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Three hurdles

The travails of Pakistan
Some residents use a boat while others wade through the rising floodwaters in Bhan Syedabad, Pakistan.
Some residents use a boat while others wade through the rising floodwaters in Bhan Syedabad, Pakistan.

T.C.A. Raghavan   |   Published 16.09.22, 02:54 AM

Even for a country from where bad news has been somewhat of a norm for some years now, the past months in Pakistan have been dire. It is at the intersection of no less than three different arcs of crisis.

The most arbitrary of these is the exceptional amount of rain this season — a “monsoon on steroids”, as the United Nations secretary-general termed it. One-third of the country’s land mass is described as flooded, with Sindh and Balochistan provinces the worst affected. The loss of life, property, infrastructure and livelihood is immense. Inevitably, those most affected are the ones with the weakest defences — the rural poor in the affected provinces, which have in them some of the least developed parts of Pakistan. The floodwaters will gradually recede but the knockdown effects of this massive bout of floods are going to encompass even those parts of Pakistan less impacted by excessive rainfall and its economy as a whole.


Within Pakistan itself, there is some discussion of the comparative magnitudes of the current floods as compared to those in 2010. In some accounts, the current situation is projected to be far worse. The larger point is that this is the third major natural catastrophe that has impacted the country in less than two decades, the other being the 2005 earthquake that so devastated many parts of the North West Frontier Province and Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.

If international responses to each of these three visitations are to be ranked, the 2005 earthquake had evoked the strongest reactions. Pakistan was then in a geopolitical sweet spot with commitments by the United States of America and NATO on an upward trajectory in neighbouring Afghanistan. Pakistan was seen as critical to the Afghanistan enterprise, and both material aid and moral support from major donors had reflected this. The 2010 floods had also seen international donors pitching in, although signs were perhaps visible that donor fatigue was setting in.

The response to the current floods appears lukewarm so far, although the UN secretary-general visited the flood-affected areas earlier this week and UN relief agencies have been issuing appeals for early humanitarian aid. The overall environment is, however, tilted against Pakistan. In part, this is because of the events in Afghanistan over the past 12 to 15 months but also because the Ukraine war, much closer home to many major donors, has left little oxygen for Pakistan’s travails.

There is, in brief, a significant sense of fatigue with Pakistan and its portfolio of insurmountable problems. Incidentally, in both 2005 and 2010, India had been prompt in dispatching emergency humanitarian aid and in providing assistance. The contrast this time around is obvious and points to the turbulence in the bilateral relationship for the past six years as equally to a kind of fatigue from dealing positively with this neighbour.

In Pakistan, there is an emergent narrative that the costs of global climate change, for which it has little responsibility, are being visited upon it. This sense of victimhood is not new, and variants of the same thesis exist with regard to terrorism — that it was left to shoulder the entire legacy of the US-sponsored jihad in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

The floods, following a blistering heat wave, are a climate change-triggered crisis. They coincide with an ongoing economic crisis in Pakistan. A new International Monetary Fund programme provides a loan of US $1.1 billion and will give some breathing space but not much more than that. Even the promise of short-term relief stands considerably eroded because of the negative impact — largely unanticipated— of the floods. How the conditionalities related to this bailout package — inevitable limitations on government expenditure, subsidies and increased tariffs on public utilities — will be squared with the overwhelming need to provide relief and rehabilitation remains an open question. Pakistan’s ongoing economic crisis is not going to fade away anytime soon and much as is the case with the climate change crisis there is no light visible at the end of the tunnel.

Along with the floods and the dire economic situation is the ongoing political crisis. The former prime minister, Imran Khan, has taken Pakistan’s notorious political feuding to greater heights but has also broken new ground in the terrain of civil-military relations. The spectre of his very evident and growing popularity haunts not just his political opponents but also the military. Certainly, at least some in the latter must be ruing this maverick Frankenstein they were at least partly responsible for in assembling.

Imran Khan’s present political script includes a heavy dose of sentiment critical of the military. This is a critique of the army’s meddling in politics based not so much on principle but because this time around it acted against him. His rhetoric may have a new intensity against the generals but the playbook is an older one in Pakistan — of a civil-military tussle over political influence and scarce resources. The current confrontation, however, means a government that is constantly distracted, on the edge, and unable to focus.

This political conundrum is not going to ease soon. The appointment of a new chief of army staff in November end is the next milestone which many Pakistanis hope will jump-start a process of stabilisation or, at least, greater calm. But it may well be that it will only mark the next phase in the evolution of a continuing crisis.

Each of these three crises has deep histories in Pakistan. The country is a victim of each of them but it is also complicit. An excessive securitisation lies at the root of each of these crises. The fatigue with Pakistan, amongst donors and others, arises in large part from the frustrations of addressing its highly-securitised view of itself and its neighbourhood. It is tempting, in India and elsewhere, to let this frustration and cynicism dictate inaction. But the realities of an unstable and polarised nuclear weapons State angry at itself and with the world is not a desirable one. Realism, rather than frustration or cynicism, must determine policy.

(T.C.A. Raghavan is a former Indian High Commissioner to Pakistan)

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