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VIEW POINT: Pointless attempts at a cover-up

The PPP leadership has been trying to cover up its Sindh government's acts of omission and commission in the drought-hit Tharparkar district. What seems to bother the leadership is not the suffering of the wretched people of Thar but that it should be seen to have neglected them. Hence when a fact-finding report prepared by provincial minister for Enquiries and Anti-Corruption Manzoor Wassan somehow got leaked to the media, party Chairman Bilawal Bhutto Zardari was furious. He issued show-cause notices to both Wassan and the province's ineffectual Chief Minister Qaim Ali Shah because the report contained damning details of corruption and mismanagement.

Since both the party Chairman and Co-Chairman had better things to do in London, the Bilawal House spokesperson issued a statement to reject the report, terming its findings premature. The party Chairman, said the spokesperson, is personally monitoring the situation in Thar, adding that detailed investigations are under way to ascertain responsibility. He did not say though what mechanism is being used by the Chairman to carry out his own investigations. Wassan as the minister in-charge of such affairs had the necessary tools and administrative support to do the job. The show-cause notices were withdrawn after Wassan said he had nothing to do with the report appearing in the media. He refrained from denying the existence of such a report, however, as he mentioned having finalised his account of facts to be submitted to senior Zardari on whose orders he had undertaken the exercise.

Which of the two investigations is to be made official, the one carried out by Wassan or the Bilawal House? Considering the Bilawal House's reaction what we can expect to see is a heavily-censored version of the Wassan report. The accounts dealing with corruption and administrative failures will be taken out such as that 380,000 wheat bags earmarked for free distribution among the affectees, and Rs 50 million given to the district health officer and Rs 200,000 to another official for purchase of animal fodder, never reached destination. That 470 people, 300 children among them, died from hunger and related diseases while 10,000 animals starved to death. That the area's 2,110 dispensaries, one casualty centre, a trauma centre and a maternity home function only on paper. That in the wake of the 2012 drought, the provincial livestock department was supposed to establish 232 veterinary dispensaries, but none exist on the ground. Somebody obviously made use of the money for personal purposes. Then there is the shocking story of five air-conditioned mobile medical dispensaries imported from Japan for Rs 250 million. Two of them, according to the rejected report, have been grabbed by the DCO and the provincial information minister Sharjeel Memon.

Meanwhile, as usual out of touch with reality, the Chief Minister kept denying the truth. As if living on another planet he declared in the provincial assembly, "Not a single child or a person died of hunger in Thar," adding thoughtlessly, "they died because of poverty". In case he does not know, poverty is not a condition of choice; it exists because during its five terms in Sindh government the PPP has done nothing to lift the people of Thar, and indeed interior Sindh's population, out of poverty. But being the person he is Shah went on to throw the challenge, "can anybody name even a single person? Give me the details if there are any."

Deeply disturbing details are everywhere in the media. The nightly TV newscasts show heartbreaking images of children dying from hunger or related diseases, and people leaving their homes. No one wants to leave home unless driven by extreme adversity. A certain PPP leader also tried to justify the rising death toll by blaming the people for having too many children without being able to feed them. It seems to be a party policy to insist that it was the people's fault to be poor. With the thinking like this, no wonder people are dying from malnutrition and hunger in a food crops self-sufficient country.

Despite his position statement that there is no crisis in Thar, Shah in his all-is-well speech in the assembly also claimed, "We have announced an aid package for Thar... It's not an easy task to make food arrangements for 1.6 million people." Which merits the question, if there is no crisis why announce an aid package and make food arrangements for so many people? Also, why have the soldiers been running around in places like Diplo, Mithi, Jotar, Dhunai, and Rattan distributing ration and providing medical relief to the people there? Regardless of the contradictions, he went on to rattle off a list of public welfare schemes undertaken by his government, including a water supply system, medical facilities, roads and infrastructure projects. The problem is that, as pointed out by the Wassan report's uncensored version, these projects are either non-existent or non-functional. And the obvious reasons are corruption/administrative failure.

Suppressing truth in this day and age is not easy. Denials, lies and attempts at cover-up were not going to make the issue go away. The government had to face severe criticism from the opposition benches in Tuesday's session of the provincial assembly, leading to the passage of a unanimous resolution that calls for impartial investigation by a parliamentary commission. Facing mounting pressure, the CM also held cabinet meeting in Mithi yesterday (Wednesday) to deal with the Thar situation. Now that all eyes are on it the government is expected to do something to mitigate the drought-affected people's sufferings. That though won't be enough. Longer term solutions must also be found to deal with recurring droughts in the region. The corrupt and inefficient officials responsible for aggravating the situation must be held to account. Given the PPP government's reputation, it's not going to happen unless the party's young Chairman decides to make a new beginning. He would do himself a favour by publicly acknowledging mishandling of the situation and taking those responsible to task. That though is a vain hope; he has already demonstrated interest in doing things in the routine way.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2014


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