Mises Daily Articles
Lands of Catastrophe: The Case of India and Pakistan
Less than a year after a Tsunami killed approximately 275,000 people in the poorer part of Asia,1 another 80,000 have died in Pakistan and India from an earthquake that hit on 8 October 2005.2 An estimated 3.3 million are now homeless in the harsh winter of the region.
Close to a million are still sleeping in the open — all at risk of dying — while the states of India and Pakistan each work to ensure that no territory is lost to the other in this long fought-over region. They will not even allow separated families on either side of the border to meet or even telephone.
For imperialist rulers, it is the land — not people — that matters. In the same vein, on 18 October, terrorists killed a state minister in the Indian part of Kashmir to prove that they were still active.
Millions suffer every year in the subcontinent from a cycle of horrible floods and water shortages. Millions die of easily and cheaply treatable diseases. Hundreds of thousands die like flies — and nature gets the blame.
Why is it that so many people die in these countries while the West hardly ever suffers from such problems? (Not even the flooding of New Orleans can compare.) Any layman should be able to correlate the facts to see that it does not have much to do with nature.
Facts will continue to come to light on the Kashmir catastrophe, but for the moment let us take a quick look at how much these disasters result from the wrath of nature, and how much is really the result of human arrogance and stupidity.
Environmentalism Against the Environment
When I was a kid, my family loved to travel to the mountains in the north of India. There were beautiful wooden houses everywhere. There was ample wood around, which was cheap, strong, and readily available. More importantly the skill developed over a period of generations was helpful to construct houses that absorbed shocks. Wood does not fall apart as easily as concrete does when an earthquake strikes, and it is a lot less heavy.
But that was then. We soon got "environmentalists" who called themselves saviors of the trees. They started haranguing everyone about how quickly forests were disappearing, and the price of wood went through the roof. People no longer owned their own trees.
To "make the nation strong," the state of India controlled the cement industry. They ensured that heavily subsidized cement was readily available in the mountains, while in the plains it was available only in the black market and at an exorbitant price. Within a decade the mountains were covered by ugly cement buildings. Cement houses were far less insulated and, in a final irony, they needed more wood for heating. So much for saving the trees.
(Many of these same "environmentalists" called for state intervention on behalf of the poor. As a result, the state provided huge subsidies on the supply of cooking gas, which ended up making it unavailable to the poor because the middle class bought it all up. This is another reason why more wood got burnt away.)
The cement houses crumbled whenever the ground shook. While the "environmentalists" and the state destroyed the natural order, the void in the construction industry was filled by corrupt bureaucrats. Most of the cement houses were made without any architectural supervision. The so-called "architects" in these countries mostly act as liaisons to bribe city bureaucrats to approve a house after the householder has built it himself. (As a high school student, I "designed" and supervised construction of my parents' house). These buildings were not designed to absorb the shock of earthquakes.
Nothing To Show for the Million Troops Stationed in Kashmir
Kashmir is one of the world's most militarized zones. The two sides (India and Pakistan) are ever alert for a war. Each is believed to have the system and the roads to respond to any provocation from the other side. To enable them to prepare for war, Pakistan and India spend 3.9% and 2.5% of their GDPs respectively. The population of all of Jammu and Kashmir is about 11 million people (less than 1% of the combined population of India and Pakistan). The total deployed troops are a million strong.3
Any sensible person would go crazy if he gave a few minutes to these numbers. Should the rescue work not have taken place almost instantaneously?
The people of Kashmir are obviously not the primary concern. The territory of Kashmir, which both countries try to claim, is one of the most wretched and abused parts of the subcontinent. Families have lived divided by an artificial border, and terrorists have filled up the gap to fight for their cause. They have of course become the worst exploiters.
Kashmir has the world's most militarized border, and many parts are accessible only by helicopter. There should have been plenty of everything for rescue operations after the earthquake struck. And what do they have there now? They are scrambling for lack of service personnel to carry out emergency services. Where are the million strong? Why did yet another incompetent state — the USA, which itself failed to provide assistance to its people during the New Orleans crisis — had to supply helicopters?
I lived in Bhopal when the Union Carbide gas leakage took place. For more than a month after the disaster, there was no state present. They sent self-righteous commands from hundreds of miles away. This is not untypical. In peacetime, the collectivists make a show of unity for their own selfish purposes; but in a crunch, we are individuals and we care more about ourselves and our friends and families. The more collectivist the society, the worse the problem is, because collectivism itself breeds irresponsible, unethical people. The state radio ignored what was happening and tried to convince us that everything was all right when there was death all around us.
Late in the 1980s, I had just left Bhopal when our train went off the rails. Derailed, the train cars plowed over farms like a rollercoaster. People were crying for God. The train eventually stopped with no one seriously injured. The train was still within the city limits, yet emergency services were nowhere to be seen. Much later that night, an empty train came to take us back to the station. At the station we were without any facilities all night; about 16 hours later we started for Bombay. Only one senior officer came during all this time, and that was to try to convince us which of his senior colleagues were at fault.
Lesson number one: the people in these countries should have learned long ago is that when the crisis strikes, the state disappears.
As a kid, I remember the elders discussing why we needed martial law or a dictatorship to get over our problems, or why we should have a war with Pakistan to unite us as a nation. Lesson number two: human stupidity has no limits.
There is a Muslim majority in Kashmir. They do not have an entrepreneurial culture. The minority Hindus do. Over the past few decades, the majority has been systematically ousting the minority — creating unemployment for themselves. Lesson number three: culture can trump self-interest.
There was a recent news item — published in most media around the world — about the growing camaraderie among the Indian and Pakistani troops in the aftermath of the earthquake. Those who had fought an ugly battle for the last six decades and tried to take potshots at each other to celebrate their birthdays (yes, this is true) are suddenly brothers! Lesson number four: the media will romanticize whatever they can.
Lesson number five: Millions will continue to die, suffer, and live in utter misery, and the people of these countries will keep electing the same rulers. The culprits and the victims are the same; they only change positions.
Lesson number six: leftists in the West will keep blaming globalization and the free market for all these problems.