To hell with environmental assessments and impacts. The rich and the powerful urgently need more exclusive and posh housing locations, millennium malls, five star hotels, golf courses and cable cars. The government of Punjab is bent upon constructing New Murree project, in close proximity to the fault lines of nature’s fury, at a cost of Rs 42 billion. The Public sector will happily provide Rs. 22 billion while the rest of the amount would be invested by local and international investors. A great opportunity to make new fortunes.
Only a few miles away, it is the eighth day since the angry tectonic plates chose to split the earth and slide the mountains to completely obliterate what were once homes, towns and villages. A generation of children buried alive. Their devastated and traumatised parents break down with grief as the sobs of their little children fade into silence. A sea of injured, limbless, homeless and “orphaned” survivors sprawl under the open skies. They are expected to have the courage, character, resilience and faith of the ordinary nameless citizens – used to fend for their own survival. They will soon get tents, blankets and Dispirin. That should see them through this winter. For those who survive by the next winter, we hope to have a new tent city in place, ‘inshallah’.
How many children died, 7000 or 70,000, is not something we can be sure of. After all, we do not even know how many schools existed in the region, leave aside the number of children in those schools. A college principal felt no remorse in appearing on TV to acknowledge that she had no idea how many students were in their classes, as she and all the teachers decided to visit a local relative, and were not present in the college on that day. She of course passionately praised the Lord for enabling this act of negligence that saved her and the teachers’ lives.
How many people died, 30,000 or 300,000, is something we cannot be sure of. How many people have been injured, 60,000 or 600,000, is again something we cannot be sure of. We do not even have an idea of how many people lived in these areas. The state has no time or institutions that count the number of nameless ordinary citizens. Numbers are required only when one needs to do something – plan or build a new service, project or city.
How many homes were destroyed, 200,000 or 2000,000, is something we cannot be sure of. We never count the homes of ordinary citizens. How many villages were destroyed, 2000 or 20,000, is again something we cannot be sure of. After all there was never a need to count villages, determine locations, make maps or build roads in these areas. With the earthquake converting the region into rubble, we are trying to borrow satellite images of our own terrain from others. Not a word on why we spent billions on our own national space agency.
These and many other similar issues have brought to the surface the extent of our disinterest in the lives of our ordinary citizens. Had it not been for private and international TV channels, we would not have known a quarter of the extent of misery and devastation. Had it not been for the massive spontaneous relief support voluntarily generated by our countrymen, millions would have suffered much longer. Indeed it had to be a massive earthquake to make us discover the reality that our largest strength lies in the hundred and fifty million members of the normally disregarded civil society.
Where did we go wrong? We went wrong on the basis that a country is meant for a small minority of rich and powerful elite. They deserve all the housing authorities, broad roads, manicured locations and new exclusive cities. The ordinary people are irrelevant and dispensable. They could continue to live wherever and however they have been living for the past 5000 years. We went wrong in considering them unimportant and unequal partners. We went wrong in not realising that a country essentially exists for the welfare of its large majority of ordinary citizens. We went wrong in thinking that emergencies can be handled by leaders suddenly hovering around Margalla Towers in search of photo sessions. It is only after the third day of being struck by the biggest calamity of this century, did we appoint an emergency relief commissioner. How come a nation of many nuclear bombs, even more F-16s and yet more Khalid tanks never bothered to develop and equip civil institutions that would handle natural disasters, building controls, relief organizations, rescue equipment, mobile hospitals, emergency medicines, tents, blankets and make accurate databases of children, schools, people , homes, roads and villages. If we do not focus on our civic institutions and ordinary people during peace time, we will find it extremely difficult to do so when the Richter Scales of nature cross their bearable limits. If there is one single lesson to be learnt from this disaster, it should be our willingness to rethink and reshape the relationship, responsibility and focus of our state towards its ordinary people. For those buried alive, it does not matter if the official mourning is spread over three days or seven, or the flag flies at half mast or full.