October issue 2010

The rain may have stopped, but the pain and devastation continues. And they are likely to continue for a long time. This article is one of seven in Newsline‘s special coverage of the ongoing humanitarian crisis brought on by the floods of 2010 and how it is affecting the lives of Pakistan’s most vulnerable citizens, the country’s food supply, the fragile economy and the neglected environment, as well as what Pakistan’s politicians and bureaucrats are doing about it all. More articles will be published over the coming days.

Allegations of intentional breaches along embankments in the Punjab at the behest of the powerful elite surfaced in August and September, leading to the initiation of inquiries to ascertain the truth. The Punjab government took cognisance of the complaints and formed investigative teams; in addition, it requested the Lahore High Court (LHC) to form a commission to investigate the matter.

The strongest protests came from Muzaffargarh, where the locals alleged that irrigation officials breached dykes on the left side instead of the right where huge tracts of land had been designated to absorb the water in times of high flood. Consequently, the floodwater entered Muzaffargarh and led to the death of over 50 people and the displacement of nearly 1.5 million people. This also gave a clue of the illegal practice of usurping lands in flood basins by all influential landlords to expand their existing landholdings.

Jamshed Dasti, a PPP MNA from Muzaffargarh, claims that PML-N bigwigs of Southern Punjab pressurised the provincial irrigation secretary and the district coordination officer not to divert flood waters towards the flood basin in a bid to save their standing cotton and sugarcane crops. The Khosas and the Hanjras, the two feudal families Dasti was referring to, refuted the allegations and accused Dasti of playing politics at a critical juncture in the country’s history.

Incidentally, PML-Q also backed Dasti’s allegations saying that the Tausa spurs were breached only to save the agricultural lands of the Khosas rather than to save the barrages. While an official inquiry is underway, independent groups have also visited the affected area to determine the truth.

Among them was a team of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), led by its council member Hina Jilani, that visited Southern Punjab and discovered that the floodwater was, in several instances, diverted, at behest of rich landowners to save their properties. Members of the Muzaffargarh Bar Council informed the team that the decisions to breach embankments were mostly dictated by local influentials to protect agricultural land in their possession, including occupied state land.

Interestingly, it was not just individual landowners who tried to save their properties; the government also swung into action to protect its assets, claims PML-N MPA Saima Aziz, who hails from Kot Addu. Aziz alleges that local irrigation officials breached the Muzaffargarh canal in the city area in a bid to save the Kapco power plant. This was done at the cost of people’s lives.

Surprisingly, Punjab Governor Salman Taseer, who hardly misses a chance to criticise the Shahbaz Sharif-led Punjab government, has come to its rescue this time round. In a conversation with the media, he rubbished accusations of intentional breaches being made to protect feudal landholdings. He maintains that there is a breach committee whose job is to decide when and where to breach canals and waterways in times of flood. He says the orders to breach waterways are passed in writing and after thorough consultations. The army is also involved in the process as they are the ones who then come in and lay the explosives at the point of the intended breach.

Officials in the irrigation department and independent engineers maintain that though a standard procedure is in place, it is not always followed. The powerful elite, who are known to run a state within a state, can get anything done for their own benefit. The officials, who do not want their names to be made public over fears of reprisal, maintain that rules are only intended for the poor and the meek; the feudals and the politicians remain outside their ambit.

This was originally published under the title of “Naming and Blaming” in the October issue of Newsline.