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How the quake changed Pakistan

By Alok Bansal
December 09, 2005 04:43 IST
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Two months after the earthquake measuring 7.6 on the Richter Scale hit parts of Pakistan Occupied Kashmir, Jammu and Kashmir, and northern Pakistan, it is time to analyse its impact on Pakistan, the country worst affected by the quake.

Over 75,000 lives were lost, thousands were injured and millions rendered homeless, and the relief and rehabilitation costs are estimated to be $ 5.2 billion.

The devastation, however, is believed to have stirred up nascent Pakistani nationalism and has brought the country together. There was a new mood in the air where ordinary people responded to the earthquake spontaneously. The public at large instantly reacted to the catastrophe, and the affected regions were full of volunteers from far and wide.

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A number of media reports compared the public solidarity with that of the heady days of 1965, which are widely believed to be the high point in Pakistan's existence as a nation state, because the war with India consolidated its claim to nationhood. However, a careful analysis of events in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake indicates that some of these comparisions are hollow.

The earthquake of October 8 not only shook the buildings and structures but also the confidence of the people of Pakistan. It was also a major setback in the efforts to overcome the economic and logistical problems faced by it. There was noticeable inertia in the initial days after the quake, and the Pakistani Army, the only functioning institution in the country, reacted late in reaching the affected areas.

Senior Army officers, specially the corps commanders of Rawalpindi and Peshawar, were conspicuous by their absence from the region affected by the tragedy. In fact the Army operations continued in southern Waziristan after the tragedy and some of the helicopters badly needed for relief were still attacking the militants despite the earthquake having devastated a large area and affected millions.

Though initially the Pakistani government declared that the quake would not affect the economy, it subsequently agreed that it would have an impact and indicated that some adjustments would have to be made in allocations for social development programs.

While there was a groundswell of sympathy for the victims across most of Pakistan, there was anger towards the government and the military. The anti-government elements continued their operation in the tribal areas as well as in Balochistan. There were additional reports of unscrupulous elements trying to indulge in trafficking of hapless women and children affected by the earthquake.

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Sectarian riots in Gilgit and surrounding areas, which are contiguous to the quake affected region, continued to take place. The region remained under curfew for weeks immediately after the quake and more than a dozen lives were lost in clashes between the Pakistani Rangers and Shia students.

The quake also reopens the debate on the location of mega dams in Pakistan, as it would definitely put a lid on the proposed mega dam at Skardu, which is located in the highly seismic zone contiguous to the epicentre of the quake. It is unlikely that a mega dam with 35 million acre feet of water will be built in this zone, as its rupture due to seismic activity would cause massive devastation downstream.

Pakistani planners will also have to reconsider the proposed Bhasha dam in Chilas district of the Northern Areas. That would only leave Kalabagh out of the proposed three sites for mega dams, which is fiercely opposed by the NWFP and Sindh.

Ironically, just one week after the quake, while on one hand Pakistan has appealed to the international community to donate generously for relief and rehabilitation, on the other hand it has gone ahead and signed a billion-dollar deal with Sweden for the acquisition of six SAAB early warning aircraft.

Although the huge public outcry that followed forced the government to postpone the purchase of 77 F-16 fighter aircraft from the US, the Pakistani Army is still going ahead with the construction of new General Headquarters building and accommodation for Army top brass at Islamabad, at a time when the cost-cutting measures would seem imperative.

Around $5.9 billion was pledged at the recent donors' conference held in Islamabad, including $ 25 million by India. In the immediate aftermath of the quake there was an all-pervasive feeling in Pakistan that its long-term friends, the Arab countries and China, had not done enough in its hour of need. However, the recent pledges by Saudi Arabia, China and the United Arab Emirates to provide $340 million, $300 million and $100 million respectively for rehabilitation and reconstruction would go a long way in assuaging such feelings.

'The quake has strengthened jehad' 

There is no doubt that across the length and breadth of Pakistan a number of individuals and non-governmental organisations have come forward to provide succour to the affected individuals. The two organisations that have really won accolades for their participation in relief efforts are the Muttahida Quami Movement and the Jamaat-ut-Dawaahl, which is in fact the reincarnation of the Lashkar e Tayiba in a new name.

The MQM's stars are already on the upswing; recent local body polls clearly indicate that it holds complete sway over urban Sind. They have successfully out-manoeuvred the fundamentalist Jamat e Islami from Karachi and their efforts in PoK have endeared them to the masses in these regions as well.

The other organisation active in relief operations in the region, which may play a more ominous role subsequently, is the JuD. This organisation, which has been in the forefront of exporting terror and sends suicide bombers across the LoC to cause death and destruction in Jammu and Kashmir and the rest of India, has ironically been in the forefront to provide succour to the affected population both in NWFP and PoK.

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Their volunteers have been distributing aid and carrying the wounded to hospitals in the remotest areas of the affected region and have won admiration for them in regions which have been the breeding ground for infiltrators. Their new found popularity may result in larger recruitment of terrorists in due course of time and so certainly does not augur well for India.

Another factor that has implications for India is the presence of NATO troops in the region to provide relief and rehabilitation. They may keep a tab on JuD activists while looking out for Al Qaeda and Taliban elements in the region.

While the presence of NATO troops in the PoK may serve to check cross-border terrorism in the short term, their continued presence in the territory that we believe to be Indian is not in our national interest.

Natural disasters have an uncanny tendency to trigger events which have long term implications. The greatest natural disaster to have struck Pakistan in terms of lives lost was the cyclone that hit then East Pakistan in 1970. It is believed to have claimed close to a million lives and precipitated actions that led to estrangement of the affected population from the government and ultimately resulted in the break-up of Pakistan.

What will be the effect of this disaster, the biggest since independence to have hit the region that constitutes Pakistan today?

Whether it will strengthen the JuD in the region or lead to the alienation of Kashmiris from Pakistan, only time will tell.

But one thing is certain: things have changed irrevocably in Pakistan since October 8.

The author is New Delhi based security analyst

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Alok Bansal