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Navy Objects Diamond Bar Island City Project

30 October, 2006

By Amir Latif


Most of the common Pakistanis, and the business community as well might have had just a glance on a tender notice published in some English and Urdu dailies on April 26 this year inviting offers for development of state-of-the-art cities in two uninhabited islands off Karachi.Understandably, none of the local investors had reportedly shown interest in the respective project namely 'Diamond Bar Island City', and the contract was awarded to a UAE-based company Emaar, with 85 percent equity in the project.

The company will build homes and apartments at Bundal and Buddo Islands over the next 13 years at a cost of 43.135 billion dollars. Pakistan's Port Qasim Authority will hold 15 per cent stake and will provide land for the project.

The decision to allot the twin islands to the UAE-based developer was taken by the country's top economic body, the Economic Coordination Committee of the cabinet in such a hasty and suspicious fashion as even the Sindh government was not informed about that. Besides, the purported invitation of bids was not widely advertised putting the transparency of these mega projects open to question Earlier, the Sindh Chief Minister Dr Arbab Rahim had expressed his ignorance about the much publicised plan of developing 'a new city of international standards' on the threshold of Port Qasim. Dr Arbab said he had heard about such a plan but the provincial government had not yet been taken into confidence in this regard. 'the Sindh government has not even been consulted about the plan,' he said.He stated that he would be taking up the issue with the federal government.

However, on the very next day he changed his statement saying the project (as usual) was in interest of Pakistan and Sindh, and that he was consulted on the issue by the federal government. Sources privy to the chief minister house told weekly

Pulse that Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz and other federal government high-ups came hard on the chief minister for issuing such a hard-hitting statement as regards the diamond city project, and asked him to 'deny his remarks'. It was a mere misunderstanding',the chief minister told the newsmen just after 24 hours.

Keeping aside the 'misunderstanding' between the federal and the Sindh governments, the decision raises a number of questions relating to the desirability of the project. The first objection came from Pakistan Navy, which surprisingly remained oblivious of the whole exercise till the matter was highlighted by print and electronic media.

According to the sources, the navy high-ups have termed the project dangerous for the country's defence. But, it seems if the navy's objection will be thrown into dustbin as Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz's sharp and somewhat angry reaction to the navy's objection reflects the government's intention. ' We have a culture of objection in Pakistan. If you are going to do something good even, you will have to face a series of objections from different quarters', an apparently displeased Mr Aziz responded to a question asked by a journalist at a press conference at the governor house last week.

' If your intention is wrong, then you can't do anything, but our intention is clear and we know we are doing a right thing for the country', he maintained.

The prime minister also rejected the statement issued by the chief minister Sindh saying he had not been taken into confidence about the diamond city project. ' He (chief minister) could not understand the question actually ( asked by the newsmen as regards the project). So, it was nothing, but a mere misunderstanding', Aziz said.

Secondly, there is the a dispute over ownership between the Port Qasim Authority and the Sindh Board of Revenue. The Sindh Board of Revenue insists that the islands are provincial property over which the Port Qasim Authority has no title.

Lately , the city government Karachi has also entered the fray, claiming that it signed an MoU in October 2002 with a Thai firm to set up a 'technology city' on the same site. Given that neither the city government's MoU nor the Port Qasim Authority's purported invitation of bids in April this year were widely advertised, the transparency of these mega projects is open to question.

According to the PM's adviser on finance, the Port Qasim Authority project will, on completion, 'be just like another Dubai.' Be that as it may, Karachi's immediate needs lie elsewhere. Housing industry experts say that instead of luxury apartments and resorts, the focus should be on affordable housing for the poor and adequate water, sanitation and electricity. What the city needs is decent roads, not a $50 million bridge connecting the mainland with a playground of the wealthy.

Lost in these extravagant plans is any consideration of the people's right to access the island and its waters, for purposes of fishing or any other reason. Also being glossed over is the potential environmental damage, particularly the impact on marine life and mangroves.

Under the Pakistan Environmental Protection Act 1997 and Pakistan Environmental Protection Agency (Review of IEE and EIA) Regulations 2000, an environmental impact assessment (EIA) is required by law for any 'urban development and tourism' scheme of this scale. New 'federal or provincial highways or major roads' with a total cost of Rs50 million and above, such as the proposed bridge, are also subject to an EIA. Though several ministers had objected to various aspects of the project during the recent Economic Coordination Committee (ECC) meeting, it was still approved with some observations about redressing the objections. Concerns expressed about the huge project range from ownership of the two islands to operational requirements of the navy.

Matters relating to the demarcation of the islands, dispute resolution mechanism and non-performance liabilities in the event of non-execution of the project are some of the other main concerns. A major question is whether the shipping ministry has the capacity to look into all the areas before embarking on the huge project, which would be developed on the pattern of the Diamond Bar City in the United States.

According to official documents, the shipping ministry had informed the ECC that Port Qasim Authority (PQA) planned to a combination of residential, commercial, and leisure real estate projects, industrial parks, free trade zone and port terminals over 12,000 acres. What does one say when a country as underdeveloped and backward as Pakistan wishes to develop supposedly state-of-the-art cities in two uninhabited islands off its coastline and even hands them over to a foreign

development firm' Should one be delighted at this, given that this means that foreign investment will come into the country, that jobs will be created when the project gets underway and that once completed it will provide the country with cities just like that pearl across the Gulf, Dubai'

In any case, these are procedural objections. Various NGOs, environmental groups and especially the Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum have more basic and well-grounded objections to the project and these should have been considered before deciding to hand over the islands to a foreign developer.

For instance, it has been rightly pointed out that the development on the islands may well have a very adverse impact on the local fishermen communities because of the construction activity that will take place. Also, once the project is in place it is bound to pollute the area around the islands and it is likely that the pollution will spread far beyond the islands affecting the marine life in the area and the potential catch for local fishermen.

Another argument that goes against such development is that it does nothing for the ordinary person who lives along the city's coastline and is geared for providing entertainment and leisure activities to the very affluent.

The recent statement of newly enlightened moderate, federal minister for tourism, Nilofer Bukhtiar saying that the government is planning to provide all the facilities in line with Bali island of Indonesia with a view to attracting the foreign tourists, should be seen in the same context. For information of a common Pakistan, Bali is one of the world's biggest

prostitution den, where thousands of foreign tourists throng every year to 'avail ' the facilities of disco clubs, bars and prostitution dens.

Nilofer Bukhtiar, who has recently stopped taking Dupatta on her head, has also exhorted the Pakistani women to join the 'profession' of massage, which will not merely resolve their financial problems, but will also help attract the foreign tourists.

The people of Islamic Republic of Pakistan are with their right to ask whether the so-called enlightened and moderate government is taking the country where the children do not know the names of their fathers' Besides, of all places why choose two uninhabited islands off the city's coast for setting up such cities'

One has to say that the whole rather hurried manner in which this project has been undertaken and awarded to a foreign developer smacks of a complete lack of transparency as well as insensitivity to the needs of all stakeholders concerned. This is the way most infrastructure and development projects are being planned in this country: by bureaucrats or ministry officials sitting behind closed doors handing over vast tracts of land to foreign or local developers without conducting the legally-mandated environmental impact assessments and without taking into consideration the views of ordinary people who would be directly affected by the project's construction.

This lack of transparency in decision-making and formulation of policies, and the generally opaque manner of implementing these policies, especially with regard to development, needs to change or else the balance of power within the country -- heavily stacked currently in favour of the elite -- will become even more imbalanced and tilted in favour of the powerful.

End.

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