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Far from the circus

September 18, 2012

THE contortions of leaders as the deadly cut and thrust of politics plays out in Pakistan could easily lead an observer to believe that, as in some Machiavellian court, the be all and end all is power. But as the circus of politics goes from one impossible feat to the next, from time to time stories — usually tragedies — make their way through the headlines about ousted prime ministers and clashing institutions to raise the issue of silent sufferers whose welfare is almost an afterthought for the state. Last week, Pakistanis learnt to their horror that an ineffective labour-inspection system corroded by powerful groups with vested interests had caused over 250 people to perish in circumstances that defy the imagination. Meanwhile, the rains have destroyed the lives and livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of people, particularly in Baloch-istan, southern Punjab and Sindh. In just two districts of Balochistan — Naseerabad and Jaffarabad — an estimated 600,000 people have been marooned.

Predictably, the state’s response has been to creakily roll out rescue efforts after the damage has already been done. Can the state administration say with honesty that everything possible was done pre-emptively to mitigate rain-related havoc? Given the experience of the past two years, the state ought to have been more prepared, particularly with regard to planned evacuations, camps for displaced people, rations stored against future needs and a coordinated rescue strategy. Instead, what we are witnessing, as usual, is different agencies — including the army, national and provincial-level disaster management cells, etc — doing what they can but generally appearing as though they’ve been caught napping.

For years, there have been warnings about the effects of climate change; Pakistan will undoubtedly be affected. This is the third consecutive year that the country has been hit by a destructive monsoon. The Met office is forecasting heavy rain over the week in the northern parts of the country, water that will make its way south. There is still time to plan for the coming deluge over the next weeks and months. Better mechanisms and systems need to be put in place urgently. Demonstrably, it is not enough to establish emergency response agencies unless these are equipped, trained and interested in fulfilling their mandate. In many countries, what has proved most effective is the involvement of local leadership and administrative mechanisms, with their on-the-ground knowledge and stakes in the welfare of an area. Is it too much to ask for politics to be put on hold and for political elites to come together to plan for the welfare of this country’s hapless millions?