Disasters, dengue and local government

By Raza Rumi:

In the past few weeks, the intractable crisis of governance has once again exposed the dysfunctional nature of the Pakistani state, and its inability to grapple with basic issues of citizenship. After all, the guaranteeing of people’s rights and entitlements is the responsibility of the state, which it simply cannot abdicate. In Sindh, 5.3 million people have been affected by flash floods, out of which 250,000 are now homeless. The floods had been predicted earlier but the provincial and federal authorities were shamefully ill-prepared like last year. In Punjab, over 5,000 people are battling against the dengue epidemic and there are indications that it may spread to other parts of the country.

The killings in Karachi have momentarily halted but as hundreds of citizens were butchered for no fault of their own, the politicians indulged in a macabre game of accusing each other of breaking up Pakistan. Pity that the discourse on Karachi came down to Zulfiqar Mirza versus the MQM and seldom did anyone debate the fundamental causes of ethnic conflict, social breakdown and the governance vacuum. The killings have been followed by the inundation of the megalopolis by heavy rains. The civic failures of Karachi and Lahore on drainage and public health have exposed how cities cannot function without effective, accountable local governments.

In the aftermath of last year’s deadly floods, several reports (including one authored by this writer as part of a multi-sectoral team) had highlighted that strengthening local governance arrangements ought to be an urgent provincial priority.

In Sindh, the system of local government has been a subject of ethnic chauvinism and when the Sindh Local Government Ordinance was partially restored, the Sindhi nationalists called a strike across the province. In Punjab, several drafts for a new law to replace the 2001 Ordinance have been drawn up but have been held back in various ‘committees’. In Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa a similar situation exists.

The net effect of collapsed local administration is that we can neither manage disasters nor fight epidemics. In Sindh, not unlike last year, the preparations and resources at the local level were inadequate. The UN has warned that parts of Sindh are likely to remain flooded for at least six months; and so, would centralised agencies be able to handle the post-disaster early recovery phase? The performance of national and provincial disaster management authorities remains unsatisfactory. Perhaps the Sindh government would have to amend its position on local government and think of change next year. Similarly, governing Karachi and Hyderabad will require urban councils and inclusive modes of governance.

In Punjab, dengue is not going to go away soon. Experts have stated that the next year’s outbreak could be far more serious. Public health is not about centralised directives but the ability of the state to cater to health needs of the community and install sanitation systems, which prevent the outbreak of diseases and epidemics. An overreliance on the bureaucracy has failed to deliver civic services. Similarly, the capacity of large hospitals has been badly exposed as dengue cases have piled up in Lahore.

Public investment in health is skewed: most of the funds are spent on large hospitals which focus on ‘curative’ health services. Preventive or primary health services remain neglected and in a city like Lahore, the absence of local government means no public accountability. This is bad in itself because it means that the unreliable delivery of essential services is likely to remain so.

The political parties must not forget that their neglect of governance, especially at the local level, is only going to further disillusion many Pakistanis with regards to the efficacy of democracy and constitutional governance. It can be safely said that neither GHQ nor any external power is stopping the PPP, ANP and the PML-N from effecting a local government system or from paying attention to police reform. After three-and-a-half years of rule, political parties have no Musharraf to blame. Perhaps, Pakistan’s ubiquitous electronic media also needs to show a little more responsibility in facilitating an issue-based discourse and not sell theatrical antics and brainless pressers.

Published in The Express Tribune, September 16th, 2011.

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