Sunday, November 14, 2010

ARDESHIR COWASJEE ARTICLES : Converting crisis into opportunity

Since 1947, the politicians of Pakistan have steadily developed this nifty art into a science. While the poor grow poorer, the Human Development Index falls, income disparities increase, the environment degrades, and 25-plus per cent exist below the poverty line, politicians, mainly feudals supported by other feudals, and urban industrialists/developers thrive. Can we utilise the present crisis to reverse this trend for the benefit of the have-nots of this country?
The 2010 floods have bared the poverty, backwardness and non-access to social facilities existing in rural Sindh. While most of us have vaguely heard of the inequities heaped on the peasantry by feudal lords and landowners, hundreds of city dwellers who interacted with IDPs over the past two months have witnessed the results first-hand.
Shehri, the environmental NGO, held a seminar recently on ‘Land Management & Resettlement in the Post-Flood Scenario’, and my friend and advisor Roland deSouza of Shehri reported back to me.
PPP-Z’s Taj Haider, the Sindh government’s coordinator for the flood relief programme, announced that one million plots of 80-100 square yards are to be established around eight towns in Sindh (Karachi, Thatta, Hyderabad, Kotri, Mirpurkhas, Larkana, Shaheed-Benazirabad, Sukkur) to resettle displaced families in ‘centralised villages’ near population centres, with access to industrial jobs, schools (70-80 per cent of IDP children have never seen one), health units, interconnecting roads and other social facilities. This will supplement the Watan cards, granting Rs20,000 in the first phase and Rs80,000 in the next.
He said that 35 per cent of agricultural output came from the floodplain areas and that 45 per cent of IDPs would have to return to farming livelihoods. No obstructions and encroachments will be allowed in the riverine area to restrict the flow of water (what is to happen to the housing encroachments near Sukkur, Hyderabad, etc?).
Now, with a current provincial population of some 45 million (half in the urban areas), the move of one million rural households (say six million people) to the urban fabric of Sindh would make a significant transformation in the demographics and vote-banks of the cities and towns where the MQM has held sway for decades.
Wooing depressed rural citizens with an innovative land-reform bill introduced earlier this month (a more palatable alternative to last month’s threat to forcefully occupy properties), the MQM could be worried as to how the future will affect their power structure.
Director-General of the Provincial Disaster Management Authority, Sualeh Farooqui, provided pertinent data: some 400 dead, seven million affected, 1.8 million in relief camps (50 per cent now repatriated), 0.8 million houses damaged, Rs464bn losses, many areas to remain under floodwater for a further three to six months, women/children most vulnerable with endemic malnutrition, but so far no cholera epidemic (it took nine months to emerge in Haiti), and so forth.
He admitted that the government has weak institutions, inadequate resources, and fragile legal regimes in Sindh’s rural towns. So, we must ask, how will this rocky government begin to cope with physical planning for land resettlement? With the uncertainties of events generated by climate change, ‘Disaster Risk Reduction’ (a systematic approach to identifying, assessing and reducing the risks of disaster) strategies need to be learnt, assimilated and implemented.
Dr Noman Ahmed of NED University and Babar Mumtaz of the UN-Habitat programme were upbeat about the opportunity the disaster creates to improve the lot of a large section of the populace: “As with the 2005 earthquake, the central ambition must be to ‘Build Back Better’ so that the outcome of the reconstruction is not just a replacement or reinstatement of what the floods have washed away, but that every opportunity is taken to improve upon and make good the deficiencies before the disaster. ‘Building Back Better’ refers not just to the houses and other physical structures and infrastructure, but the totality of the living environment: communities, social infrastructure and safety nets; it means enhancing livelihoods and reducing vulnerability, increasing opportunities and reducing constraints, increasing inclusiveness and reducing bias.”
With the government we have, and the post-earthquake experience, it is extremely difficult to envisage any ambition being achieved — we can only hope.
Yesterday, this newspaper printed urban expert Arif Hasan’s excellent article, ‘A town under water’, detailing and expanding on what needs to be done to rehabilitate small flood-affected towns. This should be mandatory reading for Chief Minister Qaim Ali Shah and his 18-member Sindh Rehabilitation and Reconstruction Council that was notified on Oct 27 and met the next day.
They will read that “post-disaster reconstruction in many countries has led to the creation of a better physical, social and governance environment…”.
Can our warring politicos in Sindh rise above their selfish and inward-looking games? Can they contemplate and then act with the aim of “enhancing livelihoods and reducing vulnerability, increasing opportunities and reducing constraints” for the poor of their province?
Can these short-sighted politicians reverse the perception of Charles de Gaulle of France that “In order to become the master, the politician poses as the servant….” and actually become the public servants of a deprived and powerless citizenry? This is an opportunity to get back onto the rails — it may not occur again.
Note: On the complicated matter of responsibility for the bund breaches, a judicial commission was formed last month comprising Justices Ghulam Nabi Soomro and Zahid Qurban Alvi. The issue and composition of the commission is being challenged in the high court by various Sindhi nationalist parties.

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