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Friday, August 5

The lengthening shadow in Pakistan

Karachi, one of the world's megacities

Odd, isn't it, how nothing ever changes until it does. Take Cuba: the peasants were always staging their little rebellions and the army always put them down and Fulgencio Batista always remained in power. That's the way things were in Cuba because, well, nothing ever changed there. Then one day everything changed. [snapping her fingers] And just like that, Batista was gone.

It was only later, when it finally sank in that Cuba had changed, that people could look back and see there had been a lengthening shadow, the signs and portents warning that a change was coming.

You're 20 years old, your baby son has died of dehydration from dysentery, your wife is ill, you're unemployed and after two months of looking you still can't find work. There's no money, no food, and now there's no water, and even if you had the money to pay the gouge price the water mafia charges for water that's supposed to be free, now the electrical blackouts in Karachi mean that even the mafia has a hard time siphoning off water. The city has become hell, with armed robbers roving everywhere and gangs of refugees from the flooding in Sindh fighting with other gangs. You pass by a shop that has a television and see images of thousands of young men, men very much like yourself, massed in a place called Tahrir Square in Egypt; they're demanding the country's leader step down and they're protesting police brutality. A few days later you hear to your amazement that the leader has stepped down, that the head of the national police is under arrest.....

August 4, 2011, Business Standard (India):
Meanwhile, the Pakistani press is full of reports on how its economy is nose-diving. The overall budget deficit stands at 6.5 per cent of the GDP against a revised target of 4.7 per cent, and in the wake of the US cancelling $800 million worth of aid to Pakistan, officials in Islamabad are nervously wondering if they want to ask the IMF to revive its suspended bailout programme. Under the circumstances, Islamabad’s purported rejection of buying electricity from India, ostensibly because the power project is in Kashmir, would amount to cutting its nose to spite its face.
From the rest of the report it's not clear whether Pakistan has actually rejected the offer as yet. And in 2006 Pakistan's leaders similarly dragged their feet about accepting an offer from Iran to sell the country electricity at a subsidized rate. But the Business Standard report makes clear that Pakistan's Keepers of the Faith -- those Old Guard military men and civil servants who since the country's inception have defined the country's reason for existence to be 'destroy India' -- are playing political games about Kashmir with India's offer to sell electricity. This, despite the fact that Indian Kashmiris don't want Pakistan meddling in their affairs, as the recent election uproar in Kashmir made clear.

Pakistani pundit Mohammad Taqi did a good job the other day of sending up Pakistan's blinkered Old Guard, but there's not much room for levity when one studies Pakistan's electricity crisis and how it's playing into the cycle of violence in Karachi, which prompted the government on Tuesday to deploy paramilitary units in the city. The routine electrical blackouts, for up to 10 hours a day, have worsened the water-supply crisis in the city and added to the jobless crisis there. And all three crises exacerbate the violence in the poorer neighborhoods of the city, where most of the bloodshed has occurred. But unlike, say, the murderous feuds that erupted between drug gangs in Chicago's poorer neighborhoods a few years ago, the violence in Karachi frequently shuts down the city, which is the country's business hub. So the violence is greatly hampering Pakistan's attempts to attract foreign direct investment, which it needs if it's to pull out of its economic slump.

From that viewpoint Pakistan's leaders shouldn't look a gift horse in the mouth if India's offering to sell them electricity on an expedited basis. I understand the leaders are boxed in by the Old Guard's longstanding policy on Indian Kashmir, but if they think they can let Pakistan's electrical crises continue for years more, why, they're as blind as Batista was. And so are those in Washington who support the Old Guard.

Washington is looking in the wrong directions in Pakistan, as it did in Cuba, as it did in Iran, as it did in Egypt and so many other places. That's because Washington is always looking for verification of its assumptions. It needs to look for signs arising outside its assumptions; only from such effort can the outline of a lengthening shadow be intuited.


August 26, 2010:
Crush of Refugees Inflames Karachi
By Tom Wright,
The Wall Street Journal

KARACHI, Pakistan - Hundreds of thousands of refugees from Pakistan's devastating floods are seeking shelter in this city of 18 million, exacerbating ethnic strife that has already escalated this year ... The local administration says it is expecting and can cope with up to one million of the refugees. But many others who have made it to Karachi say they are being turned away from shelters on the outskirts and are pouring in to the city, deepening ethnic rivalries with Karachi's majority ethnic community that have simmered for years. ... For Karachi's dominant group, the Urdu-speaking Muhajirs, the influx of Sindhi refugees poses a threat to the established order.

"If they come in hundreds of thousands, how will they survive?" says Khawaja Izhar ul Hassan, a member of the provincial assembly from the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, or MQM, which is largely a Muhajir political party and forms part of Sindh province's ruling coalition government. ...
I'm being unfair to Christian Parenti, the author of the next report I'm featuring here, because I'm omitting much of the first part of his discussion, which focuses on his interest in climate change and its connection to social unrest. Mr Parenti sees the massive flooding in Sindh last year as an example of how climate change is causing massive dislocations in human populations; the first part of his report reflects that view. I've omitted that part for two reasons:

First, even if one assumes for the sake of argument that the weather conditions leading to the flooding were the result of climate change, the destructiveness of the flooding in Sindh was greatly due to human negligence, not the climate. That part of Pakistan is flood prone, which is why the British built an extensive and effective flood management system in the region. The system was allowed to fall into disrepair after Pakistan became an independent nation and no attempt was made to modernize flood management principles. (Parenti's discussion does touch on the issue although I've omitted it here.)

Secondly, it's the major portion of Parenti's investigative work that I find to be vital information -- the best window the general public has on a social upheaval in Pakistan that was touched off the 2010 flooding, but which is rooted in an essentially feudal society coming up against a 'third tier' of urbanization in a developing country.

(In first-tier ubanization the city is a commercial and/or governing hub. In second-tier urbanization large numbers of rural peoples arrive to reside and look for work in the hub as its commerce/government workforce expands. If the wave or waves of arrivals are sudden, driven by catastrophe(s) in the rural regions, this creates third-tier urbanization, which has a refugee or 'displaced persons' component.)

I hope you'll read Parenti's report in its entirety at the Agence Global website (see below); here I've provided enough of it to show that the options provided to the poor by rapid urbanization in Pakistan, which is symbolized by the megacity of Karachi, are now presenting a challenge to the country's ruling class (including the military) that it might not be able to deflect.

June 30, 2011:
Pakistan One Year After the Floods
by Christian Parenti
The Nation (U.S. publication) via Agence Global

Funding for this article was provided by the Dorothea Lange-Paul Taylor Documentary Prize from The Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University. Christian Parenti is a contributing editor for The Nation and visiting scholar at the CUNY Graduate Center. He is the author of Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence (Nation Books, June 2011).

KARACHI -- A hot, gritty wind carries the stench of pit latrines across a refugee camp on the western outskirts of Karachi, on Pakistan’s southern-facing coast. In the sky, vultures and eagles circle. At its peak, this camp held 1,400 families, all poor farmers displaced by the Indus floods of 2010, which inundated an area the size of England and affected more than 20 million people.

Before the massive floods of 2010 -- the worst in memory -- much of central and southern Asia was suffering through a brutal ten-year drought, during which crops did poorly and farmers sank ever deeper into debt. Pakistan is considered one of the most arid countries in the world and one of the most water-stressed. The flood was just the latest bit of extreme weather.
In rural Sindh, the floodwaters have finally receded, but the old problems have not. It is time to plant new crops, but in many refugee camps there are people refusing to go back to the land. At the windswept camp outside Karachi only half the residents have gone home. Aid agencies are cutting off relief, and the government is telling people to leave. Yet many refugees are stubbornly staying put.

“We will die here before we go back to those landlords,” says Mehboob Ali, the camp spokesman.

He and his neighbors seem to mean it. The day before I visited, the camp’s incipient social organization, the Mutasereen ("affected people") Action Committee, marched demanding the right to stay and build houses. Police met the marchers with volleys of tear gas and a baton charge. [...]

Why would desperately poor flood victims fight to stay in a dust-choked tent camp on the outskirts of a violent mega-city rather than go back to their homes?

The answer lies in the horrible exploitation and humiliation that is everyday life for most people in rural Pakistan. In Sindh, the traditional landlords are called zamindars and their tenant farmers are haris. Since independence and partition, in 1947, various Pakistani leaders have attempted land reform, but little has ever been achieved. And so, today the zamindars still own vast tracks of land on which their serflike haris live and work.

Several hundred miles north of Karachi on the edge of Sukkur, where old British-built barrages regulate the flow of the Indus, I found another camp of displaced people who don’t want to move. These people could also be described as escapees from feudalism. The camp lacks a school, a clinic, even basic sanitation, and aid is being cut off. But the remaining residents are finding ways to fit themselves into the local labor market: young men work on construction sites and in granaries and warehouses. Women go to the kachcha -- the wild area along the river -- where they pay armed men for the right to cut wood for resale to restaurants in Sukkur city.

“We don’t want to go back because the landlord will double our debt,” says Hassan Khoso. “We want the government to give us land.” He goes on, “Some poor tenant farmers ran off in the first week of the flood, before the water could even reach their district.”

Such was their desire to flee. Khoso, who’s from near Jacobabad, owed 50,000 rupees (about $560) last year but fears the debt will be 100,000 if he returns. He lost a rice crop worth 30,000 rupees, two water buffalo and two goats. He says that landlords have been coming to the camp urging the haris to return. Khoso and others say that is part of what keeps them close to the city. Along with work, there is access to hospitals and the promise -- at least the promise -- of education for their children.

As at the camp on the western edge of Karachi, these people have formed a camp committee. To make their demands heard they marched to the local press club and held a sit-in. And how are such calls for reform and development being met by officials?
Dead silence.

The floods inundated an area the size of England, destroyed almost 5 million acres of crops, killed about 1,750 people and left 10 million homeless. Rebuilding is expected to take three to five years. Despite the scale of the damage, the discourse around reconstruction involves very little if any public discussion of how things can be improved; ideas like social justice, land reform, climate adaptation or climate justice are missing. Local left parties are marginalized and hounded by landlord thugs.

The reason for this is simple: landlords have too much power. They control the sale of seed and fertilizer, set the prices of crops, rig local elections, imprison in private jails those who oppose them, use village schools to stable their cattle and generally have their own way regarding the people. Their influence on the government is pervasive at all levels.

There has been no pressure for change coming from the US government, which has given Pakistan $18 billion in assistance and payments since 2002. Nor has any [pressure] come from the international NGOs and the UN -- both of which run large aid and development programs here.

When I interviewed a spokeswoman for the UN World Food Program, so diligently did she tiptoe around the sensibilities of the Pakistani government that she refused even to use the word “corruption.”

Oxfam, on the other hand, has launched an investigation into “financial irregularities” within its own flood-relief work.

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.

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.”

* * *
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.
For more on Pakistan's electricity-shortage crisis, see The Nation's (Pakistan) July 28, 2011 report, No let-up in Karachiites’ sufferings, and Wikipedia's article, Electricity Sector in Pakistan ("Contrary to Pakistani government and expatriate claims, Pakistan suffers from a massive electricity shortage.")

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