One often wonders how a country run by a bunch of total lunatics can be expected to perform a reasonable job when confronted with a natural disaster. It may be a harsh generalisation, but Pakistan suffers far more seriously at the hands of bureaucratic pencil-pushers during natural disasters, while millions of Good Samaritans chip in to provide relief in a far more organised and generous way than the very people they have voted into power.
In recent times, we have had our fair share of natural and man-made disasters and each has left a lasting scar. By the grace of God we have somehow managed to pull through, but I often wonder if we had been better prepared would we have been able to save even one more life from the hundreds that lay at our feet?
In the aftermath of the 2005 earthquake, the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) was formed by a constitutional amendment. The initiative, setting up a federal body deputed to coordinate all stakeholders in an attempt to implement a national and provincial strategy on better ways to manage, fund, organise, stockpile and train first-responders, was a step in the right direction.
In an ideal set-up, the first-responders would have been a well-rehearsed team micromanaging any eventuality at the district level. Slowly, the provinces would step in to manage the calamity at a macro level, leaving the national body to attend to larger issues. The disaster management team should have been well-oiled administratively and trained strategically towards effectively saving lives in the times of disaster.
Ever since its inception, the NDMA may have at best had a brief dream of coming up with a national policy for calamities. But, in turn, it was greeted with a Pandora’s box of bureaucratic red-tape across the board. A retired lieutenant-general headed the organisation and was viewed suspiciously by the provinces as part of the Musharraf lobby. For this reason, the provinces did not support and accept the NDMA and instead chose to fend for themselves. Punjab, for example, insisted on implementing their own Emergencies Act of 1952 and proceeded to form the 1122 emergency service unit which, while a brilliantly run service, does not come under the jurisdiction of the national body. Herein starts the cobweb of nightmares that prevent the effective operation of a national disaster response unit.
The lack of interest in coordinating with the national body lead to the provinces managing calamities on their own, creating ad-hoc crisis management cells entrusted to save lives. These cells were unprepared and adopted a do-the-best-you-can approach.
It’s interesting that the vigilant public has more or less seen through this disorganisation and has taken proactive measures to do their own part trying to overcome the shortfall, though these efforts, despite being well-intentioned, lacked coordination on a macro level. This left some areas well looked after, but far flung regions were ignored and left at the mercy of lacklustre government response.
With such an incoherent disaster management framework, there needs to be a serious effort to fix the problems from the core. If such bureaucratic red-tape is impossible to dissolve then, for the sake of the millions of Pakistanis, it might be best to create an independent consortium of various important stakeholders, including key figures from civil society, and entrust them with the management of future disasters. Disaster management is a science that enables you to be better prepared and the more rehearsed your team is, the better its chances that it will save lives. In the chaos that ensues after a calamity, a well-rehearsed team can be the difference saving or losing a live.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 11th, 2010.