Quaking ourselves out of apathy

01 မေလ 2006
Praful Bidwai

Quaking ourselves out of apathy
Praful Bidwai
The News International, 15 October 2005

The colossal destruction and heart-rending human misery wrought by the Muzaffarabad earthquake has suddenly focused a beam of bright white light on a stark, simple truth, which many South Asians have suppressed, trivialised or forgotten: namely, the India-Pakistan border is basically political. In sharp contrast to the rifts and divisions the border represents stands the lived experience of flesh-and-blood people affected by the disaster, itself rooted in their common humanity and shared grief. Even the geological processes that led to the earthquake cut across borders.

You don’t need a map of the subcontinent to realise that the Line of Control is an obstruction, a profound irrationality. The easiest access to some parts of Pakistani Kashmir lies through Indian terrain across the LoC. If rescuing people and providing relief has any meaning—and what else matters at this point of time?—the border has none.

It’s a sad irony that Indian soldiers crossed the LoC not to provide desperately needed relief to civilians, but to reconstruct a Pakistani military bunker!

We citizens, therefore, have every right to be infuriated at the cussedness and bloodymindedness of our rulers, who still cannot rise above the pettiest considerations of prestige, protocol and precedent, nor spontaneously assert a simple urge to relieve human suffering.

Pakistan has refused India’s offer to conduct joint relief operations. It won’t welcome Indian workers’ teams crossing the border. It has only accepted 25 tonnes of material and even spurned the offer of light helicopters which it badly needs. What else is this but a move to block direct human contact between the two peoples at a time when it can make a life-or-death difference?

It’s ludicrous to imagine that accepting substantial relief from India, in particular through joint disaster management efforts, would be a sign of "weakness". But that’s the sole, perverse, rationale of the "sensitivities" that President Pervez Musharraf cited while saying "thanks, but no thanks" to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. At work here is a fraudulent notion of national security and power projection.

India, in turn, has refused to share seismic data with Pakistan because it fears it might be used to pinpoint the location of any future nuclear experiments (full-fledged blasts or hydronuclear tests) it might conduct. This fear is compounded by India’s opposition to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, under which seismic verification has been agreed. Thus India hasn’t joined the Global Seismographic Network maintained by the Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology (IRIS), Washington, a consortium created by universities which accurately monitors earthquakes at 128 stations worldwide.

So the shadow of the mushroom cloud looms over India’s decision not to cooperate with Pakistan even through IRIS. This is as self-defeating for India as Islamabad’s refusal of relief teams is for Pakistan. Joining IRIS would give India real-time access to seismic data and help substantially cut the response-time to earthquakes. This could save lives.

Our wretchedly callous governments won’t willingly shed their profound antipathy to their own people or their Neanderthal-like militaristic instincts. Not anytime soon. But that doesn’t mean that civil society organisations (CSOs) should be passive and not push them. They must do their utmost to establish people-to-people contacts across the border using all available means.

It’s the CSOs’ duty to reach out—not only because government-level efforts have proved unacceptably inadequate. The Kashmiris, in whose name we all speak, have themselves called for such initiatives. Hurriyat chairman Umar Farooq has said so explicitly while decrying the relative inactivity of major NGOs in the present case—in contrast to the 2001 Bhuj earthquake or last December’s tsunami.

India’s CSOs have a much longer and richer experience of dealing with disaster relief thanks to the Uttarkashi and Chamoli earthquakes in the Himalayas (1991 and 1999), the Latur tremblor in Maharashtra’s plains (1993), besides Bhuj. They have invaluable insights into what’s needed—not just in terms of food, water and materials, but the way their distribution should be organised involving local communities. They have worked for years on building temporary shelters as well as permanent structures which can resist earthquakes.

The mountainous areas affected in Pakistan, especially Azad Kashmir, are very similar to those in India’s Himalayan hill districts in topography, access, quality and structure of housing. Disasters in the hills pose different problems from those in the plains. Here too, the Indian CSOs’ expertise could prove useful—in restoring ruptured communication links, or in quickly erecting temporary shelters to protect people from the cold and the rain.

I have been talking to many CSOs, earthquake engineers, architects and other experts in Delhi, Dehra Dun and Mumbai. They draw the following lessons from their experience.

  • The success of relief efforts depends not just on the timely provision of materials, but on involving local people, so they "own" and participate in the process. Or else, they see it as someone else’s problem and won’t contribute to improving the process to suit local conditions.
  • Women have a critical role to play because they are far more acutely aware than men of domestic needs, the space and attention required by children and old people, and cooking and cleaning facilities, etc. "Natural" disasters unite people and temporarily obfuscate gender-role hierarchies, allowing women to play a more proactive public role than would be normally allowed.
  • In the best shelter programmes, people are taught to build sheds or barracks with simple implements and local materials such as tin sheets, which they can adapt to suit their needs. It’s pointless to throw Western equipment at them, or dump blankets and tents.
  • As important as material aid are community and social ties, communication networks, and governance structures like village panchayats or local bodies. Efficient communication is vital in rescuing people. A panchayat run democratically and transparently will provide relief more effectively than bureaucratic structures, even when led by well-meaning babus.
  • Public-spirited doctors should be involved in medical, including psychiatric, relief programmes from the start. It’s possible to procure essential medicines at subsidised prices. That’s a secondary problem. Familiarity with community and social medicine is more important than sophisticated techniques in medical relief.

This may sound easy. In practice, it isn’t. Nothing can facilitate it as much as ground-level cooperation, where people rub shoulders with one another.

So, Pakistani CSOs and well-meaning citizens should do something simple: get in touch with their Indian counterparts. Equally, Indian CSOs, especially in Uri and Tangdher, should ask Pakistani physicians and CSOs for help. At this point, let me do something Columnists don’t usually do. Here’s a short list of Indian CSOs, with addresses:

1. Swayam Shikshan Prayog, (Prema Gopalan), Tel: (0)982141326, premagab@vsnl.com, Dongri@gmail.com

2. Anandi, Rajkot, (Jahnvi Andharia/Sumitra Thakker), Tel: 0265-2352976, 0281-2581944, 2586091, 09825536120

3. Disaster Mitigation Institute, Ahmedabad, (Mihir Bhatt), dmi@southasiadisasters.net

4. Dasholi Gram Swarajya Mandal, Gopeshwar, (Chandi Prasad Bhatt), Tel: 01372-52183

5. Centre for Development Initiatives, Rudraprayag, (Pooran Barthwal), Tel: 01364-233561, 0135-2643424

6. People's Science Institute, Dehra Doon, (Ravi Chopra/Rajesh Kumar), Tel: 0135-2763649, 2773849, 3094956; psiddoon@sancharnet.in, cdmr_psi@yahoomail.co.in

The subcontinent has been shaken. Unless its people, CSOs and NGOs seize the initiative, the victims of this tragedy won’t get relief, leave alone rehabilitation.

Finally, to quote someone from Islamabad cited in any number of emails doing the India-Pakistan rounds: "The rescue efforts are pathetic—people trying to get into the collapsed mountain of concrete using picks and shovels. It shows how unprepared the society is for any ...disaster. And yet the fools talk of surviving nuclear war".

Will we learn? We must. And we must not give in.

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