What next for flood victims?

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

THE narratives of Pakistan’s flood experience are drawing to a close. According to the National Disaster Management Authority’s latest data (Oct 30), 1,984 people lost their lives in the deluge that swept across large tracts of the country.

Nearly 1.7 million houses were damaged and 20.1 million people affected. Gradually, the displaced persons are returning to what were once their homes. If the long queues of wretched flood victims sitting by the roadside awaiting relief are gone and TV talk shows have reverted to the stuff that passes for politics in Pakistan, it doesn’t mean that life is back to normal. Some flood victims still remain in tent cities. Their presence is a powerful reminder of the inept ways of a government trying to cut corners.

Those left behind comprise mainly victims whose homes and lands are still flooded, as in Dadu district. A network of roads built thoughtlessly at an elevated level have facilitated communication no doubt but at what cost? They have trapped the water in the plains and now people simply have to wait for the water to evaporate.

Even those who have managed to return do not have much of a future to look forward too — at least right now. A lot of scepticism is being expressed. In a natural calamity the immediate need is to organise rescue operations and provide relief to the victims to ensure their survival. That phase has passed. What next?

The NGOs and community-based organisations that did a lot in the first phase do not have the financial resources and manpower for the rehabilitation stage. There is also the trust deficit vis-à-vis the government that marks the public’s perception of how the emergency was managed. Thus the truth may never be known about the breaches that were made in the embankments of rivers ostensibly to save the barrages. Besides, there is a widespread impression that the government is not performing.

Isn’t it time for the government to draw up reconstruction plans and start putting its act together? It is important that transparency is observed at every step. Every government department now has its website. A ‘flood rehabilitation’ section must be created where the goals and timeframe for rehabilitation activities are posted. Information about the implementation of the plan should be given on a daily basis so that interested parties can monitor the official performance. The need is to make the government accountable to the public.

This approach may cause less discord and it would certainly reduce the blame game in the provinces if Islamabad distributes the resources for flood rehabilitation among them, allowing them the autonomy of decision-making on issues of local concern. The criteria to determine each province’s share of flood relief funds should be the extent of damage caused and the number of people affected.

In other words this means that the precise extent of the damage should be posted on the website even before aid disbursement begins. What form should this take? The idea of doling out money is simply repugnant. It is not good for the self-esteem of people to make beggars out of them. The complaints against the Watan cards demonstrate that a strategy of distributing funds for reconstruction is inherently flawed in a country where corruption is rife.

As an emergency response it is understandable to initially help people by providing them cash. But thereafter it is important to provide them the means to help themselves. From Nadra’s account it seems a million cards will be processed. Even if we assume that they will go to deserving cases it works out to one card for 20 people — will Rs1,000 per head suffice?

If we do not want starvation to be the next crisis it is time the government thought about the food shortage that is inevitable. The tillers of land should be encouraged to grow vegetables on small plots. Some have received seeds from NGOs. Others should also be provided seeds.

Since most small farmers do not own the land they cultivate, it is important that they be allowed to grow their food on the fringes of the land where the cultivation of wheat, sugarcane, rice or other cash crops takes place.

It is time the big landowners allow this facility to their haris — it is their moral duty to do so. No landowner is known to have assumed total responsibility for the relief and rehabilitation of his farmers. It is time the landlords were asked to do so.

Most important of all, the reconstruction of the infrastructure that is undertaken should be guided by some basic principles. First, no contractor should be hired. Second, all labour should be indigenous. Third, jobs should be created and the flood-affected people hired on a cash-for-work basis.

The floods have opened a window of opportunity for change. The tent cities set up by well-established organisations that collected data have come out with some horrifying information. Literacy rates and school enrollment ratios are much lower than what the government claims. The fertility rate in these areas is very high. The status of women is shockingly dismal.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that accessibility to schools and health facilities is virtually non-existent in many areas. Either these institutions are non-existent or if they do exist they are dysfunctional for various reasons.

A number of flood-affected children have tasted the joys of schooling and adults have experienced the comforts of healthcare in the tent cities where they were housed. It will not be easy to push them back into the Stone Ages and expect them to submit to the indignities of a subhuman existence again. Discontent will rise and its target will be the oppressors of the suffering haris.

If good sense prevails, it is time the cataclysmic flood prompted our rulers to do some long-term thinking on the unfair tenancy laws, the inequitable land ownership pattern and the unequal taxation principles that hurt the poor and benefit the rich. Will those who have suffered put up with this injustice indefinitely?