competition always leads to self destruction. What needs to be inculcalted from a young age is courtesy for others, generoisity and big hearts. This cannot be done by any government. It has to happen at the social level. Governments get shaped by the people and people get shaped by their social environment. Socially backward societies lead to corrupt governments.

Posted by KPSingh01 | Report as abusive
 

777xxx777: “Therefore we should hold each other’s hand to navigate out of this mess. But Pakistani government’s arrogance is not doing any good to the cause.”

If India suffered from a huge disaster and Pakistan came offered ten million dollars, how would that be construed? Would it be looked at as a warm gesture or a rub in? Currently India is doing much better financially. So if Pakistan offers aid, I’d like to know how fellow Indians would view it.

Posted by KPSingh01 | Report as abusive
 

@KPSingh01
“If India suffered from a huge disaster and Pakistan came offered ten million dollars, how would that be construed?”

At the time of Bhuj earthquake there was devastation all around in parts of gujrat. And at that time when Pakistan offered help our then PM Mr. Vajpayee famously said something like, “Even if in times of disaster at least there is friendship” (he said it in hindi ofcourse and and if u want i can find and pull out the exact clipping from ndtv website) and India graciously accepted Pak help with open heart; so I guess that answers your question and we need not discuss it further.

Pakistan government is unnecessarily being arrogant towards help from India. and that is not helping any of those living in flood hit areas. One one hand u say they are great, honest, dignified and what not, on the other hand they are ready to accept help even from militants BUT BUT BUT their government does not want aid from India; This my friend is utter arrogance on their GOVERNMENT’S part.

“Selfish competition always leads to self destruction.”
Please read again what i said. “we need to convert selfishness into somewhat healthy competition”. It does not mean selfish competition. And it is a truth that everyone is selfish so we have to CONVERT that into healthy competition. CONVERT is the keyword here. And that is what essentially u r talking about.

I hope I am clear.

Posted by 777xxx777 | Report as abusive
 

I asked:

> Ideas are probably more important to the long-term outlook of the country than cash. But how do we harness them?

Well, there seems to be an effort along these lines: http://bit.ly/boNslF

I haven’t yet understood how it works, but I think everyone who wants to help out should try and explore this.

Regards,
Ganesh Prasad

Posted by prasadgc | Report as abusive
 

@ganesh,

The gate keepers of ideas in Pakistan is the Pakistani Army, and the Mosques.

These two entities are drunk and addicted on power, religion and politics, the Pak Army wants to keep its business interests and power intact and the Religious Leaders there want to keep their power, the power of religion and filtered religious bias on the minds of the people. These two entities work hand in hand

As long as these two institutions, cling to old notions, they will continually leave average pakistani’s to be dragged through the mud and keep Pakistani psyche static, imprisoned and stagnant.

While these two institutions make allowances here and there, those accomodations are merely incremental and marginal at best and ineffectual to release any new type of thinking there.

Perceptions, thoughts, the political process is carefully devised to prevent any real change or real threat to the status quo.

To talk to the pakistani people directly, is more or less a useless endeavor for many reasons. Pakistani’s, with the exception of the educated ones with computers, are downtrodden, too afraid to speak, too uneducated, don’t care, or willing to tow the official national mentality, that being the mob mentality, these are the slots available.

A new slot for thought must be created independent of all of these two entities. The ones brave enough to step out of the propaganda prison are too few to make any effect.

For any real change to happen, somehow the Pak Army and Religious Imams must be made to understand to change their thinking, unclench their fist and look to the future for the greater good of their future.

Unfortunately, these two institutions want to look after their interests first.

Posted by G-W | Report as abusive
 

@Ganesh, Pakistani Bloggers, here is some good news.

We always hear many on these blogs talk about American imperialism and how america is attacking Islam and so forth.

Here is a little story of two muslims who toured across america, there journey revealed that America IS tolerant and kind towards muslims, despite what Pakistani’s and some jaded Indians choose to believe from the current politics or historical politics of their own country.

The point here is that people are not the ones that build empires or attack nations. Some guy living in Colorado, or Nebraska has no gripe with somebody living in Islamabad or Lahore and same goes for some guy living in Karachi vs some guy living in Delhi.

People at the ground level actually truly have no enmity with each other, but are rather used an instruments to further enmities between secretive empires that use agents choose to fool both sides into dying for fictitious created false flag causes and operations.

For this, I ask our Pakistani’ friends not to be entraped any longer into a certain way of thinking.

Those creating wars and terrorism, are the same that profit from wars and profit from making people dying in these wars. They are in the east and the west.

All the news stories that we discuss are merely symptoms of all of this.

http://www.cnn.com/2010/LIVING/09/10/ram adan.roadtrip.folo/index.html?hpt=C1

Posted by G-W | Report as abusive
 

These floods are reflective of the skill and resilience of Pakistan’s rural class. These villagers are honest and hardworking people, agriculture is their livelihood. If Pakistan were to get down to rebuild anew, this disaster carries many lessons. All we need to do is to pull ourselves together and get out of this.

Posted by Umairpk | Report as abusive
 

Guys,

Talking of Ideas….here’s the ultimate killer from Indian irrigation dept…Those scientists in there have found a way to create sinks alongside riverbeds. So whenever there is flooding the extra water in the rivers would actually go down and get collected as underground water and can be used for irrigation purposes. All the extra water that is going waste today can be collected and used very well. 2-3 years from today Every farmer in this nation will pray for floods, yes FLOODS as that will result in very good underground water level and hence bumper agriculture production. Now thats called converting curse into boon….big bada BOON….

And may be India can help Pakistan with this technology and implementation as well If only that doesn’t hurt Pakistani egos of course.

Posted by 777xxx777 | Report as abusive
 

@777
I have observed that the dutch try to steal a portion of the land from the sea each year. They work vary hard use high powered engines to pump out the ware and eventually construct a building. During the same time the Sea annexes a portion of established land and Holland is no bigger than the previous year. The new land is exchanged for the old land. I hope the Indian Irrigation dept. is aware of the fact that deep under the river there is usually another rive which runs right beneath the the river. I hope that the Indian Irrigation people are not going to cause a flood by their discovery.
Rex Minor

Posted by pakistan | Report as abusive
 

PS Ware should read water.
Rex Minor

Posted by pakistan | Report as abusive
 

@Rex
“I have observed that the dutch try to steal a portion of the land from the sea each year. They work vary hard use high powered engines to pump out the ware and eventually construct a building. During the same time the Sea annexes a portion of established land and Holland is no bigger than the previous year. The new land is exchanged for the old land. I hope the Indian Irrigation dept. is aware of the fact that deep under the river there is usually another rive which runs right beneath the the river. I hope that the Indian Irrigation people are not going to cause a flood by their discovery.”

First, Dutch do not steal land to increase land area but to MAINTAIN the land area as observed by you. If dutch do not do that then it will all be water and no land one day. So they are probably doing the correct thing for their survival.

Second, again its ur assumption that Indian Irrigation dept may not be aware of the facts with rivers and underground water, is not correct. The project above is mostly mooted for man made canals and combining this with earlier project of inter linking of rivers through a network of canals, although I m myself not sure why mostly for canals may be the reason u gave, but the overall plan is to tackle floods in a constructive way and not create more floods.

Hope I am clear now.

Posted by 777xxx777 | Report as abusive
 

@777
As a country the Dutch do not gin ny land, but as an individual one Dutchman wins the land with his project and the other one looses it. This is now under investigation.
If the Indians have considered the river deep in the earth under the river flowing above, then this is a great disovery and many european Govts would be the future clients of India who regularly face the consequences of the floods:
Rex Minor

Posted by pakistan | Report as abusive
 

Relief, Donations, aid, Money, help, all that is fine, can the government of Pakistan ensure the river does not swell up like this by networking all rivers, so the execess of one flows into the other, making embankments stronger with stone and metal caging?

Posted by pereiraarvindin | Report as abusive
 

It is good if dredging can be done in these rivers so that the bed is deep, excessive rains do not breach banks easily.

Posted by pereiraarvindin | Report as abusive
 

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