Locals want role in Pakistan's quake reconstruction

>A year after an earthquake killed 73,000, rural leaders say they need a greater voice in rebuilding.

There are mornings when Sardar Bashir, a mayor in this earthquake-affected region of Pakistan, wishes he had never been elected to local government. Angry residents often crowd his office, lamenting the slow pace of reconstruction and the lags in basic amenities.

"All the time, the communities are facing problems ... complaining about water problems, road problems. They're saying, 'You're not doing anything,' " says Mr. Bashir, a union council nazim, or mayor, representing Shohal Mazullah, Balakot, in North West Frontier Province.

Bashir, a survivor himself of the Oct. 8, 2005 earthquake that killed 73,000 people, certainly welcomes the civic outpouring that has arisen from the rubble of the earthquake. It's the very expression of grass-roots politics envisioned by sweeping government changes in 2001.

What frustrates Bashir, however, is that he has no power to address these concerns. They pour into his office each day, but when he carries them to the federal government or the military, they fall on deaf ears, he says. "[The Earthquake Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Authority] doesn't listen to us in any way. We know what the situation is, but they don't listen to us."

His complaint is echoed by other union council nazims who say that, while they best know their communities' reconstruction needs, their suggestions have been marginalized or ignored altogether by federal authorities during the past year of earthquake recovery. "If they listened to us in making the policy, 80 to 90 percent of the problems would be solved," Bashir says.

Comments like this seem to confirm worries that have long hovered over Pakistan's worst natural disaster: The military-led administration has dominated the reconstruction process, often to the detriment of survivors. Federal policies, observers say, have contributed to inefficiencies that have, in aggregate, greatly slowed the national project of recovery.

"[Local governments] have been paralyzed," says Kaiser Bengali, a Karachi-based analyst. "This was an opportunity to place the devolved local government at the heart of the reconstruction. But we've lost that opportunity."

But while ordinary citizens, particularly women, have become openly involved for the first time in discussions about the fate of their communities, nazims, the lowest tier of elected local government, find themselves unable to cultivate that energy. The nazim structure was created in 2001 as part of President Musharraf's efforts to devolve power from the military-led center, affording communities their first locally elected representatives.

"The decision making power [when it comes to reconstruction] was only the Army and the federal government," says Zia ur-Rehman, a union council nazim from Sat Bani, Balakot.

Mr. Rehman says federal authorities often made policies without consulting local leaders about the realities on the ground. The Army, for example, distributed relief goods without coordinating with his office, overlooking families in need, he claims.

Earthquake Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Authority (ERRA) officials disagree with such characterizations. They say their approach has been participatory and community-based whenever possible. But the disaster's dimensions require decisions for which input at the local level is not always possible or practical, they say.

"I'm not saying [local officials] have been totally left out, or totally made a part of it," says Lt. Gen. Nadeem Ahmed, deputy chairman of ERRA. "At the lower level, [the nazims] may have a point."

From the first days after the quake, critics cried foul when Mr. Musharraf, without consulting Parliament, unilaterally created the government agencies tasked with relief and reconstruction, the Federal Relief Commission and ERRA. Serving generals were appointed to head both, although ERRA is now headed by a former minister. Musharraf defended the actions as the kind of quick solutions that a disaster demands. But critics say it was just the prelude to a longer session of military dominance.

"[T]he military systematically sidelined civilian administrators, and, as a result, failed to use their expertise in assessing and meeting local needs," reads a March 2006 report from The International Crisis Group, a Geneva-based think tank.

It is not too late, however, for the Army to step aside now that reconstruction is just taking off, observers say. "The power is with the Army," says Munir Lughmani, a union council nazim from Garlat, Balakot. "Our demand is that there should be a free hand for the local government to deal with reconstruction."

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