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November 20, 2020

Sindh and the islands

Opinion

November 20, 2020

The federal government’s decision to establish an Island Authority through a presidential ordinance has continued to spark protests by Sindh’s nationalist and mainstream parties for the past two months.

The protest rally in Karachi over the weekend on Sunday, November 15 by the major alliance Sindh Action Committee, comprising Sindh-based parties outside parliamentary politics, saw a huge turnout of participants not seen since the 2018 elections. The island issue has galvanized the nationalist parties’ base.

Nationalists who did not do well in the general polls are now able to thrive on popular sentiment against the federal ordinance which was issued in secrecy, in complete absence of public debate, and it caught people by surprise when it surfaced in August. The ordinance was seen as an attempt to annex Sindh and Balochistan’s islands on their coastline, which under the existing Pakistan’s constitution fall under provincial jurisdiction.

In question are two major islands on Karachi’s coast, the Bundal and Buddoo islands. Spread over 12, 000 acres of land, these islands are home to mangroves and a natural defence line against cyclones and oceanic waves. If allowed to develop, the islands' city will be bigger than the present DHA in Karachi which is spread over 9,000 acres.

The fact is that the already rich civil and military bureaucracy does not face a housing shortage; it is the poorer sections of society across the country that lack access to affordable housing.

The ordinance, issued in August, has already landed in the Sindh High Court where the federal attorney general during the first hearing of the case admitted that ‘the islands are the property of the province’. This simple admission of the fact takes away ground for the federal government’s attempts to take away provincial resources for the commercial exploitation purposes.

The kind of overwhelming reaction that this ordinance has invited has come from four different stakeholders within Sindh. The most prominent political response came from the PPP, which rules Sindh, and also from Functional League MPAs. One lone PTI member of the Sindh Assembly from Ghotki, MPA Shahreyar Shar’s emotional speech has gone viral on social media platforms. Other PTI Sindhi-speaking elected officials have come under severe criticism and appear to be cornered. The PTI as a party does not seem to care much about losing its Sindhi vote bank in Badin, Jacobabad and Ghotki. Civil rights lawyer Shahab Usto, petitioner in this case, finds the Sindh Assembly resolution to be providing impetus and further legal grounds to his case in the court.

The second voice of reason has come from Karachi-based environmentalists, who rightly fear that the commercial development of islands will create long-lasting ecological problems for the delta, as both islands serve as a natural wall against cyclones, tsunamis. The islands have nearly 3,500 hectares of mangroves, and are part of the Indus delta, declared a protected area under the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Importance to which Pakistan is a signatory

The island project deprives local fishermen access to these islands and their fishing routes and access to the open sea, thus stealing away their livelihood. This is yet another case of how Pakistan’s disempowered working class people are dispossessed of their resources and means of survival. The fishermen and women are the third force against the islands’ commercial development. Thousands of fishermen families have been living in abject poverty because they have no alternative to economic options. The commercial development of these islands will dislocate the fisherfolk – and this is why the fiercest protest is being held and led by these communities and their representative bodies like the Pakistan Fisher Folk Forum.

The ordinance has added a fresh impetus to Sindh’s grievances in Pakistan’s unequal federation at a time when close to a hundred activists associated with various Sindhi political parties are missing, some even for years. There is resentment and rage against these disappearances; families of missing persons have been protesting for years without any results, and their painful ordeal and cries go unheard. A general sense of helplessness has deepened in Sindhi society because of these issues.

Overseas Sindhis have largely remained aloof from protest movements in Sindh, but the island takeover – and abduction of citizens – has alarmed them. These signs of discontent should be enough to wake up Pakistan’s unelected elements that call the shots and plan such unpopular policies in violation of the laws of the land.

Nationalist parties, which find it hard to win elections, now seem to have captured the opportunity and are radicalizing people around their narrative. Both the issues of island annexation and missing persons fit into their narrative of how Sindh and the Sindhi people are subject to state highhandedness and resource grab. The federal government and others who call the shots appear to be unmoved by these waves of the protest. If one listens to the political sermons of Syed Jalal Shah, Qader Magsi, Ayaz Latif Palijo and JSQM Chairman Sanan Qureshi, it is not hard to figure out where Sindh is headed – more political unrest and a deepening sense of deprivation which eventually could fuel dangerous divisions.

Activists, media and the civil society do not see this grab of the islands as a stand-alone issue, rather a process of overpowering the will of the people, and taking over their lawful right over their resources, and eventually paving the way for turning them into a minority in their historical province. These vocal voices cannot buy the development lollipop which does not include them, and tactically changes the ownership of the islands, and in-effect takes away territorial part of the province. This will have far more serious consequences for harmony, trust and coexistence in the country. Is it worth pursuing such self-serving development? And at what cost?

Email: [email protected]

Twitter @mushrajpar