Why don’t they evacuate the victims instead?

The case for a pragmatic approach to relief and rehabilitation

The harsh Himalayan winter looms. Aid workers are racing against time to procure, transport and deliver such necessities like winterised tents, winter-proof blankets, food and medicines to the victims of the earthquake. But even in the best of times, access to the highlands of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and its North West Frontier Province is difficult. After the quake, helicopters are the most effective means of getting aid in and getting casualties out.

The problem is that winterised tents, winter-proof blankets, and most of all helicopters are in short supply. So are funds. So the current approach of trying to use scarce funds to procure the relatively more expensive winterised tents and use the limited helicopter fleet to deliver them does not immediately appear to be the optimum approach to deliver aid. Why not focus financial and logistics resources to evacuate the victims to the warmer plains instead? Getting people to leave their homes is never easy. In Pakistan, it appears to be impossible.

Hameed, who lost his home in last month’s devastating temblor, says he would rather his family die from the cold than descend from the 10,000-feet high peak and risk being exposed to strangers at relief camps in the disaster zone.

“But this is not question of life. This is the question of our women’s honour.”

(Another) claimed there was an ulterior motive behind the warnings. “They are doing so on behalf of landlords who think no one will be left to take care of their fields,”[DT]

Clearly there are cultural and social reasons why victims say they prefer death to evacuation. But when faced with a similar refusals, American local authorities used various methods of persuasion to get citizens to evacuate.

Mayor Alan Tharling of Port Lavaca, Texas, says that the 1,000 or so die-hards who refuse to evacuate (ahead of Hurricane Rita) are being given permanent markers and asked to write their Social Security number, next of kin and a phone number on their arm or across their abdomen — so that returning officials can identify their bodies. [MSNBC]

While it is important to respect the wishes and the sensitivities of the victims, the state also has a responsibility to use its funds to save as many lives as possible. Abandoning die-hards to their fate appears to be callous, especially because it is a act of commission. But not making optimum use of resources has a wider impact, leading to a lot more lives being lost. This appears less intuitive, for such acts of omission are seen as part of the overall failure of the government to provide an adequate response. If the purpose of the relief effort is to save as many lives as possible, then there is a case for the government attempting to convince, coerce and even force affected citizens to evacuate to safer areas. This applies for any government, but only democracies can do so with sufficient moral authority.

And here again, Pakistan’s military dictatorship, works against the interests of its own people. Lacking popular support, it cannot even consider a policy of mass evacuation without risking public wrath and political upheaval. Attempts to do so have already been condemned by political opposition and the civil society alike. It is unlikely that Gen Musharraf will have the courage to attempt an evacuation-centric strategy until perhaps it is too late. But for the sake of the millions of victims of last month’s earthquake, it is incumbent upon Pakistanis and the rest of the world to leave no stone unturned in attempting to save as many lives as possible. Musharraf already relies on international support for a large part of his political legitimacy. The same, perhaps, can encourage him to explore a more pragmatic, albeit unpopular, approach. Before it gets really cold.

6 thoughts on “Why don’t they evacuate the victims instead?”

  1. Government has no specific plans, only half baked ideas. They are concentrating on donor conferences, overseas trips and media campaigns, doing insignificant work for the victims.

  2. Nitin, It is indeed important that evacuations happen. From personal experience, I do know that many families have moved down but the numbers are still miniscule.
    The problem with the Musharraf state is lack of legitimacy AND lack of resources in carrying out such a massive operation.

    International pressure, and specifically marked aid, are the only ways that this can happen. And for the sake of million more lives, it must.

  3. I don’t think it is fair to compare intransigence of American hurricane victims to that of earthquake victims in Himalayas. Most people in remotes parts in South Asia probably have not traveled more than 10-20 km in their lives – don’t expect them to pickup and move 100s of kms away. Knowing the competency of officials, what guarantees are there that they will be taken care of after moving to an unfamiliar place?

    If Kashmir is solved as a gift to earthquake victims (meaning giving J&K to Pakistan) as the General wants, will it somehow undo the earthquake or their own incompetence since? The General and most other Pakistanis in charge seem to be engaged in image building exercise in the west, as Kashif says, because that’s what matters to stay in power in Pakistan.

  4. Speaking tongue in cheek, if Musharraf is in such a dire need of resources to help the relief efforts, Why are the Jihadis wasting their resources in carrying out bombings in foreign territory at such a time? …and please don’t tell me Musharraf is not another Jihadi.

    Inspite of all of Musharraf’s pledges, until now the aid money has not been accounted for. Appointing a UN representative to keep an eye will be inviting another Oil-for-Food like scam in UN itself, especially which will go on a long time as would be the case with this effort. I’m already seeing 70 more F-16s heading for Pakistan in the next couple of years.

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