Two islands controversy: Pushing Sindh to the brink

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By Tilak Devasher

Sindh became a part of the territories of the East India Company in 1843 through its conquest by General Charles Napier. Napier was under express orders not to capture the area. Despite this, he took the province since he encountered little resistance. After the conquest, he is supposed to have sent to his superiors the short, memorable message, ‘Peccavi’, the Latin for ‘I have sinned’ (which was a pun on ‘I have Sindh’).

On March 3, 1943, in a motion moved by GM Syed, Sindh became the first province in undivided India to support the 1940 Pakistan resolution. On June 26, 1947, the Sindh assembly was also the first to decide to join Pakistan. Most analysts agree that by supporting the cause of Pakistan, the Sindhis were actually looking for autonomy to rule their province. When Syed realised what Pakistan was all about, he left the Muslim League, termed the Partition and the two-nation theory ‘unnatural, inhuman and unrealistic’ and became an ideologue for Sindhi nationalism. He spent many years in prison for doing so.

Punjab did not forget or forgive and used water as a weapon to keep Sindh on the straight and narrow. Due to the construction of dams upstream on the Indus to serve the interests of Punjab, there has been a drastic reduction in water availability downstream in Sindh: as much as 58 per cent shortage during early Kharif in 2018 and around 40 per cent in 2019. The reduction of the historical flow of water has also led to the slow strangulation of the delta. The result has been destruction of the sixth biggest mangrove forest in the world and sea intrusion of over 200 km. Not surprisingly, two tehsils of Thatta district, i.e., Kharo Chan and Keti Bander, have almost been eliminated from Pakistan in the past three decades. Badin district has also been badly affected leading to mass migration. This is the accumulated ‘environmental debt’ (a term used by the World Bank) that Pakistan’s future generations will have to pay.

The latest in the series is the Centre’s takeover of the twin islands of Bundal and Buddo lying off the Karachi coast via an ordinance promulgated on August 31 without consulting either the Sindh government or parliament. The Pakistan Islands Development Authority (PIDA) ordinance specifically mentions taking control of these two islands to facilitate reclamation and to promote the twin islands as trade, investment and logistics hubs, duty-free areas and international tourist destinations. A Chinese hand seems clearly visible in the formulation.

HYDERABAD: Leaders and activists of various organisations and party workers of Sindh United Party hold banner during protest outside Press Club against controversial presidential ordinance in regards to Karachi’s two islands. They demanded that the ordinance should be withdrawn forthwith.

According to legal experts, the ordinance is a clear violation of the constitution that gives the ownership of the territorial waters (12 nautical miles from the coast) and the islands in them, to the provinces. Moreover, altering the limits of a province would require a constitutional amendment that has not been done and also the consent of two-thirds of the total membership of the provincial assembly that has also not been done. The Sindh government, not surprisingly, has rejected the ordinance, asked the federal government to withdraw it, and asserted ownership.

Development of these islands had been attempted earlier too. The Musharraf government had tried it in 2000 and 2006, but failed due to public opposition. Later, in 2013, the PPP government had made a similar attempt, but the Supreme Court put a ban on construction.

The Opposition has alleged ‘mala fide intention’ since the government adopted the ordinance route rather than bring the matter to parliament or take the Sindh government on board. It has also claimed that this was another attempt to deprive the provinces of the powers that had been devolved to them under the 18th Amendment. There is also an apprehension that this could be the first step for the Centre to take control of the entire coastline of Sindh and Balochistan.

The construction of the city and development of islands would deprive around 8 lakh fishermen of their livelihood. This apprehension has brought together fishermen (who are already protesting the arrival of Chinese deep-sea fishing vessels), civil society organisations and Sindhi nationalist parties (concerned about loss of Sindh rights and the islands being sold to the Chinese). They have organised a series of protest marches all over Sindh and in Karachi. A petition has been filed in the Sindh High Court that has sought replies from the federal and provincial governments by October 23.

The surreptitious manner in which the islands have been taken over, violating constitutional provisions and Supreme Court judgment, leads to suspicions that the Chinese are involved. Such suspicions are strengthened by the provision in the ordinance that the PIDA, that is directly responsible to the PM, has been empowered to retain, lease, sell, exchange, rent of otherwise dispose of any land vested in it. In other words, the islands could well be sold to any private person or country, should the PM so decide. Further, the Sindh governor’s boast that Bundal could take on Dubai and attract investment of $50 billion is a clear giveaway. Since Pakistan is bankrupt, it is only China that could deploy such funds as an adjunct to its investments in CPEC and bolster President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative.

For Sindh, coupled with historical grievances, the takeover of its islands is probably the last straw. If the matter were above board, the federal government would not have trampled the constitution, provincial rights, environmental concerns and livelihoods of the fishermen. Given the resentment aroused in Sindh, the last word has not been spoken on the issue yet and Imran Khan may well find that while he could say ‘Peccavi’ (I have sinned), he would not be able to use the pun (I have Sindh).

(The author is prominent writer and analyst of socio, geo political situation. Member, He is member of National Security Advisory Board, New Delhi. The contents of the article are his personal.)