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October 29, 2005

A nation discovers its soul

By Sardar Aseff Ahmad Ali

(Printed in DAWN, A Pakistani Daily published from Karachi,

A PART of Pakistan died on October 8 in an act of God. Chunks of Kashmir and the NWFP simply slid to extinction. A devastation beyond any reckoning bore upon our country. The death toll may well soar to over 100,000, with as many injured, and over three million made homeless. Hamlets. villages, towns and cities were turned to rubble.

The worst fatalities were among school-going children, mothers and aged people. For 72 hours they screamed from under the rubble for help, or sought food, water and shelter. But the state apparatus was numbed into inertia. The president and prime minister missed no photo opportunity to appear at the site of the Margalla Towers collapse. The Peshawar corps commander declared that foreign media was exaggerating the death toll. Another retired general, now education minister, called parliamentary criticism unfair, saying that the army had also suffered enormous human losses and did not cause the earthquake. It’s as though civilians wer e children of a lesser god.

The first 72 hours were a picture of destruction, death, chilling screams, thirst, hunger, exposure, mass burials, injuries, separations; a people crying to be saved, to be dug out from under the debris. But for the rulers in Islamabad only the Margalla Towers mattered. They had no disaster management plans, no organization to put gigantic relief into operation, no information system to assess the enormity of the disaster, and no coordination for an efficient delivery of relief materials.

Bureaucrats blundered, generals erred, spin doctors lied and excuses were galore. Public criticism was considered unreasonable.

In the awesome tragedy, a nation discovered its soul. It decided to respond like it had in 1947. The people opened their sad hearts. The out-pouring of grief and sympathy brought the best in them. Battered by over half a century of misgovernance, corruption, arrogant military rulers, institutional decay, rigged electio ns, broken promises, erosion of values in rulers, poverty, deprivation, ethnic and sectarian violence, a breakdown in civil order, denial of human and legal rights, land and drug mafias, ignorance, ill-health, a breakdown of the judicial system, a dysfunctional parliament, an eroded civil administration, increased poverty, lack of employment opportunities, an unelected general lording it over the country’s affairs, popular leaders exiled, mainstream parties sidelined, provinces bitter with over-centralization, civil war in Fata — who could believe the people of Pakistan had it in their hearts to rise like a sphinx from the ashes of so much decay? They gave with open hearts and continue to do so.

Civil society rose with one massive endeavour to reach their stricken brethren. Mohalla committees, anjumans, schools, colleges, unions, associations, trade bodies, business concerns, villages, town professionals, shopkeepers, artists, writers and journalists were energized into a ction. Politicians declared a moratorium on public dissent. Caravans of trucks, cars, pick-ups, motorcycles moved into Kashmir and the NWFP to deliver relief goods and do rescue and relief work.

Where the state had failed, the citizen was the real hero. While the citizen discovered his soul, the state showed it had none. Will the state provide inspiring leadership to the nation is now the cardinal question. Chances are it won’t. Look at General Musharraf. He wants to go it alone. He has no intention of national reconciliation. A rare opportunity which the disaster has unwittingly provided to heal the wounds will be lost. A chance to bring the country together in the face of a national tragedy will be frittered away.

The relief operation mercifully is now getting into some shape. But instead of making it more efficient, it is being depicted as glorification of the army. Has anybody cared to inform Gen Musharraf that coming out in aid of civil power is a constitutional duty of the armed forces (Article 245-I) and not a favour to the relief-stricken people of Kashmir and the NWFP.

Despite the indifference and inertia of army personnel in the first 72 hours, we are still proud of our armed forces. Despite Gen Musharraf’s attitude, we claim the armed forces as ours.

Will the president ease the life of people of Waziristan and negotiate an honourable settlement with the tribes of Fata? I don’t think so because it is his compulsion to secure political support for his regime from the US administration.

Will there be any serious attempt to curtail massive wasteful expenditure of the federal and provincial governments to mobilize resources for the stricken people. Unlikely; ministers and generals must have bullet-proof cars to protect them from their nation. Musharraf needs 6,000 peoples to secure his life. Hundreds of departments, sub-departments, wings, directorates, etc., flourish with little to show for themselves. A third if not half of the PML-Q in parliament are ministers.

About foreign emergency and reconstruction assistance, I don’t expect more than one billion dollars, when the needs are beyond five billion. The Nato response is a good indicator of the donor fatigue arising out of the tsunami and Katrina disasters. President Bush needs a billion dollars every other day to fight his illegal war in Iraq, but has little to dole out to his beleaguered ally in the war on terror.

The World Bank, Asian Development Bank and the Islamic Development Bank now offer us loans to add to Pakistan’s debt burden. The fattened coffers of oil-rich monarchies are not about to cause a minor dent in their holdings for the sake of their Muslim brethren.

So Pakistan will be left to its devices to cope with this national disaster. This is just as well for our battered pride and for lost sovereignty, sacrificed at the altar of a military ruler’s imperatives. We can rebuild our battered territories and the l ives of our people. One and half billion dollars will need to be pulled out of our federal forex reserve every year. This should meet the dollar requirements of reconstruction.

A fourth of the annual federal development plan will have to be diverted for reconstruction to meet the rupee component. Reconstruction of the infrastructure is the federal government’s task, which includes utilities, roads, etc.

New towns and cities would need to be planned — better, stronger and more functional. Regarding rebuilding homes, hamlets, and villages this mustn’t be a bureaucratic prerogative. It should be inclusive and supervized by the local communities who must determine their own needs. A core of volunteers needs to be raised to channel the energies of Pakistan’s youth who are eager to contribute.

The people of Pakistan have spoken through their deeds. Will the government and state listen? Will it improve its governance? Will it correct its ways? Will it create an atmosph ere of national healing and reconciliation so vital to reconstruction? Will it become inclusive and won’t attempt to go it alone? Will it return to the constitutional way of civilized life? Will it re-align its policies in rhythm with the nation’s hopes, aspirations and its self-respect or will it continue to surrender its sovereignty to serve foreign causes?

The writer is a former foreign minister.

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