ZULFIKARABAD is emerging as yet another contentious project. Political parties, civil society and local communities of the coastal talukas of Thatta have already embarked upon a movement that barely received attention in the mainstream media.
The government, maintaining its trait of launching mega development projects without considering their social, environmental and political ramifications, swung into action by securing land in the area for the project, which has riled local communities. Zulfikarabad, originally named Jheruk, was first heard of in 2009. The scheme was later relocated further south to include the Jati, Shah Bunder, Keti Bunder and Kharo Chhan talukas of Thatta district. An autonomous body, the Zulfikarabad Development Authority (ZDA), has been established to steer the project. The authority enjoys rare powers of approving any scheme even without seeking approval from the provincial planning and development department.
A high-powered executive committee of ZDA has been empowered to take decisions. The Sindh chief secretary would be just an ordinary member of the authority, ceremonially chaired by the chief minister and practically operated by the managing director, currently an ex-serviceman. The authority, in violation of the rules, has been accorded extraordinary powers. This is probably the only development scheme of its kind for which key decisions are taken in meetings chaired by the president of Pakistan.
This intriguing institutional set-up reflects an indecent haste on the government’s part to start the project. In the last year of this government’s tenure, efforts to get the project going are gaining momentum.
In a bid to expedite the project, the government has even violated project management guidelines of the Planning Commission. The guidelines require the Executive Committee of the National Economic Council (Ecnec) to approve any project worth more than Rs500m. When the Musharraf government implemented the Greater Thal Canal project without prior Ecnec approval, the PPP, then in opposition, criticised the general for violating public-sector development protocols.
The coastal strip is globally considered an enticing location for commercial investments such as in housing, tourism, industry and trade. The most expensive residential schemes are developed along coastal towns and cities. According to some estimates, approximately three billion people on earth live within 200km of the coast and 14 out of the 17 biggest cities of the world are located on the coastline.
However, development often materialises at the cost of indigenous communities. In this backdrop, there have been concerns regarding the social and environmental implications of the Zulfikarabad scheme. Involuntary displacement of thousands of people from coastal villages is apparently afoot. A meeting chaired by the president in January was told that the project would require over 1.3 million acres of land in the four coastal talukas of Thatta district. About one million acres of the earmarked land is presently under the sea and would require mammoth amount of money to reclaim.
The Sindh Land Management and Development Company has been established to acquire land for the project. The company did not waste time in occupying 200,000 acres by declaring it illegally occupied. The action prompted protests by local fishing communities, settled in the area for generations. Members of civil society and political organisations supported the poor, voiceless fishing communities and eventually the government had to stop land occupation.
China has shown keen interest in the scheme. Delegations of Chinese investors frequently meet the president to lobby for major contracts in the project. The president recently visited China and the two countries signed an MoU to implement the project through Chinese companies. However, the Chinese possess a questionable record of forced displacement when it comes to executing mega infrastructure projects. The Three Gorges dam project in China dislodged over one million people.
High-value projects promise to bring in hefty profits and poor communities become their casualty in numerous ways. Pakistan does not have an impressive track record in this context. Resettlement of a few thousand people of much smaller projects like the Chotiari reservoir reeked of massive embezzlement and nepotism. Hence the desperate plight of the would-be displaced communities of Zulfikarabad is a foregone conclusion.
Also, coastal cities are not considered salubrious locations anymore. Environmental hazards and coastal disasters have made such cities more vulnerable. The Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 and of Japan in 2011 provide ample evidence of the vulnerability of coastal cities.
Tourism, industry, shipping and aquaculture are some of the prime areas of interest for investors. The natural ecosystem is gradually encroached upon and eventually replaced by concrete and steel in such areas. Countries hit by the 2004 tsunami had developed shrimp farming into a $9bn industry by erasing mangrove forests in vast swathes. The massive wave of destruction caused by the tsunami dwarfed all economic gain that the shrimp industry claimed.
According to some figures, previously the Sindh coast witnessed an average of four cyclones a century. However, the frequency and intensity of cyclones have increased manifold and the period between 1971-2001 records 14 cyclones. From 2001 to 2010 two high-intensity cyclones narrowly missed the Sindh coast. Thus Zulfikarabad would be exposed to serious natural hazards.Looking at the shambolic infrastructure and substandard quality of services in Sindh, one wonders why these resources cannot be channelled to improve the existing system. Most of the province is devoid of vehicle-worthy highways, link roads and basic infrastructure in secondary cities. Drinking water and sanitation facilities are not available in large parts of big cities. Thousands of schools and health centres are without basic facilities. In this backdrop the decision to build another big city lacks prescience.
The writer is chief executive of the Strengthening Participatory Organisation.