The Flood Disaster in Pakistan

“The worst monsoon-related floods in recent memory”: this is how he U.N. has described the recent calamity in Pakistan. The mighty Indus River, once the cradle of one of history’s earliest civilizations has devastated the land to which it gave birth. The irresistible force of the floods has washed away the ancient ruins that had stood there for thousands of years.

Human catastrophe, callous elite and a system in decay

But far more tragic is the terrible loss of human life. More than 20 million people – nearly 12 percent of the entire population – are suffering. More than 160,000 square kilometers, or 20 percent of Pakistan’s land mass, are inundated. A million homes have been destroyed or damaged. Of the 50 million acres of cultivable land, more than 10 million acres (about 20 percent) of standing crops, mainly cotton and sugarcane, have been destroyed or severely damaged.

The consequences in human terms are incalculable. Every eighth Pakistani is at risk of diarrhea, asthmatic fits, dysentery, meningitis, hepatitis, skin diseases and other food- and water-borne diseases. At the relief camps the battle for survival rages on as never before. Ten million desperate men, women and children lack the food and water they need to stay alive, and five million need shelter.

Such immense natural catastrophes cruelly expose all the faults, deficiencies, and inner rottenness of the existing society and the state. We saw this very clearly in the earthquake that shattered this unhappy country only five years ago. And we see it again now on a vastly greater scale. What we are witnessing is not the wrath of God but the hopeless inability of a corrupt and degenerate social system to deal with the real problems faced by the people.

Such is the degree of human suffering, and so manifest is the inefficiency of the authorities and the regime, that even the bourgeois commentators show signs of growing disgust. According to The News (23rd August 2010), “Domestic response capacity is next to nothing. Foreign money isn’t coming. Corruption, inefficiency, donor fatigue and an unpopular presidency are all playing villains. While one-fifth of Pakistan drowns under water, Karachi, its financial hub, is cloaking itself under a bloody deluge.”

The plight and extreme misery the masses in this tragic land are going through were described in the latest issue of the Time magazine in the following words. “But now Pakistan stands at a precipice, its political class toothless, its army overstretched its economy bankrupt. Looking at the heavens, countless stranded, starving Pakistanis can only hope for bluer skies.”

These words reek of the hypocrisy of the imperialists. When it comes to spending billions of dollars on drones, bombs and bullets, their generosity has no bounds. But when it comes to providing bread, clothing and shelter for millions of starving and homeless people, their generosity suddenly ends. They ladies and gentlemen in Washington blame the “toothless political class” in Islamabad, which they have backed in return for support for a criminal war in Afghanistan.

They blame the Pakistan army which is too “overstretched” to help the people because it is doing the dirty work of the Pentagon. They blame the economy which is bankrupt because most of it is drained away by paying foreign bankers the interest on the foreign debt and paying the soldiers to fight Washington’s wars.

And finally, adding insult to injury, they advise the homeless and starving people to hope for “bluer skies”! Such hypocrisy has established new levels of cynicism even for the hardened cynics in Washington.

Man-made disaster

Floods are not a new phenomenon in Pakistan. There have been fifty floods in last twenty eight years. In each of these calamities, those whose lives were devastated never recovered to the state where they were before the disaster. Those who suffer are always the same people. They are not the well-heeled politicians, generals, bankers and journalists in Islamabad. The overwhelming majority of the victims are the poor and oppressed working masses of Pakistan.

It has been the common practice of the rulers to attribute these disasters and natural calamities as “acts of God”. They try to imply that the sins of those whose lives have been wrecked have somehow incurred the wrath of Allah. This is a convenient myth, designed to deflect the anger of the masses away from the rich and powerful who rule the state and control the nation’s finances.

The Islamic fundamentalists join in this reactionary chorus of the ruling classes. This obscurantist nonsense is in fact an insult upon injury for these traumatized and impoverished millions.

If we are to talk about “sins”, everyone knows that these are committed by the ruling elites in the smart areas of Islamabad, Lahore, Karachi and other mega cities and the palaces and the mansions of the feudal landlords in the countryside. These are the places where the rich and powerful live lives of extreme and obscene luxury, committing every kind of excess, while the masses who produce all the wealth of society live in extreme and obscene poverty. Yet, strangely enough, almost none of these bastions of “sin” are ever destroyed in floods, earthquakes or other natural calamities.

The toiling, and exploited workers and peasants are subjects to this devastation, although the only “sin” of which they are guilty is to be poor. Their plight is not the result of God’s judgment. It is due to the failure of the ruling classes to build a durable infrastructure and develop society. In sixty three years of Pakistan’s existence the conditions of infrastructure and society have deteriorated drastically. It is a condemnation of the Pakistan bourgeoisie that most of Pakistan’s irrigation and agricultural infrastructure was built during British rule.

It is a scandalous fact that the major barrages, head works and the network of canals and irrigation channels in Pakistan were built under the British Raj (Empire). After independence, the indigenous ruling elite have added nothing to expand this infrastructure. Worse still, they have recklessly damaged a large section of it due to lack of maintenance and investment in this all-important sector.

For decades the Pakistani ruling classes have done nothing but pillage and plunder this land in their frantic greed and lust. During the present floods the surging waters destroyed most of the bridges and other installations built after independence. Yet, astonishingly, most of the bridges and barrages built by the British stood firm and defied the onslaught of the floods. More than anything else this detail exposes the real character of this rotten, corrupt and degenerate ruling class. Its failure, incompetence and rampant corruption were reflected in the fragile and imperfect construction of these bridges.

Many put the blame for the floods on global warming, which is also the by-product of capitalist greed for profit at the expense of the environment. That may be true. But what is most certainly true is that the two main factors for this unmitigated disaster were the inadequate and fragile infrastructure and drastic deforestation. Both these are equally the result of the greed of the capitalists and landlords for profit and the unbridled play of market forces.

In 1947 the Indian subcontinent was partitioned by the British imperialists in connivance of the local ruling classes through a bloody division on the basis of religion. After the so-called independence, things have deteriorated both in India and Pakistan. At the time of partition twenty eight percent of the area comprising of present day Pakistan was covered with dense green forests. Now the forest comprise of just 2.3 percent of Pakistan’s land mass.

The historically redundant and belated ruling classes who have failed to develop a modern industrial society and state are resorting to most blatant forms of crimes and corruption, to quench their limitless lust for gain. Apart from drugs trade, smuggling, stealing gas and electricity, tax evasion and plundering the coffers of the state these upstart elites have also connived with the timber mafia to destroy the natural habitat.

The capitalists have ravaged Nature. Now Nature has taken its revenge. Stripped of their trees, the denuded slopes of the Himalayan foothills have speeded up the gushing torrents and caused the violent flash floods that wrecked such appalling havoc. This was therefore not a natural calamity, or an act of God, but a man made-disaster, directly related to the capitalist system and market forces that have been unleashed upon an already deprived and impoverished populace, taking away what little they had.

The economic ramifications

Even before the devastation caused by the floods, Pakistan’s economy was teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. The growth rate had more that halved during this period of civilian rule. Even under the Musharraf dictatorship the growth was higher. Since then the external debt has risen from $38 billion to $62 billion. The largest chunk of the budget went on debt servicing, military expenditure and the “security and protocol costs” of the regime. The two sectors where the budgetary allocations were cut in June 2010 were health and education.

The “democratic” regime of Zardari has been characterized by an unprecedented increase in unemployment and poverty and a rapid decline in living conditions for the vast majority of the population. The officially accepted rate of inflation is 13 percent, but in reality it is much higher. Prices have doubled or tripled specially in food items. Power cuts of 12 to 18 hours have become the norm. There are constant shortages of flour, sugar, gas, edibles and other essential commodities.

Corruption, terrorism, civil wars and state repression have continues unabated. Pakistan society has been engulfed in violence and turmoil. State expenditure on health and education as a percentage of GDP is among the lowest in the world. The PPP-led coalition government went on a privatization offensive against the workers of the industries nationalized by the 1970’s PPP government of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. This was done by deceiving the workers in the privatized firms by offering them 12 percent “shares”.

Zardari was aping of the Thatcherite privatization in Britain in the 1980’s. A similar strategy was used to carry through the capitalist restoration in Russia in the 1990’s. The IMF recipes were being aggressively enforced, leading to severe cuts in subsidies in electricity, petrol, fertilizers and other benefits. More than 80 percent of the population had been thrust below the poverty line of less than 2 dollars a day. Thus, even before the flood waters struck Pakistan, its teeming millions were already drowning in a sea of misery and suffering.

Worse to come

The full extent of the catastrophe is yet unknown. It will become clear only when the raging waters finally flow into the Arabian Sea. Vast swathes of inundated lands will have been converted into fetid and unhealthy swamps. When the land eventually dries out, the real destruction to houses, crops, infrastructure, livestock and human life will be unveiled.

It is to be feared that worse is yet to come. Famine, hunger disease and even starvation are hanging over the heads of millions. There have already been outbreaks of looting and violence as the desperate victims scramble for survival. Even in the best scenario, there will be a prolonged disruption of normal activities across the country.

Even when some kind of normality is restored, life will be much harsher and more agonizing than before. Pakistan will need more than just billions of dollars to bring about the rebuilding and rehabilitation of an already shattered economy and a ramshackle infrastructure. The total losses could exceed 8 to 10 percent of the nation’s GDP. Under the circumstances, there may be no growth at all or even a contraction in the overall economy.

Food inflation is already under pressure due to high energy costs and soaring grain prices. The economy as a whole could contract by more than one percent. Exports could plunge by 4-5 billion dollars causing the trade deficit to balloon. There would be a sharp depreciation of the Rupee, which could fall to more than 100 rupees to a dollar. Capital flight may well ensue as happened in 2008, when the rich transferred abroad about 3 billion dollars in less than six months. The shortfall in the tax revenues and the rise in flood related expenses will cause a fiscal deficit of more then 7 percent. To stave off a severe balance of payments crisis another huge sum of more than 10 billion dollars would be needed.

Drastic measures needed

The scale and nature of the catastrophe requires a lot more than the type of measures the government is taking. So far the leadership’s response to the crisis has been pathetic, lethargic and even callous. The government seems to be in a state of near paralysis and has not demonstrated any imagination beyond appeals for more aid.

In the autumn of 2008 the sovereign default of the Pakistani state was averted through a $11 billion loan from the IMF on extremely stringent conditions. It has received $7.3 billion to date. There is no way the regime could pay back this emergency loan with an exorbitant interest rate. The finance minister flew to Washington this week to beg the IMF to ease its restrictions and renegotiate the payments.

The Asian Development Bank has come up with an offer of a$2billion loan and the World Bank another billion. The UN has committed $500 million and after about three week less than half has come in. The response from domestic and foreign donors has been pathetic. The so called “international community” has been reluctant and lethargic in its response to this immense human tragedy.

Few countries have come forward with any substantial aid. The farcical “friends of Pakistan” are invisible in this hour of dire need. In spite of the high profile campaign by the UN officials less than half of the appeal has been achieved. The U.S. has been active in the flood operations more for strategic rather than humanitarian reasons, while continuing its military operations in the area. The Predator aircraft operated from Nevada continue to kill innocent civilians, thus adding to the death toll of the floods.

In any case, the record of these donors in delivering aid in the recent years in the Tsunami, Kashmir and Haiti calamities has been abysmal. One of the main factors is the severe economic and financial crisis that has engulfed the West. Aid fatigue, Pakistan’s image distorted by an obsessive focus on the Taliban and Islamic fundamentalism, the widespread notoriety of the corruption scandals of Zardari and his cronies and fears of the misuse and wastage of precious aid have all contributed to the meagerness of aid.

But the rulers of Pakistan themselves have not given any indication that they are ready to lead by example, by reducing their lavish expenditures from the state exchequer and by making deep cuts in military and state expenditures. The only announcement made in this sense has been to cut the developmental expenditures allocated in the national and provincial budgets. Nawaz Sharif the right wing leader of the farcical “opposition”, whose brother rules over Punjab, the largest and the richest province of Pakistan, announced a donation of 10 million rupees on behalf of his entrepreneur family. Later it was disclosed that they spent Rs.46.3 million on TV and newspaper adverts to publicize this “generosity”.

An important factor in the reduced foreign aid has been the effort of the country’s top leaders to frame the issue in terms of how “Islamic extremists” might exploit the situation. This is tantamount to dehumanizing the tragedy. Zardari recently proclaimed that “militants” can take advantage of the crisis. This is hardly the best way to signal his government’s competence in managing the disaster! Maleeha Lodhi writes in The News:

“More dangerously this plays into an apocalyptic narrative being peddled by some Western analysts joined by a few Pakistani writers. This has involved conjuring up scenarios of Pakistan – or parts of it – being “taken over by the Taliban if enough aid does not come. Hapless flood victims are reduced to pawns in the battle against militancy which becomes the defining prism rather than the plight of the afflicted… After the Kashmir earth quake similar concerns about ‘Islamic charities’ were heard but the region hardly landed up in the hands of the militants.”(24th August 2010)

In reality, after the earthquake in Kashmir, while the Islamicists were carrying through their work with logistical and material support from the Pakistan army, it was the Revolutionary Solidarity and Relief Campaign launched by the JKNSF (Jammu Kashmir National Students Federation) and the PTUDC (Pakistan Trade Union Defense Campaign) that captured the attention of the victims. The dedication, commitment, hardships and the sacrifices of the Marxists in this rescue and relief effort got them sympathy and support of the Kashmiri youth and the masses. It was also through this campaign that JKNSF emerged as the largest youth organization after 2005.

Even if the immediate financial assistance amounts to $ one billion, Pakistan will have to resort to more borrowing from the imperialist institutions and will sink even deeper into unsustainable levels of debt. This won’t be the only bad news. The worst thing is that the regime does not have any plan except to borrow more. Having based themselves upon this rotting Pakistani capitalism they don’t have much choice left.

This regime is more subservient to US imperialism than any other in the country’s history. Hence they dare not call for a moratorium or to ask the imperialists for a write-off of these loans, despite the fact that the total amount – and more – has been paid back. Yet they continue to suck the country dry like greedy leeches, who are siphoning off more than half of Pakistan’s GDP.

Zardari’s much trumpeted home-grown stabilization plan of 2008 ended up borrowing yet more from the IMF. Yousaf Nazar writes in the Dawn:

“the country is headed for more than economic turbulence. These floods may ultimately lead to greater political and social upheaval as the alienation of the people from the state reaches new heights as a huge humanitarian disaster unfolds. Given the character of the current civil and military leadership and its utter failure to rise to the occasion despite the enormity of the catastrophe, Pakistan faces a grim scenario of a massive political, economic, and administrative collapse… This crisis is about more than damages to the economy.” (23rd August 2010)

Political Storms Ahead

The failure of the present regime to lessen the damage of the floods and forge an efficient and effective reuse effort was inevitable. The debilitated and fragile condition of the economy is reflected not only in the physical and social infrastructure, but in the institutions and the apparatus of the state itself. The present “democratic” regime is the by-product of a militant mass movement that was derailed and decimated by the assassination of Benazir Bhutto in 2007.

The movement that began with the return of Benazir in October of that year expanded and rose so sharply that even the leadership was flabbergasted by its audacity and velocity. The deal brokered by London and Washington between Musharraf and Benazir was torn to shreds by the two million deprived and oppressed souls who had converged on Karachi airport. They had come to exhibit and share their sorrows and show their willingness to fight for the overthrow of the yoke of capitalism that had choked their lives for generations.

The path they had chosen was determined by the traditions established by the previous generation of workers and peasants of Pakistan in the form of the Pakistan Peoples Party. But this magnificent movement was aborted. The assassination of Benazir threw the masses into confusion. The spontaneous uprising that followed was without leadership and rapidly disintegrated into aimless rioting. Fearing the consequences of their actions, the ruling class rapidly moved to derail the mass movement through rigged elections, which handed the power to the PPP leaders under Zardari, the husband of the murdered leader.

Crisis of the regime

The present PPP in power is a complete caricature of the party that was founded in 1967 and inscribed the aim of socialism on its banner. Under the leadership of the right wing headed by Zardari and his clique, the PPP government has not only embarked upon the most ferocious attacks on the working classes but has adopted the policy of “Reconciliation” which is the most blatant form of class collaboration and opportunism.

This policy was dictated by imperialism, and may have been one of the factors that led to the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. The imperialists and the Pakistan ruling class did not fear her, but they were afraid of the teeming millions who were aroused by her return. They have sent the masses, who have traditionally supported the PPP to learn a hard lesson in the school of Zardari.

The present PPP’s prime minister, some of the key ministers and others in the leadership of the party were in the cabinet and political heirs of general Zia ul Haq the most vicious and brutal dictator in Pakistan’s history. General Zia was the man who sent Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, the founder of the PPP, to the gallows in 1979 and during his eleven year rule had inflicted brutalities and atrocities upon the working masses in Pakistan that were unprecedented in the country’s history.

This policy of “reconciliation” was imposed by imperialism from the fear of the rising movement of 2007 and the potential mass revolt after the assassination of Benazir. Though this policy all the main stream political parties, all right wing, are in power one way or the other. The policies of the PPP right wing, which represent a complete capitulation to capitalism and imperialism have wrecked havoc and caused a wave of disgust and resentment among the Party’s traditional base.

But the coalition government at the centre has never been stable. With the storms and stresses raging in society how could it be? Most of the political parties have the same economic programme and similar political agendas. But the crisis is so intense that the regime has been teetering on the brink in its more than two years of existence. Now, with the floods afflicting the society so mercilessly, the cracks have opened up as never before.

Zardari has the lowest popularity ratings than any head of state ever had. But the right wing is also at its historically weakest point. This poses once again the question of martial law or direct military rule. But the army is also deeply divided on the question of the US war on terror, on support for the Taliban, on the Kashmir policy, on the so-called policy of strategic depth in Afghanistan and, last but by no means least, on its own existence with lavish state funding for its armaments and perks for the top brass.

The army’s internal cohesion has been undermined. The leading generals have dithered and the orthodox chain of command has been seriously weakened. Hence, at this critical juncture it would be reluctant to take power directly into its hands, as it would have done in the past. The economy is crumbling, terrorism is tearing the society apart and the social fabric is in tatters. The generals would therefore prefer the advantages of prompting from the wings rather than to rule at the helm.

Nevertheless, there is strong pressure from the media and sections of the right wing on the army to step in. But for the time being the Americans prefer to continue with the corrupt but slavish Zardari, on the well-known principle: better the devil you know than the devil you do not know. There are, however, some disadvantages in this. Apart from being an obedient stooge of imperialism, Zardari is much attached to his hedonic extravagances which sometimes damage the interests of the Americans and the Pakistani state.

A mediocre politician, he does not possess the caliber to balance between the conflicting interests of the sections of the state and the imperialists, as others have done in the past. His only strength is the extreme weakness of the right wing. Mainly because of this he is able to keep plodding along – at least for the present. His control over the party is maintained exclusively through the doling out cash, contracts, jobs (usually sold by the party officials at different levels), perks, commissions in deals and other perks and privileges that come with state power. But all this cannot satisfy even the hard core party workers and activists who are themselves suffering from this disastrous economic and social crisis. Hence Zardari’s control is fragile and limited and will last only as long as he is in power.

At the same time there is a seething discontent and a growing anger among the supporters of the PPP. Already the dissentions and revolts at middle and lower ranks are flaring up. This ferment will grow and the mood of the rank and file will become more exasperated in the coming days and months. At a certain stages the audience for the ideas of revolutionary Marxism amongst the PPP’s base will grow enormously. The workers, peasants and youth are already disgruntled and a feeling akin to revulsion towards the leadership is developing.

In an extreme situation a military takeover is not ruled out. But a dictatorship in these times would be extremely weak and unstable. Its fall would be imminent the moment the masses entered into the arena of struggle. It could provoke a revolutionary upheaval that could challenge the whole system. The fate of a right wing civilian regime, if it came to power, would not be very different from the former. There is talk in some circles of a national government – the usual euphemism for a coup. But none of these methods of political rule can bring even a semblance of stability in this crisis-ridden capitalist system that exists in Pakistan.

The fact is that there is a generalized discontent and revulsion against all the prevailing political parties and tendencies. Despite all the alarmist propaganda in the western media, the Islamic fundamentalists have lost whatever little social base they had after the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. The rampant Islamicist terrorism in Pakistan has been a severe set back for these forces of black reaction.

The western propaganda of a “take over” by Taliban is nonsense from beginning to end. It is merely a deception intended to persuade the workers of the west to back the imperialists in their Afghan adventure. Like the anti-Communist Red Scare tactics of the Cold War, it is an attempt to instill fear and weaken the proletariat who are under severe attacks from a decaying capitalist system by inventing an external threat.

The nationalists of different kinds in Pakistan have sold out to the Americans and reduced themselves to a mere ploy of imperialism and the wealthy and privileged elites of those nationalities. That is why in Pakistan nationalism has been on the wane for some time now. It is being propped up by a weak and crisis-ridden state.

Yet the masses can’t go on tolerating such social and economic avalanche for long. Despair and distress cannot last for ever without provoking a social explosion. The masses are yearning for a change. These floods that have caused such havoc have also been instrumental in exposing the extreme class oppression and exploitation and the rottenness of the regime before the eyes of the masses. Such events can have cataclysmic consequences, as the more far-sighted bourgeois commentators know. The Economist of 21st August 2010 writes:

“Comparisons are drawn to the devastating cyclone in the then East Pakistan in 1970, when the government’s botched response was a factor behind the war that led to Bangladesh’s independence the following year.”

The comparison is instructive, but The Economist forgets to mention one thing. Before the war there was a revolution on classical socialist lines in Pakistan. Due to the lack of a Leninist party and a Marxist leadership, the Maoist leadership in the person of Maulana Hamid Khan Bhashani, under instructions from Mao himself, left the movement in the lurch when it was at its peak. The class struggle was diverted onto the nationalist lines and the Pakistan army was defeated by the movement of national liberation. But the emergence of Bangladesh did not abolish capitalism, feudalism and imperialist stranglehold. Hence the masses in Bengal have continued to suffer even after the national independence was achieved.

But the situation in Pakistan today is completely different. If a movement of such epic proportions as was from 1968 to 1971 erupts, the course of history could be transformed. With a substantial force of revolutionary Marxism the socialist revolution could win a victory in this land that would sweep through the Subcontinent. The work we are doing now is preparing the ground for such a development. This includes above all the mass work we are conducting in relation to the floods.

The Marxists in Pakistan, through the PTUDC and Youth unemployed movement (BNT) are reaching the afflicted peasants, workers and youth in their hour of need. Day and night they are on a revolutionary mission of rescuing people, providing them with medical treatment, giving them relief and explaining to them the criminal causes of this devastation. They are learning to reject charity and join in a collective comradely and fraternal struggle to be able to stand on their own feet and to fight for their own emancipation.

Our aim is not to provide charity but to lift those who have been mired in this torment only because they were the deprived, poor, disposed and belonged to an exploited class. The labour of that class is what provides all the necessities to human life and life to society itself. Yet the very people who feed society and provide it with all it needs are deprived of what they produce with their own hands.

The PTUDC is trying to ensure that these victims of capitalism should recognize their enemies and know the perpetrators of their wrongs, so that the message of revolutionary socialism reaches the remotest hamlet in the country. With our help, the working masses are beginning to draw revolutionary conclusions from the injustice they are suffering and prepare themselves to play their part in the stormy events that are being prepared.

Comrades! Workers of the world! Please help us to continue and intensify our revolutionary work to prepare the way to the final victory!