Management of a Disaster

Dawn, October 16, 2005
Management of a disaster
By Kunwar Idris

THE Pakistan army has come to occupy the centre-stage in the country’s politics and administration. The politicians and the civil servants may accept or resent this situation, as they varyingly do, but are compelled to take a role subordinate to the soldiers, or quit if they don’t.

That is in times normal. In the havoc wrought by the earthquake they are hardly seen playing any role at all. The distressed people must be wondering who would have done, whatever little is being done for them, if the soldiers were not there. The people cannot be faulted for carrying this impression. A sad but hard fact to be recognized is that army is the only effective and disciplined institution left in the country today. All others stand diminished or subverted.

This is recognition of a fact — and not a tribute, but an indictment. The army’s repeated interventions in civil affairs on the pretext of rooting out corruption or restoring law arid order and then staying on and on to reform the system (the reform as the commanders view it) have not only shattered the political parties, the civil services and indeed civil society itself but has also made them all irresponsible. No other event or argument can underline this position more forcefully than the harrowing tragedy of the earthquake.

In managing the current crisis, the civil administrator; at all levels and of all vocations have been silent spectators and the ministers and other politicians only haranguing. The district administration, which used to be the pivotal point of action and source of relief in all calamities — natural or man-made — has all but ceased to exist. This action and responsibility both now stand transferred not even to provincial capitals but to Islamabad.

The involvement of the federal government and of the army in an operation of this vast and tragic proportions was indeed necessary and inevitable but the rescue and relief would have been managed quicker and better were it to be assessed and supervised by the district administration. The criticism for delay and neglect then, too, would have been directed at the local officials and not at the president and the army commanders.

The councillors and nazims have a role to play in community and civic affairs but they cannot be a substitute for professional administrators at all times and more particularly in an emergency. In the system introduced by General Musaharraf, the nucleus of administration its a district where all departments were represented has disintegrated.

The real worth of the deputy commissioner or district magistrate lay not in his powers or even competence but in providing a forum for the representatives of all departments — federal, provincial or autonomous — to assemble and coordinate their activities whenever the circumstances so demanded.

Now all of them have to wait for instructions or orders from their superiors in the provincial or federal capitals before they act. Such a phenomenon was observed by Nick Bryant of BBC at a destruction site where the men of an organization were present but waited for instructions from above before extending a helping hand to the people buried in the rubble.

The decentralization of authority is an obvious necessity but more important in an emergency is that the officials on the spot should lie able to act even beyond the delegated authority. This view of administration was articulated well by Sir Bartle Frere in a communication to John Lawrence.

He wrote: “There is always in India (read Pakistan) some need for public servants acting without order on the assurance that when their superiors hear their reasons, their acts will be approved and confirmed; and 1 hold that when you have extinguished that feeling of mutual confidence between superior and subordinate authorities and made public men timid you will have removed one great safeguard of our Indian empire. It does not take long to bridle a body of public servants as to paralyse their power of acting without order”.

In Pakistan it hasn’t taken long at all. What Frere said 150 years ago is as relevant to the republic of Pakistan as it was to the Indian empire. The great pity is that now the public servants fail, or refuse, to do even what lies in their power without orders from their superiors (read ministers). No doubt then that the local administration was paralysed when the people were dying and the looters were revelling.

All authority at the centre and a paralysed administration in the field has cost lives which could have been saved in the rescue and relief phase of the disaster. A source of further worry, however, is that in implementing the measures the president outlined in his broadcast of last Wednesday (timely and well thought out though it was) the same mistake may be repeated on a larger scale in the reconstruction and rehabilitation phase.

The impression one got was that all the controls will continue to lie in Islamabad and the authority in the army commanders. Every stricken area has its own needs and priorities. The authority, therefore, should vest in the district or in a field unit specially defined in relation to the disaster. Islamabad should provide the money, the army may help but the implementation should be made a responsibility of the local administration. That might bring life back to normal in a year and not three or four as the president imagines or his central advisers propose.

Two more quick thoughts in a situation of grief and helplessness. First, if our 10,000 or more madressahs could raise legions large and inspired enough to conquer Afghanistan, surely they could have provided fewer volunteers to help their own suffering people. That is the spirit of the doctrine of jihad. The jihad they launched has ended up in terror. Second, we should recognize our friends by the help they render and not the faith they profess.


sepoy said…
Learned helplessness....which is why I find opinions about the "not-yet" of democracy in Pakistan so infruriating. We had historian Taqi Bangash here in Chicago - spouting that partyline of "Pakistan is not ready for democracy yet". I almost put my head through the wall. And he briefs the doers in DC. sigh.

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