One million and counting

Mobilising an unwilling and fractious population in support of the IDPs is, in short, a wish that will go unfulfilled.

Editorial July 23, 2014

The scale of the IDP crisis triggered by Operation Zarb-e-Azb is increasing exponentially with the passage of time. In a rare admission of failure by any government official, the Minister for States and Frontier Regions, Lt Gen (retd) Abdul Qadir Baloch, said that the government had failed to mobilise the public in the facilitation and support of the IDPs. The hapless minister has been appointed as the focal person in the management of the crisis and if ever there was a poisoned chalice this is it. The minister also revealed what many had suspected, that one million today may become more than two million in the coming days and weeks as the military operation is likely to expand. If that happens, and it is probable rather than merely likely, the magnitude of the crisis is going to far exceed local resources and international aid is going to have to be sought.

Clutching at straws, he spoke of ‘mobilising the entire nation’ — but the entire nation does not seem minded to support the IDPs because it is struggling with problems of its own. Power cuts are crippling industry and raising tempers countrywide, as evidenced by disturbances in Lahore in the last 24 hours. The people of Sindh are very clear in their opinion and a strike was called by Sindhi nationalist parties that was observed across much of interior Sindh on July 22. There is concern that an influx of IDPs is going to destabilise the fragile demographic of Sindh and further that there are still IDPs in Sindh left over from the 2009 Swat operation who chose never to return home. This may contribute to the spread of militancy as extremists will hide in plain view within the IDP cohort. Indeed, even though this gesture is far from being altruistic, it is no doubt a realistic concern, not mere knee-jerk paranoia, and a concern that the government must be cognisant of.

The national response to the quake of 2005 was markedly different from the current IDP crisis. That was a natural disaster over which there was no control; whereas the IDP crisis is entirely man-made and the populace is unwilling to ‘own’ the fallout from political decisions that they may not have agreed with in the first place — despite the alleged ‘unanimity’ amongst politicians. Mobilising an unwilling and fractious population in support of the IDPs is, in short, a wish that will go unfulfilled.

The woes of the IDPs and particularly of the women among them (women and children are a numerical majority) are now being heightened by the innate cultural conservatism of the area they come from. A pamphlet has been distributed saying that women are not allowed to queue for rations, the decision of a jirga of the tribal elders of North Waziristan. The jirga ruled that there were inadequate arrangements for women and that their presence at the ration points was a violation of purdah that was unacceptable. Medievalism meets the 21st century. Men from families that allow their women to queue for rations will be punished. How they will be punished is not specified.

The government appears to have woken up to the fact that NGOs may have something to offer and a number are now operational, but with the IDP cohort is likely to double and there has now been an admission that this is ‘not going to be a short war’ the government is going to have to quickly get to grips with medium- and long-term planning for IDPs’ future. Education, housing, employment — all of this needs to be thought about.

In the short term, there is a massive problem of supply and logistics, and the next three months are probably covered in terms of basic needs. But basic needs being fulfilled does nothing to allay the sense of resentment and humiliation felt by many and feeds directly into the pool of disaffection that will inevitably grow. If one was to imagine how best to create a climate in which extremism may thrive, the creation of the IDP crisis would be a textbook example.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 24th, 2014.

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