Fasting to Death Amongst the Heat-Waves in Pakistan
by Tarteel Rao
Gokal Das covered in blood after he was attacked for eating biryani during Ramadan
Photo from Facebook
Ramadan is a holy month of Islam that is strictly practiced in Pakistan, and people fast from sunrise until sunset. Streets that otherwise have a vibrant environment, courtesy of the enormous street-food culture in Pakistan, tend to look empty. Road-side restaurants, stalls, and street vendors are all found closed, as people wait until sunset for the normal life to resume. There is also an apparent intolerance, irritability, and impatience than can be observed in the social behavior of many people, due to fasting, especially in the hot weather of Pakistan. In such an instance during Ramadan, Gokul Das, a 90 years old Hindu man, who was not obligated to fast neither because of his religion nor because of his age, sat outside his house. He had a plate of food placed in front of him, that was given to him in charity...
Ignorant of the Ehteram-e-Ramadan ordinance severity that forces people to stop eating and drinking publicly during Ramadan, Gokul Das developed an audacity to eat his food 40 minutes before the sunset. It may be the consideration of him being elderly enough to break the law, or it could be the fact that he was Hindu and didn't follow Islam that compelled him to commit such a crime of eating during Ramadan. In an expectation of leniency towards his age and values, he started eating outside his house, but to his surprise, he was confronted with a policeman.

There have been several instances in which people were beaten up for merely eating or drinking water in Pakistan. In one instance, a security guard was beaten bloody by fasting men for eating in a private area during fasting time. In another case, a crew of journalists were beaten up by clerics and their camera was thrashed when a member of the crew drank water publicly during fasting timings.

"I was smoking inside my car when a police officer stopped me and pulled me out of my car by grasping my collar. He was furious that I was hurting his feelings by smoking a cigarette, while he was fasting. He wanted to arrest me, but eventually let me go when I apologized several times" said Rab Nawaz, a social activist and a lawyer.

"I bought biscuits from a bakery as there was nothing much available to eat during fasting hours, and I sat in my car to eat them secretly, but people started staring at me with threatening gazes, and a man knocked on my car's window and asked me to be ashamed of myself" said Maria Yasin, an air hostess in Pakistan International Airlines.

Despite the intricacies and severity of Ehteram-e-Ramadan ordinance, the social behavior that has shaped up with a law backing it is something to be cautious about. Ramadan is a month that is supposed to enlighten patience and tolerance amongst Muslims, but the social behavior that has constructed in Pakistan seems to be the opposite. People tend to look impatient, traffic jams, traffic casualties and road accidents increase in the month of Ramadan, as reported by Dawn.

"Even if the law forbids people to eat or drink during Ramadan, who are these social vigilantes to beat people up and take law in their hands?" Maria Yasin added.

Heat Wave of Karachi in 2015

In June 2015, 1200 people died in Karachi and 2000 people died in the province of Sindh when a disastrous heat wave struck in Pakistan. According to New York Times, more than 14000 people were admitted in hospitals due to this heatwave. Although, there have been other heat waves that occurred in Sindh region of Pakistan, the one of 2015 remains the most fatal in numbers of casualties.

The severity of this heat wave was intense and the temperature rose about 40 degrees Celsius in affected parts of Sindh. The biggest morgue in Karachi could not cope with receiving new bodies as they received over 900 dead people just in eight days.

So, why did Karachi and Sindh have to lose so many lives? Was it because of the harsh temperature or were there other external factors that aided in the deaths? The answer isn't utterly clear but it can be attributed to the cumulative effect of the following factors that led to so many deaths.

Power Cuts

The frequent electricity load-shedding is one of the primary reasons that escalated the catastrophic heat wave as it deprived people of the resources to deal with the heat. The provincial government has highly been criticized for not managing the crisis properly and allowing the power cuts that further exacerbated the situation.

"It's so difficult to survive even inside your house in the summer, because there are so many power cuts. Without fans or coolers, my house seems like an oven. And without electricity, we don't even get water to drink or shower," says Altaf Hussain, a security guard.

"It is still easy for people who can afford generators, inverters and air conditioners. I cannot imagine how people with no solution to power cuts survive in the summer," says Maria Yasin.

The ongoing problem of electricity shortage in Pakistan is one of the biggest challenge for the country. Not only does it make it extremely difficult for people to survive heat, but also disrupts business activities, routine life and shaves around 2% of the country's annual growth.

Another big problem that power cuts cause is the absence of water. In Pakistan, most households get water through electric motors that pumps the water in the tanks, and with the electricity power cuts, people are deprived of water. Also, it becomes hard for people to take shower and have cold water as fridges nearly stop working with the constant load-shedding.

Government's Careless Attitude

Another apparent reason that led to the casualties of such a high number was the callous attitude shown by the government. No prior warning or forecast was put forth to warn civilians about the heatwave. Furthermore, when the heatwave had started to show its first signs, there were still no actions to eradicate power cuts, at least temporarily. There were no camps or cooling centers that should have been immediately set up for the people suffering from heat outside their houses.

"Most incidents could be dealt better and this was one of them. Our government moved slowly in addressing the misery of public, and we should have taken some concrete actions as well", says Saeed Jamsa, a Former Media Coordinator of the Government's media cell in 2015.

"It was outrageous that the dominant figures in government chose to fly out of the country during the heatwave instead of taking necessary measures. If these people flee away from Karachi, then how can you expect common people to survive without electricity and water?" laments Zulfiqar Farrukh, a media expert and former Director of Pakistan Television National.

The Ramadan Factor

One major factor that added to the intensity of situation was the fact that the heatwave occurred during the month of Ramadan. In many instances people were fasting from sunrise until sunset and were refraining to eat and drink which resulted in severe dehydration. Even people who were not fasting suffered heavily, as all road-side restaurants and food vendors were closed until evening, and people didn't have easy access to food and water.

Adding up to the Ramadan factor is the Ramadan ordinance that forces people to avoid eating and drinking during fasting hours in Ramadan irrespective of their wishes, nationality and religion. So, people who had availability of food and water could not drink or eat publicly as well.

"I work as a mechanic for repairing air conditioners and my work requires physical labor, so fasting is a luxury I can't afford if I am to earn my bread. However, I have been threatened and beaten up twice when I was merely drinking water during fasting hours," says Hassan Zahid, an air conditioner mechanic.

"I need to hide to drink something as basic as water. Being an air hostess, you need extra hydration because of the nature of my work that requires extra verbal communication", Maria Yasin adds.

Similar Heat Waves

There have been similar heat waves in 2010 and 2017 that have struck Karachi and the Sindh region of Pakistan. In fact, the recorded temperatures were higher than the heatwave of 2015 in some affected areas as the temperature exceeded 50 degrees Celsius in some cities. Also, the power cuts and lack of initiatives of government have been similar during these heatwaves but there were hardly any casualties reported. Ramadan is the most distinguished factor that was apparently different and caused so many casualties in 2015.

New York Times reported that most of the dead were homeless, drug addicted or people coming from poor backgrounds. Majority of people involved in physical labor work, street hawkers, homeless people, and mechanics rely on road-side restaurants, stalls and places for drinking water and eating food. Therefore, most of the people that were affected the greatest and lost their lives were homeless, laborers, and street hawkers who got heat-strokes because of severe dehydration.

"More than the negligence of government, it was due to Ramadan that so many people lost their lives. In routine life without Ramadan, many people give charity of food to needy people; there are lines of people outside many street restaurants where needy people get food in charity. There are many holy shrines that offer massive Langars (charity food) and many people are reliant on them for their food and water. However, none of the charity food and water was available during Ramadan until evening hence people got extremely dehydrated", explains Saeed Jamsa.

Considering the severity of situation of Pakistan as well as the protection of basic human rights, the presence of Ehteram-e-Ramzan in a democratic country is debatable, especially after what happened in the heatwave of June 2015. In fact, there has been an amendment in Ehteram-e-Ramzan in 2017 according to which the monetary penalty for hotel owners to violate Ramadan ordinance has increased from 500 to 25,000 rupees. Therefore, following the unfortunate events that happened in June 2015, Pakistani government has made the law even stricter instead of repealing it.

According to The Nation, hotel owners, who were operating their hotels during fasting hours were arrested, as well as 100 people who were caught violating Ramadan ordinance were sent to jail within the city of Lahore. Furthermore, the bill imposes a fine of 500 rupees and a prison sentence of up to three months for people found eating, drinking or smoking during Ramadan.

"It is unbelievable how basic human rights are being violated and people seem to be in favor of losing their own rights in the name of this ordinance. Religion is something very personal and you cannot take away someone's individual liberty to fulfill their basic needs just because a certain group of people think they should not eat or drink" says Rab Nawaz, a leading human rights activist.

"This just cannot be in the legislation. This law is against evolution and it's against democracy. Forcing people to starve and jailing them for drinking water and eating food and proclaiming yourself to be a progressive democratic nation instead of a theocracy is the highest kind of hypocrisy and signs of a flawed state" adds Zulfiqar Farrukh.

Another strange aspect of this law is that it imposes hunger and dehydration on people who are foreigners, minorities and not Muslims at all. Nils Heininger, A German journalist who has worked in Pakistan says: "I respect the values and customs of this country, even though it's a little awkward that one cannot eat or drink during fasting hours. However, it would really shock me if my own country had such a ridiculous law, and of course I would contest it fully".

Regarding Ehteram-e-Ramzan, Bakhtawar Bhutto, a leading human rights activist and a daughter of former president Asif Ali Zardari tweeted: "People are going to die of the heat stroke and dehydration with this ridiculous law. Not everyone is able. This is not Islam". Following this tweet, she received heavy criticism which compelled her to elaborate and clarify herself.

So, why is it that most people in Pakistan react furiously for something that promotes their own basic rights? How can Ehteram-e-Ramzan be repealed? "Islam is a very sensitive topic in Pakistan, and religion is something that people are intolerant about, and anything that is deemed to discourage or criticize any teaching or law even remotely related to religion enrages people. The only way to deal with this is to give people exposure and slowly change their mindset", comments Rab Nawaz.

Ramadan ordinance has been in place since 1981 and it's debatable whether it's a byproduct of the socio-political extreme behavior or the other way around. Anyway, the repealing of laws such as Ramadan ordinance are extremely important to save human rights, minority rights and encourage tolerance in Pakistani society. Otherwise, there may be many other cases to follow where people could get tortured for merely drinking water or eating, as it was in the case of Gokul Das.
About the author: Tarteel is an award winning actor, novelist and journalist from Pakistan. He has authored the book 'Of Errors and I' and is currently writing his second novel. He has worked for Pakistan Television as an actor and journalist. He also worked for an NGO 'Khudi Pakistan' as a journalist and theatre director. Tarteel plans on becoming a documentary journalist and wants to report on social issues.

Tarteel Rao
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