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DAWN - Editorial; February 24, 2006

February 24, 2006

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Bush and South Asia

PRESIDENT George W. Bush’s remarks on India-Pakistan relations and the United States’ equations with these countries are of significance. Made on Wednesday at the Asia Society in Washington, the American leader’s observations are important also in view of their context. Next week Mr Bush will be visiting South Asia. The fact is that in the last few years a triangular relationship has emerged between the US, India and Pakistan which has profound implications for South Asian politics as well as American foreign policy. For the first time in several decades America’s ties with New Delhi and Islamabad have proved to be a stabilizing factor in India-Pakistan relations and have been a source of support for their peace process. The earlier pattern was for each of the two South Asian states to use an outside power to strengthen its own hand vis-a-vis its rival neighbour. This provided an opportunity to outside powers to manipulate international relations in South Asia and at times play off one against the other. Mercifully, there has been a positive change in the pattern of international relations in the region because of a change in American policy and a new climate in South Asia.

Mr Bush correctly observed that there was a time when there was so much distrust between India and Pakistan that when America had good relations with one, it made the other very unhappy and nervous. By working for peace and insisting that the two South Asian states resolve the conflict on Kashmir, President Bush has paved the way for a more tranquil South Asia thereby making it easier for Washington to pursue an effective foreign policy in the region. Apart from the changed world situation, the basic element which has made this possible is the fact that America has tried to adopt an evenhanded policy vis-a-vis India and Pakistan and has not been overly playing off one against the other. Thus, on the Kashmir issue, Mr Bush has been gently pushing the two sides to work for a settlement. In his speech on Wednesday, he categorically described the Kashmir dispute as a bilateral one in which he would not intervene. On the question of nuclear assistance to India, the American leader has proposed some conditions before technology would actually be transferred.

In these circumstances, India and Pakistan should also adjust to the changing times. With a strong tilt in public opinion in both countries in favour of peace and harmony, New Delhi and Islamabad should work on a bilateral level for the resolution of their disputes and differences. By joining hands together, they will be able to preempt any manipulation of international politics in South Asia by outside powers. They will also find themselves in a position to resist American pressures which are inevitable when Washington tries to have its own unilateral way. New Delhi has just experienced these pressures in the case of the Iranian nuclear crisis when it had to vote against Iran in the IAEA on American insistence. But jointly New Delhi and Islamabad have managed to ward off American pressures on the Iranian issue by continuing to pursue the Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline project. By adopting a judicious bilateral policy they can optimize the advantages they can gain from America’s new South Asian strategy.

Another outrage

THE bombing of the Imam Ali al-Hadi mausoleum in Samarra, Iraq, is yet another of those outrages that make no political point but only help stoke religious, particularly sectarian, tensions. The 1,000-year-old shrine is held in veneration by countless Muslims, and while leaders of the Shia community have urged peace and restraint, the incident comes at a time when Muslim sentiments are already inflamed over the cartoon controversy. It appears as if someone is interested in deliberately stoking religious passions to divert attention from political objectives, or, conversely, to provoke religious turbulence to further political objectives. In either case, Muslim societies need to be on guard. The current surge of fanaticism and right-wing fervour (even in several predominantly Christian countries) is taking a heavy toll of democratic values and civil liberties. In Pakistan, civil society seems to be in retreat before the new force acquired by the religious parties because of the cartoon episode. The parties are now clearly bent upon exploiting the hitherto dormant but increasing popular discontent over the government’s misgovernance and lack of action on problems of fundamental importance to the people.

The ruling party, by moving with the tide, appears to be unaware of the treacherous currents that swirl all round. If the reported reactivation of the Taliban in the Frontier regions is not seriously tackled, a new element will be added to an already volatile situation. The PML has proved itself to be too preoccupied with its own little political games and too pusillanimous to either comprehend the gravity of the challenges facing the country or to take bold steps to evolve a broad and inclusive strategy that could lessen the divisions and frustrations in society. A genuine national reconciliation is a prerequisite to creating an atmosphere where our pressing problems can be tackled with a measure of general agreement.

In support of quake victims

SIR Ben Kingsley, an Oscar winner who will always be remembered for his portrayal of Gandhi and who is currently in Pakistan working on a documentary on relief efforts in the quake-hit areas, said on Wednesday that he hoped the film would generate funds for quake survivors. Once shown on TV channels around the world, the documentary will remind people everywhere of the survivors’ continued plight as well as focus on how much more needs to be done. This is exactly the kind of initiative that is needed to ensure that the world does not forget about the devastation caused by the earthquake. Like many artistes and leaders who have toured the affected areas — from Angelina Jolie to Shabana Azmi of India — Mr Kingsley too believes that the world community should do more to help those in distress. His visit should also remind leaders at home that the overwhelming response witnessed in the immediate aftermath of the disaster has since dwindled and needs to be revived. For instance, one has not heard much about what became of the national volunteer movement since it was launched last year to help in relief operations. Making their efforts public will help encourage others to step forward in providing aid and assistance to the victims. The government can also start its own campaigns urging people to continue to help. One feels confident that other film-makers will be happy to offer their services in this regard.

It is imperative that we do not forget the plight of the survivors. Reports continue to speak of the lack of basic facilities at camps and in tent villages and the many challenges the people are facing in trying to pick up the thread of normal life. Women complain of not having female doctors to attend to their needs, children do not have schools to go to, and compensation has been slow to come. The threat of an epidemic outbreak or a second natural disaster looms large. The government must make concrete efforts to address the survivors’ immediate needs so as to avoid further misery.

The Kalabagh dam: the 1986 episode

By Vaseem Jafarey


THE controversy over the Kalabagh dam has abated somewhat, but conflicting views are still being expressed about what happened in the past. Letters and interviews published in newspapers put the blame on various persons and institutions.

Dr Mubashir Hasan holds the World Bank responsible for faulty design of the dam. In a letter to the editor in Dawn, a correspondent has alleged that the project was sabotaged by President Ayub Khan while another writer thinks that it was Ms Benazir Bhutto who was responsible for this. To dispel the confusion that now prevails, the government must open the archives on the history of the Kalabagh dam. As this may not happen soon, I venture to give my own recollections of how in 1986 the project was approved by government and was ready for implementation when, on the objections of the NWFP, action was deferred. The project has remained shelved since then.

The history of the Kalabagh project needs to be briefly recounted. A dam on the Indus at the Kalabagh gorge was included in the post-war reconstruction programme of the government of India before independence. After independence, work continued on investigations and design and feasibility of the dam. Kalabagh and Tarbela were both considered as feasible venues for the construction of a dam under the Indus Basin treaty replacement programme. Tarbela was preferred mainly because of a larger reservoir.

With the completion of Tarbela, the Kalabagh project became the highest priority. To expedite progress, the government obtained a grant of $25 million from the UNDP for preparation of a comprehensive project, including detailed design and feasibility. When the detailed project became available, the government approached the Soviet Union for assistance in construction of the project. The Soviets took some time before giving a negative response, which was to be expected in view of strained relations over Afghanistan. It was only at this stage that the World Bank’s assistance was sought. The bank agreed to lead and coordinate the financing of the project.

With the financing reasonably assured, the processing of the project through government commenced. In the central development working party, the project was approved, without dissent. As far as I can remember, only the Sindh government desired to put on record its concern that the downstream flow necessary to protect the delta should be ensured. In the ECNEC, the ministerial-level inter-governmental body, the project had smooth sailing until the NWFP, represented by the additional chief secretary, development, Mr Azam, raised certain questions affecting his province. Unfortunately, the finance minister, Dr Mahbubul Haq, who was presiding over the meeting, brushed aside Mr Azam’s concerns, saying that the project had taken care of all problems. The Kalabagh dam thus stood approved by the government.

When the World Bank was informed of the project’s approval, it inquired whether it should proceed and issue international tenders. Before a reply could be sent, prime minister Junejo summoned a meeting in Peshawar to consider the NWFP’s objections to the dam. The additional chief secretary addressed the meeting at length on the concerns of the NWFP. Of the many objections raised, the critical issue was that the dam would create a risk of flooding in Mardan and parts of Peshawar district. He proposed the construction of dykes around Nowshera and rise other cities. He then painted a grim picture of the life of the residents who would have to line behind the dykes, deprived of fresh air and walled in from all four sides.

Before these objections could be debated, NWFP chief minister Arbab Sikandar got up and submitted to the prime minister that if the project was implemented, he and his cabinet would resign. The prime minister had no option but to defer the project, and remit it for further consultation with the provinces. Sindh, which was already uneasy about the dam, now came out in open opposition of the project. Balochistan did the same, but more with a view to maintaining lower riparian solidarity than because of any serious concerns on the project.

The NWFP was most vociferous in opposing Kalabagh, but careful consideration would show that its objections were unsustainable. The most serious charge against the dam was that it would flood the Kabul River valley, including Nowshera and nine other cities. This apprehension was based on the worst flood on record in this area, which occurred in 1929, owing to the overflow of the Swat river. Technical studies showed conclusively that the construction of the dam would not cause any flooding in the Kabul river valley nor would it aggravate the effects of a 1929 type flood, originating from Swat. The outcry over flooding was provoked by egregious errors on the part of Wapda. Although the desk and model studies of the 1929 flood would have been enough, they Frontier decided to delineate the position on the ground.

I am told that a man was seen on the roof of a textile mill at Nowshera, who was chalking a black line on the highest part of the wall. Asked what he was up to, he replied that water would come up to this point after the dam was built. Wapda went further and drew up detailed plans for building dykes around Nowshera and nine other cities. The additional chief secretary’s evocation of the misery of the people, living behind the dykes, with no access to fresh air, proved a lethal blow to the credibility of the project. If the NWFP can be said to have killed the project, the weapons were provided by Wapda.

Other points raised by the NWFP could be easily disposed of for instance, there is no prospect of Mardan getting waterlogged because the highest reservoir level of the Kalabagh dam would be 40 feet below the lowest point in Mardan. It is true that the dam would lead to displacement of population in the Frontier, but the number to be displaced was nearly one-third of those uprooted by Tarbela against which the NWFP had not protested.

Dr Mubashir Hasan has stated that the dam was so designed by the World Bank that it would flood the Kabul river valley. The consultants who designed the project had been recruited by the UNDP, and they were not working under directions from the World Bank. It is also not clear what the World Bank would have gained from deliberately misdesigning a major project and causing havoc in the NWFP. I may add that when the controversy erupted, we informally consulted Mr S S Kirmani, the well-known irrigation expert, who thought that the dam was well designed and that the height of the dam could be raised a further 10 feet to increase the hydro output without endangering upstream areas.

It is ironic that the Kalabagh Dam, at the investigation stage, was headed by a distinguished engineer from the NWFP. It is incredible that he should have devoted so many years working on a project which was likely to cause severe damage to his home province. Sindh had more substantive grounds for opposing the project. There is a genuine concern that reduction in the downstream flow because of the dam upstream would cause serious damage to Sindh, such as intrusion of the sea. The supporters of the dam have argued that there is enough water to meet both the dam’s requirements and the minimum needs of the downstream areas. It is asserted that if the Kalabagh dam is not built, a substantial quantity of water would continue to go to waste into the sea.

There has been a prolonged debate on the complex technical issues relating to the downstream effects of the dam. Committees have been set up and investigations undertaken, but the experts have not been able to reach a consensus. A possible solution, if the provinces agree would be to refer the matter to arbitration by neutral foreign experts.

There are deeper reasons, often unspoken, which have aroused hostility to the Kalabagh project in the three provinces. Firstly, there is the psycho-political perception in the smaller provinces that Punjab, with a population larger than that of the other three put together, dominates the country’s politics and development.

The Kalabagh dam, irrespective of its merits, has become a symbol of the supremacy of the dominant province at the expense of the rest. It is imperative for all provinces and sections of society (and not politicians alone) to give serious thought to the removal of genuine grievances and to dispel the existing suspicions and distrust. As a lot of our people have cause for unhappiness, because of widespread poverty and deprivation, it is easy to blame a province or a foreign power.

The failure to resolve the problem of distribution of water among the provinces is a major cause of the dispute. The absence of an agreed formula for distribution of water will also obstruct new irrigation projects on the Indus river system. When Tarbela was under construction, the president had appointed the former chief justice of the Supreme Court Mr Fazle Akbar, to evolve a formula for sharing water among the provinces.

Since Mr Fazle Akbar was from the former East Pakistan, it was rightly expected that he would be free from any bias in dealing with the provinces in West Pakistan. Justice Fazle Akbar submitted his report in 1970. For reasons, which the records would show, the report was not acted upon, nor was it made public. Since then, the issue has remained unsettled. The 1991 agreement was half-baked, as it evaded a resolution of the Kalabagh dam project. A curious feature of the events of 1986 was that the all-powerful president Ziaul Haq took no interest in the mega-project, which his successor in office considers vital for the future of the country.

A final word about the national water problem: most of Pakistan is in the arid zone. The ratio of arable land to the total geographical area is 25 per cent, as against 50 per cent in India, and over 70 per cent in western Europe. Pakistan’s water resources are woefully inadequate for the country’s size and the population’s needs. Dams do not add to the total quantity of water available in the country, they merely transfer stored water from one season to the next. Dams are, therefore, not an ultimate solution to the problem.