February issue 2017

By | Interview | Published 3 years ago

The Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) has increased its criticism of the PML-N government in Punjab and at the centre, with the party chairman, Bilawal, firing repeated and aggressive salvos at it. The question, is what has the PPP done in Sindh which is in shambles, and where it has held the reins of power for the last nine years?

Why should we restrict ourselves to Sindh? We are a national party, so we talk about the country, about all of Pakistan. We have a lot of issues which need to be addressed. Different governments — either under military dictators or political parties — haven’t been successful in making Pakistan a developed country. We are far behind the developed world as depicted through different indicators. We still have around 40 per cent of our people living below the poverty line, and I don’t think Punjab has brought that figure to 10 per cent. That is why one cannot revile only the PPP. The party believes in a pragmatic approach, and is pursuing both short-term and long-term strategies to tackle issues.

PPP doesn’t resort to Shahbaz Sharif’s populist tactics. During the PPP term, he set up a roadside tent office, sat there wielding a hand fan, and made hyperbolic statements about how he could end the power crisis in six months. So much for all these claims — four years have passed, and we still have 8 to 10 hours of load-shedding.

That aside, political analysts still contend that the performance of the Punjab government is much better than that of the PPP government in Sindh…

That is because they put Lahore at the centre of national politics, and keep referring to the development focused only there. A single city cannot be set as a standard. And even inside Lahore, there are issues with regard to basic life facilities and injustices. I can cite many news reports where people living in the katchi abadis (informal settlements) around the city exist in dismal conditions, and lack basic facilities.

If we are to draw a comparison between Punjab and Sindh, first check out the size of the budgets and shares for each under the National Finance Commission (NFC) Award. Punjab gets twice as much as Sindh. Keeping that in view, if all the monetary resources are directed towards a single city — for example, Lahore — the result is the improvement of roads and the general infrastructure there. It was our initiative to develop Karachi, and the city has been developed more than other parts. We envisioned this as the gateway of Pakistan, a whole network of roads and infrastructure, traffic engineering, expressways, bypasses, and flyovers. These were all aspects of our vision, later adopted by others.

In Sindh, the intra-district road network has improved; we are working on farm-to-market roads. The irrigation system has become better. Due to our focus on the agriculture sector — we introduced the idea of fair-pricing — the condition of the people associated with this sector is much better. When we came into power in 2008, there was an acute shortage of wheat. Now we export wheat. It is to our credit that by offering a support price, we gave the farmers an incentive. As a result, the cultivation and production of wheat has increased.

Then, to address the issue of unemployment, the PPP Government in Sindh introduced the Benazir Bhutto Shaheed Youth Development Programme (BBSYDP) in 2008, through which around 300,000 youth were offered four months trade training and a monthly stipend to help them find jobs in employable sectors.

For poverty alleviation, we launched the Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP). Through this we support millions of families with an income of less than Rs 6,000 a month, by paying them a stipend on a monthly basis, and the results are evident. And in regard to our performance at the national level, remember we led the process of constitutional amendments and brought power back to the parliament and the elected representatives.

You take credit for the support prices offered to growers of rice, cotton, wheat and sugarcane in Sindh. However, in the past two years, the Sindh government has dithered over announcing these prices, and the growers have suffered as a result of the delay. The result is, in lower Sindh, supplies today are less than the demand.

No, this not true. There is an increase in the rates linked to the market. Even last year, despite minor hassles, sugarcane growers got Rs 200 per 40 kg. When we came into power in 2008, the price of wheat per 40 kg was around Rs 400-500. We increased the support price by Rs 300, and it reached around Rs 800. The growers were encouraged, and more lands came under cultivation. Today Sindh’s total production of wheat is around 4.5 million metric tons. The Sindh government procures 1.1 million metric tons from Sindh’s farmers and stores it to provide it to the consumer when required, thereby keeping the price under control. We take a Rs 40 billion loan from the State Bank of Pakistan for the procurement and pay interest on it.

It was the same case with rice, and cotton. If the international export price is low, it negatively affects the local market. We want the growers to get a fair price. The federal government doesn’t offer this support. This initiative is taken by the provinces. The price hike is linked to the international market: cotton reached Rs 3,400 per 40 kg this year, and rice is at Rs 900, as compared to last year’s price of Rs 600.

Meanwhile, the federal government, despite the fact that growers have suffered in the last years, withdrew its subsidy on fertilisers. This was a criminal act. It was the protests and criticism by the PPP which forced them to provide the facility once again. We realise how crucial the agriculture sector is and we strive for the growers’ rights.

And yet, despite all of this, you lost in the 2013 general elections — a real come-down considering in 2008 you came to power at the centre, and were part of the government in all the provinces.

The Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) managed to win elections in Punjab and formed the government there for a second term; we won in Sindh and formed the government there for the second time. In 2008, we accept the PML-N won a majority of seats in Punjab, but it was not able to form the government without our help.

As far as the 2013 general elections are concerned — the manner in which they were conducted is a known fact. Imran Khan says, there were cases of rigging and the results were manipulated through the Returning Officers (ROs). That is why, we termed it an ROs’ election. Ex-Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry influenced the ROs and the election staff. He didn’t have the right to call a meeting of the ROs, but he did, abusing his authority, and paving the way for a PML-N victory. The Chief Election Commissioner, Fakhruddin G. Ibrahim had to admit that he was helpless, and he quit his post.

As far as the PPP defeat in the Punjab is concerned, the same game was played there in 1997 when Benazir Bhutto was alive and was leading the party. As a result, the PPP got only one NA seat in 1997 and had only four MPAs in the Punjab. Also, the PPP, along with the MQM and the ANP was stopped from campaigning unlike the PML-N, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) and other parties.

Imran Khan was overtly sympathetic towards the militant groups, and Shahbaz Sharif kept requesting them to spare Punjab from attacks. So they didn’t threaten them. For the PPP, after the kidnapping of Yusuf Raza Gillani’s son, Ali Haider Gillani, and serious threats to others in the party, it was not possible to campaign like the others.

But now all the parties maintain they are against terrorism and no one ostensibly supports those militant groups.

This is because of the sagacity of forces like the PPP and its leadership who were vocal against terrorist elements. Asif Zardari demanded an All-Parties Conference after the Army Public School (APS) attack, which paved the way for a consensus against terrorism and provided support to the armed forces in their decisive action against terrorist elements. There were many attacks before the APS, but the PML-N government and other parties were reluctant to come forward.

One reason for the PML-N’s success is said to be their pro-development approach and their pursuit of mega-projects. Do you concur that PPP lags behind on this front?

PPP talks about the larger national interest as it represents all the federating units. Take for example, hydel power projects like the controversial Kalabagh Dam. The issue has, for decades, been a source of serious contention among the provinces. Successive governments, from that of Ziaul Haq’s to Musharraf’s have contributed to intensifying these differences. The dam has been opposed since the Zia era, but Musharraf revived the issue once again. The provincial assemblies passed resolutions against it, and all the provinces, except Punjab, opposed it. We kept reiterating our ‘Kalabagh mantra’ — ie go upstream from Tarbela and construct the Diamer Bhasha Dam there instead. We told Musharraf that since he had become the blue-eyed boy of the West, was getting billions of dollars from there, and had no lack of monetary resources, he should do this. But years were wasted without his government building a single project.

Residents of Tharparkar are protesting against the construction of the Ghurano Dam — a component of the proposed coal project — because it will affect their livelihood, cause a displacement of people and also because of the danger it can pose to the environment. In light of this reality, how can you justify this project?

As far as the proposed Ghurano Dam is concerned, we have offered compensation to the inhabitants of the area earmarked for the project. There are a few people who have not yet accepted the offers made — i.e. alternative lands and residential facilities, a satellite town, etc — despite several attempts by us to reach them. They might have been manipulated, someone might be provoking them, they may have an agenda, or malafide interests. There are nomads scattered around on these lands, where cultivation has always been reliant on rains. We are engaged in negotiations with these people and hope this issue will be dealt with and sorted out. We cannot backtrack on our plans.

Before us, during the Musharraf era, all these lands were allotted to private parties for setting up a coal project, with Memorandums of Understanding (MoUs) having being signed to this end. Not a single acre of land was left. But no one abided by the pledges made. Not a single brick was laid.

When we came into power, we cancelled all the allotments and called an international conference on the issue, but the response was not encouraging. The confidence of international parties was clearly shattered. That is why we invested our own resources; we approached local groups, and engaged Engro in this project. We will show the world that energy can be produced from our coal resources.

And what about the degradation to the environment as a result of it?

I do not rule out the environmental effect. We know it is open pit mining, one needs to go deeper and huge mounds of sands will be unearthed as a result. But in the larger interest, and in order to exploit our indigenous natural resources, we have to do it. Meanwhile, we can research how to use different measures to reduce the adverse effects on the environment. There might be other countries which have stopped using coal, and have resorted to alternative sources of energy. But to date the World Bank has placed no restriction on the use of coal for power production, even though it opposes big dams because of the huge expense their construction incurs, and their short life spans.

On December 27, the Sindh High Court formed a judicial commission to probe the allegations of mismanagement in sanitation and potable water supplies from the Northern Sindh Urban Services Corporation (NSUSC) responsible for providing services to eight districts. Don’t you think these reports contribute to the image of poor governance by the PPP?

I think we need to revisit the history of the NSUSC to understand the issue. It was not formed by the PPP government; the previous government had constituted it to acquire a loan from the Asian Development Bank (ADB). It started functioning in 2008 or 2009, and its task was to bring modern technology to sanitation and water supply. The major component of the ADB loan to NSUSC was for providing the equipment for sanitation, and not to engage in services, as there were municipal workers present for services delivery. The problem arose when bonuses were offered to sanitation workers operating under the NSUSC. A lawyer filed a case against the misuse of funds on the basis that workers were getting bonuses for work they were not doing, while sanitation and a potable water supply were still not being provided to the citizens.

The entire NSUSC issue has been discussed on the floor of the Sindh Assembly. The court has taken notice now; but why have they ignored the issue of polluted water falling into the rice canal in Larkana?

Coming to Karachi, the elected mayor Waseem Akhtar has been complaining about how the powers of the mayor have been curtailed and he has not been taken on board on projects in Karachi.

In the laws pertaining to local government, the powers of the elected mayor, district chairmen, and all the elected representatives have been clearly described. If the federal government has started mega projects in Karachi and is funding them, why should the provincial government object? Similarly, if the provincial government has started projects in different districts, as in Karachi, that too at a time when the local governments were not functional, why should we have to wait for them to function. Then, you will be criticising us for doing nothing in Karachi.

We are criticised for giving the solid waste management contract to a Chinese company, but why shouldn’t we get assistance from the private companies in doing this? Even Mustafa Kamal had, in his term as the city mayor, signed a similar agreement with Chinese companies. So this criticism should be directed towards him, not me.

Bilawal Bhutto Zardari is contesting a by-election from Larkana. How will this help the party in Sindh and the rest of the country?  

Bilawal is contesting the election from the constituency where both his maternal grandfather and mother contested elections, it’s his home district, and I hope he will win by a huge margin. Bilawal has galvanised the youth in Sindh, and he’s now on a campaign in Punjab, and will go across Pakistan. By reaching parliament, he will gain experience, and speaking from the floor of parliament will give his voice more power.

PPP has been criticising other political parties of lotacracy (horse trading) by luring members of other political parties to their fold, as the PML-N did in their last term by supporting a forward bloc in the PML-Q. Aren’t you doing the same thing with the PML-F in Sindh?

Absolutely not. What the PML-N did in the Punjab Assembly with the PML-Q during their last term was to get the support of those members after they were elected on PML-Q tickets. In Sindh, it was only when those wanting to join the PPP resigned from the PML-Q that they were given PPP tickets. There shouldn’t be any objections to this.

Ayaz Latif Palejo of the Qaumi Awami Tehreek (QAT) has accused the PPP of causing a split within his party by influencing his father, Rasool Bux Palejo against his party.

If Ayaz Latif Palejo couldn’t take care of his own father who taught him politics, if his father is upset with him and has expressed his disappointment, why is he blaming the PPP for this?

There are nationalist groups in Sindh who do not participate in the elections, such as the Jiye Sindh Qaumi Mahaz (JSQM), and there are reports that their activists have gone missing because of their opposition to development projects.

The JSQM’s leadership clearly states that they are separatists and want to separate Sindh. They are seen in that perspective. They don’t contest elections. JSQM links itself to Saeen GM Syed, but there is a problem with their narrative. GM Syed sahib’s grandson and heir, Jalal Mehmood Shah, has been contesting elections and supports the Pakistan Muslim League-Functional (PML-F), which is by no means a nationalist party. These people have other problems.

There are reports that the PPP leadership has agreed to amend the recently passed forced conversions bill. Don’t you think this will be damaging for the PPP?

These reports are grossly exaggerated. There is a problematic clause in the bill. It says, “No person under the age of 18 can be converted to any other religion.” This emphasis on ‘no person’ has created a misunderstanding. Voluntary conversion has not been restricted by any law, and forced conversion is prohibited in Islam. If a mother voluntarily converts to Islam, and she has minor children, is it possible that her minor children will not be converted? Marriage below the age of 18 years was already prohibited under the law. We have followed the process. The bill was sent to the governor, he has sent it back for review. We have not yet amended the bill, but we have already been criticised for changing the law.

Ali Arqam main domain is Karachi: Its politics, security and law and order