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Pakistan’s roll of honour (and dishonour)

Mosharraf Zaidi

In Mardan district, Pakistanis from all corners of Swat converge on a union council called Hathian. In eleven school buildings across Hathian, these thousands of innocent Pakistanis, who we call IDPs, have sought shelter from the violence that has consumed the beautiful places they call home in Swat, Buner and Dir. The lowest estimate of the number of people in Hathian is 8,000. Among them are children, pregnant women, and old folks with all kinds of short- and long-term medical problems. These people left their homes in Swat in a hurry. Most didn’t leave with their American Express card. In fact, most didn’t even have time to take along their identification cards.

The commissioner of Mardan announced early on in the crisis that public school buildings would be used as shelters for the IDPs. On May 12, when I first visited Hathian, there were four schools occupied by the Pakistanis from Swat who have been made homeless by the Taliban. On May 14, during my second visit, that number had swelled to eleven. And there is little to suggest that there will be any let-up in the numbers.

The people of Mardan, ever the heroic and selfless Pakhtuns, are a shining beacon of hope for Pakistan. Their benevolence, even in tight economic times, is incomprehensibly grand. In one instance, there are 63 people living in the unconstructed house of a Hathian resident — being provided electricity and gas through makeshift connections from their hosts. In another, 48 people are living in the annex of a resident’s home. Among the local elite, kindness knows few bounds. Langars and food distribution centres are providing hot meals for thousands.

Mardan is only one among over one hundred and ten districts in Pakistan. And that is not counting Brooklyn’s Coney Island Avenue, the City of Bradford, the Emirate of Sharjah, or the port of Jeddah. All around the world, Pakistanis are doing amazing things to support their troops, to plug the gaping holes in the state’s response to this crisis and to be the human beings that they should be.

Suhaib Kiani, a former investment banker from Rawalpindi, has spent the last week collecting over half a million rupees, and shipping relief items into Hathian. Abbas Saleem Khan, a social activist from Islamabad, is coordinating efforts among concerned citizens through a Facebook group called the Citizens Trust for Victims of Terror. Fauzia and Ghazala Minallah are spearheading efforts to support schools in Gujjar Garhi, Mardan. Natasha Javed and her friends are selling t-shirts with slogans supporting the people of Swat to raise money for them. Hadia Khan and Awab Alvi are collecting donations in Karachi. Farhaan and Aiza Rao are collecting donations in Lahore. On the web, blogs like Pakistaniat, Five Rupees, Changing Up Pakistan, Chowrangi, and Pakistan Policy make the case and raise the money around the clock.

And it’s not only private citizens, many thousands of whom are not mentioned here. Organised citizenry under the banner of hundreds of different NGOs are leading the charge. The Sarhad Rural Support Programme (SRSP), one of the longest standing partners of the government in NWFP, is running one of the largest coordination operations in its history. Nobody at the SRSP has slept since May 8. And they will not sleep till this crisis is over.

SPO, SPARC, the Omar Asghar Khan Development Foundation and others are in Hathian and all over the rest of Mardan and Swabi, identifying the food and medical needs of affectees of the crisis. Ummah Foundation is at the forefront of efforts to make sure that people have enough to eat at Jalala Camp and beyond. Heavy metal outfit Qayaas, led by guitarist Khurram Waqar, has visited Mardan and contributed to efforts on several fronts. Al-Khidmat Foundation is delivering food and medical assistance to several thousand affectees. Aman Tehreek, lead by a group of students, academics, and professionals, in the US and the UK has established a website to coordinate efforts and raise funds. UM Healthcare Trust and the Disaster Management Centre have collaborated to provide medical camps at Rustum in Mardan. The Islamabad Jeep Club has raised more than two hundred thousand rupees worth of assistance.

This very small and very humble roll of honour reflects a tiny sliver of the quantum of effort being invested by Pakistanis from around the world in this country. And while it is easy to be critical of the government, it is important to acknowledge the efforts of local governments, especially those of Swabi and Mardan, who are doing everything in their powers to provide food and sustenance to the several hundred thousand new residents they have absorbed in the last week or so. Credit is also due to the provincial government, and in particular the social welfare department, whose efficiency and effectiveness in registering over a million IDPs is a classic example of how the state is in fact capable of being responsive, when it so desires.

Which brings us to the less than honourable side of the equation. The reason that Pakistanis, both individually and as groups, are so adroit at handling crises like the one that has been unleashed by the migration of Swatis from their homes is because they are accustomed to a state machinery that simply does not work for them. Of course, governments don’t work very well anywhere. But the trouble with the Pakistani government is that it works phenomenally well when it wants to. It can make nuclear weapons, it can help engineer the defeat of the Soviet Union, it can produce one funny man after another to go toe-to-toe with Jon Stewart.

And so when the provincial government in NWFP needs to show millions of IDPs streaming into the province, to attract all manners of aid, it does so at lightning speed. It matters little that over 200,000 IDPs from Bajaur have returned home, or that beyond the actual registration, the social welfare department is utterly and entirely incapable of handling the human and social fallout of the IDP crisis.

But at least the provincial government is trying to do things right, even if its incentives are somewhat skewed. At the federal level, it is all too clear that the intentions can never be right, because the genetics of the federal government are all wrong. This is not about the PPP, or the PML-N, or the ANP, or any other party. This is about the structure of the Pakistani state. This is a federation. Yet over 55 per cent of the National Finance Commission award is consumed by the federal government. For what exactly, no one can be sure. What we do know is that federal agencies represent the biggest failures in the IDP crisis, right across the board.

Technicalities, and the decency of individual officers like Deputy Chairman Tariq Malik aside, NADRA continues to be an unmitigated disaster. IDPs are paying Rs50 to have their credentials verified before being eligible for support from the government. Does NADRA really need the money right now? Of course not. But NADRA can’t help itself. Why is NADRA incapable of changing? Because it is a software house, not an instrument of service delivery. The kind and gentle folks that work at NADRA are not the problem. The DNA of the federal government and NADRA itself is the problem.

Loadshedding continues to be a problem of epic proportions in the districts that are absorbing IDPs. Swatis are used to below 20 degree weather. They need cold water and fans, at a minimum. And remember, the IDPs are not just in the ‘camps’, they are in the homes of benevolent strangers. The burden of their housing is shared right across the districts, not just in the camps. Eight days ago, the federal government promised to cease all loadshedding. Yet loadshedding continues without fail. The kind and gentle folks working at WAPDA are not the problem. The DNA of the federal government and WAPDA is the problem.

Pakistan has a National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) run by the credible Lt-Gen (r) Farooq Khan. Either because the federal government doesn’t trust it, or because the provincial government won’t work with it, the NDMA has been fired from the IDP crisis. Enter the fantastic Corps Commander Mangla Lt-Gen Nadeem Ahmad to lead something called a Special Support Group for IDPs. Pakistan’s solution to untenable problems is not to fire people, but to fire entire agencies. And of course, the agency is only fired from this one job. Retired General Farooq will continue to perform whatever function there is left to perform, while the serving General Nadeem puts out the IDP fires. Farooq and Nadeem — both fine officers and exceptional gentlemen — are not the problem. The DNA of the federal government, of NDMA, of ERRA, of the Special Support Group and the habit of bringing military officers to clean up civilian messes is the problem.

Pakistanis need to continue to do everything they can to help the IDPs because it is their benevolence and sense of emergency that keeps this country miraculously ticking. That is the DNA of the Pakistani people. The people are not the problem, the DNA of Pakistan’s federal government is the problem.

The writer advises governments, donors and NGOs on public policy. He can be reached through his website

1 thought on “Pakistan’s roll of honour (and dishonour)”

  1. sir !
    i am IDP’s from swat ,a fresh BS GEOLOGICAL ENGG student of BUITMS QUETTA. i have been finnacial affected. so please help me on this bad occasion. thanx

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