A little empathy, please

Published August 28, 2022
The writer is a former editor of Dawn.
The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

PAKISTAN has witnessed many periods of polarisation within society, especially during long spells of military rule and its aftermath, but the current divide seems so pronounced and bitter that even a natural calamity can’t bring the leaders onto the same page.

All politicians and political parties have the right to aspire to office; coming into government is the only route for them to be able to implement their manifesto or agenda for the good of the people and the country, at least in theory, and win the confidence of the electorate.

But surely there are circumstances when political rivalries and jostling for power should take a backseat as the immediate well-being of a huge mass of our people is threatened; when no government or political party or organisation can meet the challenges all on its own.

The devastation caused by the ongoing unprecedented rain and the resultant flooding in large swathes of the country is a prime example of an emergency that no single entity can deal with. What is required is for the whole nation to come together. Therefore, it is sad to see our ‘leaders’ pulling in different directions.

It does not take much to display empathy towards a broken people whose homes have collapsed and who have lost everything.

The prime minister was filmed dropping food parcels from a helicopter to people in a flood-affected area in Sindh; another video showed Sindh Chief Minister Murad Ali Shah and PPP leader Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari accompanying Shehbaz Sharif to a relief camp in Sukkur.

To be honest, these leaders were late to the task as the unprecedented rainfall has been going on for some three to four weeks. They will have to explain why the army was called out to assist this last Friday and not earlier.

Read: Politics of vendetta is scaling new peaks at a time when Pakistan faces two unprecedented crises

Also, while the whole country knows how wealthy some of our political leaders are, they have been appealing for donations without pledging a rupee from their own pockets. Even if they are quietly donating funds, that is not enough.

After all, if they feel meeting flood-hit people and dropping food parcels to those left stranded by the water makes for good optics, they should also make public the donations from their own pockets as examples other affluent people in society can emulate.

While we are on the subject of donations, there was an object lesson in how not to give to the needy. Mir Munawar Talpur, a Sindh politician married to former president Asif Ali Zardari’s sister, was shown with a thick wad of rupee notes that he was handing out to the displaced persons.

He may have felt big and generous in handing out money like this, but one wishes he’d also kept in mind the dignity of the shirtless grabbing the handout. The money may have taken care of some of the immediate needs of a handful of people but the video was a distasteful and unsavoury spectacle on social media. Not just that, he soon ran out of what looked like Rs50 notes.

Like large parts of Sindh, many districts in southern Punjab remain inundated, with people there complaining of no relief effort. Having received a drubbing in the recent Punjab Assembly by-elections, one would have expected the PML-N leaders to have been proactive there. But I have seen no evidence of any senior PML-N leader amidst the flood-affected people offering succour. Yes, I know, they are not in government but it does not take much to display empathy towards a broken people whose homes have collapsed and who have lost everything.

Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan tell a similar story of large-scale devastation with the governments there still appearing sluggish in addressing the grave crisis. This again underlines the importance of everyone joining hands to supplement the government effort.

I won’t go into the numbers in detail but Planning Minister Ahsan Iqbal has said on record that some 30 million people have been displaced. This is a staggering figure by any stretch. It means that each one of us will have to do our part to get some relief to those hammered by nature.

The half a billion dollars so far pledged by international organisations will not be enough. This is only the rescue phase. Once the waters recede, the exact magnitude of the damage to infrastructure, crops and livestock will become clear. It is incumbent on each one of us to step forward not just out of our humanity but for self-preservation too.

I say this because if the means of livelihood in the rural areas have been snatched away from the people by the floods, they will have no option but to head to urban centres in search of work to be able to feed their families. This level of migration against the backdrop of a government hamstrung by large deficits can very easily lead to social unrest, even upheaval.

The reluctance of Pakistan’s most effective and successful fund-raiser, former prime minister Imran Khan, to start a campaign because “raising funds is a huge responsibility” as one needs to ensure each penny raised can be accounted for and “I can’t be sure this will happen” was strange. Even though he later announced an ‘international telethon’ to collect funds for the victims, one could be forgiven for detecting a bit of politics in his initial stance. Was it part of PTI’s game plan, when one of Mr Khan’s top aides Fawad Chaudhry told a TV channel that his party’s governments in Punjab and KP would write to the IMF saying they were unable to meet some of the conditions attached to the IMF package?

Hopefully, that was mere rhetoric. The last straw after the ravages of floods would be an IMF package thrown into limbo again. Partisan politics can and should be put on hold for a few months, in the larger interest of our people.

The writer is a former editor of Dawn.
abbas.nasir@hotmail.com

Published in Dawn, August 28th, 2022

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