“For the sustenance of my country, I am prepared to take any kind of criticism,” former chief justice Saqib Nisar said in response to a question at the Lahore Literary Festival (LLF) where he was invited to speak on a panel discussing Pakistan’s water scarcity problem. The audience erupted into applause and cheers.
Hall 1 of the Alhamra Arts Council was considerably packed on Friday evening, and it was evident that many in the audience had come to see Justice (retired) Nisar. There was applause for him at every juncture, and he was swarmed by well-wishers even as he made his exit.
“[I am prepared to take criticism] whether the direction issued for the making of this dam is a bad action on part of SC and myself, or it’s a good action for the people of Pakistan in the future.”
The question was about judicial overreach and the criticism that has been directed at the ex-CJP since he retired in January this year. Although the moderator of the panel, environmental journalist Rina Saeed Khan, had requested that questions be limited to water scarcity only, it was inevitable that politics would creep into the session.
One fan from Azad Kashmir who couldn’t contain his admiration took the mic during the Q &A segment and made an impassioned speech lauding the judge. “Why didn’t any politician or leader take up this [dam building] cause? Why did they have to wait for you? Didn’t they feel the pain that you felt? I hope that you keep this up post-retirement,” he said. The retired judge thanked him for his compliments.
When Khan asked him what he advises the government to proceed considering only some of the targeted amount has been raised, Nisar said: “We never thought this money would be sufficient to complete the project.”
“We wanted to create awareness and make people understand how important it is. If through this donation we are able to generate another Rs15 billion then that is an achievement. This money was never intended to be used 100% for building. [Through these funds] it really became a campaign.” He said when he proposed the idea of the dam fund at a conference, people were excited.
“People have been coming to me to donate their entire lives’ pension. Small children came to me. There was a jazba. I’m sure it will continue. We have suggested how this fund can be raised with treasury bills and bonds etc.” At the opening of the session, Nisar made a speech about how the idea of the dam fund came to him and defended his creation of the fund.
“This is directly connected to the right of life. The constitution says if it is a question of fundamental rights then the Supreme Court has the unfettered right to enforce that right for public good. [Under this clause] I Issued a direction to the government for the purpose of the fundamental right to life.”
Panelist Ahmed Rashid Bhatti, who filled in for technocrat Shamsul Malik, too, heaped praise on Nisar. “In my 40 years of service in water resources, we tried in so many seminars to sensitize the people of Pakistan about water scarcity issues and the looming crisis. We didn’t succeed. I would like to compliment Saqib Nisar... what we could not do in years the former CJ did in a few months.”
Water law and policy expert Erum Sattar, another panelist, made some important points on how building structures is not the only solution.
“We need to move water that we are using ineffectively out of irrigation. Irrigated agriculture is the most inefficient way to grow food in the world,” said Sattar.
“This is an integrated resource. We are a food insecure nation, hungry, poor, undeveloped — mostly we are deeply unequal. If we manage water resources right we can improve on all fronts. We need to make laws to adapt to 21st century agriculture.”
At the end, Bhatti made an interesting comment to Nisar about his decision to use only Pakistani experts for dam construction and feasibility. “You said no foreign experts will be involved but we want the best in the world to weigh in on this issue, and the monetary saving is very little in comparison to that expertise.”
All photos by Shahbano Ali Khan/Dawn.com