Sindhis concerned “Dream City” may marginalize them further

Oil Terminal at Zulfikarabad (Credit: city21tv)
Oil Terminal at Zulfikarabad (Credit: city21tv)

Jan 6, Thatta: Zulfikarabad, the dream city of the president of Pakistan, has sparked another controversy in Sindh. In spite of tooth and nail opposition, the government seems ready to proceed with its plans. The project, originally named as Jheruk, was first heard of in 2009. The scheme was later relocated to further south of Thatta district in Jati, Shah Bunder, Keti Bunder and Kharo Chaan talukas.

A meeting chaired by President Asif Zardari on 28th January 2011 was told that the project would require some 1.6 million acres of land in the four coastal talukas of Thatta district. More than 1.2 million acres of the earmarked land is presently under sea and would require huge amount of money to reclaim. Sindh Land Management and Development Company has been established to acquire land for the project.

An autonomous body, Zulfikarabad Development Authority (ZDA) has been established to steer the project. The authority enjoys rare powers of approving any scheme even without seeking approval from the provincial Planning and Development Department. A high powered Executive Committee of the Authority has been empowered to take decisions. The chief secretary of the province would be just an ordinary member of the authority, ceremonially chaired by the chief minister and practically operated by the managing director. This is probably the only development scheme of its kind, for which key decisions are taken in meetings chaired by not less than the president of Pakistan.

Coastal strip is globally considered as an enticing location for commercial investments e.g. housing, tourism, industry and trade. Most expensive residential schemes are developed along coastal towns and cities. According to some estimates, approximately three billion people on earth live within 200 kilometres of coast and 14 out of 17 biggest cities of the world are located on coastline. This development is often materialised at the cost of indigenous communities. Against this backdrop, civil society has expressed its serious reservations on social and environmental implications of this scheme. Involuntary displacement of thousands of people from coastal villages is afoot.

China has shown its keen interest in the scheme. Delegations of Chinese investors frequently meet the president to lobby for major contracts in the project. The president has also recently visited China and the two countries have signed MoU to implement the project through Chinese companies.

Such high value projects nest hefty profits and poor communities become their casualty in numerous ways. Pakistan does not have impressive track record in this context. Resettlement of few thousand people of much smaller projects like Chotiari reservoir reeked with massive embezzlements and nepotism. Plight of the would-be displaced communities of Zulfikarabad is a foregone conclusion.

Key reason for Sindhis to oppose this project is lurking fear of being turned into a numeric minority in their own province. According to the 1998 census, Sindhi speaking population was 60 per cent. Sindhi speaking population in urban areas was 25.8 per cent against 78.75% Punjabi speaking in urban Punjab and 73.55% Pashto speaking in Urban KP. Demography of Karachi was even worse with Sindhi speaking population standing at 7.7%. Against this backdrop, any new city of expected population of 10 million would easily convert Sindhis into a minority within a decade. Nationalist parties in Sindh consider Zulfikarabad a tool of demographic genocide of Sindhis.

The project is also impregnated with environmental risks. Indus Delta is jewel in the crown of Pakistan’s ecological heritage. For its rich biodiversity, the Delta is declared as a Ramsar site and attains great environmental significance. According to WWF Pakistan, the area where the city is proposed houses about 50 per cent of the country’s remaining mangroves cover most of which is declared as ‘protected’ since 1950s.

Recent studies on the existing land use of the location indicate that mangrove forests, wet mudflats and seawater in various major and minor creeks cover 7.2, 40.2 and 20 per cent of the total area of the site, respectively (WWF Pakistan). The remaining one third is the inland area which comprises agriculture and inland vegetation on about 9 per cent and uncultivated agricultural land and residential areas on 24 per cent of the total area of proposed Zulfikarabad site. More than 50,000 hectors of the proposed site are covered with mangroves forests, most of which are under the administrative jurisdictions of Sindh Forest Departments. Pakistan’s Environmental Protection Act requires an Environmental Impact Assessment (to which Social Impact Assessment is a component) of such projects. Considering the scope of the project, ideally a Strategic Impact Assessment should be conducted. However, all these requirements have been violated flagrantly.

Coastal cities are no more considered salubrious locations. Environmental hazards and coastal disasters have made such cities more vulnerable. Tsunamis of East-Asian coast in 2004 and of Japan in 2011 provide ample evidence of alarming vulnerability of coastal cities. Tourism, industry, shipping and aqua-culture are some of the prime areas of interest for investors. Natural ecosystem is gradually encroached and eventually replaced by concrete and steel in such areas.

Tsunami hit East-Asian countries developed shrimp farming into a $9 billion industry by erasing mangroves forests in vast swathes. The massive wave of destruction caused by the 2004 tsunami dwarfed all economic gain that the shrimp industry claimed. According to some reports, Sindh coast witnessed an average of four cyclones in a century. However, the frequency and intensity has increased manifold and the period of 1971-2001 records 14 cyclones. From 2001 to 2010, two high intensity cyclones i.e. cyclone Yemyin and cyclone Phet narrowly missed Sindh coast. Thus, Zulfikarabad would be exposed to serious potential hazards.

The proposed city is located in an active seismic zone, where exists Allah Band Fault, a potential threat of severe earthquake. In its southeast lies Gujarat Seismic Zone (GSZ) and in north-west Makran Subduction Zone (MSZ) that pose serious threat to the proposed city. Bhuj earthquake of 2001 caused devastation in the adjoining areas across the border.

Looking at shambolic infrastructure and substandard quality of services in Sindh, one wonders why these resources cannot be veered to improve the existing system. Most of the province is devoid of vehicle-worthy highways, link roads and basic infrastructure in secondary cities. Housing, drinking water and sanitation facilities are not available in large parts of big cities and secondary towns of Sindh. Thousands of schools and health facilities are without basic facilities. According to official data, 10,722 schools are without building and 24,559 are without drinking water facility in the province (Sindh Economic Survey 2009-2011). The same document acknowledges that provision of health facilities in Sindh is grossly inadequate. The province has only 3.5 doctors per 10,000 people and only 1.1 nurses against the same number of people. Against this backdrop, the decision to pour billions of dollars to build another big city lacks prescience.


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