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Populism Versus Serious Policy

by Ejaz Haider

Supervising a multi-pronged strategy doesn’t have the same heroic aura as one man purporting to solve all the nation’s water problems through one project

The Chief Justice of Pakistan, Justice Saqib Nisar, has made it his mission to address the water crisis in this republic. While I am not sure if this falls within his remit, technically-speaking, in this age of putative messiahs, given the desire of vox populi to find one, he cannot be faulted for his sincere intentions.

To put it another way, a sense of mission has a way of ignoring technicalities that generally bind people’s hands. In any case, legal-constitutional approaches are meant for ordinary times. The CJP has determined that we live in extraordinary times and he must rise to the occasion.

And risen he has, armed with a combination of earnestness and frustration at why things do not get done. His sentiment is shared by many, including the educated whose vocational brilliance generally fails to acquaint them with the idea of complexity.

So, the CJP has gone forth and created a dam fund, fined people and ordered that money be put in the fund; public service messages are broadcast on TV and radio channels to motivate people to contribute; the Army, the savior of physical and metaphysical frontiers, has thrown its weight and two-day salary behind the CJP’s mission; the current government is also fully onboard; in fact, taking a cue from the CJP, the prime minister, Imran Khan, has asked expat Pakistanis to send in donations so his government can retire the debt that has become a millstone around the nation’s neck. For good measure, there’s also talk about disposing of state lands to that purpose.

But there’s a slight problem: statistics don’t appreciate good intentions; they look at how the zeros add up, or don’t. Then there are other problems—for instance, the debate about big-few versus multiple smaller dams; their location; environmental impact assessments; ecological concerns; water flows to lower riparians; geological and seismological concerns; cost overruns et cetera.

In other words, it becomes a versus problem, i.e., good intentions versus complexity.

But the CJP, an honorable man who needs to accomplish the mission before he is superannuated, will have none of that. He has on more than one occasion warned the critics to shut up or ship-out. More recently, he is also reported to have threatened critics with action under Article 6 of the Constitution (dealing with high treason and subversion of the Constitution).

Some might find this rather extreme, and it certainly is, especially because it redefines the entire idea of treason in a way which could redefine the entire concept of discussion, dissent, freedom of expression and perhaps a few other fundamental rights. But there’s more to it: supposing a geologist or a seismologist or a structural engineer were to inform the CJP that there were a number of problems with the siting of the dam; or a Ministry official was to tell the CJP that no study had been conducted to examine the possibility of the dam design actually increasing the possibility of a catastrophic earthquake; or a finance expert or economist were to tell the CJP that you cannot crowd-source a dam; or an environmentalist were to tell the CJP that such projects sail or make shipwreck on the basis of environmental impact assessments; or water resources experts were to assess flows and determine that this might not be a great idea for lower riparians—would these experts be considered traitors to the cause?

Now it is embarrassingly evident that like this writer the CJP does not possess any expertise in these areas. Judges deal with law, not with structural engineering or public finance or any of the many other such areas. This is why law allows experts to be appointed as friends of the court (amicus curiae) to help judges reach an informed verdict in cases that involve expertise and technicalities that are external to law but whose understanding and appreciation is imperative for the judicious application of law.

The affected people of Mangla Dam have not been compensated fully yet. The Neelam-Jhelum project was begun without any environmental impact assessment. The government of Azad Jammu and Kashmir, head-lugged by section officers in the Ministry of Kashmir Affairs, did not decide on the project—in other words, the representatives of the people of AJK had no input in deciding whether they wanted to have a dam that was likely to, and has, damned the Neelam Valley’s ecology and the river’s water flows.

Ditto for land acquisitions in Gilgit-Baltistan, whether for water projects or China-Pakistan Economic Corridor-related activities. Dissent is answered with intimidation and incarcerations. If anything, the CJP should perhaps be more concerned about executive high-handedness in such cases than threatening, somewhat boorishly, the critics of his well-intentioned but demonstrably misplaced enthusiasm with reference to the Diamer-Basha [yes, it’s Basha, not Bhasha] dam.

This is a project which, according to the government’s and WAPDA’s own reports, has had multiple faux-inaugurations and which is–if the history of similar projects in Pakistan is any guide–more likely to cost US$28 billion than US$14 billion.

None of this is meant to dismiss the water crisis we have and which will get worse if we do not act now. Once again, there’s expert advice available: a common strand is that we don’t need a single stratagem to address the problem; we need multiple strategies that need to be put in place not sequentially but simultaneously. The foremost, before we begin to construct dams and damn all else, is to assess how much available water we are wasting to begin with. In other words, let’s first plug the wastage of what we already have and ensure that we conserve what we have. Experts tell us that there are ways and technologies with which we can increase the water in the aquifers, incidentally, the largest reservoirs, several times that of dam storage. In fact, the National Water Policy approved unanimously in April 2018 by the Council of Common Interests (i.e. by all provinces and the Federation), and which was prepared after years of expert analysis, takes precisely such an omnibus approach.

Neither the CJP nor this writer is an expert. But there’s much advice available and it could be heeded if good intentions were wedded to appreciating complexity. If the CJP is really interested in addressing the water crisis, he could ask the government to implement the National Water Policy and supervise the steps being taken in furtherance of that policy. But supervising a multipronged strategy doesn’t have the same heroic aura as one man purporting to solve all the nation’s water problems through one project.

One can either do populism or do serious policy.

Haider is the executive editor at Indus News. He was a Ford Scholar at the Program in Arms Control, Disarmament and International Security at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, Washington, D.C. He tweets @ejazhaider

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Hassaan Naeem September 16, 2018 - 1:09 am

Brilliant Ejaz Shb. Not many have this courage to address people and issues of such hype!

mazhar memon September 16, 2018 - 2:00 am

Thanks, some body had the guts to write even after threats from chief justice. Because of historical sufferings and constant damage to coast line of sindh where millions of acres of land has been swallowed up by sea, also that even water distribution is not done based on 91 water accord, sindh has been objecting on any DAM still and unless any such move was fully consulted and agreed upon. With his recent comment chief justice has threatened 5 crores sindhis that they will be tried under article 6. He also said earlier that this is not about DAM but his actions are due to “fundamental rights”, so that means all this is about fundamental rights of some other people and not the people of sindh. Do we have judicial dictatorship in making?

Abdul Bari Abro September 17, 2018 - 4:44 pm

I am speechless this is theeee approach that needs to be taken. Kudos to Ejaz Haider for writing this mindful article…

sk canus September 18, 2018 - 4:28 am

What approach that would be?

I Ahmed September 17, 2018 - 11:41 pm

The article is plain common sense which has been spoken throughout but has been drowned by populist imagery and low calibre bullying “debate”. It takes an act of courage to comment on an emperor’s questionable sartorial choices. Thanks for adding your voice to the side of reason.

S K September 18, 2018 - 2:15 am

All CJP did was put a stake in the ground. I disagree with the assessment of writer. This was an attempt to throw a monkey wrench in the works.

Surendra September 29, 2018 - 1:33 pm

Is opening a dam fund account legal ? Is judiciary, even if it is CJP is allowed to create ad hoc funds and open bank accounts? Any money collected should go to a account or fund created by executive/ Government ,legally, as all the fines collected in court cases goes to treasury .
It is like emotions are trumping the rule of law,by people who are expected to hold it at its highest level.


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