What floods can’t wash away

Ghazi Salahuddin
Sunday, Sep 04, 2022

There is something decrepit and old in rural Pakistan that the floods have not washed away. So, will it be any different when the waters that have drowned entire settlements in one-third of the country finally recede and the everyday existence of the people is gradually restored?

What evidence we have is compelling: the social degradation and subjugation of the poor has remained intact through our repeated upheavals. The state of misery and deprivation that the present floods have brought to the surface is the same or even worse than the condition that had emerged during the 2010 floods.

We do have a weakness of not being able to learn our lessons. That is how we did not take many preventive measures that could have reduced the impact and the pain of this unprecedented monsoon tragedy. But I am thinking more about the fragility and the state of the human rather than the physical infrastructure.

Let us look at the snapshots that portray the state of rural society. Elected leaders and local landlords are obliged to be seen on the scene, in the midst of their constituents and, in a sense, their ‘ryot’. Every such encounter underlines the gap between the feudal lords and the ‘wretched of the earth’. As if they live in separate worlds – which they do.

In recent days, the magnitude of the disaster Pakistan is now suffering has excited global concern. It has become evident that this catastrophe has exceeded the damage that the floods of 2010 had wrought. And the havoc caused in 2010 was in itself monumental, the kind that would provoke the nation to learn many lessons.

I remember spending much time in a large relief camp set up near Khairpur during those floods by an NGO with which my wife is associated. The state of those internally displaced persons, who came from a rather distant location, was pitiable. For example, there were children not going to schools. Women seemed to be totally marginalized. There were other attributes of a quality of deprivation that comes from a criminal lack of social development and a negation of social justice.

Incidentally, one knew the leader who had been elected by these people and had seen the glimpses of the life he lived. The idea here is not to be specific about how a number of feudal lords have been negligent about the fundamental needs and rights of the poor people who survive under their patronage. With whatever improvements that have been made in some sectors, the social subjugation of the poor has remained the same.

The point I am making is that natural disasters tend to reveal the strengths and weaknesses of a society and test the capacity of a system to deal with the havoc that is created. At the same time, disasters provide an opportunity to re-build many structures ‘nearer to the heart’s desire’.

An already impoverished country like Pakistan has suffered an unbearable loss in a disaster that observers have noted is of biblical proportions. Very tough times are ahead and the political whirlwind that is rising will make it harder for the coalition government, also burdened with economic stringency, to manage this crisis.

In this situation, inflation has hit the people like another storm. Food shortage in the near future is possible. There is also a threat of public disorder and widespread social unrest. Destitute people who seek food and shelter have the potential of disturbing the equilibrium of a society.

One silver lining is that philanthropic organizations, civil society activists and concerned citizens have come out in a big way to provide relief to flood victims. They are doing this with a passion that restores one’s confidence in the social commitment of our people. This is one area, philanthropy, in which we excel. The official agencies are also in the field – and they bear a larger responsibility and have greater resources to rescue and protect the displaced families.

Eventually, those who have suffered the most in rural settlements will need to be empowered with education and human dignity and a sense of freedom to live their lives as they wish. For too long have they suffered subjugation and exclusion and neglect, undermining our ability to deal with natural disasters and to confront other challenges to national cohesion.

It would be expected that the massive dislocation that the floods have caused will also sow the seeds of social change. A dominant aspect of that change should be the mainstreaming of the marginalized and the emancipation of the suppressed sections of our society, mainly the women. And this has to be done across the entire spectrum of the body politic.

But the focus on the agricultural communities and rural settlements is dictated by the plight of those who have been affected by the floods. They are in such a state of misery that they hardly have any strength left to fight for their survival. The landowners – a part of the ruling elite that has usurped the wealth of this nation – have a vested interest in maintaining this relationship of social and democratic inequality.

Talking about this feudal class, I am reminded of the apparently subversive views of a former country head of UNDP. I have previously quoted him from an interview that was published some years ago after his departure. Its heading was: ‘Pakistani elite needs to decide whether or not they want a country’.

The concluding paragraph of that interview said: “I have visited some very large landowners who have exploited the land for centuries, paid nearly zero money for the water and how they almost sometimes hold people in bondage. And they come to the United Nations or other agencies and ask us to invest in water, sanitation, and education for the people in their district. I find that quite embarrassing”.

Ah, but the capacity of our ‘very large landowners’ to be embarrassed is as limited as the lives of their constituents.

The writer is a senior journalist. He can be reached at: ghazi_salahuddin