Towards the end of 2021, thousands of people in Gwadar, Balochistan protested for their right to livelihoods that seem endangered due to the ‘developmental’ putsch in the southern port town. The sit-in continued for a month and for the first time in Gwadar’s history, women also took to the streets. The lack of clean drinking water and the abysmal social services in the region had bedeviled the local population but now they face the stark prospect of losing livelihoods due to the mechanization of fishing and entry of larger corporate players. Gwadar has witnessed increased operations of fishing trawlers from the neighbouring Sindh province and China that are threatening local incomes. For years, the local Baloch population has been complaining about their non-inclusion in the medium- and long-term development plans.
The China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a major part of the Belt and Road Initiative, potentially opens tremendous opportunities for infrastructure development and economic growth. But the cost of such development is an old theme in development research and practice that continues to inform policy debates and programming globally. Pakistan is no exception.
The sustainable development goals (SDGs) include preservation and expansion of livelihoods as a key objective. The right of indigenous populations to their resources and inclusion in decision-making is part of many United Nations agreements and covenants. Therefore, the current mobilization in Gwadar becomes even more significant.
Why do human rights matter in development? I teach a course Rethinking International Development at the Cornell Institute for Public Affairs wherein I invite students to think about this question based on the various approaches that place rights at their center and approach ‘progress’ and social change as the realization of basic citizen rights. Without treating the beneficiaries of projects and programmes as ‘citizens’ and exploring the state and notion of citizenship, investments in human development are meaningless.
Development that is often considered as a consistent increase in per capita national income and the macro economic growth rates often hide the necessity of freedom, mobility and equality of opportunity. The current wave of authoritarianism across the globe is a testament of income and wealth inequality that has reached an alarming proportion. The world has not been that unequal for over a century and such inequities of the current economic order perhaps best reflected in the climate emergency – is generating disaffection, contributing to the rise of neo-fascism and require us to rethink the model of development that is risking the future of our planet and its inhabitants.
Studies in different contexts have demonstrated that investing in human rights-based approaches not only result in effective community development but also open up the possibilities of structural change. Therefore, Pakistan must reframe its national development plans in the context of citizen rights, equality of citizenship and the renewal of the social contract between the state and its subjects.
In early 1990s, Pakistan’s Supreme Court in the case Shehla Zia and others versus WAPDA examined Article 9 of the Constitution of Pakistan, that guarantees that no person shall be deprived of life or liberty save in accordance with law. The Court interpreted that the word ”life” widely and upheld that it may include clothing, shelter, education, health care, clean atmosphere, proper food and unpolluted environment. In this case, Water and Power Development Authority (WAPDA) was installing a grid station in a neighbourhood. Civil society representatives went to the court and invoked fundamental rights and the court decreed that a person was entitled to protection of law from being exposed of hazards of electromagnetic fields or any other such hazards which may be due to the installation and construction of any grid station or such like installations.
Later, in 1996 another judgement of the Supreme Court of Pakistan enforced the fundamental right -the right to life- by ordering to fix the sewerage system in Bahawalpur city of Southern Punjab. Desilting and cleaning of the sewerage system and placing missing manholes were construed as extensions of the fundamental right of the citizens.
Such victories however pale in comparison with the consistent violation of rights. Senseless infrastructure development or cutting trees in cities and towns and dysfunctional zoning processes are fast turning Pakistan’s ever-expanding cities into toxic environments.
Lahore, the second largest city, has been declared as the most polluted city in the world according to IQAir, a global environmental think tank — with grave consequences for public health, productivity and even the future economic potential of the metropolis.
The pollutant-measuring Air Quality Index (AQI) reached record levels during the last weeks of December. In November, AQI crossed 500 which is clear public health hazard confirmed by environmental protection authorities. A wide array of factors contribute to the emissions all year round that are a result of weak regulation, governance failures and dysfunctional city administration.
As millions in Lahore brave the consequences of life-threatening pollution, the upcoming Ravi Riverfront Urban Development Project is likely to further inhibit the realisation of citizen rights. The project envisions development on both banks of the Ravi River along a 46 km long stretch divided into different Zones including a residential area that will house part of the huge population of Lahore. The areas identified for the project along the banks of Ravi include many residential settlements, small industries, and agricultural land belonging to thousands of low to middle-income people of Lahore and its suburbs. One hundred thousand persons belonging to 15,000 households are likely to be moved during this process. The natural environment of the riverbank and surrounding arable land runs the risk of irreversible degradation.
The development model from Lahore to Gwadar is questionable as it repeats the mistakes of the past and undermines the constitutional guarantees that citizens are entitled to. This situation can only be rectified if a rights’ framework and not the interests of narrow corporate elites drive policy and planning.
First published in UNDP Pakistan’s “Development Advocate”, December 2021 issue.