On the point of change?

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

THE tent cities for the flood-affected in Khairpur are now being dismantled. According to the EDO of the district only five remained last Friday.

As I watched the occupants of the Indus Resource Centre’s (IRC) camp prepare for their return journey, I wondered if this watershed event in their lives would also prove to be the turning point. For two months the trauma of the flood’s ravages became a distant nightmare as they lived in a new caring environment they had never known before.

The question is whether this experience will move them to change their lives radically. The two tent cities organised by the NGO in Dadu and Khairpur, where I spent several hours with the flood victims, provide a textbook example of what development is all about.

Sadiqa Salahuddin, the executive director of IRC, who is far from being a desk-bound activist, summed up the choices before the displaced people in her farewell speech. “Your children [there were 685 among the 1,221 victims] were so happy here and we hope you will also keep them happy. Be gentle with them as well as with their mothers. You were also happy here. Take back these memories to give a new direction to your lives,” she exhorted them.

From August to October, it was not just their basic necessities — mainly food, water, shelter and healthcare — that were attended to; their children received schooling, their women got guidance in handicraft and lessons in reproductive healthcare and the men learnt the virtues of living in harmony.

This was done by setting up schools in the two camps I visited, organising health and sanitation education classes, workshops for handicrafts and setting up a conciliation council comprising leaders of different clans to take collective decisions and resolve disputes.

Here was participatory governance at its best. Some teachers and camp managers had to be hired from outside (but from the local population) as expertise was not available among the affected. But assistants — teachers and managers — and manual labour for any project undertaken came from the inmates of the tent cities who received due emoluments in cash.

According to the executive director, it was a record of sorts that no violence occurred in the camps, notwithstanding the diverse backgrounds of the people thrown together by the doings of nature. It was amusing to see a police guard deployed per routine trying to make his presence felt by unnecessarily throwing his weight around.

This participatory form of governance must continue if lives have to change. Sadiqa Salahuddin’s advice to flood survivors carried weight. They could empower themselves if they lived peacefully and did not allow their enemies to hurt them by dividing their communities. haris

Of course it will be a challenge for the flood victims to replicate their camp life in their impoverished home environment. Lacking political empowerment they have to struggle against socio-economic odds that are daunting. Land owners can be tyrannical when it comes to exploiting their to extract undue privileges for themselves. Denied the benefits of good education and the basic facilities of healthcare, family planning, sanitation and nutrition, the farm workers are unaware of the rights they are entitled to.

Nevertheless, the parting message was, ‘Help yourself and we will help you’. The emphasis was on self-reliance and dignity. To show the way, gifts were handed out — tools (shovels, spades, saws, etc for the men), kitchen utensils for women and schoolbags for children (courtesy Unicef). Families were given dry rations for a fortnight and seeds to grow vegetables. Earlier they had received beddings and were allowed to take their tents with them.

Most of them live on land that they have no title to. They were leaving with mixed feelings. They were satisfied and grateful but also pensive. The good times were drawing to a close (evenings had been occasions for folk music and women had been spared the violence that was their fate earlier on). Above all, they were stepping into an uncertain future.

But at least, the first stirrings had been created in a people who had previously shown little interest in sending their children to school. The young ones had became absorbed in their lessons — there were three- and four-year-olds who tugged at my sleeve demanding that I listen to them recite rhymes and alphabets. Will this interest blossom into something more? wadera bara

Many villages have no schools. There are others where the uses the school building as a for his cattle. Others have schools but no schooling. The people lack the means and organisation to pressure the government to safeguard their rights. Two months were not enough for them, the weaker party, to acquire the skills to neutralise the levers that are traditionally used against them.

But there is hope. Seeds of awareness have been sown, new relationships forged and new friendships struck. Ingenious uses of the ubiquitous mobile phone are being discovered. Above all, they have been promised continued support to keep alight the flame that has been lighted. wai

Ali Madad, an IRC project officer who helped with the Khairpur camp, captured the message poignantly when he recited Shaikh Ayaz in -style: When the red roses burst into bloom/We will meet again.

Much now depends on the government. Last week it appeared to be nudging the NGOs out of this space some of them have created for themselves in the life of flood-affected communities. It declared that henceforth the government will manage the $3bn additional aid it was seeking.

Will it be used to dole out meagre charity to individuals to hurt their dignity? Or will this aid be used to stimulate economic activity in the flood-ravaged regions to rebuild the infrastructure on a cash-for-work basis — albeit keeping contractors out and employing only indigenous people?