Where Were They?
By Dr M S Jillani
A peculiarity of the October 8 calamity was the collapse of the administrative
machinery in most of the quake-ravaged areas. What followed was equally amazing
and ignominious: the nazims and councillors of the area were also missing from
the scene as if they did not exist. The mystery of the missing civil administration
was soon unravelled. The quake occurred at a time when offices had just started
their day and most officials were in their offices. Since the majority of public
buildings in the quake-affected towns perished in the tragedy, those under their
roofs were buried alive or were hit by the debris. A majority of officials disappeared,
creating a huge void. Survivors became preoccupied with the destruction of homes
and deaths in the family. Many rushed to their ancestral villages to inquire
about their parents and other relatives. They started returning to their offices
only after they had attended to their near and dear ones. Administration gradually
returned to normal, assisted by officials from other provinces and the army.
The conspicuous absence of elected local public representatives in the quake-affected
areas days after the quake remains inexplicable, however. The argument of attending
to close relatives in remote areas does not fully apply to local representatives
as practically all of them were supposed to be residents of the locality. An
explanation forwarded by nazims and councillors is that the quake struck at
a time when the newly elected council members and office bearers had not taken
over and the old one’s had become lame ducks. This alibi raises a plethora
of questions regarding the nature and duties of grass root representatives.
The local government system was initiated to promote public-minded persons in
the community who would apply their sense of community service to create a better
life for the people. Callousness during a national tragedy, whatever the reasons,
amounts to gross dereliction of duty as a community leader and a negation of
the moral obligation to help those in distress.
A disgusting argument for the inactivity of the elected local government members
is the contention that the lack of ‘power’ of the nazims and councillors
discouraged them to surface during the rescue and relief operations. If this
line of argument is accepted, none of the thousands of volunteers and philanthropists
from all over the country would have been there. Does one need somebody’s
permission or authority to serve humanity in an emergency? Elected officials,
by the very nature of their duties, are expected to lead a campaign to muster
support to providing relief to the people. They have not done any service to
themselves, their voters or the system they stand for by keeping a low profile.
The local government officials, however, were not the only one’s who
did not come out to perform their duties. Political parties, especially the
ruling Muslim League, also could not mark their presence as they should have.
The Muttahida Qaumi Movement, on the other hand, came all the way from Karachi
and Sindh to participate in rescue and relief operations. Religious political
parties, especially the Jamaat-e-Islami and parts of the Majlis-e-Amal, started
their operations almost immediately after the earthquake. The most surprising
participants in post-earthquake activities were members of banned religious
groups known as jihadis who ran some of the best organised and most effective
services for displaced persons. It goes to the credit of the people of Pakistan
that they ran emergency and relief services comparable with those of the most
prestigious international organisations. But the bane of the situation was the
half-hearted involvement of celebrities, who as epitomes of the will of the
people should have been in the forefront of public service.
It can be conceded that many of the nazims, councillors and political workers
might have been busy caring for their own families or chose to shun publicity.
But authentic media reports have indicated that many of these ‘notables’
used their influence and connections to waylay relief goods to distribute them
among their relatives and cronies rather than taking them to the survivors at
large. In one of the worst-hit districts of the Mansehra area, an ex-nazim did
not allow even a blanket or water bottle to reach the needy; the bulk of the
consignment landed in his vast mansion. Some other representatives’ stores
were raided by the army to retrieve usurped relief goods. A good deal of food
and warm clothing did not reach remote areas because they were hijacked on the
way. How much should one lament this attitude during a massive tragedy? And
how much of the relief material made its way to the market through these ‘personal
storages’? Avarice is an established human weakness. But there exists
a system of justice unique to humans. Although we have a dismal record of punishing
wrongdoers, especially the corrupt, yet will it not be a valuable deterrent
in society to take strict action over the deviant activities of a group that
is supposed to serve as a base for the local government system? It becomes all
the more important for the image of Pakistan as foreign NGOs and relief organisations
will carry stories home.
The real problem that the nation should ponder is the probable lack of will
among the members of the local government, and definite failure to inspire the
local population to engage in rebuilding lives in the quake-hit areas. If the
gap created by the dismemberment of the old administrative machinery at the
district level is taken into consideration, the role of the local government
functionaries becomes crucial. Experiences of the aftermath of October 8 have
not been promising. Report after report has indicated that the local population
opted to act as spectators rather than participate in relief operations carried
out by outside teams; their plea was that they had already done their part of
rescuing and entombing, now others should do it on their behalf. Deplorable
as this attitude was, it reflected a lack of leadership which could guide and
control. Emergencies usually bring forth leadership. In the case of the devastated
districts, the potential leadership shied away. Instead it sprouted in Karachi,
Lahore, Peshawar, etc, and the army rather than Muzaffarabad, Bagh or Alai.
The leadership that materialised gradually comprised senior civil servants who
survived and the army, besides throngs of politicians and ‘merit-makers’
who visited these areas for photo sessions and to dispense pearls of wisdoms.
Since we, as a nation, suffer from a dementia of sorts, we will forget most
of what could constitute lessons for the future. The aftermath of October 8
calls for a serious review of the devolved system that we are trying to establish,
especially the role of the administrative set-up left by the British: After
all, why did not India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh feel the need to change it?
And why did not local community development programmes enunciated over the years
suggest major changes in the administrative set-up, even theoretically? Mid-term
reviews, anyway, are a standard practice.
The writer is a former federal secretary with an academic background in economics
Date Created: 12/13/05
Date/Time Last Modified: 12/13/2005 2:33:49 PM
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