Kalabagh crisis: Responsible media please stand up

THE possibility of a dangerous conflict between Islamabad and the small provinces over the Kalabagh dam is very real. The swords are out. General Pervez Musharraf’s lobbying efforts in Sindh are met by counter moves by a united opposition. They are holding rallies protesting against the proposed dam and the Musharraf government.

By Nasim Zehra

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Published: Mon 26 Dec 2005, 9:19 AM

Last updated: Thu 2 Apr 2015, 3:11 PM

Protests in NWFP have also been organised. Many Sindhi and the Pakhtun parties, irrespective of their political affiliations, are against the Kalabagh dam. They are pulling out all stops to organise unprecedented levels of agitation against its construction. Small rallies are being organised across Sindh.

In an unprecedented move the entire editorial team of a leading Sindhi daily, Khabroon, has resigned in protest against the owner’s pro-dam stance. ANP took the unprecedented step of going to the US Consul-General in Peshawar to complain against the Centre’s decision to build the dam. The Sindhi parties are threatening to launch a ‘movement’ against the Kalabagh dam.

In a parliamentary democracy, the parliament and the Senate are the natural forums to discuss important issues of national import. While discussion in the Senate has begun, at least its beginnings do not indicate that an informed and useful discussion will take place.

Majority of the Opposition is opposed to the dam. The dam is a life and death issue. It’s about the shrinking resource of water and because in addressing it we seem to be hitting at the roots of an already weak federation. It seems to be pitting the three smaller provinces against the Centre and the Punjab. In Pakistan, the conflict is around what is the best way of resolving the crisis. And not whether dams must be built but specifically which one must be built. It’s clearly a deadlocked situation.

Musharraf’s tours of Sindh are unlikely to change the mindset of the dam’s leading and most vocal opponents. Getting 139.5 million to not oppose it or to even support it isn’t going to be easy. That will only change if the leading opponents of the dam, the ones who occupy public space, the ones who form the ‘opinion-making community’ of Sindh and NWFP are in agreement with the Centre on the projects that need to be taken to resolve the potentially fatal water crisis. In Pakistan’s given scenario the only group that can and must work towards carrying forward a genuine and necessarily dialogue on the Kalabagh dam and the water issue is the electronic media.

With all its drawbacks, the electronic media enjoys a degree of credibility amongst the public and the politicians. It has a track record of showing ‘all sides’ of any given situation. Pakistan’s television channels, have lead the debate on crucial national issues including social reform, political co-existence, the 1971 break-up, the role of the army etc.

Then what must the electronic media do? The way it extended its roles beyond being just messengers but also became participants in attempting to provide relief and rehab support to the earthquake victims, it must play the same role in the current crisis. The primary objective would be to address in a calm manner the Kalabagh-related fears that haunt Sindh and NWFP and provide dispassionate answers to those fears. Also discuss the seriousness of the impending water crisis and how can it can be resolved without losing time. The participants of these programmes should be government and opposition leaders and expert opponents and supporters of the dam. All the major national channels, including Geo, ARY, Aaj, and even PTV, should jointly organise a series of focused discussions on the water issue. The regional language television networks should also partner this effort. These programmes must be jointly produced and shown live across the entire country.

The questions need to be addressed are numerous. Will Sindh’s share of irrigation water increase? Will a canal from Sindh be taken out —how can that be guaranteed? What iron-clad guarantees will there be that the Centre and the provinces will all honour the agreed upon water accord? What constitutional guarantees would be given about to assure Sindh that no water channels will be constructed for Punjab? What must be fair distribution under the NFC award? Under the existing design of the dam, will the NWFP lose huge tracts of fertile land in Nowshera, Peshawer and Mardan? Will the dam create the problems of water logging and salinity? How much royalty will Punjab get from Kalabagh dam?

The entire nation should be able to watch these programmes and a joint production would make that possible. Joint production will lend credibility and moral authority to such an initiative. In the current climate, the indirect dialogue between Kalabagh’s lead proponent General Musharraf and the Opposition has been hard and harsh. Only a third party’s intervention can facilitate a desperately needed dialogue between the government and the Opposition. While the electronic media must step in, this crisis raises a broader question of who is the competent and institutional arbitrating authority within Pakistan when such a crisis emerges? Almost none, as of now.

Political systems that enjoy credibility function within unbendable constitutional and legal frameworks. These frameworks trigger continuous dynamics of accountability and consensus building within such a political system. It is this combination of the unbendable legal and constitutional framework and the operative dynamics of accountability that provides the political system the ultimate privilege that it needs to play its primary role of managing national affairs which includes resolving conflicts among contending interest groups; the privilege of legitimacy. Without legitimacy no system can enjoy the moral authority it requires to play the role of an arbitrator.

The extent of moral authority that a system enjoys is directly related to how doggedly it functions within its legal and constitutional framework. So when India’s Supreme Court rules the incumbent Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s emergency of 1974 illegal, it reinforces the moral authority of India’s system. Conversely when the Gujarat massacres take place under a BJP government it dents the ‘moral authority’ of the Indian system. In the US meanwhile the democratic system, with all its problems serves its people well. It was most recently illustrated through the way the New York transit workers strike ended. While the system takes care of the workers it also protects the rights of the public and of the state.

It’s the moral authority, the legitimacy and at the core of it all is the adherence to a consensual constitutional and unbendable legal framework that enables a system to resolve the conflicts within. In Pakistan that moral authority, legitimacy and the dynamic of accountability are unfortunately missing. This is what the latest round of the Kalabagh dam crisis so clearly establishes. And to work towards such a system has to be the first priority of state and of society in Pakistan. For now the electronic media must step in.

Nasim Zehra is a fellow of Harvard University Asia Center, Cambridge, Mass. She can be reached at nasimzehra@ gmail.com

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