The Sindh government on Tuesday asked the federal government to "immediately" withdraw an ordinance aimed at taking control of two islands along Karachi's coast, saying the islands belonged exclusively to the people and the government of Sindh.
At a press conference in Karachi, representatives of the provincial government said the Sindh cabinet had also decided not to hold any further discussion with the Centre regarding the development of the islands.
Keeping parliament out of the loop, President Arif Alvi on August 31 promulgated the Pakistan Islands Development Authority (PIDA) Ordinance, 2020, to facilitate the Centre to take control of Sindh’s two islands — Bundal and Buddo. The ordinance was notified the following day.
Just two weeks later, President Alvi discussed the fate of Bundal Island's development with real estate tycoons and businessmen, including Malik Riaz, Aqeel Karim Dedhi and Arif Habib.
The PIDA is being established “for the development and management of the islands in the internal waters and territorial waters of Pakistan”, but only Bundal and Buddo islands have been mentioned as “specified areas” in the first schedule of the ordinance.
The enactment of the ordinance triggered strong criticism from the ruling party of Sindh, with PPP chairperson Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari on Monday equating the move with the illegal annexation of Indian-occupied Jammu and Kashmir by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi last year.
On Tuesday, Sindh Information Minister Syed Nasir Hussain Shah said the islands "were, are and will remain the property of Sindh", adding that the province did not desire any development in which its people were not involved and which was without the Sindh government's approval.
"We will not allow any action that seeks to usurp Sindh's rights and land and could harm the local population," he said.
Murtaza Wahab, the provincial government's spokesperson, said the Constitution clearly stated that the land within a province's limits belonged to the provincial government.
Through the PIDA ordinance, he said, the federal government had "tried to give the impression that they can add any island to federal property by amending this schedule. This is a completely unconstitutional act done by the federal government."
He further said the Sindh cabinet today had "unanimously expressed reservations" over and condemned the move and demanded that the federal government "withdraw this illegal ordinance forthwith".
Terming the ordinance "an encroachment on the provincial authority and powers", Wahab said the Sindh government had long maintained that the islands were a property of the people and government of Sindh.
"When the federal government told Sindh that they wanted to carry out development on these islands, the Sindh government categorically informed them that these islands are property of Sindh government and people," he added, denying the impression that "the Sindh government did not fight Sindh's case."
According to Wahab, the Sindh government after being approached by the Centre had put forward four conditions regarding the islands' development, which included the points that "the islands are Sindh's property and will be used as per the Constitution; the terms and conditions of whatever development is carried out will be shared with us and we will discuss them; and the interests of the local population [and] fishermen will be prioritised."
He said the provincial government had showed willingness to the proposal "in good faith" and for the progress of the local residents.
But "on September 2, they (Centre) attacked the rights of Sindh and Balochistan by issuing this ordinance without any consultation and showed ownership of something which is not theirs," the spokesperson said, terming the move "illegal and unethical".
He said the ordinance, published in the Gazette on September 2, was made public in the first week of October, which he alleged showed the federal government's "ill-intent".
"The Sindh cabinet ... has decided that these islands are the property of Sindh's people, government and province," he reiterated. "We have rejected this ordinance and requested the federal government to immediately withdraw it."
He said the talks that the Sindh government planned to hold with the Centre regarding the islands "in good faith" will no longer be taken forward "because we don't trust your word anymore".
A letter addressed to the federal government regarding the proposal for the islands' development was also withdrawn by the Sindh cabinet, Wahab told the news conference.
'Cat is out of the bag'
Not long after the presser, Federal Minister for Maritime Affairs Ali Haider Zaidi tweeted a letter in which the Sindh government appeared to have approved development by the Centre on Bundal Island. The letter was apparently written in response to a July 2, 2020, communique sent to the Sindh chief secretary by the federal government regarding development on the island.
"In pursuance of the said request made by [the] federal government, the provincial cabinet has decided to make the said island available to the federal government, as per law, for the purpose mentioned in [the Centre's letter] ... in public interest, on such terms and conditions as may be agreed upon," read the letter sent by the secretary of Sindh's Land Utilisation Department to the Cabinet Division's secretary.
The letter shared by Zaidi added that "any development or construction activity on [Bundal] Island by the federal government shall also protect and promote the legitimate interests of local fishermen/population."
"The cat is out of the bag. All can see how hypocritical PPP leadership is," Zaidi wrote in his tweet accompanying the letter.
He said "no unconstitutional steps" had been taken on Bundal Island, adding that the Bundal and Buddo islands fell under Port Qasim Authority's (PQA) coordinates.
At a press conference, Information Minister Shibli Faraz also defended the federal government, saying the "status of reclaimed land" and other such issues were technical matters.
Referring to Bilawal's comment equating the ordinance move with the annexation of Kashmir, the minister said: "We do something noble ... and Bilawal said what we are doing is what Modi did to Kashmir. We are trying to create opportunities for you to benefit your people and you are objecting to this? Are we an outside country? Do you not consider us Pakistani?"
What is PIDA?
The PIDA will be directly answerable to the prime minister, who would be the patron of the authority. Besides approving the policies, the prime minister would give approval to all development schemes.
The federal government would appoint a serving or retired grade-22 bureaucrat or a serving or retired officer of the armed forces “not below the rank of a lieutenant general or equivalent” or an “experienced professional” or a “businessman” as the PIDA chairman for a period of four years. The head office of the PIDA will be located in Karachi, but the government has hinted at establishing regional offices in other parts of Pakistan.
Under the ordinance, the authority would be exempted from paying income tax for one full decade.
A cursory look at the functions of the PIDA, as stated in the ordinance, suggests that the authority would act as another land-owning agency in Karachi and would perform functions of a fully empowered local government.
Section 5 of the Ordinance deals with the functions of the authority and some of its clauses read: The authority shall “initiate and maintain a continuous process of reclamation, master planning, urban planning, spatial planning for” Bundal and Buddo Islands, and promote and stimulate the two islands as “trade, investment and logistics centres and hubs, duty free areas and international tourist destinations”.
The authority may raise funds through any means including through real estate investment trusts, bonds and sukuk, and obtain loans from donor agencies, government bodies and financial institutions. The authority is also allowed to generate its own electricity or obtain utilities in bulk or otherwise.
The PIDA is also empowered to retain, lease, sell, exchange, rent or otherwise dispose of any land vested in it.