Negative fallout of disaster management
VIEW: Political fallout of relief work —Dr Hasan-Askari Rizvi
Unless the presidency and the army bring the civilian political leaders on board, in a couple of months they will face serious problems in dealing with the negative fallout of disaster management
The people and government of Pakistan are striving hard to cope with the earthquake disaster. The military, voluntary groups, political parties, non-government organisations and individuals have by now covered most of the devastated regions in Kashmir and the NWFP. The contribution of friendly countries and voluntary groups from abroad to the rescue and relief work has also been equally significant. They have provided helicopters, equipment, medical teams and hospitals, medicines and trained disaster-relief personnel.
The rescue and relief work over the last three weeks has raised a number of issues which need to be addressed if Pakistan is to enhance its capacity to cope with disasters in the future.
First, how can the state machinery, including the military, be mobilised expeditiously? Unnecessary delay and administrative confusion increase the human toll of such disasters.
Second, Pakistan must have disaster management arrangements that become operative on the first information of a major disaster — natural or man-made. Necessary technology and trained human power must be available all the time.
Third, a successful relief operation calls for cooperative interaction between the civil administration and the military. While the military clearly plays a crucial role in coping with such tragedies, the civilian establishment must be actively involved in the rescue and relief processes.
Fourth, civil society must be made an equal partner. NGOs and other civil society groups, political and religious leaders and elected representatives of the people should all be associated with the rescue and relief work. They are better acquainted with the area than state functionaries and the volunteers coming from outside. Also, the military and the bureaucracy cannot effectively tackle the political and human issues in the course of disaster management without the participation of the civil society and the elected representatives of the people.
Fifth, relief and reconstruction operations involve financial resources and goods as well as the implementation of rehabilitation and development plans. These affairs should be managed transparently. Details of the donations received and expenditure should be available to the public.
Media reports and comments of volunteers who reached the devastated areas on October 8-9 indicate that the government’s initial response to the tragedy was slow. The senior officials of the federal government took time to realise the scale of the disaster and lacked means to take charge of the affected areas. Leave alone the earthquake-affected areas in Kashmir and the NWFP, the collapse of the Margalla Tower on October 8 exposed the inadequacy of official rescue efforts. In the end a private sector real estate developer brought the machinery for removing the Tower’s debris. The arrival of rescuers next day boosted the rescue work.
The troops reached the calamity-hit areas in 48 to 72 hours and took some more time to start rescue work. It seems that the army followed the conventional procedures for movement of troops that take days rather than hours. Given the enormity of the tragedy, an extraordinary effort was needed. Explaining the delay in terms of damaged roads raises a serious question: what would the army do if India destroyed these roads in a war?
The delay in the army taking charge of rescue and relief operations enabled some opportunist anti-social elements to loot relief goods and steal whatever could be retrieved from the debris.
This critique does not aim to fix responsibility. Rather, it highlights that an early initial response to a disaster is key to successful rescue and relief work. Quick, efficient measures go a long way to cut human losses. The time it takes to respond to a crisis also reflects on the decision-making and organisational and management skills of the government.
President General Pervez Musharraf regretted this delay in his first address to the nation after the earthquake. It was a good statement and contributed to defusing public anger. It is amazing that a week or so later, army circles started arguing that there was no delay. An army helicopter, it was claimed, was sent to the area within half an hour of the earthquake and the troops were mobilised swiftly.
Such claims do not help because the private sector TV channels and the press had reported on the developments of the first three days in detail. The people criticised the army because the latter’s performance did not match their expectations. The high expectations are linked to the military consuming the lion’s share of national resources. Also, military-dominated governments have maintained for years that the military can salvage the situation where civilians fail. Inevitably people asked whether the army’s problematic initial response was on account off the extraordinary circumstances or a consequence of its expanded involvement in non-professional and political activities?
The army has virtually taken over the affected areas and the civil administration has either been rendered irrelevant or subordinated to it. The debates of the National Assembly show that most opposition members are critical of the government’s handling of the relief work. Some members of the ruling coalition too have criticised the government. Their bitterness is expected to increase on being denied a meaningful role in coping with the disaster.
The management of rescue, relief and reconstruction exclusively by the presidency and the army creates another problem. The people will hold the presidency and the army responsible for any deficiency and flaws in relief and reconstruction work. The media is already talking of inadequacy of the relief work.
The NWFP government is complaining about the federal government’s discriminatory policies in allocating resources for relief work. The provincial assembly has passed a resolution asking the federal government to include the elected representatives in the process. The chief minister has regretted that the five districts of the province that witnessed the most devastation were not getting their “due share in financial assistance”.
If such complaints are not tackled at the political level by opening up the disaster management process, grievances will abound. These would increase the alienation of the NWFP which already feels that it has not been paid its fair share of profits from power generation in the province.
A serious political flaw is the inability of the government (president and prime minister) to consult the major opposition parties. Given the opposition’s willingness to cooperate, the government should have pounced on the opportunity for consultation. This did not happen and during the last three weeks the opposition and the government have drifted further apart.
The presidency and the army need to recognise the relevance of the political institutions and leaders to relief and reconstruction work. Unless the presidency and the army open up the process — by bringing the civilian political leaders on board — in a couple of months they will face serious problems in dealing with the negative fallout of disaster management.
Dr Hasan-Askari Rizvi is a political and defence analyst