The floods, government and women

By: Najma Sadeque
Published in: The News International, August 24, YOU Magazine

The images of the helpless poor gone mad with hunger, and the fury and grief of those who lost everything they had – which wasn’t much to begin with – brings to mind what happens when people have nothing left to lose.

One of the starkest examples goes back less than a hundred years ago. The First World War took ten million lives across Europe and Russia. The Russian Czar and his feudal monarchy remained unmoved by the growing hunger of 24 million serfs over the three years of war. A peaceful demonstration of the starving approached the Czar’s palace. Hundreds were shot down in cold blood, quite needlessly. They were unarmed and too weak to put up a fight anyway: all they wanted was food. Then the people realized nothing was going to change unless …. In 1917 a revolution took place, the Bolsheviks came in, and the rest is history.

Here it’s a bit different, of course. People get drowned out of home and hearth not only by natural calamity but also by man-made ones, when the overlords and politically powerful save their own lands by diverting the river’s overflow that flood the villages of the poor. They die more slowly. They live miserable, meaningless lives, stalked by hunger, disease and violence till the end. Now increasingly, people no longer want to die that way.

Imagine, as a woman, you are living a nightmare you never thought possible. You are standing by a choppy river. You think you are at a safe distance, but suddenly the earth gives way beneath your feet. You are suddenly flat on your back and the next moment the waves are over your head. You are tossed onto the river and the current drags you away at terrifying speed. There’s nothing to hold onto. You don’t even know how to swim …..

Or you hear shouted warnings not to seek refuge in your home but to take your family and run to higher ground. You are trying to gather all your frightened children together. There are too many of them so you can’t even pick them all up in your embrace, just the littlest two. The rest follow or have to be dragged by the older ones. The younger ones keep slipping and falling and can’t keep up….. After a while you can’t either. The water’s at your feet, and not long after at your knees. You’re missing a child or two. You look wildly, helplessly around, screaming out their names. What must it have been like for the woman who lost all of her seven children to the unleashed river?

Or you can see the water rising fast. It’s all around you. Even if it is no more than chest-deep, it would be difficult and risky to venture across the water to higher ground. It’s easier to climb up to the roof like others have, even though you don’t know how long you’ll be trapped there.

Or you are about to give birth ….. the terror and agony is indescribable, the physical helplessness more so, something the male of the species never has to go through.

Even before it’s all over, there’ll be enough horror stories to fill an encyclopaedia. The floods have been disastrous for all poor. But as usual, it has been worst for women and children. Three and a half million children face water-borne diseases that can kill if untreated. The smallest and weakest don’t have a ghost of a chance because the state machinery can’t cope or can’t reach them. That’s the way the health infrastructure has (not) been preventively designed in Pakistan.

We’re a poor country only at the bottom

According to analyst Dr Farrukh Saleem who has perused the budget in-depth, in a country where half the population eat badly or hardly, it costs us taxpayers Rs.1,000,000/- (ten lakhs) a day, which comes to Rs. 365,000,000/- a year, to maintain the current president.

For the majority who can’t even get minimum wages (Rs. 6000/-) to keep body-and-soul together for a family of 6-8 people, showering 365 million rupees to maintain a non-productive, ‘symbolic’ president (as the ruling party keeps reminding us as to why he is not needed within the country); who people don’t even like (to put it mildly) and who wouldn’t get any votes worth counting in a direct election, this is nothing less than galling.

365 million rupees could support over 5000 minimum wages for a year, or between 40,000 to 50,000 people; something peasant families would appreciate, although not enough for the urbanites. Or it could maintain a fanatastic primary and reproductive health system that cares for all women and kids – and the men too.

Every foreign jaunt for the Prime Minister costs Rs.12 million/-. He doesn’t do all that much globe-trotting, perhaps because the president does more than enough for both of them. So the travel money that the PM does not utilize, can’t even be saved for better use. Just a low average of a single jet-off per month alone costs a minimum of just under 150 million a year; but with an entourage of dozens, more likely twice or thrice as much. We really ought to get the figures for their first two years.

According to one estimate, Zardari’s last embarrassing trip to London via Paris, and return by way of Syria and Dubai, cost Rs. 1.2 billion. So, something like over a billion and a half rupees, have already been squandered this year with nothing to show for it.

All this has been passed by parliament ‘on our behalf’ although without informing the public. This was not the sort of ‘representation’ any of us had in mind. The question now in the public mind: who makes these budgets? Do the parliamentarians, or some close to the top as rumoured, pass down the figures they want? Or because some planners think they’ll be made to do it anyway? If parliament has carte blanche to pay itself anything it wants the sky being the limit, the next revised constitution will need some drastic changes.

Pakistan can scarcely ford such shameful extravagance while half the empty-stomached population live in shanties sans fans (let alone air-conditioning) and with not much more than the shirts on their backs which is all that most flood victims have been left with. It is estimated that the richest man in Pakistan has assets exceeding 22 billion dollars in many countries around the world. Just half a billion dollars could take care of all these problems.

As for symbolism, if one recalls correctly, Mr. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, took only one rupee as token salary. Now if only the present president could have followed in the footsteps of the past president ! But then, it’s a Zardari party, not a Bhutto one any more, although their pictures are needed for PR.

Planned poverty

How can things be so bad if a country has been around and must have gone through a modicum of development? It did a long time ago, at least in the urban areas. And then it stopped and started regressing. In remote areas and in the most feudal area, it never started happening. Things remained very much like they were a hundred or more years ago.

At one time in the big cities, public health services were pretty good, and best of all they were free. And then the World Bank came in. And it was followed by its Siamese twin, the IMF. They were over-generous with loans because it meant a lot of profits from interest. Being accustomed to easy money without sweat, those who ruled kept borrowing. — Borrowing to cover the interests and opulence of entrenched groups and the gap between revenues and expenditures, even borrowing to pay off previous borrowings — so that we never get out of debt. And leaders never have to worry — that’s the job of future governments and the taxpayers and the masses too poor to be direct taxpayers, but who pay indirectly through every morsel they eat, every bus-ride and every cooking fire and light bulb.

The World Bank/IMF, known for strong support of dictators and fake democracies and being anti-poor and therefore anti-women, has a favourite global way of ensuring continued repayment of loans. It makes government slash social spending, especially health, education, water and sanitation. (The negative consequences ensure that more loans are always needed.) The only thing free at government hospitals became the medical check-up. Everything else – medicines, tests — had to be paid for. So poor women, distantly located women, and very conservative women, who weren’t taken to hospitals and clinics often enough anyway as needed (sometimes for years), were taken even less frequently, like when there was a botched-up delivery or they were dying. And the population kept soaring because education never got rooted to teach men about the facts of life and more responsible behavior.

Which brings us to the present – a country where the entire agricultural sector pays no taxes; that suffers more from maldevelopment, and no development whatsoever in vast parts; where the irrigation, dams and dyke (bunds) network became a map reflecting the feudal and agro-business and political setup whose lands are being protected, so that warnings of floods three years ago were never heeded.

Not a single government has been women-sensitive although some may have been selectively women-middle-class-friendly and feudal-women-friendly. The social and economic setup and realities on the ground speak for themselves. It’s not a place a woman would live in by choice, only by habit which we are all creatures of.


About denebsumbul

Documentarian, Activist, Journalist, Photographer, Capacity Trainer
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