By Sherry Rehman
Garhi Dopatta used to be a bucolic village near Muzzafarabad where its simple mountain-folk lived by breeding livestock and growing subsistence grain. After October 8, this village has been transformed into a rubble-filled quake-pit, where the stench of disease, dust and death still hangs over the hamlet like a cloud. Three weeks later, remnants of children’s vests, a woman’s bright shawl, still flap forlornly from the pyres of stone that turned into tombs for hundreds trapped in the debris of the earthquake that shook our world.
Yet in the midst of these valleys of death, the human will to survive and regenerate is as pervasive as the aid struggling to reach remote areas. Set in the still dramatically beautiful Himalayan terrain like a small jewel of the JhelumValley, Garhi Dopatta is also one of the many sites for a field hospital, where the air is thick with the choppy staccato of helicopter rotors plying up and down from Islamabad to ferry patients on make-shift stretchers. Old and young lie on the helipad having undergone first-aid and emergency operations by a team of doctors from Karachi and Lahore, mostly young women and men who work with speed and focus in the rudimentary theatres set up for them at the American field-hospital managed by the Pakistan Army. Most of the patients are women and children with back or spinal injuries from falling structures. Others lie in unseeing shock or septicaemia from wounds left to fester from the distances they have clamoured to get to this helipad-hospital filled with MI-6 work-horse choppers and sturdy US Black Hawks.
Better facilities are available in Bagh, where a team of Jacobabad doctors have set up several medical wards in front of what used to be the Bagh Medical Centre. Like most other structures in these affected areas of Azad Kashmir, this building too is either uninhabitable, or a snarl of stone and steel on the ground. International and local medical teams at the helipad, which has become the focal-point for aid and relief co-ordination, tell a bleaker story. The army colonel in charge says he needs more tents, but does not know where and when he will get them, conceding that he could never have managed without the relentless Dr Morgan and his colleagues from Humanity Aid in the UK. The medicines are well-stocked but they worry about scabies and measles spreading rapidly as everyone huddles together in the night in the cold.
Like Bagh, and other desolate towns in the valley, Muzaffarabad, the capital of AK, is a symptom of all that is right and wrong with the relief effort. More than any other foreign workers, the Turks are everywhere, with their tents, paramedics and relief goods. American hardware and manpower on the field mingles with British expertise in rescue work, while the Germans, Canadians, Japanese, Chinese, Qatari, French and UAE units can be seen struggling in sub-human conditions alongside aid-workers from 120 other nations, all toiling without worry for their own comfort. Political parties, NGOs and individuals set up their own distribution life-lines, but all equally warn against the onset of winter in three weeks. Pakistan Army aviation units fly endless sorties to evacuate patients to Islamabad and bring in relief supplies to the frontlines of this battle against time, but hordes of their land-based colleagues seem directionless to distribute the mountains of aid piling up at the army base-camps. Most of the available shelter provided is by foreign and local organizations, while all the doctors are volunteers from the cities.
The good news is that in the middle of this epic disaster, the human capacity to regenerate is legion and stories of courage, hope and philanthropy outweigh the looting, the greed and the cupidity that mars this narrative. There is no clash of civilizations in this valley of death and regeneration, and every nationality is putting humanity before race, religion or ethnicity. The bad news of course is that thousands remain outside the official relief loop and many are victims of the calamity as well as poor planning. The government is struggling against daunting odds, with no finger on how many dead or even injured. Field workers and international organizations pitch the chilling figure between a hundred and 150 thousand. The UN reckons at over 10,000 children orphaned, while larger numbers are estimated dead. The ILO has found 1.1 million unemployed and 3.5 million are homeless. UN Secretary General Kofi Annan begs donors to step up to the plate because he only has a fraction of the $ 12 billion needed to rebuild what the earthquake destroyed in a few minutes. As it stands, the government only knows where 45 % of the funding is coming from, with $ 4 billion dollars still part of a pledge-drive and a vague announcement of generating $ 8 billion from the private sector.
The Geneva appeal generated $ 580 million while earlier international pledges were said to be at $ 620 million. There is clearly a fiscal resource-gap between money available or pledged and the amounts required to rehabilitate and rebuild. Even if essential infrastructure, oil, gas, power and water reservoirs remain unaffected, as does the manufacturing and agricultural base of the country, it would be short-sighted to assume that the PSDP will not be affected, or that a fiscal deficit won’t arise. With no cap on domestic oil prices and inflation on the rise again, Pakistanis between a rock and a hard place in more ways than one. Once the ballast goes out of the story as an international news flashpoint, replaced already by other disasters like hurricane Wilma and implosion in Iraq, global interest will dry up faster than we can say ‘donor fatigue’. Yet the government has still not announced a post-disaster mini-budget to the national assembly, nor any national austerity drive in tandem with the fund-appeal.
By now the National Economic Council [ NEC] should have been convened and its recommendations due by early November. The Planning Commission should have been involved with detailed directives to involve communities and stakeholders in rebuilding plans. Subsidised loans should have been mobilized through micro-credit organisations and HBFC to be provided to individuals and communities in a one-window operation to rebuild homes. Cash grants for rebuilding businesses or buildings can begin with World Bank and ADB assistance available on the ground. Zakaat funds too can be more effectively utilized and generated if the Earthquake Rehabilitation Authority’s funds are placed under a bi-partisan parliamentary commission headed by a retired senior judge, not General. Fiscal space for rebuilding can still be created by jettisoning the entire CM’s discretionary and other plans, as well as by scrapping all other overlapping provincial developing plans for NWFP at least. The first fat-trimming measures the government can still immediately take, like an immediate review of the purchase of F-16 aircraft, is to announce an immediate freeze on wasteful spending such as laudatory media supplements, non-essential foreign trips for government functionaries and ministers and the 14% defence outlay increase announced in the last budget. Ten percent cuts can be instituted in every department except Health and Education. When one-third of the country is affected directly by such a tragedy, the government has no business spending millions of rupees on international seminars highlighting the General’s ‘Enlightened Moderation’ policies to the world or building a new GHQ or a denuding New Murree on top of Islamabad. The National Assembly of Pakistan, which is being run for barely six-seven hours a week for the last two months, should be paying its members only for those hours, costing the country an average of five full working days when in session. General Musharraf, who occupies COAS House should take the lead in vacating the President’s House for which the nation’s taxpayers dish out Rs 700 million a year, to convert it into a Medical Camp and Rehabilitation Centre for the orphaned and the destitute being evacuated to Islamabad.
The second challenge Pakistanis facing is as onerous, but given our history, more difficult to confront. Even today, after suffering the worst disaster faced since 1971, there is no evidence that any coherent lessons have been learnt. An earthquake is a natural calamity we cannot wish away, nor ever specifically predict, like a hurricane or storm. It therefore requires a society built on shared ground rules and meticulous planning. Given that Pakistan’s major cities and towns, including Karachi and Lahore, are located on more than one global fault line, with the Indian tectonic plate moving under the Eurasian plate at the cautionary speed of one mm a week, it would be suicidal to ignore existing building codes and to institute new ones according to the seismic zoning of the area. It is important to understand that most of the deaths and injuries in this last earthquake took place because of collapsing buildings, not boulders hitting people. It will not be enough to say that in future all buildings will be constructed according to strict quake-proof specifications, or that school and hospital buildings will be retro-fitted for durability in the face of moving ground plates. It is a matter of life and death for governments and their functionaries to restore confidence in the law. The military government has to allow civilian parliaments and its local government counterparts to exercise real oversight on governance and make an example of violating contractors and building mafias. Sincerity of purpose can easily be demonstrated by issuing FIRs for all the contractors who were involved in the construction of the innumerable government buildings, schools and hospitals that collapsed like a house of cards, killing thousands of innocent people. Corrupt officials who sanctioned such structures, irrespective of their political protection or partisan pedigree, should be accorded the same exemplary justice.
A National Disaster Management plan urgently needs to be put in place, but can only have meaning if it reflects the voices of all political and non-partisan stakeholders. It cannot work with one General apologizing to the nation for the eighth largest standing army in the world for; well; just standing around, for days after the biggest natural crisis hit Pakistan. If General Musharraf is indeed committed to healing the wounds of a traumatized nation, he will allow the leaders of all political parties to sit at the table when he asks for an APC on relief and rehabilitation. No one individual’s personal animus should be allowed to narrow the mobilisational options of the Pakistani people in the face of such a tragedy. If he wants all political parties to do more than assist in relief work on the ground, he should not just allow, but invite the safe return of Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif. Time is running out for the cold, hungry and destitute in the mountains. Let us see if the General can put Pakistan before his personal likes and dislikes.
Sherry Rehman is a member of the Kashmir Committee in the National Assembly of Pakistan.