BUDDOO and Bundal, two islands lying off the Karachi coastline are the subject of a heated back-and-forth between the federal and Sindh governments. The controversy is a telling example of the leadership’s misplaced priorities, lack of transparency and callous indifference towards ‘ordinary’ citizens.

A few days ago it came to light that on Aug 31 President Alvi, keeping parliament out of the loop, had promulgated the Pakistan Islands Development Authority Ordinance whose first schedule specifically mentions Buddoo and Bundal. The Sindh government reacted fiercely, asserting its ownership over the islands and describing any attempt to develop them without the provincial cabinet’s approval as unconstitutional. Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari likened the move to India’s illegal annexation of Kashmir.

On Tuesday, there was another twist to the tale when Maritime Affairs Minister Ali Zaidi posted on social media a letter from the Sindh government dated July 6, making Bundal island “available” to the federal government.

Real estate developers and their cronies among the ruling elite have long had an eye on the two islands in question. The area is an ecologically important site: it is part of the Indus delta where the mangrove forest cover is a breeding ground for shrimp and other shellfish. Thousands of fisherfolk depend on these islands for various fishing-related activities that make up their livelihood. However, for those holding the reins of power, the prospect of multibillion-rupee fortunes clearly trumps these ‘trivial’ human and ecological concerns.

In 2006, during Gen Musharraf’s government, a deal was struck between Port Qasim Authority and a Dubai-based construction company to build a model city over 12,000 acres, complete with a 1.5km long bridge — costing $50m — to connect it with DHA phase 8. The project never materialised. Then in 2013, talk of an ‘Island City’ to be developed by Bahria Town Ltd on the same site began doing the rounds, which also did not see the light of day.

Given the ecological and human cost involved, the matter is one of considerable public interest, and calls for far more transparency than thus far on display. The centre has conducted itself in an unseemly and opaque manner by bypassing parliament over an issue that was bound to invite allegations that it is usurping provincial rights. Sindh already nurses historical grievances on that score, and these events have not helped the situation — although the PPP chairman’s analogy with India-held Kashmir was uncalled for.

However, in light of Mr Zaidi’s revelation, one must ask whether the Sindh government has colluded with the centre; after all, elements within it have facilitated land grabbing of state land in a particularly ruthless manner. If so, it is a shameless surrender. The caveat that development on the islands would take place while protecting the interests of the local fishermen is an old chestnut that no one is likely to believe.

Published in Dawn, October 8th, 2020

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