A key threat to the large landholding pir families emerged during the rapid industrialization undertaken by the Ayub regime in the 1960s. Their hold on political power was increasingly challenged by the newly emerging industrial elite. At the same time, leftist movements inspired by the success of the Maoist revolution in China provided some inspiration to local activists. However, the thrust of left activism during this period remained within the larger urban areas (Iqtidar 2010). Toward the end of the 1960s, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto provided a platform to, paradoxically, both the left activists and the sidelined landed elite, at a time when the demise of the Ayub regime seemed imminent without any clear replacement in sight from within either the existing political parties or the army. The meteoric rise of Bhutto and the emergence of his Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) can be explained primarily through the rift in elite groups where some within the elite were willing to form an alliance with other social groups, including left activists (Tarrow 1998). His rhetoric and some genuinely progressive moves aside, Bhutto’s party was soon the bastion of the very landlords who had feared marginalization under Ayub Khan’s industrialization.
The Seraiki Belt area, where Daira village is located, continues to be a PPP stronghold, although local political families have diversified and hedged their political fortunes, often fielding candidates from opposing parties. The colonial arrangements of power have been augmented in contemporary times through the breakdown of civil bureaucracy facilitated by World Bank–sponsored “devolution.” A progressive seeming idea at first blush (replacing Pakistan’s colonial-type centralized bureaucratic structure with decentralized, local ones), devolution has actually allowed international agencies greater leeway in policy decisions. The decentralized structure by design limited the ability of local officers to shape policy through concentrated challenges to regional problems. They are also ill placed to resist the pressure that politicians exert over the general functioning of local infrastructure. This coming together of local political trajectories and international developmental experiments played itself out in a variety of ways during the floods in the area. Planned breaches in the embankment along the river have not been maintained over the years, and even if they had been, at the time of the current floods local influentials did not allow breaches in their areas. As a result, either ill-planned, last-minute breaches were created by using private and government equipment, such as excavators, or the river forced its way out in a haphazard way when and where it could.
The consequences of these developments were in clear evidence two weeks ago in a medical camp in Kot Adu, located within the Seraiki Belt: children with scabies, boils, and skin rashes; women about to give birth at any moment suffering from gastrointestinal disorders; men with eye infections and more boils; the vast majority suffering from post-traumatic stress. Health problems caused by the flood are not in themselves fatal. In fact, when compared to the severed limbs, crushed spines, and gangrene-infected wounds of the people caught in the earthquake in Pakistan five years ago, these medical problems are minor. It is the fact that they were not treated quickly and competently that is likely to lead to a rapid escalation of severity and complexity. When these problems are coupled with inadequate diet, a continued lack of clean drinking water, and an ongoing uncertainty about the future, the displaced are unlikely to recover quickly. And their anger and frustration may feed into the movements already developing in the region against the extreme imbalance in land holdings, the large “developmental” projects, and in particular, against the expansion of existing and the building of new dams and barrages on the Indus River.
Dams and Floods: An Intimate Relationship
“Areas that had never seen a flood previously have now been flooded,” claimed Shama, one of the women helping organize a camp. She had lost her own house to the flood in Kot Adu. On first hearing this statement I did not realize the import of what she was saying. It was only after repeated assertions and detailed accounts that the real meaning of what the locals were saying became clear. The Indus River has flooded periodically and at certain times in the distant past also caused immense destruction through sudden changes in course, and so forth. However, most of the time there was a pattern to the flooding that those living close to the river had learnt to recognize. The fact that previously unaffected areas have now been flooded is not just because there was a lot of rain. There is no denying the fact that the rainfall was unusual in terms both of its quantity and its persistence, but that alone does not explain the extent of the disaster. Nor do official incompetence, negligence, and indifference in the immediately prior weeks and days. Nor is it just the result of intertwined political and economic interests that the lands of political and feudal elites were protected while those of small farmers were inundated. All of these have exacerbated the scale of the natural calamity. But a key contributor to the flooding in the Kot Adu area has been the faulty extension of Taunsa Barrage, recently funded by the World Bank. To say that these kinds of mega-floods were created in some areas by the very structures―the barrages and dams―that were, paradoxically, meant to contain them may seem scandalous at first, but there is enough evidence to mandate the view.