In Pakistan, the Diamer-Bhasha dam has cheerleaders from the government, judiciary and the military.
Pakistan is being run on whims, U-turns and bizarre decrees nowadays. A fine example of this is the near-holy status the Diamer-Bhasha dam and its funding are assuming.
You cannot even criticise or joke about the dam anymore. You are just expected to quietly donate money for the dam and not question it.
It all began with the Chief Justice of Pakistan Mian Saqib Nisar announcing the creation of a dam fund one fine day to address Pakistan’s water crisis. This was when the caretaker government was still in place. He even inaugurated the fund by announcing a donation of Rs 1 million to the Diamer-Bhasha dam and exhorted everybody in Pakistan to donate generously for its construction.
The obvious problem here is that this is not a judge’s job to do, even Imran Khan admitted to this.
Instead of focusing his energy on the mountain of pending legal cases and urgent judicial reforms, the chief justice arrogates to himself one responsibility after another of the executive branch of the government. There is a backlog of nearly two million cases in Pakistani courts.
Climate change and water scarcity is a serious issue that should invite a well thought out multi-pronged strategy, but should the judge not ask the executive to find solutions?
His action set off a chain of events.
The military announced it would donate one days’ salary of junior officers and non-officer cadres and two days’ salary of officers to the fund. They later presented a cheque of over Rs 1 billion to the chief justice.
In July, Pakistan’s finance ministry opened a bank account to receive funds for the Diamer-Bhasha and Mohmand dams.
After assuming power, Prime Minister Imran Khan threw his weight behind this charitable project and appealed to overseas Pakistanis to donate $1,000 each or more to the fund. Private companies have since proceeded to cut staff salaries and donated as well.
All of this obviously invited mockery and anger from the public. Serious analysis and criticism also ensued on the demerits of building a large dam, particularly the Diamer-Bhasha dam because of its location. “It has been known in the inner recesses of the engineering establishment of Pakistan for the past 20 years or so, that the Diamer-Bhasha dam is not technically feasible because of the seismic risk. The dam site lies at the plate boundary between the Indian and Eurasian plates. The site is traversed by multiple fault lines, which are well recognised even by Water and Power Development Authority’s own feasibility studies. Engineers like Bashir Malik, who is former technical adviser to the World Bank and United Nations and one of the most ardent supporters of dam-building in Pakistan, have categorically stated that the risk of earthquake-induced failure at the Diamer-Bhasha dam site is too great to carry on with construction,” wrote Daanish Mustafa, researcher in politics and environment at Kings College, London.
“Anyone with elementary math skills can tell that crowdsourcing financing for dams can take hundreds of years. The project will probably get inaugurated a few more dozen times, until life takes us onwards to other distractions,” he wrote.
The appeals for charity were dubbed ‘government by begging’ and social media was flooded with jokes. One joke referred to the desperate leaders of Pakistan selling family possessions, or resorting to selling manhole lids from their neighbourhood, and in the end, resorting to begging to fund the dam. Eventually, it made it to the National Assembly where opposition senator Mushahid Ullah Khan of PML(N) delivered a devastating blow to the government with this joke and telling it to be constructive rather than beg.
“I’m just saying it’s the mark of a drug addict… he either steals and sells or beg. He won’t work hard which is the real work of government,” said Khan.
But neither Prime Minister Imran Khan nor Chief Justice Nisar are backing off. In fact, it gets worse and worse. The chief justice proceeded to issue a threat to try anyone opposing the dam with treason by applying Article 6 of the Constitution. “I am examining the scope of Article 6 to see whether it could be invoked against opponents of this national cause,” he said while hearing a case against bottled-water companies. More derision and disbelief followed. The dam issue has entered the realm of absolute ridiculousness and lawlessness, as Article 6 pertains only and only to subverting the Constitution and carries a death penalty. It cannot, by any somersault of imagination, be applied to anything else, let alone public scrutiny of an infrastructure project.
Article 6 reads: “Any person who abrogates or subverts or suspends or holds in abeyance, or attempts or conspires to abrogate or subvert or suspend or hold in abeyance, the Constitution by use of force or show of force or by any other unconstitutional means shall be guilty of high treason.”
So, the dam had become holy, and it triggered another storm of jokes and direct challenges to the chief justice. “I am opposed to Kalabagh Dam. I have serious reservations about the Basha Dam …. Now comes #TryMeInTreason,” tweeted senior journalist Murtaza Solangi.
— Murtaza Solangi (@murtazasolangi) 16 September 2018
The Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority issued an advisory to all television channels to not air any ‘tauheen amez’ (derogatory) material against the dam or the fund.
It is hard to say how long this circus will go on. On the one hand, the government and judiciary are running around with a begging bowl and trying to silence dissent. And on the other, the government has announced a $180 billion housing scheme roping in a London-based property tycoon who is now allowed to sit in government meetings.
Where that money is coming from is anyone’s guess, even as backbreaking increases in indirect taxation and forced donations from salaries is hitting citizens’ pockets.
The author is a columnist and human rights defender based in Lahore.