Dangerous Politics of Exclusivity
By Dr Shireen M Mazari


The political mistrust dominating and distorting the issue of water distribution and dams in Pakistan have become so pronounced that unless these are overcome, there can be no rational debate on the issue. Undoubtedly the country needs three major dams but the where and how surrounding one of them has become a political minefield. This has been the result of years of a politically exclusivist approach that has been adopted by the ruling elite. No matter which province we look at, politics from the local level up have been and are dominated by political mafias involving families, biradaris, tribes, and so on. Instead of sharing the expanding network of power, they continue to sustain an exclusivity that marginalizes anyone wanting to break the mode.
We witnessed this in the last stages of the local body elections in Rajanpur district, but the example is not unique. After successfully challenging the political mafia at the union council level, we were bulldozed into supporting one of the two political mafias that prevail in the district. The Dreeshak mafia, presently in power with the support of the deputy speaker of the Punjab Assembly -- who left the PPP after decades of a politically useless existence -- sought total control. Mr Dreeshak is an MNA and of his two sons, one is the Punjab finance minister and the other has now become the district nazim. So the mafia looked within its circle to the deputy speaker's nephew -- whose name had only just been struck from a kidnapping FIR in Rahimyar Khan, thanks to the political power bosses in the Punjab. While no one doubted the hold of the Dreeshak mafia, as with all folk heady with power, they could not accept even a small challenge in the shape of a woman contender for the District's naib nazim post.
It was fascinating to see how the local power plays work because it helped in understanding why the area has remained underdeveloped! No one outside the mafias ever gets to see any of the development funds. As for women, they were barely to be seen in the area in terms of the political landscape until Mehrine Mazari successfully challenged the mafia in the union council nazim elections.
This challenged the mafia structure of the district, so when the district council elections came up, the heat was on. We were offered all manner of political lures if only we complied in the district elections. With the districts now controlling local affairs and the kitty, the national political scene has become far less attractive for those with no national commitment. Becoming fed up with an unresponsive and corrupt system of the local political bosses, we chose to persist with our challenge.
Clearly, President Musharraf's enlightened moderation and support for political space for women in the country has not filtered down to the politicians. Because we had dared to challenge, unsuccessfully, we are now under constant threat in our village from one or the other henchmen of Dreeshak and his sidekick, the deputy speaker of the Punjab Assembly. Where earlier we received calls offering all manner of lucrative political rewards for not challenging the Dreeshak mafia, now we are getting threats of dire consequences.
But we feel the challenge was necessary and worthwhile. After all, for decades the political mafias have controlled the fate of the local people with no attention to health, education and the welfare of women and children. There has never been any accountability of local funds. That is why there is a need to challenge and expose these decadent structures.
President Musharraf must break up these mafias to successfully move this country into enlightened moderation and modernity -- despite pulls by forces of exclusivity. The decadent political mafia is as much of a threat to this society as religious extremism. The mafia mindset does not seek inclusivity, which implies widening the consensual base. Instead it thrives on exclusivity and an 'us vs them' mindset.
The dams' issue has also been distorted by this mindset, creating divisions amongst the provinces and sustaining unresponsive political elites in power. For instance, in Sindh, the waderas are allowed first right to water when the canals open. With no regard for efficiency and conservation, they leave little for the small peasants -- simply telling them that Punjab is stealing their water. The real problem in Sindh is one of maldistribution of water within the province -- which has led to waterlogging. Of the three barrages -- Guddu, Kotri and Sukkur -- the first two serve northern and southern Sindh abundantly, but central Sindh gets very limited water from Sukkur barrage. So what is required is a more equitable distribution of water within Sindh.
As for fears relating to Kalabagh Dam (KBD), they center on the issue of undermining of flood irrigation in the katcha areas, increase in sea intrusion and destruction of the mangrove forests and fish culture as a result of lack of fresh water supply. However, presently on an average basis 35 MAF of Indus and its tributaries' water is thrown into the sea below Kotri and the KBD capacity is only to be 6.1 MAF --which would leave enough fresh water to flow into the sea. Also, with the amount of water allocated to Sindh from new storage sites on the Indus, there could be all year round water and farming for the katcha areas. How this would impact on the hold of the waderas is another issue!
As for the NWFP, there are serious issues of water-logging and massive displacement of people, especially in the Mardan area where the drains empty into the Kabul river and it is feared that the raising of the water level as a result of KBD would make these non-functional and result in Swabi getting waterlogged. Yet these fears have been dealt with in the WAPDA studies and the KBD design modified accordingly. However, the issue of displacement of people requires sensitive handling.
There is also the issue of monetary royalties for power stations built alongside the large dams and has aggravated inter-provincial suspicions. The NWFP gets royalty for the Tarbela Dam powerhouse located within the province. The KBD would have its powerhouse located in the Punjab. Perhaps it is time to examine alternatives to the royalty system.
Undoubtedly the KBD issue needs to be dealt with sensitivity and it does no one any good when the political elite of Punjab chooses to adopt a blustering approach. That the dams are vital is clear. But it may be better to begin by building the non-controversial dams and build the consensus on the KBD through a policy of inclusivity. The politics of exclusivity have been the bane of this country's existence for decades. It is time to affect a paradigm shift in our political culture. A framework of inclusivity requires tolerance and patience and a radical move away from elitism. Power may make exclusivity more tempting in the short run, but no good has ever come from this approach.
(The writer is director general of the Institute of Strategic Studies in Islamabad. Courtesy The News)

 


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