In-Depth On The Cover

Victims of neglect

Published 17 Mar, 2015 07:21pm

“Since early morning I have been observing the loading and unloading of hundreds of food packets from trucks but nobody has handed me even one of them,” complains 65-year-old Khurshidan sitting at the entrance of Shaheed Benazir Bhutto Auditorium in Sindh’s Mirpurkhas district. The auditorium is provisionally being utilised to store relief supplies.

She is one of the millions of people displaced from their homes by extraordinarily heavy monsoon rains in the southern parts of Sindh. Many of them, like her, have received no assistance and those who have complain of delays and political and religious discrimination. Still others say that the landowners that they work for are forcing them to leave relief camps and resume their duties in half-submerged fields. Across the nine Sindh districts hit hard by the rains, stories of neglect, despair and destitution are everywhere.

The government, on the other hand, hides its inefficiency and inadequacy behind flood forecasts gone wrong and contingency plans turned upside down. “The [flooded districts of the province] have not had so much rain for over a century,” says the Pakistan Meteorological Department (Met Department). For the Provincial Disaster Management Authority (PDMA), rains were as unforeseen as they were for the meteorologists (see box on Sindh rainfall). “It was an unexpected disaster,” says a PDMA official. “In June, the Met Department had forecast 10 per cent below normal overall rainfall during July-September 2011 monsoon season,” he says.

A letter that Met Department Director-General Arif Mahmood wrote to the provincial authorities on June 13, 2011 verifies his claim. “Pakistan summer monsoon rainfall is invariably affected by the global, regional and local climatic conditions prevailing prior to the season. Analysis of the combined effect indicates that total amount of rainfall averaged over Pakistan during monsoon season (July-September) 2011 will remain 10 per cent below normal.” With the letter predicting that “there are chances of about 10 per cent above normal rainfall in northern half of Pakistan including Punjab, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province and Kashmir,” the PDMA had focused on riverine floods (caused by rains in the upper catchment areas of the Indus and other rivers) in its flood contingency plan for 2011. Since there were no prior predictions for severe rain or flash flooding in the lower parts of Sindh, the authority had made no preparations to cope with that.

The consequences of the unprecedented rainfall and the lack of preparedness have been devastating. An interim report by the Pakistan Space and Upper Atmosphere Research Commission (Suparco) noted around 6,500 square kilometres, comprising mostly fertile farmland and thickly populated townships, were still under water on October 13 — more than four weeks after the last downpour. The stagnating water has not only damaged 80 per cent of cotton crop in the flooded areas but has also endangered the sowing of wheat, a major winter crop. Provisional figures compiled by the PDMA – a thorough assessment of damage and needs did not even begin by the end of the last month – show that around 10 million people have been affected.

The victims of rains and flooding have disturbing tales to share. In the first six weeks after the rains had started, victims say, most families displaced from their homes survived on officially supplied food barely enough for two weeks for an average family comprising six people. “For one week immediately after the rains the government provided us cooked rice twice daily but since then each family has received only two packs of provisions,” says Noor Khapri who is living in a makeshift hut on Kunari-Umerkot Road in Haji Aleem Khan Khapri Goth in subdivision Kunari. According to him, all 34 families living in the village had not received any assistance for the 15 days ending on October 11.

The PDMA, however, claims it had by October 19 distributed three million food packets (see box on ration packs) among the flood victims besides providing them 312,400 tents. The disparity between these official figures and on-the-ground situation across the rain-damaged districts, however, was glaring. The flood victims who managed to reach urban centres – district towns or subdivisional headquarters – might have received ample assistance but those who did not leave their villages – either because they did not want to or because they could not due to financial and logistical constraints – did not appear to have received anything after initial food assistance. No non-food items, such as tents, medicines, mosquito nets and water filter plants, reached them. “Only in the first 15 days [after the rains] did we get potable water through a tanker but now we have to bring water from a hand pump about two miles from here wading through stagnant rain water,” says Mithro Bheel, a peasant camped on a sand dune near his village in union council Bolari of subdivision Diplo bordering Badin and Tharparkar districts.

Many flood victims complain that the official response to their plight was slow. “The relief arrived quite late and is very little,” says Mohammad Bukhsh Khapri, the treasurer of the Rural Development Initiatives, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) in Mirpurkhas. Officials at the PDMA admit that there has been some delay but they blame it on rain that fell in two spells and the rules under which they get involved in relief activities.

The first rain spell started in early August and ended by the middle of that month while the second spell began in late August and ended in early September, says a PDMA official. “During the first spell, the disaster didn’t look threatening. There were estimates that a couple of hundred thousand people would be affected,” he tells the Herald. The rules say that district governments will handle a disaster of that magnitude, he adds. But when the second spell broke loose and devastation spread, only then did the provincial and federal governments get involved, asking the United Nations to launch an appeal for international assistance, he explains. This, according to his version, delayed the availability of relief goods to those displaced in the first rain spell.

Politics also seems to have resulted in selective distribution of relief goods. In almost all flood-devastated districts, I heard peasants say that they did not get any assistance from the government or from the NGOs. Instead, they said, they got their packs of provisions from the landowners that they worked for. How the official and non-official assistance ended up with these landowners is where politics comes in. “We have no role in distributing relief goods. Our job is to handover the goods to the DCO [district coordination officer] of the district concerned,” says a PDMA official. He explains that Sindh Chief Minister Qaim Ali Shah has formed district relief committees to oversee relief work.

In the districts I visited in October, ministers, members of the National Assembly or the member of Sindh Assembly belonging to the ruling coalition were heading these committees. They were channeling relief goods through their local supporters who, in most rural areas, happened to be local landowners. In some cases, the heads of the committees were reported to have distributed relief goods purely on the basis of the political affiliation of the victims. Those belonging to their rival political camp would get nothing. “Food packets and other relief goods are provided to those whom [Munawar Ali] Talpur approves,” says Mohammad Bukhsh Khapri, referring to the federal legislator of the ruling Pakistan Peoples Party from the area.

The landowners also used relief goods for their personal economic benefit to either keep the peasants in their villages or bring them back from the camps as soon as the floodwaters started to recede. They need the peasants to save whatever is left of their cotton and chilli crops (see box on losses to cotton and chilli crops). Roji Kohli, a peasant in Umerkot district explains how his landowner’s men brought 21 families – including his own – back to their village from a relief camp in order to collect the leftovers of the cotton crop. “Our landlord told us to go away when his cotton and chilli fields became fully inundated and the continuous rain completely destroyed our food stocks. He told us that he didn’t have anything to feed us nor could he give us a loan. So we did a 40 kilometre trek from Kunri [a subdivision of district Umerkot] to Thar,” says Kohli living in a tent city set up by a relief organisation on Umerkot-Chahchro Road. “Two weeks later when the water receded and access to flooded villages became possible, our landlord’s men came swiftly to our camp and took all the families back to the village to pick cotton bolls [green pods] from cotton plants not submerged in water,” he adds. In all the seven districts – from Badin to Sanghar – that I visited in the middle of October, peasants sitting in makeshift huts along roads, canals and embankments narrated the same wretched story over and over again.

With water still stagnant in the fields where the landowners were making the peasants work, safety clearly had taken a back seat. In Hussain Bukhsh Marri subdivision of Mirpurkhas district I saw young girls rushing out of a submerged cotton field crying that there was a snake in there. Belonging to the low-caste Bheel community of Hindus, they were picking cotton bolls that floodwaters had not destroyed, Krishan, the head of their family, tells me.

Dr Sono Khangarani, who heads Sindh-based NGO Thardeep Rural Development Programme, believes that many problems in relief and assistance are rooted in the political and bureaucratic bias towards lower Sindh, particularly its 35 per cent low-caste Hindu population. “Last year when the flood submerged upper Sindh, the powerful ruling class which holds important portfolios in both federal and provincial cabinets and which comes from the upper parts of the province worked day and night to provide relief, strengthened flood protection embankments and opened government warehouses of wheat and rice to ensure continuous supply of food to victims for months,” he says. “This time round no such thing has happened because the majority of affected people are low-caste Hindu peasants,” he claims.

While his allegations are open to debate, there can be no argument about the fact that the government needs to plug the political as well as administrative gaps in its disaster management. Another mishandled disaster may not even let people like Khurshidan and Krishan survive to complain about delays and discrimination.