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The future of Pakistan’s dam fund uncertain following former Chief Justice’s retirement

February 27, 2019
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The future of Pakistan’s dam fund uncertain following former Chief Justice’s retirement

Picture caption: Chairman of Pakistan National Shipping Corporation, Rizwan Ahmed presenting a cheque to Chief Justice of Pakistan, Justice Mian Saqib Nisar (left) for Diamer-Bhasha and Mohmand dams (Picture courtesy: Wikimedia Commons)

Islamabad: The recently retired Chief Justice of Pakistan Saqib Nisar will be remembered for a fair few judgements that the Supreme Court delivered under his watch – for better or worse. Among these were the apex court’s verdict to disqualify former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in July 2017, and its decision to acquit Christian woman Asia Bibi in a blasphemy case in October last year, despite pressure from radical Islamist groups.

Even so, where Saqib Nisar garnered popularity for his words and actions inside the court, his single biggest publicity-generating initiative is the fundraising he started for the Diamer-Bhasha and Mohmand Dams, known popularly as the Dam Fund.

A crippling water crisis has engulfed Pakistan for decades. The Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources reveals that the country will run out of water by the year 2025, which is alarming for a primarily agricultural economy. According to WaterAid, Pakistan is among the 36 most water-stressed countries in the world, and one of the 10 countries with the most number of citizens living without access to clean drinking water. 16 million people in the country use unsafe water.

These facts might underline the dire need for Pakistan to work on water management, but political leaders – especially in the opposition – reiterate that the Dam Fund was always a populist venture.

“While the issue of dam construction is important, it has been politicised so much that those who wanted to develop reservoirs should form their own political party,” said Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) leader Khursheed Shah.

Such criticism was common during Saqib Nisar’s tenure, prompting the former Chief Justice to accuse the critics of dam fund of following “someone else’s agenda”, and even dubbed the criticism of the project itself “treasonous”.

However, where stats for water shortage are gloomy, so are those of the Dam Fund. Until last month, a total of PKR 9.1 billion was collected for the fund, just 0.6 per cent of the total cost needed for the construction of these dams, which is around PKR 1,450 billion. Even if one doesn’t factor in inflation, at this rate Pakistan would only be able to collect the needed funds well into the 22nd Century.

The idea of crowdsourcing such a mammoth project was one of the major reasons the Dam Fund was criticised. However, soon it became evident to the former CJP and Prime Minister Imran Khan that other sources would have to be looked into to fund the dam. Saqib Nisar looked for donations overseas as he urged the Pakistani expats to contribute.

One of Nisar’s last acts in office was to seek investment opportunities for the dam fund in T-bills. “It’s a good start, but now that we have a Dam Fund, we need a dedicated funding source for the project. Taxing bottled water is also a good idea, but the Dam Fund needs more taxations for annual accumulation of funds to make it more feasible,” said former Finance Minister Salman Shah.

However, there has been silent discontent among the masses with regards to the Dam Fund. Many question whether even the ‘donations’ are actually as such given that they include forced salary cuts and other similar deductions. The accusations of the Dam Fund being a populist project further gathered momentum when it was released that as of last month, PKR 30 billion had been spent on its media promotion. The media hype can be gauged by global stars like Akon campaigning for the Dam Fund.

What has also made the Dam Fund controversial is Diamer’s location in the disputed Gilgit- Baltistan (GB) region. The move to link Diamer with Bhasha, which is in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, has also been criticised by the GB locals. “All the water is in Diamer, but all the infrastructure is being built in Bhasha. As things stand, the locals in Gilgit-Baltistan have not been given any reassurance with regards to the royalties from the dam,” said Gilgit-Baltistan Awami Action Committee Chairman Sultan Raees.

Perhaps the biggest question mark over the Dam Fund remains over its ownership following Saqib Nisar’s retirement. How the fund had been affiliated with the former Chief Justice can be gauged by the fact that on the day of his retirement, Pakistan’s leading English daily Dawn published an editorial entitled ‘End the dam fund’. “The new chief justice should now bring it all to a dignified end,” the editorial implored.

Despite the Dam Fund believed to be a populist venture, there have been murmurs of scepticism with regards to its future following Saqib Nisar’s retirement among the masses as well. “The Dam Fund was affiliated with [former] Chief Justice Saqib Nisar, and now after his retirement, we don’t really know what its status is. We don’t know what is going to happen to the money already collected, and how much a chance there is of its misappropriation. Now many are questioning whether crowd-sourcing such a project was a good idea to begin with,” says Lahore-based professor and educationalist Naghmana Shahid.

The Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), the largest opposition party, has been quick to question the Dam Fund’s management of finances as well.

“The amount spent on advertisements for the dam fund is more than the amount collected through it. This must be recovered from [former CJ Saqib Nisar],” said senior PML-N leader and former Interior Minister Ahsan Iqbal.

“We [the PML-N government] spent PKR 122 billion on the land for the dam and another PKR 24 billion for the project. This was done without any donations,” he added. Sources within the judiciary reveal there is a good chance the curtain might come down on the Dam Fund. “Chief Justice Asif Khosa was never a fan of the Dam Fund and it’s unlikely that he would want to continue it with the same enthusiasm as his predecessor,” said a senior Supreme
Court lawyer.

The new Chief Justice hinted at it in his inaugural speech as he said that his focus would be the ‘dam of pending cases’ instead.

 

[The author is an Islamabad-based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters]