Quake Victims Face Another Winter, Unprotectedby Jude ( )
KARACHI, Oct 7 (IPS) - Of those who survived last year's catastrophic earthquake, it is the people of Balakot district in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) that are least prepared to face another Himalayan winter without adequate shelter. It took until April for the government to announce that Balakot will need to be entirely relocated.
That announcement stunned the 30,000-odd residents of Balakot, many of whom had already begun rebuilding their homes and shops levelled by the Oct. 8 temblor, which claimed 73,000 lives, maimed 70,000 and left 3.8 million homeless.
Measuring 7.6 on the Richter Scale, the earthquake ripped through NWFP and Pakistan administered Kashmir, but it completely obliterated Balakot, famed as a tourist stopover. Authorities now say all residents must be relocated to a place called Bakrial, a 600-acre rocky, hilly site some 30 km away. No reconstruction is being allowed in Balakot or the adjacent town of Garlat because they fall in the 'red zone' for seismic activity.
Deputy chairman of the military-run Earthquake Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Authority (ERRA), Lt.Gen. Nadeem Ahmad, confirms this. "The two towns lie on three fault lines forming an H and resettling the survivors back here would just be suicidal," he says.
Located about 175 km north of the federal capital Islamabad, these Himalayan towns are surrounded by towering mountains and have the Kunhar river running through. Balakot has long served as the gateway to the picturesque Kaghan valley.
Walking through the busy Balakot bazaar gives an impression of normality. The rubble has been cleared and the shops are back in business. In reality, life has been placed on pause with most people not knowing what life has in store for them.
After the government's decision was made public, there began a spate of protests. Many have shown reluctance to move.
"Death is irrevocable and destined. No one can change it and it will come even if I move to Bakrial," says Mohammad Nawaz fatalistically. Balakot is my birthplace and it comes with many bittersweet memories. My ancestors, and now my wife and child, are buried here," he says. ''Even from pure practicality, my business is here."
But most people are now resigned to relocating to Bakrial. Mohammad Hussain, 55, a lorry driver, who lost his wife and two daughters in the earthquake, is ready to move. He has received Rs 75,000 (1,250 US dollars) as compensation. And anyway his temporary shelter was washed away by flash-floods during the recent monsoons.
"We are willing but the process seems to take forever." He has already bought land and built a two-room shelter across the river in Garlat for the coming winter for the surviving family members. "I have no choice other than constructing on the rubble." He, however, is scared that his home may be demolished by the army any day.
According to the ERRA spokesman, to relocate and develop a brand new town, which he claims "would have facilities even better than those provided to Islamabad" is three times more expensive. "If you look at this from a purely economic point of view, it makes no sense at all to uproot so many people, but it has to be done nevertheless."
For many, the greatest anxiety seems to be finding shelter to brave the harsh winter that is just around the corner.
Local people are unsure about when exactly they will be relocated, and what do they do in the interim. They do not even know the size of the plots they will be getting. Stories doing the rounds say the government would soon be building homes for them in Bakrial, while another version has it that the government will only provide land and compensation money with actual construction the responsibility of the beneficiaries.
For now ERRA is busy studying the topography and seismography of Bakrial and trying to develop a town plan. Even a social survey is being carried out alongside.
"We are compensating these people and giving them the second tranche of Rs 75,000 (1,250 dollars),'' said the spokesman. ''For this winter and till proper housing arrangements are made in the new place, they will be provided with pre-fabricated homes.''
But ERRA is reluctant to disclose exactly when the groundwork would start as it is grappling with the most important issue -- finding funders. "We're holding talks with Libya which has shown interest to develop the place in phases. If that works out, work will begin within this year," says the ERRA spokesman. Then the place will also be renamed Qaddafi Town.
But if there is no headway made with the Libyan government, it may take longer-- two to three years to get started says Nadeem. Then it will simply be called New Balakot to have some association with the old town. Local people estimate the development process to take much longer, between seven to eight years.
For most, the reluctance to move has to do with the fact that they run small businesses here. "We do business here and it is the nearest town and the gateway to the valleys. The next town, Mansehra is at least 45 km away from here. The surrounding communities from the valleys of Kaghan, Naran and villages above Balakot come to the market here for supplies," says Nawaz.
"We are more comfortable dwelling nearer our shops as these shops are temporary structures (made with wood and corrugated iron sheets) and can easily be broken into," says Abdul Latif, another shopkeeper.
With most of the shops catering to tourists, how will they find business in Bakrial which is off the beaten track? "It's a bitter pill that has to be swallowed. We had to make this decision with a heavy heart because the safety of the people is paramount," explains Nadeem.
"We will let them have shops here in Balakot, but housing will have to be in Bakrial. I know many have shown concern for their loved ones being buried here. They can always visit their graves which will not be disturbed,'' the general said.
The government is trying to create a shorter route between Bakrial and Balakot. The people would be allowed to retain their land titles, in addition to the homes they would be getting in Bakrial, Nadeem said. "We will help them develop orchards, spots for eco-tourism and sport fishing, build roadside shack-like restaurants along the river banks and promenades etc. There will be many more opportunities. At the same time they will be provided with housing in the new town as well. How can they not want to benefit from this win-win situation?''
Among the many questions that the government has to find an answer to is the one about people already resident in Bakrial and how to get them to accept the newcomers. Some have been served eviction notices since they are living on land claimed by the government. (END/2006)