( published in daily The Age Australia on 14 August 2010 )
THERE were still two hours before daybreak. The town was swept over by a silence filled with heat and humidity. Four hundred thousand human beings were sleeping in their homes. Almost the same number were sheltered in the refugee camps in and around the town. They had been displaced from their homes in the surrounding villages, which had been inundated.
Two hours before daybreak the pitch-dark silence was pierced by loud announcements relayed from the mosques dotted all around. The people were being asked to vacate the town. The flood was approaching them fast. The two rivers, guarding the town on its right and left, had swelled.
In no time, all types of vehicles from cars, trucks and wagons to horse-driven carts, had choked the road to Multan, the nearest city. In South Asia, on all such occasions two things happen: traffic lawlessness that makes the caravan move at snail's pace and victimisation from raised transport fares.
This happened on August 9 in Muzaffargarh, a town almost in the middle of Pakistan and south of Punjab, the largest province. It was one of hundreds of towns and thousands of villages that faced a similar exodus of panic-stricken inhabitants during the current unprecedented floods, which have turned the people speechless.
The disaster started out in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, formerly known as North-West Frontier Province, bordering Afghanistan and a long-time victim of bomb blasts masterminded by religious extremists. After ravaging a substantial part of the land, drowning hundreds and making thousands destitute, the flooding crossed the provincial borders, devastating the fertile plains of Punjab and Sindh, two other provinces, and it is not over yet.
The impact has been horrendous. One-third of the country is inundated. More than 100 towns have been wiped out. The number of affected people, according to a United Nations report, exceeds 14 million. Millions have lost their homes, shops and factories. Many are waiting, on their roofs, to be rescued. Roads, railway tracks and bridges are no more. Social and economic infrastructure has been annihilated. A careful estimate quantifies the loss as 45 billion Pakistani rupees ($A580 million) but it is certainly an understatement as destruction of millions of hectares of arable land and standing crops is simply not possible to be computed. In any case the magnitude of loss is far greater than that caused by the colossal earthquake five years ago.
But the bigger tragedy is the myopic political leadership and the inability of state apparatus to confront the challenge. Community-based disaster preparedness is completely lacking mainly because of a high rate of illiteracy. Add to this the dissipation of the British administrative set-up by General Pervez Musharraf's despotic regime.
The real misfortune, however, is the quality of leadership. The President should not have embarked on a foreign trip, but those who are present have not shown any commendable performance either. Of four chief ministers, only one, that of Punjab, can be seen struggling to reach the needy. The army chief has also worked tirelessly.
The disaster is too big to be handled by a couple of enthusiasts. Most political leaders have not been able to make it to their constituencies. The few who did, could not rise above petty parochial considerations. Some are reported to have been more active about saving their personal fortunes.
The Prime Minister has appealed to the world community to extend aid. But will the world respond? It is not easy to answer this question: the Pakistani leadership's record on using foreign aid transparently has not been enviable.
The aid received for the 2005 earthquake is a case in point. A special organisation, the Earthquake Relief and Rehabilitation Authority, was created to manage the inflow. Five years down the line and the rehabilitation is still ''going on''. This authority is perhaps the only such body in the known world to have showered its employees with six months' pay as a bonus - a practice prevailing only in production-oriented organisations. The procurement of pricey luxury vehicles with the donation money has been another cause of concern. Hence there is not much hope for a positive reply to the Prime Minister's call.
Pakistanis generally do not trust government relief agencies. People prefer to give to non-public charities. This credibility gap provides space to extremist religious organisations. Lashkar-e-Taiba, accused by Indians of the 2008 Mumbai attacks, is one such outfit. Its charitable wing is distributing drinking water, food and medicine to thousands of affected people each day.
Western diplomats in Islamabad are concerned. These charity wings display banners and flags of their mother organisations. The masses, sick of corruption by politicians and the incompetence of the bureaucracy, naturally welcome them. Thus soft corners are created. It paves the way to recruitment of jihadists.
Lasting goodwill is the real capital these organisations are gaining. The tragic paradox is that the poorest areas of the country, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and south Punjab, which have been proving nurseries for militants, are the worst hit by the flood.
The scenario is allowing militants a golden opportunity to entrench further by providing social services at a grassroots level and winning sympathy.
The floods have put an already fragile economy into a shambles. Rehabilitation will take decades. It will not be out of place to mention here that the country, since its birth six decades ago, has been suffering from monstrous social and economic evils such as feudalism, illiteracy and corruption.
Pakistan is still protecting the most primitive land-ownership pattern in the world. Big landlords foil efforts to establish educational institutions in their areas. Many school buildings are being used as cattle pens. Finding ways not to pay tax is the order of the day.
Nawaz Sharif, the opposition leader and head of the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) or PML(N), the second biggest political party, owns plants and properties in Jeddah and London and assets worth billions of dollars within the country. He paid only 5000 rupees last year in income tax.
Likewise the other politicians who enjoy a jet-set lifestyle: against this backdrop, the rehabilitation work will be an uphill task. Social sectors, already allocated insignificant budgetary provisions, will not be able to supply the needs of the public for quite some time. No wonder militant organisations, sprinkling dispensaries and seminaries, thrive in this vacuum.
Muhammad Izhar ul Haq is a poet and journalist who lives in Melbourne and Islamabad.