There has recently been a heart wrenching story in the news of mass suicides by thousands of Indian Punjabi farmers under the burden of unpaid debt of state and private lenders. A major canal that irrigates those unfortunate lands has become a suicide site, and bloated dead bodies are collected by the bereaved families at a sluice gate called Khanauri Sluice. Khanauri is a small hamlet on the Punjab-Haryana border. One can imagine the agonizing anticipation with which relatives must await the arrivals of their drowned men. Human misery and corresponding criminality of those responsible, know no borders. It is happening in India, and it has just begun for a different reason in Pakistan. Our sluice is different and far more gruesome.

The resilience of our people is astounding; in the face of disasters created in political and economic corridors, to those that arrive naturally- earthquakes, floods, hunger and disease- the trials we are faced with are boundless. Few realize that due to the opposition to the polio vaccine, we will eventually be labeled polio infected, and our remaining tourism will vanish, exports will dwindle and travel abroad will become far more problematic than it is now. This health issue could literally make us the lepers of the global community. Let us be clear: this is not paranoia. This is a dispassionate assessment of where we are headed.

Congo virus, Ebola, bird flu and Hepatitis B are some of the epidemics waiting in the wings. And still, we lead fake and ineffective vaccination campaigns, relentlessly pollute our entire river systems with untreated city effluents, with raw sewage and arsenic laced chemicals. Our environment officials are quick to raid brick kilns for easy graft but they hardly touch large factories and posh housing societies spewing poison to the air and water, discharging untreated sewage into fresh water streams and natural drainage systems. Even in the federal capital, there is hardly a single sewage treatment plant. The filthy Lye Nullah serves as a master sewer for the twin cities. Because of the mindless pollution of our river waters, the arsenic and chemicals in our underground water aquifers have risen to dangerous levels. Due to this, kidney disease in Pakistan is on the rise and the incidence of cancer has increased dramatically leading to ever more deaths, and ever more expensive treatment options for the poor who pour into hospitals without the resources to treat them affordably.

The results of state apathy are emotionally devastating. This is virtually mass murder. This is why Imran Khan and Tahirul Qadri seem to have touched a raw and painful nerve in the country. One is amazed at the pomposity and the epic state of denial of the political leadership, judiciary and the bureaucracy who continue to play down and dismiss their agitation as a passing phase, and it will cost them dearly in moral and material terms.

A handful of philanthropists offering free cancer treatment, dialysis or hosting free food services here and there is not enough and it does not take away the state’s responsibility towards its underprivileged citizens. Seemingly “grand” initiatives like income support, free laptops and prestigious highways are not an appropriate response and do not work well when most fellow countrymen go without food, shelter, medicine, clean drinking water and a decent job. From a crushed and brutalized mass like that, none should expect socially responsible living, non criminality and a charitable view of their leadership. Why should hungry people be expected to uphold ideologies like democracy, and rush to save abstract notions of the political process? It’s so much easier to talk philosophy on a full stomach.

The people of this country want to be delivered from poverty, disease, hunger, illiteracy and injustice. They want their children to be healthy, clean, fed, schooled and safe. These are basic needs all over the world. They don’t want rural mothers committing collective suicides alongside their children because they could not feed them. They don’t want their girls gang raped by the sons of influential men and watch them go scot free while the victim immolates herself in the village square. The last Czar of Russia was shot into ignoble oblivion along with his family in a nameless forest of Russia without even a decent burial. He too was a mighty potentate with immense imperial power, palaces and treasures. He too moved regally with thousands of cavalry men clearing the route before him, shooing people away like pests. There are lessons here for those who wish to learn.

Let us do a serious soul search before the dam breaks, and we have to collect more bodies than we can bear.

 The writer is a freelance columnist.