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Pakistan One Year After the Floods | The Nation

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Pakistan One Year After the Floods

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And so, the haris are bereft of allies or champions. If they want justice they’ll have to get it on their own. But in flood-ravaged Sindh the zamindars have a different plan—they want their haris back. At the camp on the outskirts of Karachi one landlord from Baluchistan came with five armed guards, threatening to take away several brothers from a family named Bux. All the brothers were in debt to the landlord; he threatened to lock them in his private jail if they did not return and start working. But the camp rallied and faced him down.

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Christian Parenti
Christian Parenti
Christian Parenti, a Nation contributing editor and visiting scholar at the CUNY Graduate Center, is the author of...

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All through the Indus flood zone I heard similar stories—landless haris in urban camps preferring to become day laborers rather than return to debt peonage in the districts and landlords complaining that relief aid was keeping the haris away from their obligations. Standing on an earthen levee along a canal in the village of Arazi in the Dadu district of northern Sindh, a stout landlord named Kahari Bhutto exclaimed, “The farmworkers—their homes were wiped out, and they are gone. I don’t know where they are. Landowners themselves are having to do the work!”

As the floodwaters receded, Bhutto, like most farmers, threw down a late emergency crop of wheat. Fortunately, the flood had deposited a rejuvenating layer of nutritionally rich river silt, and the emergency wheat crop across Sindh has been very robust, so too some fast-growing sunflowers given out by USAID. Measures like these have helped offset the damage of the flood. To harvest cotton, says Bhutto, he would normally hire ten to fifteen people, through sharecropping arrangements. But this year he hired only three, and his brother and father also worked. And now, instead of paying 250 rupees per day for labor, he has to pay 500.

When I check at a nearby tent camp full of people who had come from Baluchistan, refugees working as day laborers confirmed that labor prices have indeed gone up. But as one, Mir Mumtaz, explained, the people are in a bind: they do not want to go back to Baluchistan and face their old landlords, nor do they want to enter into sharecropping agreements here in Sindh. “We are afraid of just going into debt again.”

To be clear: although displacement is an escape from debt, it has also meant impoverishment. Khairam Hatar, an older, educated and rather distinguished-looking widow, explained, “I do embroidering here in Dadu town. Before, I had a sewing machine and was able to make money on my own. But I lost that during the flood.” Her sporadic income is a fraction of what it was when she was self-employed in Baluchistan.

Farther up the river in Shikarpur, I meet Mohammad Arif Khan Mahar. A prominent landlord, he was a local politician, and his brother is a member of the provincial parliament. Khan Mahar hosts my traveling companions and me in his attock—a combination guesthouse/meeting hall away from the family house. In the wide courtyard several neem trees shed their blossoms, which a young male servant sweeps up. Around the courtyard are the bedrooms and several plush meeting rooms. The attock halls are decorated with photographic portraits and decorative swords.

The zamindar has many complaints: the government is corrupt—“Our officials mismanaged everything. There’s no accountability for state officials, no planning, no organization whatsoever.” The workforce is illiterate—“Frequently, the labor is useless if the tasks are complex and involve machinery.” He says that indeed many indebted haris “have run away from their responsibilities.” And though he notes rising tension and criminal violence, he says, “Here, there is no insurgency yet.”

The next day we tour his lands by SUV, accompanied by two armed guards. When the SUV stops and the zamindar steps out to survey the damage, his haris drop their tasks and crowd around him, crouching and bowing as they approach to shake his hand. The thin, sinewy, sun-beaten haris, splattered with mud and straw from brick-making and home-rebuilding contrast sharply with the tall, rotund, relatively pale landlord. Except for the SUV, the guns and the sunglasses, this could be a scene from medieval times.

The rage this inequality creates simmers, then boils over. When Benazir Bhutto was assassinated in December 2007, much of rural Sindh exploded in riots that had a decidedly class angle: when the flames died down, thirty-four gas stations, eighteen rail stations, hundreds of private cars and shops, and 176 banks had been looted and burned. Just north of here in Punjab some of the haris are gravitating toward a new Punjabi Taliban, which, in rhetoric at least, invoke issues of class exploitation and call for land reform.

What does my host think of land reform? “The government should first give away unused land. Rather than coming after the productive farms just to make a political show.” In many ways Khan Mahar is progressive, adopting new technologies and, according to his workers, paying much better than most landlords. But he is still a feudal landlord with luxury and power, and wants to keep his vast holdings and the indebted haris who live there. He need not worry: there is no discussion of land reform and no chance it will be attempted. When I ask about relief in the area, he waves away the question: “They’ve had enough relief!”

During the first weeks of flooding, relief went relatively smoothly. International aid agencies brought supplies, and the military pulled trucks, planes and helicopters out of Kashmir and the war zones of the Federal Administered Tribal Areas to move supplies to stranded populations. But once the emergency was over, the endemic problems of government corruption and the fetters of landlord influence on politics returned. According to Transparency International’s 2010 ranking, only thirty-three nations are more corrupt than Pakistan.

“NGOs hire locals to have some accountability and traction,” says Qadeer Ansari, a manager with the General Services Department of Dadu district, where 60 to 70 percent of houses were damaged. “But who are these locals? Very often they are just the same old influential people, landlords and their representatives. Nepotism, patronage and corruption shape how relief and reconstruction operate. And often food is simply stolen and sold.”

* * *

The Sindh Department of Irrigation and Power occupies a stately old building in Karachi. The Indus River irrigation system is the largest in the world. And though it has made the desert bloom, the massive storage and channeling of water has also led to soil depletion, as the river no longer renews the fertility of the floodplain; it has also raised the salinity of the groundwater and soil because of evaporation. Like the aging infrastructure of British barrages, canals and levees that it manages, the ministry’s bureaucracy seems stuck in the past. Beautiful old black-and-white marble tiles cover the floors and walls to shoulder height; occasional interior bays allow in diffuse sunlight and breeze. The dim hallways are crowded with beleaguered-looking petitioners and clerks; inside the offices, men—they’re almost all men—leaf through stacks of ragged and battered dossiers. Instead of using filing cabinets the clerks tie their files into bundles and stack them haphazardly on open shelves.

Is there a plan for repairing and managing the increasingly extreme hydrological patterns of the Indus River? Talking with the head of IT, I notice how few computers he has for his department. “Well,” says the clerk sheepishly, “we really just use these computers as typewriters. Just to print out documents and then pass them around in hard copy.” As we are talking, a messenger is collecting a fourth signature and stamp on a document.

This system—in which every little petty potentate in every department has to sign off on every document—is designed to facilitate a culture of bribery. When real planning or technical work is needed, the government outsources these “special projects” to development experts at the World Bank or private firms. As a result, the capacity of the Pakistani state remains malformed and stunted.

Again, the roots of this problem go back to the power of the rural elites. The zamindars systematically crush those who oppose them, preventing the creation of good governance and a literate population because it would undermine their power.

The city of Larkana lies near the country estates of the Bhutto dynasty (into which the current president, Asif Ali Zardari, married). I find my way from here to the village of Fazul Malgani. Home to fifteen families, it sits on the canal-lined plains outside Larkana. I meet Nawaz Ali, an educated, political young farmer who has been struggling to get the village school reopened.

“From 1999 to 2003 we struggled to get a teacher and supplies,” says Ali. “A month ago I went to the officials again but got only promises. We think they have all colluded. They don’t want rural areas to have education.” The one-room village school has two brahma bulls in it, one tied near the blackboard, one in the back of the classroom. The main landlord here, the man to whom people like Ali owe money and from whom they rent land, is Nisar Khuhro, speaker of the Sindh Assembly and a boss in the Bhutto political machine, the Pakistan People’s Party.

“The president is from Larkana,” says Ali. “Yet this school is closed.”

This village was not flooded, but the irrigation canals went dry because the pumps downstream were destroyed by rising water. There was general chaos for months afterward. Most crops perished. Robbery increased. When I ask Ali why there is no peasant movement, he tells me, “The haris are too drowned in their own problems, getting food. Politics here runs on money, and we don’t have any.”

Sindh did have a powerful peasant movement in the past, but repression, corruption and the rise of religious movements with fake solutions to the real problems have worn it down to a few sectarian rump organizations. In a dark little tea shop on a dusty street in Larkana, I meet some representatives of the Labor Party, a woodworkers union and a local revolutionary party called the Watan Dost Inqilabia. They are good comrades, but their movement is minuscule; too many of their intellectuals are caught up in sectarian analysis and post-Soviet defeatism. Many former socialists are drifting toward Sindhi nationalism in hopes that “the national question” can be the new discursive vehicle of class politics. They explain how the zamindars have co-opted the old haris’ organizations, how they bully any tenant farmer who demands schooling for the village children and how agricultural workers aren’t protected under the national labor laws of 1969.

But that night, driving back to Karachi, we pass through a mass rally. Buses are unloading hundreds of men in loose, ghostly-looking shalwar kameez. It is the Jamaat-e-Islami protesting the death of Osama bin Laden. This party, as the mainstream face of political Islam, is indicative of the general crisis. It considers itself oppositional but promotes obscurantist nonsense and crows indignantly about violations of Pakistani sovereignty by the country’s number-one patron (the US military) while ignoring Pakistan’s appalling economic inequality and exploitation.

Disturbingly, the more extreme wing of the political Islamists, the Jamaat-ut-Dawa, linked to the outlawed Lashkar-e-Taiba, is developing a discourse about the environmental crisis. It has accused India of “water terrorism” because it was building tunnels and dams on key Indus tributaries. And the group has marched, under the slogan Water Flows or Blood.

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