EDITORIAL: Getting the right perspective on the earthquake
Pakistan has suffered one of its worst earthquakes in history. When the final count is in, thousands of people will have been killed, countless others wounded and millions deprived of homes. Therefore it is very important that the people of Pakistan should get the right perspective on what has happened. First of all, the media must not publish the religious interpretation of the national tragedy: it has nothing to do with the “sinfulness” of the poor people of Pakistan. As far as the question of governance and regulation is concerned, we have to assess how much governance finally is involved when natural calamities strike and take note of specific cases, like the Margalla Towers in Islamabad, and get to the root of them.
A section of the media has tended to equate security against fire with earthquakes. It is true that in Pakistan the real everyday threat is that buildings and commercial areas are constructed with no security against fire. That is a much more urgent case than vulnerability to earthquakes. Regulations are normally ignored and buildings are constructed that become prisons when fires break out. That is something on which the state should be held responsible, and departments in charge of enforcing building regulations should be brought to account. One has to say with sadness that the state is completely impervious to the dangers that face the citizens in the case of accidental fire when it shows laxity in putting down the law in this regard and making the builders abide by it.
But earthquakes are a totally different category. Depending on scale, even an economic superpower may be humbled by a natural disaster. In Pakistan governance is to blame for allowing flawed structures to remain standing even after they have been declared dangerous by the city authorities. In the latest case, the fact that some buildings have gone down in Islamabad and Lahore cannot be blamed on the intensity of the earthquake. Indeed, most structures in Lahore and Islamabad remained intact despite the intensity of the earthquake which registered 7.6 on the Richter scale. This scale of natural calamity is rare and defence against it is almost impossible. Therefore, keeping this in mind, Pakistan may be said to have suffered relatively little damage in the big cities where collapsing structures and dying citizens could have brought the country to its knees. In the recent incidence of big-scale earthquakes, a comparison with casualty figures will put Pakistan’s tragedy in perspective. In 2003, an earthquake of the scale of 6.7 in Iran killed 32,000; in another one in 1999, of the same scale as the one which has struck Pakistan now, Iran lost 40,000 lives. In Pakistan itself, the great Quetta earthquake of 1935, killing 50,000, was of the scale of 7.6! In Indian Gujarat the earthquake that killed 11,500 in 2001, was of the same scale as the one we have experienced on Saturday.
TV channels have subjected the government to criticism and unconsciously helped spread the impression that earthquake tragedy was caused by the government simply because rescue work did not begin quickly enough. The truth is that no government anywhere, but particularly in the Third World, can be prepared for large-scale post-disaster management.
We must remember that in the past when we faced large-scale earthquake havoc in the Northern Areas, the media was not even there to report it and bring the government under pressure. The positive aspect of the media coverage, however, is that the government was alerted and challenged to deliver. Above all, the government got vital information about the worst hit areas that it could not have obtained on its own, given the traditionally poor quality of governance away from the big cities.
Pakistan’s bad luck comes from the settlements located in difficult-of-access areas where economic development is in severe arrears. Places like Balakot, Garhi Habibullah and other small cities in the Hazara valley; similarly, locations in Azad Kashmir where roads linking high-altitude villages with the cities are of poor quality, will be discovered in the coming days to have suffered greatly. Fortunately, the government in Islamabad is much better placed financially than past governments to cope with the aftermath of the tragedy. Even if all criticism is taken at face value, which is unfair, it has still done better than past governments. The Pakistan Army, which is the most organised unit among the rescue workers in the country, has suffered over 215 dead, something that was unheard-of in the past.
Among those in the private sector who have risen to the challenge of rescue and shelter is the Edhi Foundation. Many others, individuals and institutions, will surely also contribute to the relief effort. So in the final analysis it will be our own effort, which will measure our worth in this time of duress. Friendly governments all over the world have announced their assistance, some of it crucial because we simply don’t have the level of technical capacity needed to cope with natural calamities of this scale. Fortunately, those announcing donations to the President’s Relief Fund include rivals of the incumbent government.
For those who are still leery of the government there are organisations like the Edhi Foundation, Fatimid Foundation, Ansar Burney Welfare Trust, Khidmat-e-Khalq Foundation and others belonging to charitable and political parties that have taken the field in these days of national emergency. In the coming days, as we discover more areas of disaster, there will be some consolation in the fact that our civil society has begun to respond to natural calamities. It is the government’s duty to come to the help of the people in emergencies, but it can hardly succeed if civil society itself doesn’t accept the challenge. *