Confronting a National Calamity
By Dr Shireen M. Mazari


There are so many developments that one felt motivated enough to comment upon this week, but the national calamity of the earthquake that struck our country on October 8 put everything in an altered perspective. The sheer scale of the destruction has left such a sense of helplessness in the face of this force of nature, that one compulsively continues to watch the scenes of horror relayed through the media in an effort to make the unbelievable believable. That the innocent were the worst hit makes it even more difficult to accept, and the impact of the devastation and destruction has impacted almost everyone across the country in one way or another.
Of course any natural disaster leaves one with a sense of tragic helplessness, but when it happens to one's own, it has an altogether different dimension of suffering and the loss of so many from amongst us, makes one wonder how our nation will recover from this tragedy.
But the scale of the disaster has also brought to the fore the innate empathy and spirit of giving that still pervades the nation. Of course, the help from the international community has been a critical input in the relief efforts, especially in terms of provision of specialist relief help and some of the private international donations, like the one from a Chinese businessman in Hong Kong, have been humbling, as has been the super human commitment to rescue efforts by teams of British, Chinese, Turkish, Iranian, French and many other nationals. At moments like these, one can only show gratitude for whatever help that the international community gives -- since it is not incumbent upon anyone to do so. And whatever the politics, this is not the time to comment or take issue on that count -- even if one is at a loss to understand why a national tragedy should be seen as a means to improve relations with India which have their own dynamics embedded in some very real conflictual issues. In these tragic times, all international help evokes a sense of immense gratitude and strength.
Beyond this, what has really been absolutely heart rending has been the response of our own nation -- from all over the country. The response of civil society has been the greatest source of strength for this grieving nation and the manner in which everyone has come forward not only with material help, but also with offerings of their time and professional skills for all manner of tasks has been a binding force in this moment of trial for the nation. Realizing the inadequacies and limitations of state infrastructure and response times, volunteers have organized their assistance through their own means. In the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, rescue efforts were initiated and sustained by local people and volunteer professionals. The state's response was slow even in Islamabad because of a lack of capacity and also the non-existence of rapid disaster response structures. But the people of this nation have not been found wanting on any count. From those who used their bare hands to try and dig out survivors from the rubble of collapsed structures to those who immediately organized teams of volunteer doctors and aid packages to be sent to the disaster sites, to the millions who gave whatever they could to those who desperately sought some way or the other to contribute, there has been a sense that the nation can respond effectively to the needs of its people with an unquestioning sense of commitment. In terms of monetary and material contributions, this nation has delivered.
So this is not the time for negativism, but the massive humanitarian spirit of the majority of this nation has also highlighted the meanness and profiteering opportunism of a few who chose to up the price of truck rentals and necessities like blankets and the latha for coffins. And just as one was thankful that there was no large scale looting in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, especially at the site of the Margalla Towers in Islamabad, one heard reports of the organized looting that did in fact take place at this site.
And while no one could have prevented the earthquake and its devastation, questions do arise about whether we could have reduced the loss of human life even by a small margin if proper rules had been enforced in terms of building laws. This is not just with reference to the collapse of Margalla Towers in Islamabad, which was a most tragic reflection not only of the CDA's inability or lack of desire to enforce the rules that do exist on paper, but also of the continuous changing of rules to accommodate influential or monetary pressures. Not only had the CDA changed its building rules in terms of the percentage of built up area on a plot of land, it continues to change laws allowing for ever more built up areas on small plots also.
One hears that this time round someone will be held responsible for what happened to Margalla Towers, but we have to wait and see. After all, who was eventually penalized for the avoidable tragedy of Sozo Park in Lahore? But, the tragedy of lax rules and accommodations made in terms of building standards extends beyond Islamabad. After all, look at the tragic collapse of buildings, especially schools in the worst hit areas of the earthquake. Were there even basic building rules being enforced here in terms of public places like courts, schools and universities? It is common practice to build schools in villages and small towns with barely any foundations at all. You just raise four walls and put on a roof. Now we have lost an entire future generation as a result. Will we now learn some lessons from this nightmare? Will the faces of those dead children haunt our consciences as we seek to flaunt regulations? So far our record on this count is abysmal.
Once the immediate needs of the human tragedy have been dealt with, there is a need to expose the criminals within our nation whose actions lead directly to death and destruction. Which brings us to the role of the state and its response to this earthquake. Given the limitations inherent in our state infrastructures and resources, the state's response was quick to take shape after the initial shock. But the people in the outlying areas have had to face days without state help. Could not food and blankets have been airdropped more rapidly to the outlying areas? Also, while the presence on the ground of the President and Prime Minister are a source of comfort that one has not been forgotten, ministers and other state functionaries serve no purpose by constantly using up state resources to tour disaster sites. In fact, they often impede rescue work through the time-consuming VIP routines. And they do add to people's resentment and anger.
Our nation has indeed come through with a remarkable spirit of humanism and Pakistanis have shown they are indeed a fine people. Certainly, this is not a time for negativism, but it should be a time for serious introspection.
(The writer is director general of the Institute of Strategic Studies in Islamabad. Courtesy The News)


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