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Making of a Disaster

While Katrina showed that disaster response is not necessarily any better in the imperialist countries than in the post-colonial world, natural disasters metamorphose into even worse man-made events in the developing countries. The acute dependency of the majority of the worldâ??s working people on the rich industrialised countries is further reinforced when disasters strike. The most recent example of this was the Pakistani earthquake. Not only was the relief work turned into business, the sovereignty of the state was severely eroded.

Making of a Disaster

While Katrina showed that disaster response is not necessarily any better in the imperialist countries than in the post-colonial world, natural disasters metamorphose into even worse man-made events in the developing countries. The acute dependency of the majority of the world’s working people on the rich industrialised countries is further reinforced when disasters strike. The most recent example of this was the Pakistani earthquake. Not only was the relief work turned into business, the sovereignty of the state was severely eroded.

AASIM SAJJAD AKHTAR

I
t is not uncommon these days to hear people talking fearfully about the sudden increase in the number of natural disasters that have ravaged different parts of the globe. For all of science’s mastery over nature, humanity remains helpless in the face of the terror unleashed by earthquakes, tsunamis, cyclones and hurricanes. It is a known fact that the planet as we know it today, is a product of such natural upheavals over eons. But even this knowledge does not help in coping with the destruction caused by disasters, particularly given the relative comfort in which many people in the world live their lives and take it for granted.

Of course, the other well known fact about disasters – and for that matter most destructive events in the world – is that it is the already oppressed who suffer the brunt. The comforts that are enjoyed by the educated and wealthy urbanites who are usually at the forefront of the postdisaster lamenting process are generally a distant dream for most people in the world, and particularly those who are the big losers when nature’s fury erupts. Hurricane Katrina exposed this absurd fact for the entire world to see. Indeed, it was difficult for many to stomach the magnitude of the preventable death and destruction of New Orleans, a spectacle that exposed just how damning the configuration of power in the world’s richest country really is.

Those who study disasters critically talk of the making of disasters. While Katrina showed that disaster response is not necessarily any better in the imperialist countries than in the post-colonial world, it is also true that it is in the latter that natural disasters almost without exception metamorphose into even worse man-made disasters. It is, after all, in those parts of the world where colonialism left its mark that the worst manifestations of capitalism’s brute exploitative force are found. For those who bother to scratch even a little beneath the glossy surface of the corporate media, it is all too obvious that the already acute dependency of the majority of the world’s working people on the rich industrialised countries is further reinforced when disasters strike.

Earthquake in Pakistan

The most recent example of this is the Pakistani earthquake. Over three months after the quake, the government and most of the international donor community continue to propagate a picture of the situation that is drenched in lies. The official death toll remains frozen at below 80,000, which is a gross understatement. Meanwhile, less than half a billion dollars of the over US $ 5 billion pledged have been delivered. The UN keeps putting out statements that the onset of winter will create another disaster much worse than the actual earthquake, but the fact of the matter is that winter is already here, and it is impossible to accurately estimate how many have already died under the multiple feet of snow that has accumulated on the mountain tops where the most vulnerable live.

But it is in the business of relief goods supply that the real dirt can be uncovered. Despite claims that it would declare an emergency in the earthquake-hit areas, the government has not done so. On the face of it, the major advantage of declaring an emergency would have been that all taxes and other immediate financial pressures on the residents of the earthquake districts would have been relaxed. But this has not happened. What has happened, however, is a testament to the sheer callousness that is at the heart of the capitalist world order as we know it.

Tents emerged as the most valuable commodity in Pakistan right after the earthquake. Given the country’s reputation as the world’s largest supplier of tents, one would have thought that ensuring that an adequate supply of tents reached the affected areas would have been a relatively straightforward task. Of course, one could not have accounted for the fact that massive amounts of hoarding would take place and tents would very quickly be in very short supply. As it turned out, most tents were simply not sturdy enough to stand up to rain, sleet and snow. Subsequently, and much too late, the focus shifted to providing tin sheets and plywood to those whose homes had been destroyed so that they could construct temporary shelters to survive the winter.

The wholesalers providing these materials have themselves proclaimed that they are not subject to tax because an emergency has been declared, while pushing prices up to rates that they know can be afforded as donor monies flow in. While it is difficult to estimate exactly how much of this money is leaving the country as quickly as it is coming in, the fact is that much of this material is imported. In any case, the state makes the entire relief goods business possible, and, more importantly, profitable for all involved. In the first instance, officials in administrative centres facilitate the process for their preferred middlemen by issuing licences (tax-free no less) to supply materials needed for shelters. And there is a multitude of middlemen ranging from contractors to wholesalers to retailers. Meanwhile, the army has established complete control over all relief goods coming in and out of the quake-hit areas, and it is now a common refrain that at each major checkpoint, a healthy proportion of incoming materials is retained by armymen, while older material – often defective – is loaded on to the trucks moving on.

Legacy of Colonialism

This is just the tip of the iceberg. The earthquake has generated millions of dollars of commercial activity, a great deal of which takes place under the table. That is, of course, the legacy of colonialism. Indeed, what is conveniently labelled corruption when a scandal is uncovered is an integral feature of contemporary capitalism. Capital accumulation of the magnitude that is standard fare in today’s world is simply

Economic and Political Weekly February 11, 2006

Economic and Political Weekly February 11, 2006

unimaginable without corruption. It is through personal contacts and secret deals that money gets made, and in most cases

– especially with the re-establishment of capital’s supremacy over labour under the neoliberal counter revolution over the past two decades – the state tries its hardest to limit regulations and make the process as smooth as possible.

The shamelessness with which the Bush administration makes decisions that pander to corporate America has highlighted just how widespread this form of modern capital accumulation is, but as pointed out earlier, it is in the post-colonial world that the pillaging is most naked. Marx famously used the phrase primitive accumulation to describe the process through which force wasemployed – including the manipulation of legal institutions – to set the stage for the rise of capitalism. David Harvey has recently suggested that primitive accumulation never ceased, and that it remains a primary feature of modern-day capitalism, and is likely to remain so for the foreseeable future.1 When one looks at what is taking place in the quake-hit areas of Pakistan, it is difficult to disagree with Harvey’s claim.

While those making money out of the earthquake are given tax exemptions – whether legally or otherwise – the victims of the earthquake have been subject to even more oppressive circumstances than would normally be the case. The prices of basic commodities have shot through the roof, while local influentials have ensured that they are the major beneficiaries of official relief cheques that are being distributed. There has been an explosion in rents in nearby cities, including the capital Islamabad, as the stock market seeks to take advantage of the dramatic increase in housing demand as droves of affected people, who have lost their homes, flock to urban areas looking for shelter.

It is important to bear in mind that the eruption in post-earthquake activity is intricately tied to the dynamics of the international order. In the first instance, donors typically pick and choose who supplies the goods that they pledge for the relief effort, handing over little liquid cash to local authorities to decide where to spend money. The vast majority of the aid is, of course, in loans and the repayment options are far from generous. But perhaps the biggest indictment of the international community is in its continued patronage of Pakistan’s ruling class, which, like many of its counterparts in imperialist satellite states, is parasitical to the core, and is interested at all times in maintaining its position at the top of the tree.

Erosion of Sovereignty

While it would be foolish to suggest that the international community should not have provided aid to Pakistan after the earthquake regardless of how democratic the political process in the country is or not, the truth is that imperialism has consistently contributed to nipping any genuine organic political process in Pakistan in the bud, and this has been no more obvious in the windfall support that the military junta of general Musharraf has been given since September 11, 2001. That the Pakistani army was able to manipulate the post-quake situation to its own benefit, thereby crushing the spirits of the millions of Pakistanis who exhibited an unprecedented unity of purpose in the immediate aftermath of the disaster, was in no small way a function of the licence that has been given to the army by Bush, Blair and Co to run riot in Pakistan in the name of fighting terror. Indeed, the earthquake has also exposed claims that the government has made over the past few years that it is clamping down on jihadi groups. It was, in fact, jihadis and the parliamentary right who were at the forefront of the relief effort, no thanks to the facilitation of the state. That other social and political forces in Pakistan were not as organised as the right to respond as effectively to the quake, reflects just how much institutional support the right continues to receive.

There are many other examples that prove how Pakistan’s sovereignty has been further eroded by the earthquake of October 8. In the final analysis, the natural disaster that hit the country three months ago has been transformed into an even worse man-made disaster, and the situation is not likely to improve so long as the structures of power that prevail in Pakistan remain the same. It was the fact that resistance to the military dictatorship might emerge in the aftermath of the earthquake that induced the army to react and take over the relief operation in the way that it did. This reaction has given rise to even more resentment against the army than previously existed. Yet there is still little to challenge its monopoly over state affairs, and indeed over public life.

Latin America has proved that it is no longer doom and gloom for those postcolonial states around the world who have tried to break with the imperialist world order, that resistance to global capitalism is possible even if a global challenge to the US is yet to materialise. The upheavals in Latin America have not yet been matched by anything similar elsewhere. However, as oppression becomes more and more blatant, and as natural disasters are exacerbated by prevailing structures of power, surely even the beneficiaries of global capitalism are wondering how long their joy ride will last.

EPW

Email: amajid@isb.comsats.net.pk

Note

1 See David Harvey, The New Imperialism,Oxford University Press, New York, 2003.

SPECIAL ISSUE

REVIEW OF INDUSTRY AND MANAGEMENT September 24, 2005

Does Openness Promote Competition? A Case Study of Indian Manufacturing – Manoj Pant, Manoranjan Pattanayak

Pharmaceutical R&D for Low-Income Countries: – Jean O LanJouw, Global Trends and Participation by Indian Firms Margaret MacLeod

Trends and Determinants of Private Corporate Sector Savings in India – L M Bhole, Jitendra Mahakud

Financial Management of Public Sector Enterprises in India: Analysis of Profitability – P K Jain, Surendra S Yadav

Survival of Aligarh Lock Manufacturing Industry – Mridula Sharma, Harsh Sharma, Talmeez F Naqvi

An Enquiry into the Production Efficiency and Profitability of MSRTC – Manisha Karne, Anand Venkatesh

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Economic and Political Weekly February 11, 2006

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