CAN we redress the deep pain and damage caused by the natural disaster of heavy rains in Sindh when we have already made democracy at its core level a man-made disaster?

If a democratic system is the strongest foundation for societal capacity to cope with challenges like emergencies, then the foundations of democracy were demolished well before the flood havoc of 2010 and the rain havoc of 2011.

Soon after the 2008 polls, instead of removing flaws, the elected local government structures began to be replaced by the appointed commissionerate system. Many of the people who sometimes literally have to eat grass at the grass-roots level are now deprived of participation in decision-making and in implementing relief campaigns precisely when such mechanisms are most needed. There is almost complete unanimity amongst persons in the affected areas with whom this writer spoke about how badly the union councils are missed at this time.

This is not to suggest that the mere existence of directly elected union councils and of indirectly elected nazims and naib nazims at the tehsil and district levels along with their respective forums would be magically able to effectively handle the crisis. It is to stress that vital components required for an efficient, timely, orderly response to the large-scale distress are missing altogether. Their current absence compounds the problem. Whereas their mere presence in the midst of the people would have enabled the dozen-plus councillors, the naib nazim and nazim of each union council to remain available on the spot, to take anticipatory measures, to serve as a credible communications link between each small area and sources of outside help.

Misperceiving elected and resourced local governments as threats to their own status, MPAs, MNAs and senators elected in 2008 moved vigorously against these basic tiers of a democratic system. Presently, unelected persons holding political party titles have become the arbiters to determine delivery of relief goods, often on a partisan basis. Coupled with a cadre of officials no longer reflective of the impartiality, competence and integrity of previous generations of ICS, CSP and even some DMG officers, a new combine exercises power that is biased and exclusionary.

The spectacle of the president, the prime minister, the chief minister and other holders of high public office visiting affected people to give handouts is reassuring. As is the effort by federal organisations such as the armed forces, the National Disaster Management Authority ( NDMA) , its provincial equivalent (PDMA ) and others, notwithstanding wide dissatisfaction with the inadequacy of work.

But at the same time, these scenes of individuals and institutions mostly from outside the devastated areas making relief visits only highlight the virtually complete absence of a disaster management system rooted in the local landscapes, operated by local leaderships elected by local people.

The scale of the damage suffered makes large external support essential, both from within the country and from overseas. No purely local, community-based system can maintain helicopters, planes or heavy earthmoving equipment to swing into instant action.

Yet if relief units at the level of village clusters such as those represented by union councils comprising populations of 20,000 to 30,000 are organised and led by their fellow residents, a process of quickly accessible, accountable management can ensure prompt, precautionary steps and alleviative actions before, during and after natural disasters.

Elected union councils even in the 2000-2008 phase were not provided with adequate funds and logistics to meet crucial development needs. The upper tiers of the tehsils and districts deprived them of their due share. And there are partisan prejudices at the clan, tribal, ethnic and political levels which deprive some local citizens of their fair share of benefits. Yet a system instantly responsive to immediate local realities was in place to articulate genuine needs.

Even now the historic administrative structure which lost ground to the elected system is recovering its position and is obliged to demonstrate results. But this structure lacks a mandate bestowed at the micro level and is perceived as power that is insensitive and discriminatory.

The conceptual basis for disaster management should be community-centric rather than only the macro-oriented approach typified by the NDMA and PDMA. Its link to an elected process of union councils would be far smaller and more manageable than the constituency sizes of MPAs (about 100,000 voters or over) and MNAs (about 200,000 voters or over). With a union council-linked system, the speed, quality and equity of rapid response and relief work will be vastly improved.

Public-service organisations such as NGOs, both volunteer-led and staff-led, with extensive community-based contacts partly compensate for the absence of elected union councils. They attempt to ensure precision and efficiency in the emergency effort. Yet they are already subject to some ill-informed character assassination by armchair political persons aided by the unchecked hospitality of media hosts.

The actual facts are that several NGOs have already used their own scarce contingency funds, or donated percentages of their salaries or savings to instant relief work and have formulated proposals to donors for funding aid. The early grants provided by the Pakistan Poverty Alleviation Fund (PPAF) to three leading NGOs of Sindh are excellent examples of how the non-government sector can quickly contribute effectively to reducing hardship when basic elected units do not exist.

Streets of small and large towns in Sindh swamped by water signify the comprehensive nature of the problem. Already beset by badly designed and poorly maintained drainage systems, these urban centres are unable to serve as efficient focal points for delivery of relief services to adjacent rural areas because they are overwhelmed by their own dilemmas.

As the irreplaceable value of empowered elected local bodies is reiterated, the need to review the approach to disaster management becomes more urgent in view of the likelihood that climate change may bring frequent revisitations of abnormal deluges.

The writer is global vice president of IUCN on a voluntary basis and is associated with several public service organisations.

javedjabbar.2@gmail.com

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