In-depth: When disaster strikes: the response to the South Asian earthquake
PAKISTAN: Rising inequality, unequal access to compensation
Only the courtyard remains of a huge mosque in Balakot- a town entirely destroyed by the earthquake and on live seismic faultlines. Despite the destruction prayer mats are laid out across the yard in what is an intensely religious society
NAIROBI, 5 June 2006 (IRIN) - Shortly after the 8 October earthquake that reduced hundreds of towns and villages to rubble in areas of North Western Frontier Province (NWFP) and Pakistani-administered Kashmir (PAK), the Pakistani government began paying compensation to the victims. Nongovernmental organisations such as Refugees International welcomed the move, because the quick infusion of cash into local economies enabled people to start rebuilding their homes and lives quickly.
“When analysts draw lessons from Pakistan’s response to the earthquake, the decision to make quick and generous compensation payments is likely to stand out,” said RI in a public statement. While the strategy was right, however, the key to its success would be the speed and fairness of its implementation, it added.
As early as December a number of key problems had already emerged and six months later, there are widespread complaints about a lack of transparency, corruption and discrimination in the compensation-payment process.
The earthquake, which measured 7.6 on the Richter scale, damaged or destroyed an estimated 84 percent of houses in PAK, and 36 percent in NWFP, according to Oxfam.
Following initial payments for destroyed and damaged houses in earthquake affected areas of 25,000 (US $415) rupees, a 17 March public-information statement from Pakistan’s Earthquake Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Authority (ERRA) said the rest would be paid in instalments. “You can apply for reconstruction shelter assistance in your areas of origin,” it advised. For each of the estimated 450,000 destroyed houses, three further payments would be made following assessments: 75,000 rupees ($1,250) after a memorandum of understanding was signed to ensure earthquake-proof reconstruction; 25,000 rupees ($415) after a certain level of completion was achieved; and 50,000 rupees (US $930) upon completion of the reconstruction. For damaged houses, one payment of 50,000 rupees would be paid.
Eligible families would also get a livelihood-support cash grant of 3,000 rupees ($50) per month and food rations for six months. The housing subsidies would be paid through bank accounts. “So open a bank/post office account as soon as possible,” the ERRA advised. Early on, the Pakistani government also announced a death-compensation benefit of 100,000 rupees (US $1,660), and an injury benefit of between 50,000 rupees and 15,000 rupees ($830 and US $250) depending on severity.
Although the government’s compensation package was roundly welcomed, it has been criticised in practice. A number of recurring problems have been reported: People have been unable to open bank accounts without ID cards; banks are inaccessible to the mostly rural, uneducated population; families sharing accommodation have been excluded, as only one payment is made per dwelling; only one death is being compensated per family; homeowners, rather than tenants, are being compensated; and feudal landlords, allegedly colluding with local officials, have been collecting money “on behalf” of tenant farmers under the threat of eviction. Meanwhile, compensation for lost livestock, businesses, shops and livelihoods is not being paid.
Photo: Christopher Horwood/IRIN
|A hospital being built in March 2006 in Balakot, NWF, claiming to use earthquake resistant materials. Despite the distribution of compensation money to affected families and the introduction of new building codes it is hard to see how they will be implemented in remote areas
Salima Bibi, camped on the old university ground in Muzaffarabad with her husband and five children, said they had never received any money. “We have no ID card, therefore they are not giving me money. Only people with ID cards are receiving money, ” she said. Her husband lost the family card during the earthquake.
Political affiliations are also allegedly being taken into consideration when it comes to compensation. For example, in the Kala Dhaka (Black Mountain) area, in the semiautonomous Federally Administered Tribal Areas, “the actual people who are affected are not receiving the cheques, according to a member of the opposition Awani (Public) National Party who requested anonymity. He alleged that up to 2,500 people had received 25,000 rupees (US $ 415), 9,000 had been surveyed by authorities and had not received any money at all, and a further 900 had received cheques which had subsequently been cancelled. He added that the government had underestimated by half the number of people in Kala Dhaka who would be eligible for compensation money in the first place.
The closest federal institution of any kind is reportedly 3.5 hours away from Kala Dhaka, and there is next to no road access. “The surveys should reach the whole area, but they are done on a political basis,” the source claimed. “People who belong to the opposition either don’t receive a cheque or can’t cash it.”
In a January briefing paper Oxfam also said there were concerns about the impartiality of selection committees and that social structure, connections and political affiliations were “influencing” compensation decisions.
Raza Tanoli, district coordinator with the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan in Mansehra, said there was no reliable data on either the population or the numbers of houses destroyed and damaged. He added that local officials administering the funds were hardly experts in construction and could be likely to act “on the basis of whether someone voted for them” in elections.
Women also faced particular difficulties. “Women are unable to get compensation because, firstly, they are women - and in our society it is difficult for a woman to move freely,” said Tanoli. “In our society, mostly they are ignored when it comes to property, and their brothers or any close relative are used to getting the property. If a woman does not allow [it], then there is a quarrel and a family boycott of that woman.”
Akhtar Jan, a haggard, 30-year-old widow in Thuri camp in Muzaffarabad, said she was unable to access the money without a male relative. “I don’t know who is giving the money. I have no son to go to the village to tell them that I haven’t received the money.”
The “extremely patriarchal culture” in Pakistan meant that women were largely confined to the home or tented camps, and, therefore, dependent on male family members to both make claims for the family and to cash cheques, said Azra Talat Sayeed, executive director of Roots for Equity, a local NGO. In the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, the majority of seriously injured people moved with their carers to cities like Rawalpindi, Lahore and Karachi for medical care, where compensation money was inaccessible, Sayeed said. This has exacerbated compensation problems, because many carers are women and as a result have missed out on benefits. Most poor women were also unaware they had to keep records of prescriptions, diagnoses and X-rays for injury claims. “The more educated families and landowning class has had it easier in compensations, as they know how to work the system,” she said.
Where cheques have been issued, they have not always been honoured. One high-level official in Muzaffarabad, who asked not to be named, said the government had failed to release 40 million rupees ($650,000) necessary to honour cheques already paid out.
Concerns about corruption
The fear is that money earmarked for compensation payments may be falling into the wrong hands. “Given Pakistan’s pervasive and institutionalised corruption, an effective mechanism for handling” money donated by donors was essential, ICG said in a March report. In Transparency International’s 2005 Corruption Perceptions Index of 158 countries, Pakistan was rated 144.
Photo: Claire Mc Evoy/IRIN
|A man and woman discuss leaving the relative security of tented camp-life to return to their village. For many the problems of recovery have only begun in a context where poverty and in some case discrimination is the backdrop to their lives
“The widespread allegations of corruption, pilferage and hoarding are extremely worrying,” a post-earthquake Human Rights Commission of Pakistan report said. “It is essential to put in place an independent system to track distribution of aid and compensation. The government of Pakistan, in cooperation with donor countries, must find a monitoring mechanism which is not solely in the hands of the military but representatives of the people of affected areas.”
The Pakistani government has set up a number of “nominal bodies” to oversee donations, according to ICG, which it says are neither transparent nor independent. In any case, officials from the ERRA are immune from legal action, it said. Section 11 of the ERRA charter states that “no suit, prosecution, [or] other legal proceedings shall lie against the Authority, the Council, the Board, the Chairperson, or any member, officer, advisers, experts or consultants in respect of anything done in good faith.”
Masudar Rahman, deputy commissioner in Muzaffarabad, is personally overseeing the distribution of compensation in PAK. He admitted there had been some hiccups: “There are complaints that people have been ignored. There are complaints that there has been some delay with regard to disbursing compensation. But so far, I have not seen a single complaint that a person has made money. …We are trying our level best to make it transparent.” Anyone with a grievance may lodge a complaint, he added. “They should come to this office. They should also come to the complaint cells, stationed in the army camps.”
Still, geography, culture, tradition, education, class and gender bar many groups from attending these complaint cells, not least women, according to rights groups.
The hope remains that the quick and generous compensation scheme will allow most affected families to rebuild their homes and lives speedily. This will be in sharp contrast to Tsunami-affected victims, only 20 percent of whom were in satisfactory accommodation a year after the disaster, according to Oxfam. However, pockets of marginalised people are being left behind. The consensus from local NGOs such as Roots for Equity is that the flawed implementation of the well-intentioned scheme means that “class dynamics are being played out to weaken the weak and strengthen the powerful”.