The Bundal-Buddo controversy – Part I By Dr Naazir Mahmood

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The Bundal and Buddo islands off the coast of Karachi have once again become a source of controversy between the federal and provincial governments of Sindh. The president of Pakistan, Arif Alvi, issued a new ordinance on August 31 to establish the Pakistan Island Development Authority (PIDA). The ordinance has also been published by The Gazette of Pakistan on September 2, 2020.

The first part of this article discusses the nature of the controversy itself and the second and last part will deal with what is wrong with the PIDA ordinance. Regarding the controversy, there are developmental, economic, environmental, legal, and political issues that we should consider before jumping to the conclusion of ‘millions of jobs’ and ‘billions in investment’ that the PTI government is promising from the islands. Like most hyperbole PTI leaders have been dishing out to people, the promised lands of Bundal and Buddo also appear to be exaggerated.

First, the developmental issues. The misconception, or rather propaganda, is not new that the people of Balochistan and Sindh are anti-development and oppose every new venture that the federal government tries to implement. We come across many bureaucrats, securocrats, and centrist politicians who are convinced that the feudal and tribal leaders of Sindh and Balochistan are primarily responsible for a lack of development. These leaders, so the argument goes, exploit and mobilize the local and unsuspecting masses to oppose any development agenda that may benefit their province.

This argument conveniently overlooks the fact that the same feudal and tribal leaders become a favourite of the centre when they toe the line of state power. For example, the dissolution of the provinces in West Pakistan and the creation of One Unit in 1955 was an anti-people and anti-democracy agenda mainly led by civilian bureaucrats such as Chaudhary Muhammad Ali and Malik Ghulam Muhammad, and supported by securocrats such as General Ayub Khan and Maj-Gen Iskandar Mirza. All feudal and tribal leaders who agreed to toe the line received ample benefits and rewards.

Those who opposed this scheme of imposing authoritarian rule from Lahore over West Pakistan became targets of the centre. General Ayub Khan chose Nawab Amir Muhammad Khan of Kala Bagh to be the unelected governor of West Pakistan and this feudal and tribal leader ruthlessly crushed all democratic aspiration of the people for over six years as the right-hand man of the good general who had also appointed himself as field marshal and president of Pakistan. General Ziaul Haq embraced all feudal and tribal leaders who acted at his behest while he was consolidating his ruthless dictatorship.

The people of Balochistan and Sindh are not anti-development, they are anti-authoritarianism. Any development agenda that the central government tries to impose in an authoritarian manner without considering the development needs of the local people is not welcome. Most of the coastal area stretching over 1000km from Balochistan to Sindh is increasingly becoming out-of-bounds for the local people. Be it in the name of development or security, the fundamental rights of the local people to access the coastline should be paramount. All development should aim to be equitable and sustainable.

That’s where economic and environmental issues come in. The proposed model for the Bundal and Buddo islands is neither equitable nor will it ensure development that is sustainable. An equitable and sustainable model of development stresses on physical and social environments that build healthy and sustainable local communities. If you look at most development projects that the central government has controlled, initiated, or negotiated with foreign actors, especially in Balochistan and Sindh, they have not been equitable and sustainable. They have harmed the physical and social environment and have not contributed to building healthy and sustainable local communities.

From the Social Action Programmes (SAP I and II) of the 1990s in Sindh to the Reko Diq and Saindak projects in Balochistan, one would like to know how they have benefitted the local communities. How many job opportunities have they created for the local people and how have living standards of the local people improved thanks to these projects? The same applies to the various housing authorities that benefit a select number of influential and rich people rather than helping and supporting millions of local people who end up deprived of their lands and means of meagre sustenance they have.

This development model does not take into account the local cultural, physical, political, and social context. That is one reason PPP Chairman Bilawal Bhutto has categorically rejected it by calling it ‘illegal annexation’. He has promised that the move will be opposed in the National Assembly and the Senate. Many representatives of political parties and civil society have strongly criticized the move as impinging on provincial autonomy. The lawyers’ community in Sindh has dubbed the move as unconstitutional and vowed to challenge it. Environmentalists have also cautioned against environmental degradation and damage to fisheries and mangroves.

When we talk about equitable and sustainable development, it calls for meeting ‘the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.’ If you apply that to the coastal areas from Balochistan to Sindh, you see gross violations of this principle. First, hardly any development caters to the needs of the local people, rather it benefits those who cordon off coastal access to common people in the name of development or security and then certain segments of the civil-military elite build structures that flout environmental principles and add to the riches of the elite without any considerations for the local populace.

Experts have been urging the centre to avoid planned construction projects on the twin islands off the coast of Karachi which are home to local biodiversity and migratory bird habitat. Not only local flora and fauna but also ‘guest birds’ will face threats of overhunting. These guest birds need safe flights through Pakistan as they rest around islands, lakes, and ponds. Devcom, IUCN, Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum (PFF), Piler, URC, and WWF-P have organized discussions on this matter which are useful to understand the problem. The proposed development on the twin islands goes against the spirit of the Ramsar Convention and the Convention on Biodiversity that Pakistan has signed.

We need to fulfill our local, national and international commitments. Naseer Memon and Zubaida Birwani have written detailed reports and have been highlighting this issue for over a decade. Recently, senior journalist Ziauddin and legal expert Parvez Hassan have also written about this controversy. The Awami Tehreek, Jeay Sindh Tehreek, Sindh Taraqi Pasand Party, Sindh Action Committee, Sindh United Party, Sindh branch of the JUI-F, and the civil society have staged demonstrations and their protests must not go unheeded. Be it Bilawal Bhutto, Akhtar Bengal, or Jalal Shah all are unanimous in their condemnation of PIDA.

The Sindh National Alliance is also bracing for a new movement across Sindh, and the Karachi Bar Association has also rejected PIDA. The only missing voice is the GDA and MQM which should align themselves with the interests of Sindh before it is too late. All communities and ethnic groups should stick to the agenda of equitable and sustainable development and should not compromise on the rights granted to provinces under the 18th Amendment of the constitution of Pakistan. The Environment Protection Agency (EPA) should unequivocally express its concerns, as over 12,000 acres of land is in danger of an onslaught by real-estate developers.

They tried twice earlier – in 2006 and 2013 – to usurp the land. In the second and last part of this article, we will discuss what is wrong with the ordinance.

To be continued