PAKISTAN: Government buries head in the sand as thousands die of heat stroke

Karachi, Pakistan’s largest metropolis and port city and home to 20 million people, continues to suffer mass heat stroke deaths. Adding to the deaths being caused by bullets and bombs, nature has unleashed its fury upon the citizens of Karachi, with temperatures soaring to 45 degrees Celsius. Within the past four days, 1,200 people are reported to have died.

The total figure of deaths is unknown, as many deaths have gone unreported, such as those occurring at home or in private clinics. The current heat wave has caused the highest recorded temperatures in Karachi since 1979. According to official figures, 1,040 people have died in Karachi since Saturday, and 76 in other parts of Sindh. The Jinnah Postgraduate Medical Centre, the largest government hospital, has recorded 329 deaths since June 20. An official in the provincial health department has been quoted in a Dawnreport as saying that more than 42,000 people were hit by the punishing heatwave in Sindh, 38,000 of them in Karachi alone.

The heat wave has exposed Karachi’s structural flaws and lack of reliable disaster management system. Citizens are miserable with neither room in hospitals for the living, nor in cemeteries for the dead. There are also no ambulances available to carry either the sick or the dead. Government hospitals are reporting more than 50 deaths each day due to the heat wave. People are using their influence and bribes to find a place to bury their loved ones. Most of the deceased are elderly, infirm, or homeless. The City’s civic system has collapsed. There is no electricity or water, and this affects those living in slums most, as there is little ventilation in such colonies. State run hospitals are overwhelmed, and are relying on volunteers and donors for ice, water, and even spare beds. Family members of patients are being forced to arrange for their own medicine and cold water.

The State appears to have disappeared while the people of Karachi are dying; government officials and political leaders have indeed visited dying patients, but mainly for photo ops. The Sindh government has responded to the disaster by announcing a one-day public holiday instead of declaring emergencies at hospitals. The State’s inability to deal with the effects of this natural calamity has left the people to their own devices. Various State departments are passing the buck in a blame game, each trying harder to exonerate itself. The people are being denied their right to life and dignity. Frequent power failure and absence of running water has left Karachi residents at the mercy of ice-sellers, gravediggers, and water tank mafia. According to a 25 June Reuters report by Syed Raza Hassan, “Decades of chronic neglect by successive civilian governments or military regimes have gutted social services like health and education.”

A high level meeting chaired by Chief Minister Qaim Ali Shah, decided on the early closure of shops, marriage halls, and restaurants, a one-day government holiday, and a protest sit-in against K-Electric, the city’s power supply company, and the Federal government. Earlier, the Chief Minister ordered the closure of schools and colleges, even though most of these institutions are already shut for the summer break. The Federal Minister for power and energy Khuwaja Asif claims that the government is not responsible if there is a water shortage in Karachi. With the state unable to mobilize its own resources, Army and Pakistan Rangers’ units have been deployed to help those suffering through the crisis.

In the landmark judgment of Shehla Zia vs. WAPDA, the Supreme Court of Pakistan has interpreted the right to life as “a constitutional obligation of the state which a state has to perform very diligently. A person is protected to enjoy his personal rights and to be protected from encroachments on such personal rights, freedom and liberties. Any action taken which may create hazard of life will be encroaching upon the personal rights of a citizen to enjoy the life according to law.” A total of 21 years have elapsed since this judgment, with no signs of improvement in State functioning.

The apathy and haplessness of the State underpins the massive corruption within the State machinery. The collapse of infrastructure and law and order in Pakistan’s largest city should serve as warning signs for the current government, which is loathe to see the true state of affairs in the country. For the past three years, the people of the Thar region in Sindh have been suffering from famine and drought, with many children dying of malnutrition. The State response has been that the Thar children have always been malnourished and drought is a natural calamity that the government cannot do anything about.

Another heat wave is expected to hit Karachi today, Monday, but the government has no action plan to deal with the situation. All the deaths so far could have been prevented with timely medical care and electricity. Each year the power crisis gets worse, while the government does nothing. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is expected to chair a high level meeting on the power shortage, as the people of Karachi face frequent power outages during the month of Ramazan, the Muslim holy month of fasting. The State cannot exonerate itself from due diligence; the private sector with limited capacity cannot be expected to take charge as the State buries its head in the sand.

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About AHRC:The Asian Human Rights Commission is a regional non-governmental organisation that monitors human rights in Asia, documents violations and advocates for justice and institutional reform to ensure the protection and promotion of these rights. The Hong Kong-based group was founded in 1984.

Document Type : Statement
Document ID : AHRC-STM-101-2015
Countries : Pakistan,
Issues : Right to food, Right to life,