Playing Politics as Quake Toll Rises

NEW DELHI – Even as the death toll from the Oct. 8 earthquake mounts in India and more so in Pakistan, the two governments are injecting shrewd calculations of self-interest into their relief programs.

Rather than efficiently helping survivors in divided Kashmir, the two governments are squandering a valuable opportunity to cooperate with each other in relief provision. They have already missed the chance to coordinate their early rescue operations and save tens of thousands of lives.

Meanwhile, time is running out. It has started snowing in the Pir Panjal range, which runs through Kashmir. In another two weeks, the worst-affected areas will become more or less inaccessible.

The tragedy that hit the Himalayan region of Kashmir in both India and Pakistan and the Northwest Frontier Province of Pakistan, highlighted the commonness and similarity between people and geographical features across the India-Pakistan border.

Logically, the two governments should have coordinated their rescue and relief efforts, if not launched joint operations. Logistically, Pakistan would have found it far easier to rush badly needed assistance to people in its part of Kashmir through Indian territory.

The two Kashmirs share valleys and passes, and have roads and access points across the politically determined Line of Control (LoC), which roughly marks the point where the armies of the two countries fought each other to a standstill more than 55 years ago.

Both governments lay exclusive claim to Kashmir and assert their special right to speak for the Kashmiri people and their welfare. The earthquake offered them a chance to demonstrate their professed concern for the Kashmiris, but they failed to respect the logic of geography and instead resorted to politics.

On the evening of Oct. 8, India proposed joint relief operations with Pakistan and also offered the use of its territory near the LoC for movement of relief material. But Pakistan refused, citing domestic "sensitivities."

As the enormity of the tragedy dawned, Pakistan accepted 25 tons of relief flown into Islamabad, and President Gen. Pervez Musharraf expressed gratitude for the gesture but was careful to say that Indian aid was being accepted only in "certain forms and format."

"This is nothing but euphemism for the irrational fear that accepting aid from India will be seen to be a sign of Pakistani ‘weakness,’ says Achin Vanaik, professor of international relations and global politics at Delhi University. "The view is based on a false sense of national ‘pride’ and ‘prestige’ and puts the defense of Pakistan’s ‘image’ above securing its citizens’ lives."

However, India’s offer of aid was not wholly altruistic. Rather, it was part of a new diplomatic offensive and a conscious attempt in recent years to transform India’s image from an aid-receiver to an aid-donor.

India generally spurns offers of external assistance during natural calamities, and last December, India sent out naval ships carrying relief material to neighboring countries like Sri Lanka.

"Pakistan should still have accepted substantial aid from India," adds Vanaik. "Considerations of false pride should have been set aside to help Pakistan’s own citizens who are in dire straits."

India has dispatched three consignments comprising 170 tons of relief materials, including 100 tons of fortified biscuits. The rest of the aid comprises medicines, tents, and blankets. But even this had to be delicately negotiated at a high level.

On the weekend, Pakistan requested India to allow its helicopters to fly along the LoC, which is normally (even in peacetime) considered a "no-fly zone," and India agreed. But, an external affairs ministry spokesman said, India rejected a request for Indian helicopters minus the pilots and crew.

Pakistan has borne the brunt of the earthquake’s damage. An estimated 40,000 people have been killed, over 60,000 injured, and 3.3 million have become homeless.

In India, the death toll is about 1,300. According to official figures, some 40,000 houses have been totally destroyed and 75,000 partially damaged. The destruction is particularly severe in the Uri and Tangdhar region of Indian Kashmir. The whole of the Pakistan’s part of Kashmir has suffered extensive destruction.

Both Pakistan and India will be hard put to get food, water, blankets, and warm clothing to the victims. But even more daunting is the task of providing temporary shelters to those whose homes have been razed.

"It has been pouring since the morning, and I doubt anyone got any relief through," said social activist Sonia Jabbar from Uri on Sunday. "We had to turn back at about 3 p.m. [from Uri]. It’s freezing cold, and even the tents and temporary tin and plastic shelters that a few villages have managed to get are proving ridiculously inadequate. The most pressing need is shelter – shelter that can withstand the elements."

In Karnah, Jabbar reports, the situation is particularly bad. "The region is already getting snowed up. Once winter sets in, Karnah is cut off for five to six months. So whatever needs to happen here must happen in the next couple of weeks on a war footing."

Field reports from Pakistan suggest the situation there is even more grave. The relief effort is paltry in relation to the calamity.

On its side, the Indian government has announced an aid package of $136 million to the provincial Jammu and Kashmir state government, but there are very few signs of any of this reaching the victims in time.

The state government has all but washed its hands of the task of providing temporary shelters and is instead offering $1,000 as the first installment of cash assistance to each family that has lost a home.

The government is trying to supply tents. "But our experience in the mountains suggests that tents cannot withstand the elements," says Dunu Roy of the People’s Science Institute, which did voluntary relief work during the Uttarkashi earthquake in the hills of Uttaranchal state in October 1991.

"A much better alternative is to build tin sheds with locally available wooden or bamboo poles. In Uttarkashi, we trained local communities to build such shelters, where people can cook and keep themselves warm with wood or kerosene stoves," Roy said.

"Going by the general experience of South Asia, there will be humongous corruption in relief operations," says Roy. "There is no way to reduce it except by involving local communities in planning relief and rehabilitation."

Prema Gopalan of the Swayam Shikshan Prayog, a voluntary organization with extensive experience in disaster relief work, says the involvement of women is absolutely crucial. "They alone know the precise needs of children and old people, and the space requirements for cooking and storing provisions."

As the governments of Pakistan and India blunder on, the military has acquired a high profile in both countries. The armies controls access to the affected areas, especially in the higher reaches, and act according to their own calculations.

Last week, the Indian army said its soldiers helped Pakistani troops rebuild damaged bunkers, but Pakistan quickly denied these reports. The Indian army later modified its statement saying that its soldiers only lent some equipment to Pakistani troops on the other side.

The Indian army sees a positive side in the devastation – the destruction of bases, training camps, and communication centers of militants in Pakistani Kashmir, from where they infiltrate into Indian Kashmir. It estimates that the earthquake killed some 700 fighters and incapacitated many groups, especially the Lashkar-e-Toiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed.

Amid these narrow calculations and power plays, it is unclear if much relief will reach the people of Kashmir, especially its Pakistani segment, before winter sets in and isolates the region. A bleak prospect awaits the survivors.

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Praful Bidwai

Praful Bidwai is a New Delhi-based political analyst and peace activist, a columnist with twenty-five Indian newspapers and co-author (with Achin Vanaik) of New Nukes: India, Pakistan and Global Nuclear Disarmament. He shared the International Peace Bureau's Sean MacBride International Peace Prize for 2000 with Vanaik.