THE CONTENTIOUS ISLANDS: YET ANOTHER FEDERAL-PROVINCIAL SCUFFLE

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In the ongoing crises of the pandemic Covid-19, inflation and an anti-government movement, the ruling government has taken a step further in aggravating circumstances for itself. The president of Pakistan Dr. Arif Alvi recently enforced the ordinance for the establishment of Pakistan Islands Development Authority. This step, according to the government, has been taken to develop and manage islands in internal and territorial waters of Pakistan. Its eventual aim was stated to be the urbanization of the islands in Pakistan.

The Sindh based political parties, civil society organizations as well as the ruling provincial government of PPP have expressed their utter dismay and anger over this step by the federal government. The regional newspapers in Sindh reported this news with complete shock as their leading stories. Certain political parties from Sindh strictly castigated the move declaring it as a step to intrude in Sindh’s lands. PPP’s central information secretary Dr. Nafisa Shah, on the behalf of PPP, categorically expressed her party’s opposition and rejection towards the ordinance at every forum.

It is also being circulated in political circles of Sindh that the Sindh government might move a resolution in the Sindh Assembly in order to formally condemn this ordinance. Different nationalist parties, writers, intellectuals and poets have also announced to launch a massive movement against the decision by organizing rallies and demonstrations in various cities and towns if the decision is not taken back. Pakistan Fisher Folk Forum has also expressed its disappointment over the implementation of this ordinance.

This is not the first time that the islands are being snatched as a similar attempt was made in 2007 by the federal government when a Memorandum of Understanding was signed to hand over two islands to Dubai. At that time PPP’s former chairperson Benazir Bhutto had announced a movement against the decision to take over the islands during General Musharraf’s regime in 2007. After protests by the PPP, the national parties and the civil society organizations, the government had taken back the decision.

The attempt to develop the islands is also not a new one. In March, 2013, a prominent developer had signed a joint venture with the companies of American investor Thomas Kramer to develop an Island City on Bundal and Buddo Islands with a cost of $20 billion. It was then envisaged that the project will be developed in a span of five to ten years but the residential area would start being handed over to people in 2016.

The PM Imran Khan is the main patron of the Pakistan Islands Development Authority and is empowered to give general policy directions to the authority. A policy board comprising 11 members has been granted with broad powers and is tasked with the responsibilities of reclamation, master planning, urban planning, and spatial planning for the Bundal and Buddo islands. According to the ordinance passed by the president, all activities related to the islands are to be controlled by the Federal.

However, this ordinance comes in direct contention with the Constitution of Pakistan. It is completely against the spirit of the Constitution (Eighteenth Amendment) Amendment Act, 2010 which anchors maximum power and autonomy to the provinces rather than federal government. If the territorial provisions under the Article 1(2) of the Constitution is brought to view, the only territory belonging to the federal government is that of Islamabad Capital Territory. Federal government does not have the right or access to any other territories whatsoever.

All of this proves that the islands are a property of the Sindh government and the old records also support this notion. If the islands vest in and are a part of Sindh under the Constitution, the federal government cannot, under the ordinance, vest them in the federal government as it has purportedly done under Section 3(1) of the ordinance. Although the Articles 97 and 142 of the Constitution do grant certain powers to the government in the form of a Federal Legislative List. However, The abolition of the Concurrent Legislative List and a modest Federal Legislative List have reduced federal involvement in the affairs of the provinces.

There are certain economic and environmental considerations as well towards the development of the islands. The Real Estate developers and their inmates among the ruling elite have long had their eyes on the islands. The islands in contention have substantial ecological importance to them. They are a part of the Indus Delta where the mangrove forest cover is a breeding ground for shrimp and other shellfish. Thousands of fisher folk depend on these islands for various fishing-related activities that make up their livelihood. But the ones who hold the reins of power, these islands are just another multibillion-rupee fortune and not some indispensable livelihood.

Imran Khan had offered dialogues with the Sindh government by ordering governor Sindh Imran Ismail to hold talks with them. But the Sindh government has clearly refused to hold any negotiations on the matter unless the ordinance implemented by the government is revoked. The Sindh government had issued a letter in July 2020 in which the Land Utilization Department had consented to the federal government to take custody of both the Bundal and Buddo islands. But the government withdrew this letter in October 2020 taking back that consent form.

Apparently, the ordinance is to be treated as invalid and is a shameless infringement of the constitutional rights and patrimony of the Sindh government to the islands. Its secretive promulgation without any discussion in the Parliament or in the national constitutional consultative and coordination bodies also points up to the bad faith of the federal government.

Ruling government is currently unable to control the intractable inflation which is on a constant rise in the country. A strong and united Opposition is on the move on an anti-government movement and this ordinance is most likely going to increase the movement amid the federal-provincial skirmish. It is best for the government to withdraw this ordinance if it is to stop the growing conundrums in its bucket.

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