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KARACHI, May 3: Underlining the need for social security nets for workers, speakers at an international conference held here on Thursday said that time had come that workers got united and pressured the government to provide relief to the poor.

They also called for legislation on labour rights and adoption of the Sindh Tenancy Act that had been pending approval of the provincial assembly for three years.

The conference on ‘Labour in the age of globalisation’ was organised by the Pakistan Study Centre of the University of Karachi in collaboration with the Pakistan Institute of Research and Labour Organisation (Piler).

The session was titled ‘Climate change: impact on livelihood and labour’.

Giving his presentation on ‘Disaster management, development planning and role of the state’, Dr Kaiser Bengali, a senior economist who also served as adviser to the Sindh chief minister on planning and development, said that the poor wouldn’t get anything unless they got united and raised their voice.

“If 10,000 workers hold a protest in front of the parliament before the budget, it is likely that they will get something positive in the budget,” he observed.

Highlighting how the government coped with the 2010 floods, he said that no death due to hunger took place. He claimed that between 200 and 400 people lost their lives because they did not move to safe places.

“They were not willing to take shelter in the relief camps because no arrangement was made there to keep their livestock,” he said while explaining that the losses were high in the last year’s floods because people got trapped as they had not idea that it would rain so heavily and cause flood.

One major factor contributing to the huge losses was resistance from landowners, he said, and referred to the flood devastation in Khairpur Nathan Shah where a landowner resisting government safety measures caused a breach in a bund to save his lands and the officials concerned failed counter his armed men deployed at the site.

Landlords’ defiant attitude was also evident during the post-flood rehabilitation process he said, adding that when they opposed shifting of villagers to the relief camps. “Though a majority of the villagers accommodated in relief camps wanted to stay on if living conditions there were improved, some in the provincial cabinet opposed any such idea claiming that the villagers would never leave their ancestral area that had graves of their forefathers,” Dr Bengali said and argued that actually the landowners didn’t want their haris to move away from their lands.

He stressed the need for ensuring removal of people from vulnerable areas before floods could hit them. Besides, he said, loss of life could also be averted by constructing cost-effective flood-resistant houses in villages. Such an initiative had already been taken by the government but only in three districts under a government-funded non-government organisation, he added.

Maryam Bibi, representing Khwando Kor, an NGO working in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and tribal areas for women and children welfare, informed the audience about the problems being faced by women at the relief camps set up for the people affected by terrorism or natural disasters.

“The problems are very much to do with the tribal society where they are conditioned to be subservient. Underage marriages and a lack of education compound their misery,” she observed.

Their sense of deprivation, she said, was so high that it prevented them from seeking help from even women relief workers. “There are at a loss at camps. They don’t know how to communicate. They are subjected to sexual harassment and many such cases go unreported. Absence of the media and civil society in remote areas is regrettable,” she said, suggesting that government should mark areas exclusively for women and disseminate this information as soon as an emergency-like situation occurred.

Bisharat Ali Lajwani, a lecturer at the Sindh University, shared findings of his research on bonded labour in the interior of Sindh and said that the government had not announced any subsidy for peasants who had suffered losses due to floods twice, though it had done the same for landowners.

“Over 80 per cent peasants in Sindh do not own any land and this makes them vulnerable to exploitation. This is why it is important that the government pass the Sindh Tenancy Act 2009,” he stressed.

Nikhat Sattar, a technical adviser at the Social Policy and Development Centre, spoke about the causes and impact of climate change, which, she said, would affect the poor more as they had limited resources to cope with disasters.

“Imparting education and skills to masses, diversification of livelihood, strengthening of social protection systems, end to deforestation and conservation of water are some of the strategies needed to cope with climate change,” she said.

Mohammad Ali Shah of the Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum opposed construction of dams generally looked as one of the solutions to climate change problems. “Grow forests, remove encroachments along the banks and let the water follow its natural route,” he urged the government.

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