News & Current Affairs

September 3, 2008

India’s belated flood relief operation

India’s belated flood relief operation

Flood victims in Saharsa in Bihar

Hundreds of thousands are still stranded in the floods

Aid is beginning to reach the flood-affected in the Indian state of Bihar, but some say it is too late.

A long convoy of Indian army trucks is driving on the highway between the towns of Purnea and Madhepura in north Bihar.

They are carrying soldiers as well as rescue equipment, including boats.

Further ahead, they will be joined by Indian navy divers who will assist them in evacuating those villagers still stranded in flood waters.

Officials say they expect to bring out everyone in 72 hours.

At the Purnea air force base, two helicopters are being loaded up with emergency supplies – mostly food and medicines in packets.

These will be dropped from the air to the flood victims who are still cut off.

After facing a barrage of criticism for not doing enough, the Indian government has begun responding.

But for some, it is too late.

Sanjay is a migrant worker employed in the northern Indian state of Punjab hundreds of miles to the west.

He has rushed back to Murliganj in Madhepura, to try and save his grandfather who is marooned and very ill.

An army rescue team takes him to his village but by the time he gets there, his grandfather has died.

Overflowing camps

“He needed medicines – but they were unable to get any in the past 10 days because of the floods.”

Wrapped in a white shroud, his body is lifted on to the rescue boat to be taken away.

With the rescue operation in full swing, attention is now shifting to the relief camps which are all overflowing.

C Sridhar, the district magistrate in Purnea who is overseeing the relief effort there, says the government is doing all it can.

Villagers in Bihar gather relief material dropped by an air force helicopter in Madhubani district on 2 September 2008

Many people are still waiting for aid

“The government is prepared to provide assistance to all these people who have nowhere to go,” he tells me in his large colonial-era office where his phone is constantly ringing.

“We are in the process of building a mega-relief camp in Purnea district headquarters which will eventually have semi-permanent tents with roofs made of corrugated iron,” he adds even as he sends out instructions over the phone.

At the moment though, the focus is on just getting people into camps and getting them some immediate assistance.

Aid agencies and government medical teams have begun visiting some camps, where there are already reports of some people suffering from diarrhoea.

They are distributing oral rehydration salts and other medicines.

‘Fairly organised’

But sanitation levels at the camps are poor and there is concern that preventive measures may be too late.

Bjorn Nissen of Medicins Sans Frontieres has visited several camps to assess the situation.

“Aid is getting through and seems fairly organised.

“But yes, there is always a potential for water-borne diseases to affect large numbers of people. We are still trying to see what is needed and what we can do.”

Flood victims scramble for food packets in Saharsa in Bihar

The scale of the floods has overwhelmed relief efforts

India has not asked for international assistance. There is a strong sense here that it is not needed, that the government has enough resources to provide for those affected.

But it is not refusing all offers of help.

“We will certainly welcome international aid particularly those who can offer certain expertise,” says Mr Sridhar.

“Floods are a traumatic experience. Those who have suffered will need help in coping with their situation and eventually rebuilding their lives. This is an area where international groups can offer immense help.”

So why has it taken so long for the relief effort to hit speed?

There was one clue on Monday.

Minutes after the army convoy drove down the Purnea-Madhepura highway, it was followed by a long line of cars with flashing lights.

A senior Indian cabinet minister, Laloo Prasad Yadav, who is also a former chief minister of Bihar, had come visiting.

Bihar is currently governed by his political opponents – and so the state and federal governments have spent a lot of the past week blaming each other for the mess.

In between, the flood survivors wait for someone to take note of them.

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August 22, 2008

Zardari nominated to be president

Zardari nominated to be president

Pakistan People’s Party leaders Asif Ali Zardari (L) Bilawal Bhutto Zardari (C) and ex-PM Nawaz Sharif in Islamabad on Tuesday 19 August 2008

The coalition must decide who will be Pakistan’s new president

Pakistan’s biggest party, the PPP, has nominated its leader, Asif Zardari, to be the country’s president.

Pervez Musharraf resigned from the post on Monday in the face of the threat of impeachment by his political enemies.

Mr Zardari’s main coalition partner, Nawaz Sharif of the PML-N, is not in favor of Mr Zardari getting the job.

The two men are also deadlocked over how many of the judges sacked by Mr  Musharraf during emergency rule last November should be reinstated.

Twenty-four hours

PPP spokeswoman Sherry Rehman told reporters in Islamabad that senior PPP members had come to a unanimous decision to nominate Mr Zardari.

“Mr Zardari thanked the Pakistan People’s Party of which he is the co-chairman and said he will announce his decision within the next 24 hours,” she said.

The PPP and the PML-N have been discussing ways to reduce the power of the presidency. But if Mr Zardari gets the job, it is not clear if such reforms will go ahead.

He took over as PPP leader after his wife, Benazir Bhutto was assassinated in December.

The president is chosen by the two chambers of the national parliament and the country’s four provincial elections. The election will be held on 6 September.

Mr Sharif prefers what he calls a consensus president.

Wednesday deadline

Earlier on Friday Mr Sharif agreed to let parliament hold a debate next week on how to reinstate the judges sacked by Mr Musharraf.

He had threatened to pull out of the coalition government unless it was agreed on Friday that all the sacked judges be restored.

The PPP fears that if former Supreme Court judges, including ex-Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, are reinstated, they could overturn a controversial amnesty that Mr Musharraf granted Mr Zardari Ms Bhutto last year that paved the way for them to return to the country.

That would open up Mr Zardari to prosecution on long-standing corruption charges.

Mr Sharif pulled back from his threat to withdraw his PML-N party from the governing coalition after talks with other coalition parties in Islamabad.

But Mr Sharif is still hoping the resolution will result in Mr Chaudhry and the other judges getting their jobs back.

“Wednesday should be the day for reinstatement of judges,” he told journalists.

Squabbling

The coalition was elected in February but analysts say it has failed to find solutions to Pakistan’s economic crisis and to the militants in its north-western tribal regions bordering Afghanistan.

Pakistani security officials examine the site of the suicide bombing in Wah

The politicians’ squabbling is hindering any possible plan for tackling militant violence.

The Pakistani Taleban claimed responsibility for Thursday’s suicide bombings on an ordnance factory in the town of Wah, near the capital Islamabad. It was the deadliest attack on a military site in Pakistan’s history.

The militant group promised more attacks in Pakistan’s major urban conurbations unless the army withdrew from the tribal areas.

On Tuesday, 32 people were killed in a suicide attack on a hospital in the northern town of Dera Ismail Khan.

On Friday the Taleban said at least 16 of their fighters were killed in clashes with security forces in the north-western district of Hangu.

In the Bajaur tribal region near the Afghan border, reports said at least one person was killed and eight others were injured when army helicopters fired at a convoy. Locals said the vehicles were carrying civilians who were fleeing the fighting in the area.

Mr Musharraf, a key ally of President George Bush’s “war on terror”, stepped down this week after nine years in power to avoid being impeached.

He sacked about 60 Supreme Court judges during a state of emergency in November to prevent them from overturning his re-election as president.

Analysts say that although the PPP and PML-N worked together to hound Mr Musharraf from office, there is a history of intense rivalry and mistrust between the two main parties.

The parties differ over the future of Mr Musharraf, who has been replaced by a caretaker president, the speaker of the Senate.

Mr Zardari’s party has said it believes Mr Musharraf may have immunity from prosecution.

But Mr Sharif’s party argues he should stand trial for, among other things, abrogating the constitution.

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