By Najma Sadeque
Published in the News, You Magazine
Among the innumerable smaller efforts to help flood affectees was a very unusual but highly effective way of dispensing charity. It came from a Turkish NGO that sought out a totally devastated village in the Punjab, and few would have come to know about their very focused and practical generosity had it not been highlighted by a TV channel. The village had been completely flattened with nothing left to salvage. The Turkish group asked a local agency to identify the families so they could at least give them sacks of rice. Shelter or not, food was always needed.
Two hundred families were carefully identified, and soon after, the Turkish NGO came back with two hundred sacks of rice. The families were grateful for the ration, but unknown to them, the best was yet to come. When each family opened the sack, what did they find?
The rice was there all right, but their eyes popped when they saw what else there was in the sacks – in each was an envelope of Rs. 50,000/- with which every family could rebuild their homes, obtain other needs, and start life anew. All the beneficiary families happily set about doing so immediately. As the reporter said, the Turkish NGO didn’t even hang around for a thank you. (Although it would have been nice to know its name). But they must have known the boundless gratefulness they left behind and the blessings heaped on them.
The only problem with this approach was that it can be done only once. And can only be replicated at other isolated places from where news doesn’t get to the outside world quickly. Because good news (as well as bad) tends to spread quickly, and unscrupulous elements would start appropriating all the relief goods to hunt for envelopes of money!
The Turkish NGO had thought up and applied an out-of-the-box approach for a common, recurring problem – natural disaster. What does it take to effectively address a human problem? It takes empathy – the ability to put oneself in the shoes of the affected – to understand the nitty-gritty of the daily struggle to live; the minimum, exact items without which survival is not possible. Something alien to the feudal soul.
Being from a different country and culture, the Turkish NGO was not in a position to discover the finer details of local needs; but because they could empathise with human suffering and the common denominators of natural disaster, they knew that by putting enough cash in the hands of the victims, they would be able to obtain all the materials with which they could rebuild and start life anew. They also knew that if others got to know about the cash distribution, the victims would be overwhelmed by thieves, intimidating functionaries and the local mafia – and therefore the utmost secrecy.
Why has coping with the earthquake and flood been so much harder? The fact remains that most and the worst of the disasters in our country have not been natural but man-made ones – resulting from consistent neglect and exploitation that have left people helpless and vulnerable. Had there been the relevant kind of development in the mountain areas such as low-cost earthquake-resistant housing and organised mass-scale reforestation, the earthquake could have been less damaging. Reforestation could have created even more jobs for women than men who are ‘naturals’ in guarding and taking care of saplings in the initial vulnerable year.
Had there been the appropriate, people-friendly development all along the banks of the Indus River and its tributaries and all the canals of the irrigation system by growing and maintaining indigenous trees and forests in the surrounding plain areas, the impact of the floods on unprotected people would not have been so terrible.
There certainly would not have been total escape from the earthquake and the flood, but the devastation would not have been so complete had obvious defences been maintained as part of economic activity, with far less loss of life and property. Had the government performed its basic job – addressing the public interest and people’s rights – the people would not have been left worse off than they were in 1947. The floods have in fact been an eye-opener of the development that never took place despite the billions pocketed and debts incurred.
But what about the people themselves? Throughout history, most people have had to fend for themselves when there were no stable governments or the government simply did not care. Why were they no longer able to take care of themselves to an extent?
In pre-colonial times, for hundreds or thousands of years, the countless villages sprinkled throughout the south Asian subcontinent were quite unlike the villages of today. They were self-reliant, self-governing and as self-sufficient as their local resources and abilities enabled them to be. They were subjects of the current ruler and they paid taxes or tribute as required; but their survival was not dependant on any ruler’s policies. Their first priority towards survival with strength was to depend on themselves for food security and other needs that made for a thriving local economy.
The British viewed these resilient villages as ‘little republics’, as they were so self-contained. And to weaken and destabilise the sub-continent and to re-organise the economy to produce for the colonisers, the British set about to dismantle these villages by breaking down their self-governance and local economic systems. After partition, despite independence, most villages never recovered and were never restored to their status of local sovereignty. In Pakistan, the feudal class created by the colonials on whose behalf it ruled and exploited the masses, had found it convenient to jump on the political bandwagon as partition approached.
By then the feudals controlled almost all the prime agricultural land. The redistribution of land to the tillers held the key to individual, family and community survival and the economy. But each feudal individual or family owned thousands or hundreds of thousands of acres, leaving nothing for others. And because land is power – without it no agriculture, no industry, no housing, no services, nothing is possible – the feudals directly or indirectly controlled politics and government.
Although the colonials had also introduced some good systems for running the economy, they had earlier imposed a worse one which the feudal embraced – centralised, unilateral government, the toxicity of which still overwhelms today through brute force despite the constitution. Let alone provinces and districts, villages were never allowed to be self-reliant and self-sufficient again; they became totally feudal-controlled instead.
When villages were their own masters, women were accorded certain rights and latitude even under a system that made them second to males. They were in charge of food security and family welfare; and they were the original environmentalists. The knowledge of biological systems came from generations of observance and applying their lessons to homestead farming and kitchen gardening. It came mostly from women, even if the knowledge was documented by men. That gave them some power to make some decisions and for their advice to be sought and heard.
Because physical power and domination come into play in the fight for survival, when some men are deprived of power and necessities of life, their womenfolk become even more deprived, whether by their oppressors or their own men folk or both – which in a nutshell defines the present state of our affairs. In revolutionary struggles, women are often given more or equal freedom because it suits the current purpose; but it is often temporary, and later when the battle is won, they are often sent back behind walls and into kitchens. The same seemed to happen when the ‘village republics’ collapsed.
Our governments today are unable to empathise, put themselves in the shoes of the people or identify with people’s real needs, because they have no desire to whatsoever. They seek only to maintain the status quo, and their manifestoes and legal mumbo-jumbo are a means to the same old ends – self-perpetuation of power in new guises. They are completely alienated from the people by choice, otherwise we wouldn’t be having a president spending the public money of an impoverished nation for globe-trotting and collecting global real estate, or a prime minister with a penchant for 15-lac rupee suits – not to speak of the high jinks of a predominantly feudal parliament and ministers that would fill an encyclopaedia and make MY FEUDAL LORD look like a tame introduction.
The standard approach to managing the economy is through political patronage and the ‘contract system’, that is, spending money by contracting out ‘development’ works, mostly without creating local jobs or sustainable local involvement. There is little or no reference to genuine local representation, or geographical, economic, environmental and cultural needs and traditional and evolving technological practices, or to what works best for people at their acceptable standard of living at that point of time. There is no effort, and rather avoidance, of enabling the maximum possible self-reliance and automatic job-creation through government-planned development. Instead, there is a clear focus on maintaining dependence and control.
As long as the feudal system prevails, women’s lot will remain a sorry one. It is also worth remembering that there aren’t just male feudals, but women feudals too. – The more ‘enlightened’ feudals endow their women with similar power and landed wealth to uphold the system. In fact, some well-intended women’s NGOs and activists may have belatedly realised that far from jogging the sleeping consciences of women politicians and training them about rights, they have simply created better-equipped monsters and allies for the male feudals, instead, while pretending to speak for women.
The chaos created by the floods has created a flood of more unaccountable money and new opportunities for the old oppressors to consolidate their power and stranglehold with. And while old rural, urban and mountain feudals squabble incessantly among themselves instead of uniting over public rehabilitation, the most insidious centre of feudalism in Sindh seeks to pull in opportunists from other parties to create a seeming new wine in an old bottle.
While activists and others constantly speak of and demand democracy and justice, it needs to be remembered that neither is possible without humanitarian feelings. Democracy and justice come from the compulsion of humans caring for one another. The least act of humanitarianism carried out without fanfare and media cameras speaks for the giver. From that point of view, the hundreds of NGOs and thousands of anonymous volunteers and donors have done Pakistan proud.
On the other hand, the publicly-flaunted ‘generosity’ with the media in tow is NOT humanitarianism; it is scoring political points with public money. It is the governments and parliamentarians’ paid job to help victims and to redistribute wealth, not a special favour from government or political parties as they make it out to be. – It is vital that people remember that. The relief money comes from taxpayers and ordinary people, and donors within and outside the country, not from the pockets of feudal and politicians and others who pay no taxes or avoid most of them through underhand means.
The immediate future does not bode well for women or the masses, unless the new emerging activists forge a new people-oriented political path sans feudal and the old guard in entirety.