Many of Pakistan’s problems are due to their hostile relationship with India, a fact which is increasingly emerging in Pakistani media and was even voiced by General Bajwa. Lifting the nation from their flood of woes would require good ties with India, but for that, its policy of sponsoring terrorism in Kashmir has to stop.
The monster monsoon that hit Pakistan this August, wreaked the worst floods in recent memory—even stronger than the floods of 2010. The country went through eight cycles of incessant rain, receiving three times the annual rainfall, which submerged one third of the country, affected 33 million people and caused over $12 billion of damage to homes and infrastructure which will take five years to rebuild. One third of its cultivated land has been inundated and over 300,000 livestock—the bedrock of livelihood for many—have perished. As the waters recede, Pakistan stares grimly at impending epidemics, starvation and social unrest in a population that has been pushed to the brink.
The flood waters have also washed away the sites of Mohenjo-Daro—the ancient Indus Valley civilization, that perished 5,000 years ago by similar floods. In a way, the floods are symptomatic of global climate change. It is a part of a cycle of floods and drought, which will visit many parts of the world with increasing frequency. Ironically, the sub-continent, which has been amongst the lowest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world, will be amongst the areas most susceptible to climate change, and Pakistan has been identified as amongst the nations most likely to succumb to it.
The floods have been called almost “Biblical in nature” but there is more to it than just climate change. Much of the havoc has been caused by systematic neglect and erosion of canals, distributaries and rivers and water channels which would have otherwise funneled the waters away. (Just like the floods in Bangalore were caused by encroachment of its lakes and neglect of infrastructure). But the malaise in Pakistan is more deep-rooted than that. At the heart of all its problems lies the economic, political and social turmoil within the country.
The floods will provide a body blow to Pakistan’s economy, which is already stagnating at $347 billion, having a minuscule rate of growth of 0.4 % per annum; a debt of $250 billion and foreign reserves just enough to cover six weeks of imports. Much of the debt is to China, whose CPEC has cost Pakistan $64 billion and given it infrastructure that does not generate return on investment. The signs of Pakistan’s disillusionment with CPEC comes in the manner they have recently dissolved the CPEC Authority. But that will solve nothing. So deep is Pakistan into the project, that they will now have to approach China for further loans to pay off existing ones, and fall into an endless debt trap which will be impossible to get out of.
The standard solution has been to approach the IMF, which Pakistan has already done 22 times before. But with the IMF, like most of the world, there is a Pak-weariness. It has released a tranche of $1.17 billion of the promised $6 billion, but the conditionalities include hiking electric tariffs and imposing levies on petroleum products. This led to an increase of Rs 50 per litre of petrol and sparked inflation to a historic high of 47%. The destruction of crops and livestock will lead to further shortages and raise prices to prohibitive levels. The signs are all there for an outpouring of public anger and violence that was seen in Sri Lanka earlier this year along with its attendant political and social chaos.
And, in the midst of it all, the FATF team had come on a five-day visit to check the measures Pakistan has taken against financing and sponsoring terrorism. Should it continue to remain on the FATF grey list, beyond the next review in October, receiving further aid will be difficult, even from traditional benefactors like Saudi or UAE.
Compounding all this, and ensuring that they can never put up a unified front against the many problems facing the nation, is the unfolding political drama. After Imran Khan was removed from power (orchestrated by the same Army that installed him) he has taken to the streets with anti-government rallies across the nation. All eyes are now set on the forthcoming elections, with the Sharif government somehow hoping to complete its term till they are due in 2023, and Imran Khan all set to discredit it further so that fresh elections can be announced earlier (a cost that Pakistan can’t afford now). His pitch is to play the card of being pushed out of power because of his honesty and refusal to cow down to “external forces”. And seeing the popular support he receives, and the manner in which his party has won the provincial elections in Punjab, he does have enough appeal to push the government into a corner.
Imran’s brand of street politics has succeeded to some measure. He is taking on both the Army and the Government and has morphed into an Asian Donald Trump, lashing out at all, even if it means destroying established practices and institutions. In his quest to demean the Sharif government, he is also bringing the house down on himself. His own shady deals for party funding are under investigation. He has been charged under the Anti-Terrorism Act for threatening the judiciary and police. His party has tried to sabotage the IMF deal by leaking videos stating that Pakistan would be unable to comply with its conditions. He has also taken on the Army, by stating that the “Sharif and Zardari” families wanted to appoint an Army Chief of their choice when General Bajwa retires in November, to “protect their looted wealth.” It indicates that he is pitching for elections before November, when if elected, he could have a say in the appointment of the new Chief.
Imran’s challenges to the government and the Army have created further divide in an already divided nation. How the Army reacts to the threat to its position remains to be seen, but it is unlikely to take it lying down. His street-fighting tactics is making it increasingly difficult for Shehbaz Sharif to address any of Pakistan’s pressing issues, including the flood situation. Even here, Imran has set up his party’s flood relief fund—distinct from government aid measures—as a parallel mechanism. The indicators all point to him pressing for early elections. But fresh elections do not provide the answer to Pakistan’s internal problems. They will only delay the process of focusing on their problems, and if anything, only accentuate them.
To alleviate Pakistan’s problems what is needed most is the incorporation of long-term structural changes, akin to the ones India undertook in 1991, which opened up its economy and changed the country. Reforms and some tough measures would have to be implemented, which would require long-term political stability and consensus of all parties. But the sheer slugfest of Pakistan’s politics would not permit it.
To compound its woes, the one major success that it boasted of in recent times, has rebounded. The Taliban have not proved to be the pliable ally they hoped for, and rather than attain “strategic depth” there is actually greater hostility against in Afghanistan. The recent killing of Ayman al Zawahiri in his safehouse in Kabul has been attributed to the fact that Pakistan shared information with the US for his assassination and that could well lead to an intensification of activities of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan. A peace deal with the TTP—in which Pakistan virtually gave in to all their demands—has collapsed. Now, with greater political and economic ferment, the ground is ripe for them to resume their actions and move into the hinterland.
The Biblical flood which has hit Pakistan is just part of the problem. But its timing could not have been worse. It has accentuated all that is wrong with the nation. And honestly, though it has evoked sympathy for the people, there is little more. Call for aid has evoked a muted response. The Indian offer of aid was turned down (just as the $5 million offered during the floods of 2010 was refused). The offer to resume trade and send fresh vegetables and grain to relieve their shortages, was again rebuffed on the grounds of Article 370. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Shehbaz Sharif are to meet in the sidelines of the SCO conference later this month, but there should be no expectations of any great breakthrough. Many of Pakistan’s problems are due to their hostile relationship with India—a fact which is increasingly emerging in Pakistani media and was even voiced by General Bajwa. Lifting the nation from their flood of woes would require good ties with India, but for that, its policy of sponsoring terrorism in Kashmir has to stop. Unfortunately, that does not suit any of the political parties or the Army, and so this state of affairs would continue.
The flood waters have receded for now, but the waves of economic, social and political turmoil continue to wash over Pakistan. But will it go under? No. These travails have occurred repeatedly in its history, but invariably, this nuclear armed state has clung on. It would stay afloat this time as well—if only barely so—and move from one cycle of churn to the other. Permanent change would require long term change to its policy and outlook, especially towards India. That is unlikely to happen, and it is a reality we must accept and live with.
Ajay Singh is the award-winning author of five books and over 200 articles.