The reconstruction challenges in AJK

The enormity of the loss in the recent earthquake in different parts of the country is simply mind-boggling and beyond any description. Going by different statements, the government is well determined to turn this tragedy into an opportunity by re-examining many faulty policies and allocating maximum resources for the rehabilitation and reconstruction work in the affected areas. How it shall cope with this gigantic task without flouting the professional standards and testing the patience of the hard-hit innocent people is to remain a heated issue in the days ahead.

Historically the people of the worst hit areas of Azad Kashmir and Balakot have lived in unplanned and shanty areas with a strong sense of attachment with immoveable property. Unlike others, they enjoy being a part of an extended family and avoid residing among strangers. Yet another important characteristic of these people is that almost 88 percent of them live in rural areas and are dependant on agricultural land, white collar government jobs, remittances of their relatives settled abroad and self-employment. In the absence of any inter-city air service, transportation and travelling from one place to another is thoroughly dependent on the road network. Given this, most of the resources over the last five decades have been consumed by the development of the communication network and basic infrastructure in the area. However, the major constraints in the way of development should not be ignored such as inadequate infrastructure, small land holding, lack of a private sector, deforestation, proximity to the Line of Control, shortage of skilled manpower and the short working season.

The earthquake unfortunately hit these defining characteristics of the people badly and brought almost everything to a halt. The basic infrastructure was demolished making it a Herculean task for the aid workers to reach the victims. Schools, colleges, hospitals and all other public institutions were razed, exposing widespread corruption and professional negligence to make big fortunes at the expense of the lives of the innocent people. Similarly, it also became an open secret that in view of the poverty and lack of awareness people never took care of the principles of construction resulting in the collapse of the houses and business centres.

The government needs to be extremely visionary and determined to restructure the affected areas on modern lines and requirements. For instance, it can use this opportunity to introduce the concept of modern towns comprising four to five villages for a population of around 15 thousand each. Apart from meeting the basic requirements of the people such as the communication network and health and education facilities, it shall help the government keep the population size under control and deal with the deforestation problem more efficiently.

To mantain ecological balance, at least 15 percent land mass should have forests. Six decades ago over 40 percent of the area of AJK was covered by forests, which has now shrunk to 20 percent and one fears that it is to face further reduction in view of the new phase of the reconstruction and rehabilitation work in the affected areas. The only way to cope with this challenge is to popularise the concept of planned towns and villages and making tourism a well-established industry in the area. Additionally, it will reduce the silt level in the rivers; particularly in Mangla Dam as its survival age has already been reduced. This idea will give villagers an opportunity to develop their own land for commercial usage to get a better livelihood.

Reestablishment of the educational network poses yet another great challenge. The AJK government runs 5,669 primary and high schools of which almost none are useable in the affected areas. It appears that this year thousands of students will not be able to attend classes or sit for examinations. Obviously, rebuilding new educational institutions and rehabilitation would be a time consuming exercise. Hence, the government has to establish residential educational institutions so that the displaced students may continue their education without any gap in their educational careers. Meanwhile, such institutions in other parts of the country should embark on a special multidimensional programme to accommodate the students from the worst hit areas.

Rehabilitation of the orphans must top the priority list of the government. The exact figures are not available but one can claim safely that it lies in thousands. For obvious reasons, adoption does not offer any lasting solution to this problem. Establishment of orphanages in the area with the generous support of the state and the community alone can save them from falling into the hands of unscrupulous people or being sucked into child labour and being picked as domestic servants for affluent families.

One must realise that the establishment of a tent city to ward off winter is simply untenable. With the chilly weather descending on these affected areas there is no provision for heating as there is no liquidised gas in the region. While these tents will solve the privacy issues which the people, especially women, of this area are facing, providing tents be costly. It will also expose people to many dangers such as accidental fires. Therefore, a more rational and workable idea would be to relocate the population to relatively warmer areas of the country on a temporary basis.

The utilisation of aid received in a transparent and efficient manner is to remain a big challenge for the concerned authorities. Unfortunately, the AJK administration does not enjoy a good reputation in this regard as its handling of the post-1992 flood situation still haunts the people. With the strong involvement of the international community in the reconstruction and rehabilitation programme, sticking to transparency becomes all the more important not only for the sake of the victims but also for the overall image and reputation of the country. Visible transparency in this process will give renewed hope and strength to the affectees to battle the challenges they have to face in the future in a dignified way.