Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Attaabad Lake Transportation: Prey, Predators and the Role of Government

By Ghulam Amin Beg

After the spring festival of Navroz, 21st March, I visited upper Hunza-Gojal, my native sub-district, to attend to backlog of condolence visits to families who lost their loved ones during last two months, as I was away on visits to Baltistan, Islamabad and Chitral during those days. Frequent visits to the area to attend to community and social events is generally restricted because of the many hurdles of transportation to upstream of the Attaabad lake. The visit to Gulmit also took me across to Chipurson valley, as unfortunately uncle Barkat had also expired in Kirmin. This journey to Gojal provided me an opportunity to visiting dozens of bereaved families and friends, and meeting and seeing people traveling upstream and downstream in boats; the discussions and observations, left me with impressions that majority of the people, in the post Attaabad Lake scenario, continue living miserably and others are living in fantasy!

When natural disasters struck marginalized and socially, economically and politically vulnerable communities in such harsh physical and hazardous mountain regions in sensitive political border areas, like those in upper Hunza, it makes such exposed communities, susceptible to all kinds of piercing strikes; right, left and centre, and they become easy prey to all kind of predators and exploiters; big and small, local and outsiders, officials and business mafias, and petty political interests, and criminal groups alike!
Since January 4, 2010, when the Attabad landslide created over 25 kilometer long lake, inundating over six village hamlets, displacing over 500 households as IDPs, destroying billion worth of private land, crops, houses, fruit trees and community assets, and submerging a sizable section of the only lifeline, the Karakoram Highway-KKH, caging over 25,000 people between the lake and the fenced wall of political borders with China and Afghanistan, the vulnerable people beyond Hunza Attabad Lake continue to live miserably for almost three years now, looking forward to when the China Aid will come, and when the Pakistani politicians and officials will deliver on their hollow promises made.

In fact many have lost their lives in their struggle to getting access to basic health care; others have lost the meaning of life, and considering it a fate accompli to live such a gloomy life without access to medicines and to professional medical care, and still others, especially the white color poor, continue their fight to survive, economically and psychologically, who are fixed with all kind of social and economic pressures to make their ends meet, as well as to show a brave face, as if they were copping well!
Privately, their only refuge is to pray as to when their miseries will end, or alas, their life ends, and pray for those fortunate ones, who left them or left the area, without going through all the miseries in life, which they never thought they will encounter in a free world, close to virgin nature, with no pressures of urban life, but they feel trapped now! The most helpless and depressed among these vulnerable people, are those who could be categorized as senior citizens, children, special persons, women, the sick and those less fortunate families living less than a dollar a day!

Currently, Upper Hunza, presents a look of a ruthless jungle kingdom, which is encircled by blood thirsty carnivores and predators of all kinds ready to attack, a weak population of flocks, from any direction, any time and who are left at their own mercy by their shepherds,! The king of the predators are positioned at each entry points; at the Attabad spillway, where the operators work following a particular mindset, which is based on the notion that the local people are somehow involved in some kind of peccadillo, and perhaps seen as lesser Muslims or even humans according to their perceived definition, so there is no need for urgency of opening up the spillway or creating some sense of comfort for travelers. The simple formula is ‘no mercy’!

Their only daily task, it seems, is to create more and more hurdles of debris in the way of the sick, the old, the women and the children, stop vehicles from reaching closure to the boat harbor, and almost daily or on weekly basis disallowing mobility of people in a smooth way.

The second category of predators is the boat operators; who operate under one rule of the jungle, i.e. ‘survival of the fittest’! There is no boat service offered by the government for the ‘public’; the two boats floating in the lake by GB government are only operational when there is mobility by ‘key public servants’, the high officials and politicians planning visits. The private boat operators are obviously there to make money, so their only priority is to maximize profit through cargo service; ferrying people is not profitable. So rest assured, if you reach the spillway, and if you don’t make over 20 passengers, or are unable to pay for full booking of the boat, you may be floating on the bank for 2-3 hours waiting for Allah! If you are sick, or old or women or children, or if you have an emergency to attend to, they don’t bother; pay for booking and you will get your service, or wait, and wait! It will cost you between Rs. 2000 to Rs.4000 for a one hour ferrying, depending upon the timing, weather, and your bargaining skills. What will the poor, a student and middle income person do, whose total monthly salary is half of what one will pay for a single one-way trip home?
What is the role of the government here? The boat service comes under the administrative control of the district administration. You only see two police constables on the spillway, who are most of the time hands in gloves with the boat operators. It is strange to note, that the district administration has placed no schedule of boat services in public, there is no rates for transportation displayed anywhere, there is no number displayed for complaints, no emergency service available, if any accident happens, there is no emergency boat service notified, no safety instructions written and displayed anywhere, the life jackets and other safety gadgets are not available on the boats.
Is the change in Government in Islamabad, creating any new political alignments in GB? Is the conscience of the PMLN leaders and activists in Hunza-Gojal and GB still alive, or has submerged in the lake, like those of the previous lords of Islamabad?

Can the new Chief Secretary take notice of this situation and issue instructions to the district administration in Hunza to create humane environment for the people, who have many other worries and scars left by the inactions of the government in the aftermath of the Lake?