Balakot one year after the earthquake

Tehsil of Balakot is spread over 66 villages situated within 12 union councils; this area is the worst hit by the earthquake in NWFP, and which affected all its 2,50,000 inhabitants.

The area is divisible into an upper and lower valley on the basis of altitude; with the villages Kawai, Paras, Jareed, Mohandari, Phagal and Kaghan grouped as areas above 5000ft. and the villages of Karnal, Hassari, Shawal Maazullah Balakot, Hassaamabad, Hassa and Saraash below the threshold.

I found the area to be devastated and its social fabric in ruins. I traveled for a week on mountains and dales and found the infrastructure in a mess with hardly anything happening and it is nearly a year since the tragedy. The main road from Balakot to Kaghan is still unstable with landslides on regular intervals making travel risky and except for bulldozers, clearing up each time there is a slide, nothing permanent is being done, it seems as if the army engineers are waiting for the soil to settle down with time which is strange, as there must be some way to stop this but it seems they lack the technology.

 

Hasaamabad: This village is 4 km from Balakot on the main road which can be taken as an example of the state of the society and considered a study of what is wrong in the whole region.

The village is still one big rubble of mortar and brick which cannot be removed by the locals and so there is no question of anything being rebuilt, I could see no activity by the administration. The people living there are dependent on growing corn but the fields are not accessible. Mr. Humayun, who owned an electrical goods shop in Balakot which was destroyed on October 8th, the fateful day of the earthquake has nothing to do but sit in his makeshift cabin after losing his wife, father and a daughter waiting for someone to come and help him. I had a session with him and we were joined by the local counselor and a couple of locals and this is what came out of the conversation.

Pre-earthquake; houses in the village: 150 with a population of 750.

Post-earthquake; no house left intact: population 450, balance dead.

Help: Initially the army opened the main road and provided emergency rations.

Money was to be provided to construct dwellings, the amount specified was 1,75000 out of which 25000 has been given, the balance will be given when the construction reaches the DPC level, as specified, but that means  the amount is not enough as cost of construction is much higher and is estimated at around 9,00,000 if constructed according to specifications and would be translated into one room 15ft. by 15ft.. The sad part is that the initial installment has already been consumed by the recipients for other needs.

There is hardly any land left to rebuild the reasons being the rubble, which is yet to be removed and also because the track going down to the village is also gone, so to begin with, they have no approach. The track on which a small vehicle could reach their houses and their farms is reduced to a path wide enough for a single person to walk down.

We asked them to accompany us to their farm and the main village which was a surprise to them as no one since that fateful day had made such a request. Mr. Humayun and the councilor took the lead and we started downhill on a track about 2 ft. wide and a very steep decline and after about 20 minutes walk through thick brush, which once was a jeepable track we stared into tons of rubble lying there since a year, there were a couple of laborers trying to remove some concrete. The councilor had employed these men to clear the rubble of his home but the men were not local and had come from other parts of the province as locals don’t work any more.

It is not that these brave men did not make an effort, they had rented a tractor for Rs. 8000 to clear the track and make it wide enough for small vehicles to be able to take them to their homes and fields but then came the rains and their efforts were bought to a naught and in the words of these men they have lost the will and resourses.

 This village is close to the urban center of Balakot and about 70% of the men were doing regular jobs, either for the Government or the private sector followed by about 20% doing business in Balakot and the rest were tilling the patches of land. The jobs are gone and people like Humayun, who is an electrician and had a shop of electrical  appliances and repair jobs has lost his shop and the tillers have lost the land to rubble and landslides and they cant even reach it.

Sarcastically they said people have come here before and asked us all kinds of questions, like livestock and hens lost but at the end of the day  were not even given rat poison leave aside any thing else, the NGO’s come into this category also, they came,  saw the state of affairs and went away, never to be seen again.

I had already met a few people who said the social fabric is in ruins as people have gotten used to dole and are not willing to work and so I asked them point blank if it is true that people have stopped work as they are used to getting relief and the unanimous answer was in the affirmative and they insisted that relief should end immediately so that people start rebuilding their lives and don’t have to depend on labor from other parts of the country, which explains why the councilors work force were migrant workers.

One of the enumerators with us, a local teacher, added that the dole habit is destroying the social fabric, children see their parents begging and accepting alms, hence as far as they are concerned it was the right thing to do, in fact since the schools were closed in those days most parents encouraged their children to join the relief lines, The psychological effect of the trauma on children is another issue which has not been addressed.

The last and the saddest aspect of what has happened to the social fabric is the loss of self esteem, honor and dignity, people have stopped caring about their loved ones, this once happy people, notwithstanding their poverty, have stopped caring for their children, parents and siblings, people have turned brutish and vicious, uncaring and selfish, insecurity and loss of  loved ones and worldly possessions have developed the characteristics of hyenas in the populace, a very sad state of affairs.

After the earthquake about 15% of the living are left in Hasaamabad, the rest have gone to Mansehra and further down because they could not take it any more.

Ghari Habibullah: We met Mr. Jehangir Naseem the Union Council Nazim busy in his office which happened to be a tent since the office building had collapsed, and this is one year after the earthquake, with people all around him with different kinds of applications and demands.

The discussions with him were interesting, the gentleman was obviously hard working and certainly caring which was obvious from his attitude towards his people. It was nice of him to give us a few minutes and discuss his area and people.

We found that the majority of the people were farmers who complained that reconstruction work has not materialized, their water courses were destroyed, tracks unusable and the reason according to him has been the lack of coordination amongst the NGO’s, elected representatives, and the local administration, since Muzzafarabad is close by and the NGO’s are concentrating there he has lost a big chunk of the local labor force to that area as they pay more there and hence the able bodied men have migrated.

There is scope for the training of people in the skills of masonry for men and dastkari for women but he emphasized the need for developing new farming techniques and knowledge of alternate crop like vegetables which have a good market down country. Sheep, fish and poultry farming was another area he thought could be encouraged with more knowledge coupled with soft loans. A flash flood after the earthquake devastated the area and destroyed the poultry business which had picked up over the years and now people need loans to restart the business which doesnt seem to attract the interest of the Government or the banks.

The gentleman was asked if it is true that people are addicted to aid and refuse to work, his response was that it is correct.

Kawai: Population 5700 dead 700.This small town is the first urban locality above the 5000ft. altitude from which a road also leads to the favorite tourist resort of Shogran. We met the local councilor Mr. Riaz Hussain Shah who informed us that about 35% of the population after the earthquake lives off their land, before the tragedy it was nearly 50% the reason for the reduced percentage is land loss, deaths and migration of people to other areas. We were told that the hotels of Shogran are destroyed.

Forestry was a way of life but since the last ten years the Government has put a ban on logging which has affected many.

Pharas: This small town is further north of Kawai, we met the local councilor and his father who were very critical of the new district management and thought the old administration system would have been in a better position to help the people as it would have been more even handed and fair in the distribution of relief. The old man insisted that relief / aid should stop because it is turning the people into beggars and they refuse to work.

The locals who had gathered there were of the opinion that the infrastructure has not been put in place which makes it impossible to start their lives. The main source of livelihood was tourism and land, both at a stand still. Erra was widely criticized while ActionAid an NGO and Al Khidmat were praised. The father and son were very conservative and did not want any training outlet for women in skill development and vocational training. The people here are dependent on tourism and skills like carpentry but both are nonexistent.

Kaghan: This town is the biggest union council in Hazara and according to the local councilor Mr. Gulab Shah the death toll was 600, the Earthquake was less destructive here but tourism which was the mainstay of the area is badly hit. We visited the once famous hotel Lalazar and met the owner who is the brother of the local political leader and councilor and were told that rooms which in summer would go for Rs. 2000 per day are vacant and they are ready to let them out for even Rs. 200 per day. Tourism was the main source of income with about 65% of the people involved in this industry directly or indirectly which is down to zero. There has never been any training institute in the area except for a place called Jareed which is close by and had a carpentry center but that too is closed.

One interesting remark by a local was that there is good scope of mining of semi precious stones but the infrastructure is absent and so is skilled manpower. We were told that if the old district management had not been abolished it would have done much better than the present system as it would have been less partisan.

The local elders as usual again insisted that all kinds of relief must end as people have got used to charity and lost interest in work.

In these days of travel, meeting people and observing the area nearly a year after the earthquake I have come to the conclusion that the Government has failed to do what it had promised, which was raising the people again after the fall they had. It was always a poverty stricken area but this tragedy had in its wake an opportunity to change the fate of the people but it has sadly been lost. It is correct that the people of Pakistan, the armed forces and the international community did provide the initial relief but that was the emergency part of what had to be done, the question is what was supposed to follow and whether that happened, the answer to that is in the negative.

Poverty could be classified into two categories, structural and generic with the former more rampant but easier to handle because it is a result of lack of infrastructure and market mechanisms, these are normally due to lack of funds but in the present situation funds are plenty but a lack of will and the absence of a credible system and probably corruption coupled with overspending on the establishment of the agencies entrusted with the task of rebuilding. Generic poverty is a result of peculiar household circumstances as deaths or absence of bread earners or lack of them and oversized dependencies and are harder to deal with but we must not forget that poverty is not something which is permanent.

Change can be brought about but for it to happen the first thing to do would be to invest in building the infrastructure, water channels, culverts, roads and destroyed farm houses but no work on these was found to have been initiated. People are complaining of loss of land and water courses, of rubble and destroyed small businesses. There are complaints of frictions between ERRA / PERRA, the administration and the representatives of the people under the new devolution system coupled with the NGO’s

A very interesting episode occurred in Ghari Habibullah, the local nazim showed us a pamphlet released by ERRA which stated that only those families would be entitled to Rs. 3000 per month relief who have more than five members which has resulted in many  trying to increase their numbers by trying to produce more babies to qualify for this aid, the nazim said that up to now the Government was spending millions on birth control but now with this kind of attitude wrong signals are been sent to the people, we certainly don’t need more babies at this time with health care at its minimum.

Invariably all the people I met, people who are the local elders like councilors and nazims etc. were of the opinion that that all kinds of relief, whether by individuals, Government or the NGO’s should stop as the people have taken the habit of living on dole and not working. People have lost self respect, family structures are shredding and honor is lost. There are numerous instances of people not being able to find local labor and the gap is being filled by migrants from other areas of NWFP. This attitude of society is having an adverse effect on children who see nothing wrong with begging especially when they see their parents preferring this kind of life. Children have been through a severe trauma and apparently no counseling is available to them, schools should be equipped to deal with this before we see them grow into imbalanced adults. Household sizes have shrunk due to deaths and migration leading to generic poverty which has to be addressed soon.

Time is running out and winters around the corner and thousands are still in tents due to impractical construction yardstick laid down by ERRA. Help is required to make these people stand on their feet and that is only possible if they are equipped and the only way they can be equipped is to make them skilled and trained with gender balance in mind and then to find them jobs because unless there are jobs the skills and training would go waste.

This is basically an agrarian society with a substantive number of people doing farm work especially those living in the areas lower than the 5000ft. altitude areas, here the land ownership and tilling capacity is larger. Presently most of them have been growing corn which has been going on since centuries but this pattern could change and more cash crops could be introduced like vegetables and tea especially in the Ghari Habibullah-Karnol-Balakot area, tea has already been introduced to Mansehra. This means that the farmers have to be trained to make the change. Poultry could be another area which can be encouraged after all Abbottabad and its surroundings are already involved in this activity. There is scope for cattle and sheep farming as there is abundant pasture land available.

Hoping that some sort of infrastructure building will ultimately start which would create numerous opportunities for masons, carpenters and machinery operators, this area is a quick result activity; it will not take long to train operators of machinery, masons, carpenters and electricians coupled with intensive courses of computer literate young men and women. All this would mean that locals will get the jobs created by any activity of infrastructure building and not lose the slots to outsiders.

Keeping in view the gender balance there is scope of cottage industry of garments, traditional stitching and weaving, health care and sanitation not forgetting midwifery and nursing, teaching on the primary level in schools. Elementary school teaching does not require university graduates; young girls could be encouraged to go for crash courses to the level of high school to be able to qualify to teach in elementary schools, these could be job specific trainings. Skill development should be introduced in schools.

The areas which are high altitude i.e. 5000ft and above the terrain changes; the valley is narrower and forested with much less land holdings and the requirements of skill development and vocational training also changes. Kawai onwards, as far as agriculture dependent people are concerned, they could be encouraged to grow more apples than the traditional corn growing, this would mean training them to that effect and introducing better varieties of apples than the ones they are growing now, with this would arise the possibilities of small fruit processing units, in fact corn processing units could also be introduced for value addition within the existing patterns of agriculture.

The higher one goes the less damage one sees but the damage to the economy is equal to the lower areas if not more and the reason is simple, this area was highly dependent on tourism. The earthquake has scared the tourist away but it is not just them being scared, the infrastructure has been devastated the main road from Balakot to Naran, the last outpost for tourists is not safe with landslides still a normal occurrence. It took us nearly 10 hours to make a round trip to Kaghan with a short lunch break. On three occasions we had to wait for the road to be cleared by military engineers. The road is non existent and at times not safe at all. Land slides are common place and it seems the engineers are waiting for the mountains to settle with time. I find this as very odd because there must be some way the mountain sides can be stabilized, perhaps by inter meshing wires as done elsewhere.  Unless the road is made safe there is no question for tourism to take off.    In addition some hotels have been destroyed and the owners don’t have the capacity to rebuild them. A vast number of people were directly or indirectly associated with this industry and all of them have been rendered jobless. As mentioned earlier rooms going for Rs. 2000 per day are awaiting guests at Rs. 200. Tourism related industry could be value added by developing their skills on more modern lines to be able to provide better services in the future.

The area is rich with forests and there is a massive potential for wood crafting industry which means training of carpenters and handicraft artisans but the Government has put a ban on logging since long, this was done keeping in view the deforestation of the area by the timber mafia but now the time has come to relax this ban so that the locals can benefit from their asset. A mechanism could be constructed to enable the locals to take advantage of their forests with a calculated reforestation effort in parallel. Jareed, a small town had a carpentry school which does not exist any more and efforts should be made to revive it and it should be value added and integrated with the permission to use the forests as discussed above. In Kaghan I ran into a man who said there is scope of mining of semi precious stones in the area and that it is already been done so by some local influential on the quiet, this is for the first time I came to know that semi precious stones existed in the area. If this is true then a survey has to be conducted to find out its potential and efforts should be made to make it an area which can benefit the locals in a better manner and skills could be developed for craftsmen and modern mining techniques could be adopted to avoid wastage.

One must not forget that uplift of the area will also need the facility of micro financing which is absent, the banks and the Government should seriously consider this vital pillar for reconstruction of livelihood. Thousands of people, most of them the comparatively well off  have lost their businesses and need loans to restart, people have lost shops, restaurants, poultry farms etc. and they are in no position to restart without financing by banks on especially low markup.

(Ghaffar is a development planner and can be contacted at: yusufghaffar@yahoo.com)

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