asian earthquake disaster: Pakistan after the earthquake

The devastating earthquake caused widespread destruction in the northern areas of Pakistan and Pakistani occupied Kashmir (POK) on 8 October.

Hundreds of thousands of people are yet to receive help after the devastating earthquake hit Pakistan and Kashmir on 8 October. The reason? Corruption, repression and political manoeuvring. Khalid Bhatti, of the Socialist Movement Pakistan (part of the Committee for a Workers’ International), reports on the role of the military-backed regime and the right-wing nationalist and religious forces which are vying for influence.

Pakistan after the earthquake

The official death toll is 85,000 and more than 100,000 injured. According to World Bank and ADB reports, more than 7,000 schools and 3,000 health clinics have been destroyed. Hundreds of thousands of people are still living in the mountains without proper shelter in freezing, sub-zero temperatures. The military-led government failed miserably to provide shelter and basic needs to the affected people.

This earthquake has had a huge effect on the consciousness of the working people in Pakistan. They are thinking quite differently after experiencing the tremors. The devastation in the northern part of the country and POK has shocked the working masses. There are many questions under discussion about the relief and reconstruction work of the government, the role of the military and the question of resources.

The most important and widely discussed question is that of defence expenditure and the role of the military in relief work. It is the first time that the general public is questioning the high levels of defence spending. The ruling elite has spent billions of dollars on the military, while social spending has been drastically reduced. The ruling elite – which is dominated by the generals – has promoted the myth that a strong military means a strong Pakistan, so the working masses should make sacrifices to strengthen national security. The generals pile up the weapons stocks in the name of national security. Respective governments completely ignored the social sector and big cuts were made in education and health. There has been hardly any spending on fire brigade and rescue services.

The main argument was that these services were no longer required in the presence of the military. But this myth has been completely exposed in this disaster. The slow and casual response from the military establishment gave the lie to the propaganda claim of the last two decades that the military is the only efficient and reliable institution in the country and that people should blindly trust the generals in every situation. This rosy image has not only faded but has been badly damaged.

The priorities of the generals are also under attack because, for the first time, the infrastructure of the military has also been exposed. People were shocked to hear that military aviation has only 26 helicopters, not enough to evacuate a village. Yet the country spends $3.5 billion on defence every year. Pakistan is a nuclear power but has no modern equipment to rescue people trapped under rubble. There are growing demands for a civilian rescue and relief organisation with all modern facilities and instruments. It will not be easy for the government to just ignore this demand and continue with its old policy of blind trust in generals.

The question of resources

The issue of resources for reconstruction and rehabilitation has become the most contentious. General Pervez Musharraf has flatly refused to cut the defence budget, but there is a growing demand that he does so. It is not only the intellectuals which are involved, but ordinary working-class people are also taking a keen interest in this debate. The Musharraf regime is saying that it needs $5.2 billion for the rehabilitation and reconstruction of the affected areas. The government is also crying that it has no resources and needs help from the so-called ‘international community’.

At the same time, the government is going ahead with defence deals and other military expenditure. The government is ready to spend $1 billion for the purchase of six aircraft from a Swedish company. The deal to purchase 75 F-16 fighter planes from American company, Lockhead Martin, worth billions of dollars, is still going on. The government will pay the first instalment of $1.2 billion in a couple of months. The construction of new General Headquarters (GHQ) in Islamabad is also going ahead and will cost millions of dollars. If the money for these three projects was given to rehabilitation work then the government would not need any foreign assistance to help the affected people!

There is no shortage of resources, the problem is with the distribution of these resources. The question of the system is vital in this regard. There is no possibility that under the present capitalist system, this money will be spent on the needs of the working people, because that is against the interests of the ruling elite. Capitalism is a system based on profits not on needs. A handful of rich people enjoy life at the cost of the suffering of millions of poor. The interests of big business are more important than the lives of ordinary working-class people. It is in the interests of big business and the generals to spend more money on the piling up of weapons of mass destruction than to spend it on the needs of the poor.

The overthrow of this rotten and repressive capitalist system is necessary to improve the lives of working-class people. Socialism is the only system which can improve and transform the lives of the poor. A planned economy under the democratic control of the working class will make the task of rehabilitation and reconstruction much easier and faster. If the government stopped paying debts to imperialist international financial institutions and countries, that would provide enough resources for the rebuilding of schools, hospitals and decent housing for all the working masses. The price of one F-16 is enough to build 3,000 primary schools.

The pressure is mounting on the government to cancel the deals to purchase the fighter aircraft and construct the new GHQ. Socialist Movement Pakistan (SMP) has already launched the campaign to stop these projects going ahead. This campaign has got a tremendous response from ordinary working-class people. It clearly shows that consciousness has changed significantly.

The working class showed clear mistrust of this corrupt and inefficient system, as everyone was reluctant to give donations to government. Working-class people donated generously but, for the first time, they want to distribute the collected aid themselves. This is a significant development. People collected the stuff for affected people in every community but refused to hand it over to government officials. The disillusionment and mistrust of this corrupt and inefficient system has reached to the heights. Only the big traders and capitalists give money to the government – to get more concessions to increase profits and save taxes. The government was not very happy with this situation and has tried to discourage working-class people who want to go to the affected areas.

People are expressing this mistrust very openly: hardly 7-9 % still have confidence in the government that there will be no corruption in the relief funds. Any one journey on public transport or one cup of tea at any public place will give the idea of how much mistrust in the ruling elite exists in Pakistani society. BBC News organised a survey before the earthquake asking how many really trust the army, police and political parties in South Asia. The result from Pakistan was shocking for the ruling elite: only 22 % said that they trust the army, only 12 % said they trust the police.

There is widespread anger against the anti-working class policies of the present regime. The price hike has already gone out control, the inflation rate is 15%. The prices of all utilities have doubled in the last two years. The government has given a free hand to big business to make the maximum profits. There is no control over prices. Transport fares have increased 50% in the last three months, which means an increase of 380-450 rupees ($6-8) per month in the budget of a poor worker. Poverty is on the rise. The neo-liberal policies of the last two decades have made the lives of the working class miserable. Ordinary families cannot afford decent food, housing, education and health. All these basic needs have become luxuries for the working class.

The earthquake has made people’s lives more difficult. It is not only those living in affected areas who are suffering but the whole working class of Pakistan is suffering from the greed of big business.

Mullah/military alliance

This earthquake has exposed the secret alliance and close coordination between the military establishment and the mullahs. The so-called war between Islamic armed groups and the government disappeared soon after the disaster. All the banned groups are openly operating in affected areas and everywhere in Pakistan. The ‘terrorists’ have become angels. These groups are working closely with the military. The Pakistani media has launched a propaganda campaign in favour of these armed groups. All the newspapers and TV channels are giving full coverage to their relief activities.

The same media is completely ignoring the role the trade unions and different left groups are playing in relief and rehabilitation. The media is even ignoring the role of organisations like the Edhi Foundation (the largest relief and welfare organisation in Pakistan, well-respected by workers and poor people) because Maulana Edhi has criticised the role of big business and is not closely linked with the military establishment. It seems that the reactionary, extreme right-wing section of the state has used this opportunity to strengthen itself. This section is also behind the media campaign to promote fundamentalism as an alternate to the corrupt, parasitic and inefficient ruling elite. The ruling elite wants to keep the reactionary mullahs on its side because it is frightened of a possible backlash from the working class and rural poor.

Muthida Majlas-e-amal (MMA, an alliance of right-wing Islamic parties) government in North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) proved its inefficiency and incapability in the earthquake affected areas. Now the mullahs once again want to enforce the Hibah Bill, which gives the right to religious police to stop ‘anti-religious’ and ‘immoral’ activities. SMP calls it the ‘martial law of the mullahs’. The Supreme Court already declared that the bill was against fundamental human rights. SMP has pointed out several times the close relationship between the military establishment and the mullahs. The open activities of the fundamentalist armed groups pose a threat to the lives of radical trade union and left activists, as these groups have a history of physical attacks. Fundamentalist groups are preparing for the next general elections, due in 2007. The military establishment is also using these religious parties to balance the nationalist forces.

Sharp rise of nationalism

The earthquake has exposed the weak infrastructure and backwardness of the northern areas, especially Kashmir and the Hazara region. The people in Kashmir and Hazara are not satisfied with the relief efforts of the military government. The militarisation of relief and rehabilitation work has added insult to the injury. It is most likely that there will be a sharp rise of nationalism in Kashmir, which might be exploited by the ruling class to get support from the working masses. The nationalist forces are not strong or organised enough to cash in on this situation to muster support immediately. Unfortunately, there is no working-class party in Kashmir to provide an alternative to the masses, although the potential for this party does exist.

The situation is no different in NWFP, Sindh and Baluchistan provinces of Pakistan. Nationalism is on the rise in Pakistan. The situation in Baluchistan is still tense, with violence and state repression continuing to dominate politics. The nationalist parties are making ground as fundamentalism is losing support in many parts of this province. The situation is no different in NWFP, where mullahs have ruled since 2002. The nationalist Awami National Party (ANP, which promotes a Pashtun homeland) is making ground against the religious parties.

The US regime is also interested to bring ANP back into the provincial government in the coming elections, as it wants to install secular Pashtun nationalists in NWFP, which borders Afghanistan. This would boost the American ally, President Hamid Karzai, and Pashtun nationalism in Afghanistan. The nationalist forces are trying to get some ground in Sindh, as the Pakistan People’s Party has weakened in last few years. The nationalists want a better deal with the generals to get more shares in the plunder of resources for themselves.

One thing is quite clear: the military-dominated establishment wants to use both fundamentalism and nationalism to keep the status quo. Both these forces are reactionary and provide no solution or alternative to the problems faced by the working class and rural poor.

What is really needed in Pakistan is a party of the working class with a clear socialist programme. All the main capitalist, nationalist and religious parties are serving and protecting the interests of big business and the military establishment. The working class needs a party which can fight for the rights and interests of the working masses. A mass party of the working class will be able to end the domination of the military in economy and politics.

Socialist Movement Pakistan is involved in this struggle to form a strong revolutionary party of the working class. The rapid growth of SMP shows the potential that exists. Many trade unions and political activists are discussing the formation of a new working-class party with a socialist programme. SMP has already started a discussion on this issue and is preparing to launch the campaign for its formation. This will be an important step in the struggle to overthrow this rotten and repressive capitalist system, and to transform the society on socialist lines. CWI will have to play a key role in this struggle to liberate the millions of workers, peasants, unemployed, youth, urban and rural poor, women and oppressed national and religious minorities from the exploitation and shackles of capitalism and feudalism.

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December 2005