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December 7, 2020

Islands for elite capture?

Opinion

December 7, 2020

As if we didn’t already have enough controversies raging through the length and breadth of our society, another one has been added in the name of development.

Widespread protests and rallies have been going on all over Sindh after the establishment of the Pakistan Island Development Authority (PIDA) through a presidential ordinance in September 2020. The provincial assemblies of Sindh and Balochistan have also passed resolutions against it. The authority was created not by legislation in the National Assembly, but by an ordinance.

The ordinance requires PIDA to carry out works on islands for development of tourism, housing, industries and allied activities and attract investment for which vast powers have been granted to it.

The Authority’s jurisdiction extends over specified areas which shall ‘vest’ in the Authority; and it shall possess, control, and manage on behalf of the federal government. The areas specified in the First Schedule cover the Bundal and Buddo islands, while the Second Schedule covers other islands in the coastal provinces of Sindh and Balochistan, which some estimates put these to be over 300 big and small islands.

The resolutions passed by the Sindh and Balochistan assemblies expressed reservations against the move to transfer ownership and control over islands ‘vested’ in them without their consent and against their will to another entity.

Black’s law dictionary defines ‘to vest’ means to confer right of legal ownership. So, can ownership rights over property vested in an individual, or collectively in a family, a group, a community or people of a province be taken over and ‘vested’ in another entity whether federal, provincial or any other, without the owner’s consent and without following due processes laid down in the laws and constitution? And, further, can such executive vehicles be deployed to circumvent and alter the constitutionally mandated territorial administration of provinces?

The Authority has been created to promote tourism, housing and related activities on these islands and to attract investment. But tourism is a provincial subject and every province has a Tourism Development Corporation for that very purpose. Housing is also a provincial and even a municipal subject and all provinces and local government bodies of major cities have been developing housing directly or through development authorities like KDA, LDA, PDA, QDA and also encouraging the private sector by promoting housing societies.

So, why should provinces not be allowed to carry out their standard functions like tourism, housing, industrial estates etc, which they have been doing for decades within their areas of responsibility? Federal government’s help and assistance is always welcome but where and what kind of help is needed should better be left to be decided by the provinces and the two should work together in a cooperative manner.

There are other issues also arising from constructing houses, plazas, factories etc on the islands. These must be taken into account because they affect Pakistan’s international trade, port operations and safety of navigation in Port Qasim, mangrove forests, lives and livelihood of tens of thousands of fisherfolk and the city of Karachi, whose residents are already facing acute shortages of basic utilities like water, gas, electricity and other services.

Port Qasim is still in its first phase of development as it was founded in 1974. Its subsequent phases of deepening and widening its navigation channels, so far neglected, have to be undertaken for future growth of Pak trade, industry and international trade. Most ports in the region, like Singapore, Colombo, Dubai etc, are deep sea ports capable of handling much larger vessels than Port Qasim. It is most important to turn Port Qasim into a deep-sea port of the country because the Karachi port has limitations and the Gwadar deep sea port – a very good project – is a gateway to Central Asia and China and is a long distance away from our markets which are located along the main railway line going from Karachi through Sukkur, Multan, Lahore, and Rawalpindi to Peshawar.

I have been chairman of PQA and have visited these low-lying islands, parts of which get submerged during high tides. They lie close to shipping lanes. Laying down infrastructure to supply water, gas, electricity and other infrastructure for commercial housing, plazas, factories etc on these islands from the mainland would seriously jeopardize the safety of navigation and block future deepening and expansion of the port.

An experienced engineer has estimated that the costs of reclamation of these low-lying islands and laying of infrastructure to supply basic services would be so prohibitively expensive that the prices of the constructed houses and plazas would be beyond the purchasing power of one percent of our population.

Pakistan is signatory to the Ramsar Convention and the Kyoto Protocol and is obliged to protect and promote ecosystems and biodiversity of the area. The mangroves are nurseries for fish species. They protect the city from cyclonic furies and have been maintaining lives and livelihoods of tens of thousands of fisher folk for centuries. The pollution, chemicals and other toxins from thousands that will live in these houses and industrial waste from factories would kill and suffocate all animal life and trees there. And fisherfolk would suddenly find their centuries-old source of livelihood dead and disappear in the toxic waters and they and their children will be staring at a bleak future.

There has been talk of attracting foreign investment into the construction of island cities. Attracting investment into Pakistan is a welcome thing for me; I had established the Board of Investment in Pakistan in February 1989 for that very purpose. But investment in productive sectors of the economy like agriculture, industry and mineral resources of the country generates wealth, creates a variety of employment and business opportunities, adds to income of the people, expands the production base of the economy, adds value to our products and increases our exports.

It is this sequence of events that would help Pakistan rid itself of its mounting debt burden which is crippling our sovereign ability of decision-making. Attracting investment into the consumption of luxury housing would only add to our liabilities and we cannot afford to build a first world consumption society on a third world economy. Our begging bowl was also born when we started prioritizing consumption over production in our development strategy which has landed us into our current predicament. We should have been a member of the G-20 club like Indonesia and Brazil which had similar features; and a trillion dollar economy instead of stagnating at one-third of our potential.

This elitist model is also reflected in our urban planning. Instead of integrating people, what passes for ‘development’ has been built upon displacement of poor, weak and marginalized sections of society – by deceit, false promises and even use of force to eject from lands they have been living on for centuries. This predatory model of urban development has segregated people instead of integrating them and widened inequalities causing social, economic and political problems in society.

Two earlier attempts at island cities under different governments show that vested interests have their hooks into whichever party comes to power. Both attempts were, however, abandoned when real stakeholders put up resistance and pointed out the adverse effects as listed above. These islands should not be made available for elite capture again.

The writer designed the Board of Investment and the First Women’s Bank.

Email: [email protected]