Pakistan: Quake victims face another harsh winter

Around 3.5 million still ill-equipped, under- nourished and homeless

On October 8, 2005, the people of Muzzafarabad (the sprawling capital city of Pakistani Administered Kashmir) resembled a ghost town, a 21st century reminder of the World War II blitzkrieg as a result of the destruction that the earthquake. It was day of mad nomadic rush in Bagh and Rawlakot was a city of the homeless. Over the next couple of days, ordinary people across the country opened their hearts to the affected people in the valleys of death. Roads to the earthquake zone were choked with trucks laden with relief goods. Last year the poorest Kashmiris and Pakistanis had to face an earthquake of 7.8 on the Richter scale whereas this year 3.5 million people are going to suffer under the harsh winter conditions.

Last year, it was death and destruction but this time disease and hunger may colour the headlines of newspapers black. With humanitarian agencies leaving the earthquake zone a long time ago, the challenge is still here haunting the 3.5 million people who are trying to defy death and destruction. Today, the survivors stand alone amid the debris of their homes and with all their hopes crushed. A year after the earthquake, the reconstruction programme has hardly begun. The most vulnerable tucked on the mountain slopes of Neelum, Leepa, Naran, Kaghan, Bisham and Allai valleys remain neglected and underserved.

Shattered dreams of reconstruction

According to official figures, nearly 80,000 people died, almost half of them children. Double that number were injured. More than six hundred thousand homes were destroyed and some 3.5 million people were made homeless. There has been a total collapse of infrastructure, commerce and communications. Over 6500 schools, 800 clinics and hospitals and over 3700 miles of roads, including dozens of bridges were destroyed.

Today there are over 2 million people still living in tents and temporary shelters. Many of the camps are still operational, but they are run down, overcrowded, hygiene is very poor and facilities are not maintained. Despite the aid and all the money pledged at the Donor Conference earlier this year, there is little evidence of it.

Everywhere you go in the earthquake zone and everyone you talk to who has been affected by this terrible disaster is dissatisfied with the slow pace at which the rehabilitation phase is progressing.

A year ago there were a million stories of heroism, activism and generosity. The response to tragedy was unprecedented. Today the story is one of neglect, cynicism, frustration and despair. The earthquake was followed by more than 3000 aftershocks and some smaller earthquakes, then winter and then the rainy season, the monsoon. While aftershocks continued to create panic and the winter brought with it all kind of respiratory and other ailments, it was the monsoon that proved to be the most deadly. Heavy rains caused flash floods and landslides that wiped away entire mountain sides. Torrents of water flowed down at breakneck speed taking with them mud and boulders that blanketed huge areas. Many villages were destroyed; houses that survived the quake disappeared under the river of mud and stones. The deforestation by the timber mafia caused this damage. This timber mafia is clearing the forests to make super profits in the reconstruction process. Greed is a terrible thing as it knows no bounds. The once beautiful mountain forests look like a massive environmental graveyard as well as human one.

At least 30% of quake affected people have no land to build their homes. Many have no proof that their homes existed in the first place because whole villages were wiped out and disappeared under the falling mountain tops. Even if they get compensation from the government to build their houses, they have no land to build them on.

The first anniversary of the tragedy has passed and still rehabilitation and reconstruction are a far cry from what they should be. Millions of survivors are left to face not only utter devastation of their families, communications and livelihoods, but also the imminent arrival of the region’s freezing winter weather without adequate shelter and the means to provide for basic life sustaining needs.

Only 17% quake survivors have started to build their homes and these are still incomplete. Most likely they will spend their winter in tents and temporary shelters. There is no sign of reconstruction of hospitals, schools, roads and other basic needs. Children are studying in tent schools or shelters that cannot bear the hardships of extreme winter weather.

All the tall claims made by the government about rehabilitation and reconstruction have proved to be false promises. The Earthquake Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Authority (ERRA) led by a serving General has failed to pay compensation money to the quake survivors. It has also failed to start any major reconstruction projects in the last 6 months.

More people will die because of negligence, corruption, incapacity and poorly planned reconstruction and rehabilitation work done by the military-led government. There will be more destruction and misery for the earthquake affected people under capitalism. It will take at least a decade to complete some sort of reconstruction and rehabilitation work if the present pace continues. The cost of reconstruction has already gone up from $3.6 billion to $4.8 billion because of the increased price of construction materials. It will rise further in years to come.

Anger against ERRA

Hundreds of survivors of last year’s earthquake staged an anti- graft protest and sit-in in the capital city Islamabad to mark the 1st anniversary of last year’s earthquake. The demonstrators accused the reconstruction officials of corruption. Waving placards reading “Stop taking bribes”, “Spend the winter with us”, “Build our homes before snowfall”, the demonstrators marched from the parliament to the office of ERRA. People, including women and children, from Neelum Valley, Bagh, Rawlakot, Muzzafarabad, Mansehra and other affected areas participated in the demonstration.

The demonstrations against ERRA have become a daily routine in the affected areas. Muzzafarabad and surrounding areas saw a mass movement and strikes against the anti-poor people policies of ERRA. Many people believe that ERRA is involved in corruption and nepotism. Many also see it as an inefficient and highly bureaucratic organization which is more interested in their own perks and privileges than helping the quake victims.

ERRA staff comprises 174 people. The authority’s 88 officers draw annual salaries, perks and privileges worth Rs 12.8 million (£1.28 million) while the rest of the staff receives annual salaries and benefits worth Rs 5.6 million (£560 000). Each ERRA employee gets a deputation allowance which is 25% of his basic pay. Also the utility bills of the ERRA employees are being paid by the government. In addition to this, all ERRA employees have been given an honorarium for six months, equivalent to 50% of their basic pay. Over 36 000 cheques, worth Rs 900 million issued by ERRA to affected people, have bounced. This means 36000 families are without the initial compensation paid by the government to build temporary shelters. Thousands of families have yet not received any money to build their houses. ERRA has become a source of lucrative jobs for army men, not just because it has huge funds to splash around. It is also not answerable to any civilian body.

The main problem with ERRA is that they do not take into consideration the people they are supposed to serve. ERRA is not consulting local communities about the process of reconstruction and rehabilitation.

One other factor that is also delaying the reconstruction work is the differences between the military establishment and international donors. The military establishment wants to give all the main construction contracts to the military-owned construction companies through ERRA. But international donors want open bidding on these contracts, so that multinational companies can also participate in the process. This conflict of interests has delayed the start of reconstruction and especially main projects. The military establishment wants to continue the tradition that developed in last decade to get all the major contracts without any open bidding. The army owns the largest construction companies in Pakistan, which have become profit making tools for senior military officers. Major reconstruction projects will not be able to start without resolving this issue, because international donors have threatened to stop aid, if ERRA goes ahead with these projects without consulting them.

Profits before people

The prices of all construction materials have doubled since the earthquake. Industrialists and big traders are making profits of billions of rupees at the expense of nearly 3.5 million poor working class people. One quake affected worker described the situation, saying, “After the earthquake we thought that rich people would help us, but instead they are making profits out of our miseries and destruction. The prices of flour, sugar, vegetables and fruits have already been increased more than 100%. The cost of building a house has also doubled in the last year. We are living in a situation where we cannot eat and build our houses.” This situation is faced by all the poor working class people living in the affected areas. The greedy capitalist class once again proved that their only concern is profits and money; they do not care about poor people and their miseries. Nationalisation of the economy under the democratic control of workers is necessary for the quick and rapid reconstruction and rehabilitation.

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