Reflections from the field….

Isfundiar Kasuri , 09 Feb, 2012

This place was wild; a post-apocalyptic desert world. There wasn’t a
single structure in the Kachha that didn’t look like it had been
carpet bombed. I hadn’t seen a child fully clothed or wearing shoes
all day and despite the sunshine, it was a crisp 12 degrees Celsius.
Courtesy of the local UNOCHA representative, I arrived at Fato Brohi,
a small village located on the breached Bhigari Bund in the Shikarpur
District of Sindh. As is customary, upon sight of the vehicle (which
can be easily seen approaching from a distance), the villagers lined
up to greet us.

What used to be a flattering yet depressing experience was not so much
anymore, it was just work. Agha Inamullah, the UNOCHA coordinator and
I exited the vehicle, shook a few hands, dispensed with the
pleasantries and quickly began surveying the village (or what was left
of it). 40 homes, all destroyed by the floods, no school, no health
unit of any kind, no clean drinking water, no winter essentials, no
shoes, nothing meaningful in their possession except for the ration
packages that had been delivered to them days earlier by the World
Food Programme. It would have been really disheartening if this was
the first village I had visited but now, on the 9th day of my 4th
damage surveying trip to the area I just wanted to go home to my wife
and children.

And then I saw Afia, this 11 month old girl, sitting on a charpayee
outside her parents’ tent, sharing roti with a goat. There she was,
in all her innocence play fighting with the animal for the roti,
unaware of the future life her socio-economic background had
pre-determined for her. Upon hearing the clicking of the camera she
let go of the roti and focused her round eyes on me. Ideal for the
camera, I clicked some more. The heretofore silent mob behind me
spoke up in Sindhi. Agha Inam, my UNOCHA guide, who is a native of
the area, advised me that this girl recently lost her father. As
such, her mother was grieving and she did not go to the World Food
Programme distribution point to collect her rations for the month.
Moreover, the village elders were hoping we would perhaps help her
mother with food rations. As much as I would have liked to, we did
not come prepared to hand out food rations; this was a village
scouting trip. I had to help them though; this infant was precious.
The goat takes advantage of Afia’s momentary lapse of concentration.
While I was working out the logistics of how to organize some relief
for this child’s family, Agha Inam was engaged in a conversation with
the mob of villagers escorting us. As I turned to him to make a
suggestion the entire crowd burst out laughing. Curious, of course, I
asked Inam what it is that they found so funny. Much to my chagrin, I
was told by Inam that “I asked them to allocate one kilo each from
their own rations to the widow’s family and that this would solve the
problem at which point they laughed and one of them asked if I thought
they were crazy…. I told you Isfundiar they can be quite wicked.
There is little difference between these haris’ (landless peasants)
and animals.” Instantly irritated by the villagers’ rather crude
application of Darwin’s theory, I decided to expedite my departure
from this village. I reached into my wallet and handed over the Rs.
3000 that were in it to an elder to give to the grieving mother and
waited for her to come out from pardah to acknowledge receipt. I flew
back to my cushy lifestyle in Lahore the next day.

I arrived in Lahore to the announcement of a new Pakistani hero. In
death, Governor Salman Taseer was the new poster child of liberal and
moderate Pakistan. Understandably, all his past sins were washed away
with this one most brilliant act of selflessness; at least as far as
we were concerned. It didn’t matter to anyone of our liberals in
Lahore anymore that he had, in life been one of Mr. Zardari’s most
ardent supporters. The bottom line was that he had risked his life to
stand up for Asiya Bibi and openly opposed the blasphemy law,
something few, if any politicians could fathom doing. His
assassination, of course, crystallized the widely held view amongst
Pakistan’s liberal elite that religious extremism is the most profound
problem facing Pakistan today.

While no one can deny the fact that religious extremists are a menace,
they are indisputably a product of the structural violence that exists
in our society. The term coined by Johan Galtung in the the 1960’s
refers to a form of violence based on the systematic ways in which a
given social structure or social institution harms people by
preventing them from meeting their basic needs. Institutionalized
elitism, ethnocentrism, classism, racism and sexism are all examples.
Poverty, however, is central to most of these and as such, an
essential ingredient for structural violence to flourish. As
Professor James Gilligan, a psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School and
renowned expert on violence has stated, “Poverty kills far more people
than all the wars in history, murderers in history and all the
suicides in history, combined. Not only does structural violence kill
more people than behavioural violence it is in fact, the main cause of
behavioral violence.” Gandhi himself identified poverty as the
“worst form of violence”.

The message is clear. Our lives have more value than yours.
Structural violence in society does not bother us as long as it
doesn’t affect us. If it does, we will have justice. Unfortunately
in this case, Mumtaz Qadri is also a hero to far more people than one
ever thought possible. Why?

A perhaps more important question to ask is: What of the continued
plight of 20,000,000 flood affectees, most of whom still don’t know
who Salman Taseer even is? Many of the affectees most certainly knew
Ejaz Jhakrani and Khurshid Shah, two of his colleagues in the PPP, who
they believed were responsible for (literally) drowning millions of
them in order to save their own rice and flour mills. Mumtaz Qadri
will likely pay for the cold blooded murder he committed on January
4th 2010. However, what of the aforementioned ministers and their
alleged crimes against humanity? Will they ever even see the inside
of a courtroom? I think we all know the answer to that last question.

In fact, most educated Pakistanis know that extremists are born out of
a failure to lessen the incidence of poverty. Yet we ignore the
simple truth that is staring us in the face. One thing is for sure;
this path is unsustainable. We continue on though mindlessly thinking
that somehow our own fundraising efforts will have the final word in
poverty alleviation. In fact, the combined funds allocation from
NGOs’ and government to address the alleviation of poverty in Pakistan
is not even enough to reduce the ever increasing population (over 17%)
living under the poverty line today. This, primarily because the
privileged segments of society have fallen prey to neo-liberal
consumerism; which by its very character propagates inequality and
detachment from not just nature but each other as well. In such a
human paradigm, the polarization of society is virtually guaranteed.
Moreover, unless we address the root causes of extremism (and poverty)
that create this deep socio-psychological disorder, it is unlikely
that the incidence of crime, religious or otherwise, will decrease.

The silver lining, if there is one, is that we aren’t alone in this
struggle. Plato would most certainly feel vindicated (yet let down by
humanity) to know that in this the 21st century, the social divisions
he first identified between rich and poor in his “city-state” almost
3000 years ago, had taken on global dimensions of the likes never
before seen in history. A study conducted by the World Institute for
Development Economics Research of the United Nations in 2006 suggested
that the richest 1% of the population now own 40% of all wealth on
earth, as compared to 20% two decades prior. On the other end of the
totem pole 50% of the world’s adults’ owned a mere 1% of all wealth on
the planet. Moreover, in a world where 1 billion people live in
poverty, where three billion people live on less than $2.50 per day
and where the rest are consumption whores, it is clear that we live in
Jiddu Krishnamurti’s “profoundly sick society.”

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