It is shocking to even think that more than 1,000 people have died in Karachi during the current heat-wave. Even more startling is the way the crisis was handled by the federal and provincial authorities, confirming once again that those elected to serve the people are failing their mandates. The unofficial estimates of people dying are much higher, as many who passed away were never brought to the hospitals. Another report says that over 40,000 people suffered from heatstroke. The scale is staggering by all accounts.
A variety of factors have been reported as the cause of these tragic deaths. Most of the victims were old, and a large percentage of them were fasting. Many were residents of low-income settlements of the metropolis, while others were shelterless. The inability of the provincial administration to undertake timely relief efforts may have exacerbated the crisis. The first official visit took place on the second day of deaths, when the health minister made the usual perfunctory rounds. As the morgues in Karachi started to overflow with dead bodies, the Sindh government chose to identify extraordinary power outages as the key reason for the deaths.
The media, civil society and the opposition bitterly criticised the slow and seemingly insensitive response of the Sindh government to this calamity. True, the provincial government cannot be blamed for the soaring temperatures, but it certainly could have done more. The provincial administration defends itself but there is certainly an image problem here. The earlier deaths of children in the southern region of Tharparkar had also come under media scrutiny and the provincial machinery appeared to be equally clueless in that case.
Deaths in Karachi have come in the wake of the intense struggle between the ruling PPP and the central authorities — the military establishment and the federal government. Contrary to his declared policy of ‘reconciliation’, the PPP chairperson and former president, Asif Ali Zardari, lashed out at the military and threatened with consequences for pushing the Sindh government to the wall. While he may have some valid concerns such as the defacto and growing role of a paramilitary force in provincial affairs, Mr Zardari’s style of managing the province leaves him on shaky ground.
The mild-mannered Chief Minister, Qaim Ali Shah, is perceived as a titular head of the executive while the power in the public’s view rests with Mr Zardari’s kith and kin. Transfers and postings of bureaucrats also take place in a chaotic manner. Provincial legislators and ministers reportedly bypass the chief executive and involve parallel power centres. Another power centre — the Apex Committee — has been added for internal security purposes, thereby dispersing executive power in multiple directions.
Sindh’s urban-rural divide means that while the PPP rules Karachi, its incentive to perform is low since its primary voter base is located outside the populous cities of Karachi and Hyderabad. The MQM, which represents these areas, has been in and out of power and is currently under intense pressure due to the ongoing operations against its ostensibly militant wing[s]. The latest is the BBC story that an Indian intelligence agency had been supporting the party’s militancy in the past. There is both a credibility and an emerging-power void.
Despite the repeated calls for holding local government elections, the PPP seems disinterested. This has created perhaps, the greatest governance deficit in Sindh. The ghastly deaths and lack of relief arrangements are directly related to an absent local government. While the Rangers continue to assist the security functions, additional recruitment to the police remains to be undertaken. In Karachi alone, there are at least three or four times more police personnel required just to meet the basic international standard of the police-population ratio. These are the reasons why Mr Zardari’s outburst against the military has been viewed as an opportunistic move to protect the PPP’s exercise of power for sustaining its patronage lines in the province.
The federal-provincial tensions aggravate the situation further. Political point-scoring has continued while people kept on dying in Pakistan’s largest city. Sindh blames Islamabad for not giving it enough power. The federal power sector managers hold that Sindh is defaulting on its electricity bills. The provincial government also blamed the private power company K-Electric for causing extraordinary interruptions in power supply. While electricity shortages are a key contributory factor, the heat-related deaths are far more complex. If media reports are to be believed, then medical services in an emergency situation were wanting and may have compounded the situation. Conversely, the Rangers were able to attract public attention by setting up organised relief camps with the media highlighting their efforts. The private sector and citizen groups have been undertaking hectic efforts to salvage the situation. In short, the provincial government, due to its structural chaos and governance constraints, has once again, appeared to be directionless. And this is not the first time a disaster has hit the province.
With all its genuine history of being on the receiving end of Pakistan’s establishment and the right-wing sections of the media, the PPP cannot absolve itself of the responsibility of setting up governance arrangements that are not delivering. Bilawal Bhutto Zaradari tried to infuse some policy direction during the short time he was involved in party affairs but ultimately, Mr Zardari’s brand of realpolitik prevailed. The PPP runs the risk of losing its political capital in Sindh if this situation continues. With its ministers and allied bureaucrats under fire, its leadership in crisis and its credibility under question, the party is heading towards an abyss. Such is the growing public opinion that the current drive by the Rangers is acceptable to most. Mr Zardari should also learn from his isolation as most parties have refrained from supporting his latest outburst against the establishment. The reasons are not too difficult to decipher. The shoddy response to the heatwave calamity has only confirmed what many already believe about the PPP’s record in office. This tragic episode in Karachi casts an ominous shadow over the future of democratic governance. Without delivery of public services and entitlements, a democratic dispensation may hold little promise for the hapless citizenry of Pakistan.
Published in The Express Tribune, June 26th, 2015.
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