A Critical Analysis
Recently, a news story about moving the Supreme Court of Pakistan for the construction of the much-disputed Kalabagh Dam appeared in a number of national dailies. A Lahore-based lawyer Ilam ud Din Ghazi filed a petition, in May, in the Lahore registry of the apex court wherein he sought early construction of Kalabagh Dam (hereinafter KBD). The petitioner emphatically maintains that sans the dam, the ‘nation’ had suffered colossal losses worth over 70 billion rupees, and he further claims that the proposed dam would work miracles to stimulate growth in industrial and agriculture sectors of Pakistan, and it would help the country usher in an era of riches and growth. Above all, he adds, the genie of load-shedding would be put back into the bottle; and the bottle thrown into the sea. Mr Ghazi’s petition was followed by a suo moto notice by the Chief Justice of Pakistan to conduct hearing of the KBD case. Again, shortly after the clamour for the construction of the dam resurfaced, the social media, virtually, turned into a polling station – featuring pro and anti votes.
Whether or not is the campaign one facet to the larger propaganda engineered behind the scenes, God knows. However, what was missing in the larger picture being presented to layman, whose blissful instincts the promise of game-changer Kalabagh serves, must be fully sketched to sift fact from fiction. Whilst the charged advocates of the dam religiously press for its construction, one can find their arguments implausible, facts they shed light on doctored, and approach they espouse more polemically pitched than scholarly. Needless to say, any discourse on Kalabagh Dam or any other mega project, if placed within the much-sold context of national interest will go more as hogwash. The thinking that “since KBD booms one region, it should be constructed and construed as a vital national interest” will make our society sharply polarized.
So, to portray a compact yet comprehensive picture, any scholarly assessment on the KBD should not take a dim view of stakeholders’ apprehensions related to its construction; rather, they need to be held in the long view. Since conflict is more between upstream Punjab and downstream Sindh, it will be relevant to build on the Sindh-Punjab perspective in this analysis.
Holistic view of the conflict
In his piece “Kalabagh Dam: Sifting Fact from Fiction,” former Chairman WAPDA, Zafar Mahmood – himself a big supporter of the KBD – maintains:
“It is unfortunate that most of the writers who passionately advocate the construction of this project are unaware of the historical developments in interprovincial tussle over water issues between the two provinces over the last 150 years,” adding that, “It is criminally insensitive to assume that opposition to the KBD project by Sindh is impulsive.”
Following the extensive development of canal system in Punjab during the British rule, which transformed the region into the breadbasket of the Indian Subcontinent, there emerged some serious disputes over Punjab’s ambitious appropriation of the Indus waters, to the detriment of the lower riparian Sindh. Canal development undertaken, indiscriminately, in Punjab by British government had political and economic overtones. The imperial strategy was, firstly, to hold out an olive branch to the marauding Sikhs who, after getting ousted from power, had turned to brigands; secondly, to collect more and more revenue; thirdly, to co-opt an intermediary class of the Punjabis who they had settled in the canal command areas to help the British secure and extend their sway over the entire Subcontinent; and fourthly, to keep odds of uprising or resistance at bay. Interprovincial water disputes came to the fore for the first time when Sindh contended that Punjab was getting much more than its due share of the pie, to which the British government responded by constituting intermittent committees, from Indian Irrigation Commission (1901), the Cotton Committee Report (1919), and Anderson Committee (1935-37) to Justice Rau Commission (1942) and the Draft Agreement of 1945 between Sindh and Punjab.
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