Dec 13, 2010

Politics of local government elections

The only solution to ineffective local governance is to conduct elections as soon as possible

By Salman Abid

The issue of local governance and its political implications remains mired in controversy to this day, a subject which seems to have been left to political wheeling and dealing. Perhaps a change has already set in; under the 18th Amendment, local governments are now a provincial matter.

Still, our political leadership seems to be disinterested in strengthening both the local government system and democratic practices at the grassroots level. The federal and provincial governments are under obligation to hold the elections of the local government as soon as possible, but contrary to this, they are using delaying tactics.

It is an irony that the local government system is being run through non-elected people. Since there is no consensus on elections at the provincial level, the Secretary Election Commission has flatly refused to announce the date of the elections. The task of holding elections and promulgation of local government ordinance are delayed under the pretext of consultation process.

One of the basic questions on this issue is whether the political leadership in the national and provincial governments really interested in the elections and has the political will to ensure a dynamic and vibrant system of local government in the country?

Those in the present government set-up, including coalition partners, seem to believe that local government system would be a hurdle in achieving their ‘interests’. The reason behind this understanding can be attributed to the fact that local governments’ inherent aim is to decentralise political, administrative, and financial powers from provinces to the district level.

Advocates of local government system flay provincial governments’ paying lip service to the issue of local governments. We have been witness to the clash between provincial and local governments on the issues of administrative and financial powers from 2001-2008. In addition to this, provincial governments of Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa have taken a step in the right direction by ensuring local bodies polls in the near future.

The government of Punjab and Sindh are striving on this mission by successive amendments to crush the prevailing system of local bodies. A committee set up by the Punjab government is reviewing previous and prevailing systems of local bodies. In October 2010, the Punjab provincial government passed the amendment in section 179 of 2001 ordinance which empowered the government to announce within 365 days the schedule of local government elections with effect from October 21, 2010. It is a reflection of Punjab government’s approach towards the devolution plan.

There is a disagreement on the formula of power sharing among the ruling partners. For example in Sindh, a battle is going on between MQM, PML-F, ANP, JUI, and PML-Q against the PPP to have larger chunks of power. The MQM is in favour of devolution and rejecting the wish of PPP to have 1979 ordinance back in force.

The same seems to be the case in Punjab where the PML (N) and PPPP negotiate power sharing while keeping the PML-Q at bay. In some districts, especially in rural areas of Punjab, PML-Q is in a position to oust both the PML-N and PPP. Balochistan and KPK have no better position on this issue.

Political parties stick to their guns by, on the one hand, condemning dictatorship and, on the other, ignoring their own undemocratic decisions, for example by putting hurdles in the smooth functioning of devaluation plan. In my view, military dictators support local governance system just to win over people’s support. We always expect from political parties and civilian government to come and strengthen the local accountable governance system through third tier of the government.

But, unfortunately, the political elite emphasises centralised approach against the concept of decentralisation. It is interesting to notice the political forces practically contradicting their stated commitments by appointing bureaucratic administrators on the district and tehsil level.

The article 140-A of the Constitution of 1973 reads as follows, "Each province shall, by law, establish a local government system and devolve political, administrative, and financial responsibility and authority to the elected representatives of the governments."

A significant principal laid down in the Charter of Democracy (CoD) signed by both the main political parties says that elected representatives will be give importance against nominations. This has been violated. But the real test to the claims of the political forces is to translate democratic norms into practices.

The delaying tactics of local government elections mainly supported by non-democratic people and our political elite serves their agenda in the name of democracy. Flood relief and rehabilitation activities have also suffered badly because of absence of local government system. The elected representatives of local government are made accountable and are within the access of common people at the local level.

Unfortunately, our political elite and political parties have learnt nothing from their own mistakes. The legislators in Pakistan are least interested in legislation. If every institution focuses things which it should not how can the system work? The present democratic forces should build consensus on holding local elections if they want to maintain credibility and legitimacy. The only solution to ineffective local governance is to conduct elections as soon as possible.

Mountain matter

About 1.5 to 2 billion people’s lives in Asian Himalayan region depend on river systems that are fed by glaciers

By Muhammad Niaz

The importance of mountains was focused on with the observance of International Mountain Day in 2002 to ensure sustainable mountain development. Understanding the constraints and opportunities of mountains and local communities, the United Nations General Assembly celebrates International Mountain Day each year on December 11 to promote global awareness about the significance of mountains in socio-economic and environmental aspects.

Generally considered as geological barriers, but beyond this layman perception, mountain entities render invaluable services and provide innumerable tangible and intangible benefits for the well-being of humans. Preserving mountain environment deserves special consideration in policy development owing to the role that these entities play in socio-economic and environmental perspective at local, regional, and global level.

Report on Sustainable Mountain Development 2009 maintains that mountain environments are essential to the survival of global ecosystem and their importance can be gauged from the fact that they are the cradle of life, supporting biodiversity, providing food, water, minerals, forest products, energy, and recreation. They also provide means of livelihood to billions of people over the globe associated with the world’s mountains and highlands.

Mountains are not isolated entities. Being susceptible to rapid erosion, landslides, habitat fragmentation, accessibility and connectivity factors, and loss of genetic diversity, mountain ecosystems are rapidly changing. Vulnerability of mountains to environmental impacts, land use pattern, and poverty prevailing among the mountain inhabitants affect their livelihood and mountain ecosystem.

Majority of the forest cover in Pakistan occurs in northern mountains. Forests cover about 3 million hectares, less than 4 percent of the country. Given the country’s total forest resources, about 40 percent of forests occur in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa while about 15.7 percent of forests occur in Northern Areas.

Almost all mountainous forests of the country are exposed to deforestation and habitat fragmentation in one way or the other. The hilly areas of our country, such as Murree, Galiat, Kaghan, Swat, Malakand, and Chitral, to mention a few, are also experiencing increased human settlements due to population growth.

Since 1970s, mountain ecosystems have been increasingly considered in several research and developmental initiatives. In 1992, the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, popularly known as the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro served as a driving force in this regard. Adoption of Chapter 13 of Agenda 21 has been instrumental in promoting awareness of the importance of mountain ecosystems and communities.

Working as a regional research and development agency since 1983, the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) promotes sustainable mountain development in the Hindukush-Himalayan region and its mission is to ensure development of mountain ecosystem and improve the livelihood indicators of mountain populations.

Mountain ecosystems, occupying about one-fifth of the world’s landscape, are found throughout the world from the equator almost to the poles. To meet their needs, about 10 percent of the world’s population depends on mountain resources, while nearly 40 percent inhabits the adjacent watershed areas.

Mountains serve as water towers providing water to billions of people over the globe. About 80 percent of the earth’s fresh water originates in the mountainous regions which not only play a crucial role in the supply of freshwater to humankind, in both mountains and lowlands but also serve as headwaters of all the major rivers of the world. In semi-arid and arid regions, over 90 percent of river flow comes from the mountains.

The stored water in mountain lakes and reservoirs serves as a potential source for generating hydro-power besides serving as recharge of aquifers. Himalayan glaciers regulate water supply to the Indus, Ganges, Brahmaputra, Mekong, Thanlwin, Yangtze and Yellow Rivers benefiting hundreds of millions of people in the region. According to the WWF reports, these glaciers are experiencing retreat at the rate of about 10-15m each year, owing to the intensifying global warming scenario.

Reports indicate that about 1.5 to 2 billion people in Asian Himalayan region depend on river systems that are fed by glaciers. If the supply of water from highland glaciers is affected, serious socio-economic repercussions are inevitable and the UN’s Millennium Development Goals for fighting poverty and improving access to clean water will be jeopardised.

The Hindukush, Karakoram, and Himalaya mountain ranges, occupying land mass in six countries (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Myanmar, Nepal and Pakistan) possess the world’s third largest snow/ice mass after the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets. These frozen water towers are the prime source of ground water recharge in the region that provides about 70 percent of freshwater to the people downstream in South Asia, Central Asia and China.

Being the centers of biological diversity, mountain plants and animals survive under the environmental conditions of their habitat because of their adaptability. Mountains support most important and significant mountain biota in the form of floral and faunal diversity and endemism as the lowland biodiversity is nearly depleted. Being a slow-growing conifer, the Himalayan Yew is currently listed as an endangered plant by the WWF. The threatened fauna of highlands including Snow leopard, Giant flying squirrel, and Tragopan pheasant besides other are some of the important rare species for whom mountains serve as natural sanctuaries.

According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) tropical mountain forests have experienced annual population growth and deforestation. Over the globe only 8 per cent of all mountains are protected. Mountains in adjacent countries serve as corridors for faunal movement and migration across borders.

In the Hindukush-Himalayan region mountains’ sensitivity to all climatic changes compounds threats of avalanches, landslides, and floods and these often results in disasters jeopardising socio-economic progress of a country and affecting hilly communities. According to reports about half of the world’s population is affected in various ways by mountain ecology and the degradation of watershed areas.

According to an international conference on mountains as early indicators of climate change last year ascertains that melting of glaciers provides the most obvious evidence of global warming. All over the world, indigenous people are confronted with unprecedented climate change.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fourth Assessment has pointed out that the changing earth’s climate will affect ecosystems, communities, and cultures that require large-scale initiative and positive global action. Reports highlight that since the end of the 19th century the total surface area of glaciers worldwide has decreased by 50 percent.

Mountain tourism is one of the important sources that contribute to development of local economy and improving livelihood of mountain people. Tourism markets also place great demands on fragile mountain ecosystems.

The government of Pakistan had implemented a 5-year Mountains Areas Conservancy Project to safeguard mountains and their environment from degradation with active participation of local people. Its second phase started as Programme for Mountain Areas Conservation to build on previous initiatives. However, given the magnitude of the local people inhabiting highlands, such initiatives are inadequate to halt degradation of mountain environment.

Encroachment of local people into the wilderness often results in human-wildlife conflict. Unplanned sprawling of human settlements and increase in human population and over exploitation of natural resources in mountain areas pose serious problems of ecological deterioration in these watershed areas. To meet their needs, mountain people carry cultivation of marginal lands on hillsides in the form of terraced fields which accelerate soil erosion while many areas experience excessive livestock grazing, deforestation, and loss of biomass cover.

There is a need to bring in more conservation-oriented projects in the mountainous areas of the country and promote national policies that would provide incentives to local people for the use and transfer of environment-friendly technologies and farming and conservation practices. Proper management of mountain resources and socio-economic development of the people deserves immediate action by strengthening partnership and mutual collaboration at national and international level.

Left in the lurch?

Relief and reconstruction work has been ineffective due to corruption, shortage of funds, and skilled personnel

By Tahir Ali

Shortage of resources, capacity constraints, lack of commitment or flawed priorities on part of the government seem to be the main hurdles in starting the reconstruction phase for the flood affectees in the country, including Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

Millions of people countrywide made homeless by the floods and living in camps and make-shift homes have been left to face the vagaries of weather as winter has set in. Feeling neglected and disappointed, many have started rebuilding their shelters temporarily.

According to World Bank and Asia Development Bank Damage Needs Assessment (DNA) report, around 1.7 million households have lost their homes worth $1.59 billion in floods in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Sindh, Punjab and Balochistan. If we take the low figure of 8 as an average household size, then around 13million people have lost their homes countrywide.

Floods inflicted a loss of around $10bn on Pakistan. Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa suffered $1.2 billion losses and requires $2.2 billion for flood reconstruction. Total reconstruction cost for all sectors is between $6.8 billion to $8.9 billion. The social sector, including the housing one, needs between $2.01bn $2.7bnn for the purpose.

The government plans to provide Rs100,000 to each flood-affected household for reconstruction of homes. An enormous Rs170bn and Rs30bn are required for the entire country and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa respectively for the purpose.

Reconstruction of homes can continue but only with the generous support of local entrepreneurs and international community as the challenge is greater than the resources at hand and the degree of determination shown by decision-makers.

A Pakistan army team recently reached to a family in a village near Peshawar alongwith building material when it was reported that the locals had started rebuilding their houses on self-help basis. The team also promised to help build houses of other people soon. But not all people are that lucky. Most are waiting for the much needed first or second tranche of Rs20,000 as house compensation given through Watan cards.

Various local and international non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have started building model housing schemes in the flood-hit zone but much more needs to be done by the government, the international community, the philanthropists and NGOs.

According to Adnan Khan, spokesman for Provincial Disaster Management Authority (PDMA) Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the first home reconstruction tranche of Rs20,000 has been provided to 180,000 out of around 0.3mn households. "The flood affectees will get Rs20000 in the next installment too. But cheques for next tranche will be released as the PDMA receives money for the purpose," he says.

The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government has diverted Rs18bn this fiscal year for floods related expenditures but it still faces a shortfall of Rs107 billion for post-flood and militancy reconstruction projects during the next 18 months. Adnan says Khyber Pakhtunkhwa also needs Rs86 billion for Malakand reconstruction and rehabilitation and Rs234bn for post militancy reconstruction needs. "We need assistance from donors to provide the next installment of Rs20,000 to flood victims for construction of housing units," Chief Minister Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Amir Haider Khan Hoti, told the PDF meeting last month.

An official says on the condition of withholding his name that province have received nothing from the centre or the international community for the reconstruction phase as yet, making it difficult for it to start the phase in full swing. But with little fiscal gap available with the provincial government to allocate sufficient money in this head, the federal government and international community should come forward and provide the needed money.

Prolonged delay in the release of tranches for house reconstruction would waste the earlier money as people cannot be expected to keep the money for long. While the federal government has decided that the second installment of compensation would be paid under a unified formula, it cannot be justified as requirements and expenditures for building houses in the northern and southern parts of the country would not be the same.

Nepotism, political interference and corruption in the nomination of affectees for compensation have allegedly made verification (of affectees) difficult. Adnan, however, says, "The government has introduced complaint mechanism at the district level and anyone can contact local or provincial officials for the purpose."

There are complaints that far off and militancy-prone areas have been neglected and the entire focus of the government and local and international NGOs has been on the easily accessible areas. Najamul Aleem Sayyed, who worked with a foreign NGO during floods in Nowshera, agreed that some areas like Mohib Banda were unbelievably the most favourite destinations of all aid agencies. "The problem is that relief agencies and the government departments have been concentrating on relief work at the easy-to-operate areas neglecting other areas," he says. Zakhi Qabristan, Mughal Key, Mian Esa, Ali Muhammad and Meshaka are some of the areas whose residents claim they have been totally neglected.

Manzur Ahmad, a social worker from a worst affected area in Akbar Pura, is unhappy that his village had been totally neglected even though it lies at some distance from motorway.

"Our village was badly hit by floods. Nearly all homes were washed away. Our agriculture lands were damaged. But there is no support from the government and NGOs. There is no reconstruction. We still wait for issuance of Watan cards and house compensation. Provision of shelter is crucial at this stage. The people have built their homes temporality after they lost hope of any government action on the home rebuilding initiative," he says.

Khalid Khan, district chief of Muslim Aid in Charsadda, says, of the 57,000 affected families in the city, 30,000 have been provided tents while the rest are going without them. "Shelter is the most urgent need at present. Livelihood restoration, quilts for women and children, and restoration of lands for farming are other vital needs. Our organisation intends to build a model village at Majoki where 55 families are still living in tents but have received little attention and relief support."

"In this village a brave soul had saved 41 lives during floods before he was swept away by floods. His family has been given no financial support as yet," Khan informs. The challenge is big but Pakistan has proven before that it can meet the challenge. In the reconstruction strategy of Kashmir earthquake, Rs175,000 were provided to the affected families in installments alongwith house designs and technical assistance. At the end of 2009, 95 percent of the destroyed houses were rebuilt with 97 percent of these according to the standards and hence safer.

But in the case of the 2008 Balochistan earthquake, the affectees were given one-time cash grant of Rs350,000 and Rs50,000 for completely and partially damaged houses respectively but without any technical assistance or required reconstruction standards. As a result, the rate and quality of reconstruction, according to UN-HABITAT engineers, is extremely poor there. The DNA also wants the reconstruction projects to be based on transparency, monitoring, and evaluation. While the Balochistan victims were given Rs350,000 for completely destroyed home, those in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa also deserve better package.

In most of the flood-hit areas, many people had built homes on lands near the rivers. Their lands have been eroded and they do not have the place to rebuild their homes. General Nadeem Ahmed, head of the National Disaster Management Authority, has "strong reservations" over the house reconstruction plan okayed by the government. The flood zoning policy must be strictly implemented. Construction of houses, hotels and shops near or on banks of the rivers should never be allowed.

The PDMA is supposed to deal with the crisis but it has only around 15 personnel in staff. At its present form, it is just a data collection, information dissemination, and coordination body. While it may suggest schemes, plans and strategies for reconstruction it has been kept out of the implementation and monitoring of these schemes. The result is obvious.

The PDMA should have offices in all tehsils and districts of the province. Its staff should also be increased commensurate with its responsibilities and functions. The badly-hit Malakand division inhabitants are in dire need of financial support as the area will soon become inaccessible for aid agencies. Relief and reconstruction work has been ineffective due to corruption, shortage of funds, resources, and personnel.

Missing the point

Exclusion of labour inspections from labour laws will continue to affect the labourers

By Aoun Sahi

Kasur Perveen, 23, a resident of Allama Iqbal Town, Lahore, has been working in a factory on Multan Road since 2005. Even after five years she does not have a letter of appointment or any other written document to prove that she is an employee of the factory.

With five years of experience, she is not getting even 50 percent of the minimum wage announced by the prime minister. "I think none of the workers in the factory has received an appointment letter. My first salary was Rs1,500. Five years later, I get only Rs3,000. I have to work for at least 10 hours a day to get this salary".

Besides the unresolved issue of maternity leaves, there are no separate toilets for women in the factory. "The working conditions are very poor. Getting injured while working is a common phenomenon and as the factory does not provide us health facility, in a majority of cases, labourers have to take care of it from their own pocket," she says. Perveen does not see even a ray of hope that things would get better. "During my five-year stay at the factory, I have never seen a government official coming to the factory to observe the plight of labourers."

Perveen is one of over 20 million labourers working in the Punjab province who are deprived of even their basic rights and are forced to work in poor conditions. Working conditions in the industrial sector in Punjab were never exemplary but they have deteriorated badly ever since the abolition of labour inspection in 2003.

Inspections were stopped following an executive order issued by then Chief Minister Punjab Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi under the provisions of the Punjab Industrial Policy, 2003, which aimed at "developing an industry and business-friendly environment" to attract investment. Physical inspection of factories was stopped through an amendment to the Punjab Factories Rules, 1978. Inspection of workplace by labour inspectors was replaced with a declaration form with the direction to the employers to furnish information pertaining to the implementation of labour laws in their units. But only around 10 percent factory owners have ever submitted these declaration forms to the labour department.

Punjab Assembly passed the Punjab Industrial Relations Bill 2010 on December 8. The act once again disappointed millions of labourers in Punjab as it has not restored labour inspection in the province. Labour unions allege that the government’s decision had drastic consequences for industrial workers in the province. "Mian Shahbaz Sharif, who otherwise hates all those steps taken by former chief minister Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi, has kept this policy of him," says Hanif Ramay, general secretary of the Muttahidda Labour Federation (MLF).

According to him, not a single industry has complied with labour laws since labour inspections were stopped. "It is because no government official is allowed to enter the premises of a factory to inspect working conditions. I am not saying that labour inspectors were doing a great job but they were at least keeping a check on factory owners to ensure implementation of some basic rights," he says.

Proper application of labour legislation depends on an effective labour inspectorate. Labour inspectors examine how labour standards are applied at the workplace. He advises employers and workers on how to improve the application of national law in such matters as working time, wages, occupational safety and health, and child labour. Labour inspectors bring to the notice of concerned authorities loopholes in labour law. They play an important role in ensuring that labour law is applied equally to all employers and workers.

Pakistan is signatory to ILO’s Labour Inspection Convention, 1947. Ramay believes that lack of labour inspection has given employers a free hand to employ a worker without a letter of appointment and sack him at will without paying him his dues. "The workers are forced to work longer hours without any financial compensation for the overtime. Nobody gets the minimum wage. The safety standards at the workplace have deteriorated and the workers are denied medical treatment and financial compensation in case of permanent injury or death in an industrial accident. The conditions of female workers are even worse," he says.

The abolition of labour inspections is a violation of human rights and labour laws, like the Factories Act, 1934. Pakistan is among the countries that spend less than 1 percent of the national budget on labour administration. According to ILO website, some studies show that the costs resulting from occupational accidents and illnesses, absenteeism, abuse of workers and labour conflict can be much higher. "Labour inspection can help prevent these problems and, thereby, enhance productivity and economic development," writes W. V. Richthofen in his book titled, Labour Inspection: A Guide to the Profession published by ILO in 2002.

"Labour inspection is the main instrument to ensure implementation of 8 core conventions of ILO. Our constitution ensures a decent livelihood to all citizens but our rulers are not interested in providing decent livelihood to people," says Zulfikar Shah, joint director Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research (PILER), an NGO engaged in research, training, and advocacy in the areas of labour rights and labour legislation, etc.

Zulfikar says the Punjab government led by industrialist elite is unlikely to restore labour inspection in the province. The employers have always been suspicious of labour inspections and consider official monitoring of standards as an obstacle to increasing the profit margin. "In Pakistan, profit margins of industrialists are considered to be the highest," he says, adding that "labour inspection mechanism has always remained ineffective and weak. Still, inspection was some kind of a check on employers who were forced to maintain at least the minimum level of safety standards at the workplace. But now employers are free to do whatsoever they want to do with labourers", he says.

Unfortunately, Punjab is not the only province where labour inspection is banned. It is also banned in Sindh. "This is against the law which asks for ensuring humane and safe working conditions. So, inspection is important for labour protection," he says, adding, "in the WTO regime lack of implementation of labour laws can affect exports and foreign investment. Our government has been requesting the EU to get Generalised System of Preferences-plus status for Pakistan which will help exporters to compete in European markets but on the other it is not trying to improve labour conditions in the country. Our rulers need to know that non-compliance of labour laws can be a huge obstacle to export our goods to Western countries even with GSP-plus status," he warns.

Labour Minister Punjab, Ashraf Sohna, who belongs to the PPP, admits that labour inspections are vital for decent working conditions and to prevent workers’ exploitation by the employers. "Even I am not allowed to enter a factory to observe the working conditions of workers", he says. Sohna blames it on the Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif, who he says, has done nothing to restore the rights of labourers and takes side of industrialists.

Sohna says he has written many times to the chief minister on the need of restoring labour inspection. He admits that Punjab has more than 20 million labourers working in different sector, but only 0.7 million of them are registered and have been getting benefits of social security.

Economic integration in South Asia

The sooner dialogue between Pakistan and India resumes, the better it would be for the economy of the region

By Hussain H. Zaidi

Addressing the Lahore Chambers of Commerce and Industry the other day, the Indian High Commissioner to Pakistan underlined the need for shoring up intra-region cooperation in this part of the world as the engine of growth. He observed that while South Asian countries were integrating with the international economy, they remained less integrated with one another.

One can hardly disagree with the Indian envoy. The countries of South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) are mired in poverty and underdevelopment. South Asia accounts for nearly 23 percent of the total world population. However, its share in the global GDP is less than 3 percent. The region is home to the world’s 400 million poor, which means nearly 30 percent of the region’s population lives below the poverty line.

All South Asian countries have a rather low-ranking on the Human Development Index (HDI), which according to the Human Development Report 2010 is: Sri Lanka (91), the Maldives (107), India (119), Pakistan (125), Bangladesh (129), Nepal (138) and Afghanistan (155). The ranking for Bhutan is not available but it was 133rd previous year. The HDI ranking is based on achievements in terms of life expectancy, education, and real income. The low HDI ranking reflects poorly on these vital indicators in the region.

Trade is an instrument of development. However, SAARC’s trade performance is also disappointing. The combined trade of all eight member countries accounts for less than 2 percent of global trade. The region accounts for 1.7 percent of world exports and 3 percent of global FDI inflows. The share of South Asia in total Asian exports and imports is merely 4.7 and 7.5 percent respectively. Not only is global trade volume of SAARC member countries small, intra-region trade is also low. Intra-SAARC trade accounts for less than 5 percent of the total trade of the region.

With a view to achieving regional integration, the member countries created South Asian Free Trade Agreement (Safta) in 2004 at the twelfth SAARC Summit. The agreement, which came into force on January 1, 2006, provides that members will reduce their tariffs to 0-5 percent by December 31, 2015. The success of Safta, however, largely depends on normalisation of Pakistan-India relations. In case the relations between the two countries do not normalise, Safta’s fate will not be different from that of its predecessor, South Asian Preferential Trade Agreement (Sapta).

The major reason for meager intra-SAARC trade is low volume of trade between Pakistan and India, the largest economies and trading nations in the region. Though formal Pak-India trade (the two countries have informal trade of more than $3 billion a year) has increased from $236 million in 2001-2002 to $1.32 billion in 2009-10, (including $259.4 million exports from Pakistan and $1.06 billion exports from India), it still constitutes less than 1 percent of the global trade of the two countries. Pakistan has not even granted MFN status, a basic requirement under the WTO, to India and continues to conduct its imports from India on the basis of a positive list. On its part, India maintains high tariffs and non-tariff barriers on products of export interest to Pakistan.

South Asia is clearly dominated by India. It accounts for 74 percent of the region’s population, 75 percent of its GDP, 79 percent of its trade and 81 percent of the region’s FDI inflows. India has trade surplus with all other South Asian countries except Bhutan. In addition, India is the largest military power in the region and, together with Pakistan, a nuclear state. Because of its formidable position in South Asia, India thus bears the responsibility more than any other country to make SAARC a success.

However, it is with India that most other countries in South Asia have had bilateral disputes. These countries look to New Delhi’s growing military expenditure with grave suspicion. This has on the one hand prevented India from assuming the leadership of SAARC, much to the former’s disappointment, and on the other, made its neighbours look outside for help and mediation.

For instance, Norway mediated between the Sri Lankan government and Tamil Tigers and Pakistan has been calling for third-party mediation, particularly by the US, to help resolve the Kashmir issue.

The problem in case of South Asia is that not only are the resources scarce, they are also misallocated. Too much is spent by the countries on military goods and services leaving a very small amount, after debt servicing and meeting administrative expenditure, for capital formation and human resource and social sector development. In case of India, military expenditure accounts for 2.5 percent of GDP, while the ratio in case of Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Nepal is 4, 2.6, and 1.5 percent respectively. The vicious cycle of poverty and debt in SAARC countries can end only if the meager resources are optimally utilised for capital formation and human resource and social sector development. This will also increase their attractiveness as markets for foreign direct investment.

The poor trade performance of SAARC stands in marked contrast with that of the neighbouring regional alliance -- Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN). The ASEAN countries account for merely 8.4 percent of the total world population. However, their share in total world trade is nearly 7 percent. ASEAN’s contribution to Asia’s total trade is 23 percent. Intra-ASEAN trade accounts for nearly 30 percent of the global trade of the 10-member countries. ASEAN countries have remained embroiled in territorial disputes but that has not hampered their trade relations.

The efforts to normalise relations between Pakistan and India, therefore, must continue. The search for resolving the contentious issues should go on. In principle, these issues should not deter economic cooperation in the region. China and Taiwan have a serious political dispute but that has not prevented them from enhancing economic cooperation.

As a matter of fact, this separation of economic and political issues does not apply to South Asia, particularly to Indo-Pak relations. Therefore, pragmatically, the best approach will be to address economic and political issues together. This is what the stalled Pak-India composite dialogue was meant for. Therefore, the sooner the dialogue is resumed, the better it will be not only for the two countries but also for the region.

Local initiative

Kohistan is being included in the process of relief and reconstruction by mobilising communities and giving them a voice

By Natalia Tariq

Zar Buland sat at the side of the rocky Karakoram Highway at Dubair Bazaar in Kohistan, staring into the tranquil flow of the river Indus right below him. He cursed at the deceiving nature of the water which only months ago had engulfed the entire bazaar, its mighty current washing away the road, shops, and bridges. There was hurt in his eyes, the very water that had sustained him, his family and the entire community -- running water mills, generating electricity, and irrigating what little land they had managed to cultivate had also been the source of immense destruction.

His son, Abdullah, can no longer attend school, most of his day spent traveling far from home to fetch water for the family. The flash floods have come and gone, but they have left behind collapsed bridges and wrecked roads. The valley where Zar Buland’s village is located is now cut off from the main bazaar and what was before the floods an hour’s journey, now takes days of difficult hiking through the mountains. Even the communal water mill that his wife used to go to every week to grind their grain for cooking has been washed away by water.

On Thursday 28th October 2010, we accompanied the staff of Omar Asghar Khan Development Foundation (OAKDF) to the remote Kohistan district in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) to see flood relief and rehabilitation activities in the area. The Indus River divides Kohistan into two parts with the eastern portion referred to as the Indus Kohistan and the western portion referred to as Swat Kohistan.

The Karakoram Highway passes through Kohistan on its way to Gilgit, and as we drove from Abottabad to Batagram, into Besham (Swat), finally crossing the Chakai checkpost to enter Kohistan, we instantly became aware of the abundant natural richness of the area. Driving along the Indus on one side of the Karakoram Highway, one is surrounded by massive mountains that lead into lush green valleys and forests home to some of the world’s most endangered species such as the tragopan pheasant, musk deer, and snow leopard.

Kohistan consists of 14-15 valleys where people have settled along water streams that flow from the Indus. The population is estimated at 472,570 (1998 census) -- a highly contested figure as it is presumably understated. After Dera Bugti, Kohistan is the most impoverished district in Pakistan and ranks second lowest in terms of human development. Even before the floods hit, people led a harsh and difficult life devoid of basic literacy and health services (the entire district is only served by 3 Rural Health Centers and 15 high schools). Kohistanis rely on forestry and rearing livestock for their livelihood and many of them travel to find work in the major cities of Pakistan or migrate to the Middle East.

OAKDF is one of the few organisations operating in Kohistan. The area is difficult to access not just in terms of its geographical terrain, but also because of the complex tribal dynamics and conservative culture that prevails. The fact that we did not come across a single woman on the visit and that many of the men were carrying guns speaks volumes of the difficult environment of the area. Due to these reasons, the district has been underserved not just by civil society organisations but also by the government.

Over the years, Kohistanis have learned to rely on themselves to meet their needs and this goes to explain the great self-sufficiency and resilience of these people. However, recent flooding has opened an entry point into the area as introverted governance and communal structures of the area are now becoming more open to assistance and engagement with outsiders. The disaster has also highlighted the need for tribes that are hostile towards each other to put aside their differences and come together in a time of great distress.

On Friday 29th October 2010, we held five meetings with people from various Union Councils of Kohistan regarding their flood relief and reconstruction needs:

Floods have affected people’s mobility in the region. Bridges, pathways and roads have been swept away. This is incredibly problematic as Kohistanis living up in the valleys come down to the main town centers with their livestock when winter approaches. Without roads and bridges making this journey through the mountains has become next to impossible. People claimed that they now make an hour’s journey in a day. The distinction between relief and reconstruction becomes blurred in practice as without access to bridges and roads it becomes very difficult for people to carry the food they receive through food distributions to their villages.

People’s discontent with the role (or lack thereof) the government has played in terms of flood relief and rehabilitation in the area was highlighted repeatedly. They feel that Kohistan has always been an excluded district of KP and the same has held true even in the post flood situation. The government’s efforts have been focused on areas such as Nowshera and Charsaddah.

Even though distribution of Watan Cards has been promised the government has not yet fully delivered. There are immense issues using the few cards that have been distributed as people lack information on usage and there is only one ATM machine servicing the population.

Water mills that were used to grind grains and water run electricity generators have also been destroyed. Rehabilitation of water channels is urgently required. Education, already lacking in the area, has suffered even more after the floods. Lack of access to potable water has meant that children now have to travel far to fetch water and cannot attend schools.

Health situation is already dismal (not a single hospital exists in Kohistan) and has been worsened as a result of lack of mobility caused by floods. The nearest hospital is in Mansehra which has become difficult to access now that bridges and roads have been destroyed.

Apart from identifying the needs of these communities, the meetings were also used as a platform to discuss advocacy possibilities. The sheer scale of needs identified in Kohistan makes it clear that both international donors and the government have to step up their assistance and address these needs with a comprehensive strategy.

This will only happen if the people of Kohistan form alliances with each other and with the rest of the Hazara population and demand their rights. At the final meeting held in Pattan, where all the communities came together, they were asked to set aside their differences and form committees that can come together on the platform of Tehrik-e-Huqooq-e-Hazara that was formed by OAKDF when the earthquake hit in 2005. They were also asked to map the needs they had identified at the earlier meetings to start forming a relief and reconstruction strategy.

Even though the flooding in Kohistan has almost entirely destroyed Zar Buland’s livelihood, his dreams are not yet shattered. The second most marginalised district of Pakistan is being included in the process of relief and reconstruction in a way that is mobilising communities such as the one Zar Buland belongs to, and giving them the agency to voice their flood related concerns.

OAKDF has already helped rebuild three bridges, conducted food distributions in the area and their technical team has completed feasibility and costing of roads and pathways that will improve access in some of the valleys of Kohistan. There are some other organisations working there too.

Despite these interventions, the flood relief/reconstruction efforts in the area are incredibly insufficient. The havoc created by the floods has been monumental and needs to be met by an equally colossal response. For years, the plight of people like Zar Buland has gone unnoticed. We must not let the flood affectees of Kohistan become the forgotten victims of this dreadful catastrophe.