The Dawn: Sep 19, 2014

Punjab Notes: Fury of waters!

Mushtaq Soofi 

Punjab as the name itself suggests is the land of rivers. Being the land of rivers, the fury of waters and their life-giving flow are not unknown to it and its people. The natural cycle, destructive and regenerative, is a source of both dread and joy. Sadly this monsoon what we witness all around is dread; the dread of being washed away by an apocalyptic current, a sort of reminder of deluge about which we read in the religious books and hear in the ancient myths.

Deluge myth is a narrative we are familiar with. The flood myth motif is found in almost all the cultures. Mythical flood or flood mythologised is thought to be a divinely created extra-ordinary process that results in cleansing the earth and re-birth. The Mesopotamian stories are found in the epics of Ziusudra, Gilgamesh and Atrahasis. In Indian mythology the Satapatha Brahmana tells us the story of a cosmic flood in which Matsya Avatar (fish descent) of Vishnu is informed of the impending deluge and is ordered to build a big boat with a view to save life on earth. In the Bible and the Quran we come across the well known story of flood and Noah’s Ark.Waters, a vital source of life, can be as destructive as they are nourishing. An extraordinarily huge body of waters in movement gave birth to flood myths because man in the past with a scant scientific knowledge and few analytical tools at his disposal, being unable to explain the freakish phenomenon, took it as wrath of God/Gods threatening to wipe out the wicked humanity that supposedly polluted the earth. Even today some people insist that flood or any other natural disaster is a result of our sinful ways meant to chasten us. The recent flood that devastated large swathes of Punjab is made out by some to be a heavenly punishment for the sins committed. Sadly, they conveniently forget that it is the poor and the hapless who bear the brunt and those who have the power to commit ‘sins’ remain cozily ensconced in their impregnable corridors of safety which can withstand the relentless rush of waters.

This monsoon it was the River Chenab that inundated large areas of the Punjab wrecking havoc all around. The Chenab called Chandar or Chandal in ancient books and Punjabi literature is otherwise the most romanticised river as it has bred myths and legends which continue to fire the imagination of people and poets alike even today. Who can forget the bold and the beautiful daughters of Chenab like Heer, Sahiban and Sohni? The river is the heart of the Punjab that incessantly pumps life into its veins and arteries. But at the same time it is a river feared and dreaded for it can at times destroy what it has created with its fecund waves. Baba Bulleh Shah, the fearless poet and saint, hints at its formidable might when he sings of ‘the noisy banks of river Chandal’ that may make the lovers reluctant who are intent on crossing it. When legendry but penniless Ranjha after being refused entry into the ferry by Luddan, the sailor, decides in his desperation to swim across the river he, in the words of inimitable Waris Shah, is warned thus: ‘you may lower hundreds of bamboos into the Chenab, its depth is beyond measure/ you will drown if you dare fight through the water, dear darling’.

The caring women dissuaded the poor lover from entering the river but sadly no miracle man appeared this year to stop it entering the hamlets, the villages and the towns when it swelled. The administration which boasts of its scientific knowledge, technical know-how and management skills too failed miserably to anticipate the unprecedented rise of water in the river, reign in the tide and evacuate the hapless people well in time. The civil administration, when things spiraled out of hand, did what it had been doing for the last so many years; to call the armed forces in civil aid. Nothing wrong with calling the armed forces for rescue and relief operation but it should be done as a last resort when all plans diligently worked out and efficiently executed by the top heavy civil machinery fail to stem the tide. Heavy reliance on the armed forces by the complacent bureaucracy betrays the dereliction of their primary duties; protection of the citizens, especially in emergency or disaster, natural and manmade.

With the passage of time flood, which is almost annual feature of the land of the rivers, becomes more and more ferocious. The reasons are not difficult to discover. The most obvious and most important factor is so much ignored that it does not have even marginal presence in the main stream official and social discourse: high population growth. Unplanned population growth has created unmanageable situation. The burgeoning population has cut down and destroyed the ‘Bela’ (forests along the rivers/mangroves) which in the yesteryears acted as natural barriers against flood and soil erosion. Secondly, large parts of the riverbeds have been grabbed by the powerful for agricultural purposes and the rural and the urban poor have set up their shanties in and along the rivers with the result that natural water courses have been blocked. We all know that waters if blocked are bound to find unnatural courses destroying whatever comes their way.

Pakistan, in general, and Punjab, in particular, have a disease called over-population. If we wish to cope with our annual floods and other socio-economic conundrums, while taking other factors into account, we have to address the root cause. We must stop breeding like rabbits. The obsession with ‘the more, the merrier’ will be an invite to a bigger disaster. ‘The fewer, the better’ is the way to our less bleak future if we care for the future at all. —

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