The underdevelopment of Swat-Kohistan
Swat-Kohistan is in the extreme north of the Swat Valley extending to Khanida valley in the district of Indus Kohistan, Chitral and Ghizer district of Gilgit-Baltistan.
Though the area is blessed with natural beauty, it is cursed in equal measure by acute poverty, illiteracy, a shambolic infrastructure and natural disasters. Poverty in the area is above 85 percent while education is virtually non-existent. In males, the literacy rate is barely 12 percent whereas in females, it is below 2 percent.
The area, however, has great potential. If properly exploited, not only could it develop itself but could contribute to the development of rest of the country as well. It has two main resources: water and forests. Both are being wasted or misused.
Three decades ago, an initiative had been taken in order to conserve the natural resources and foster socio-economic development of the people of the area. This was the Swiss-funded project Kalam Integrated Development Project (KIDP). It was launched in 1981 and functioned till 1998. Initially, the project was confined to Kalam and its adjacent areas but later it was extended to other areas such as Bahrain and Madyan for a couple of years. Along with the main objectives of conservation of forests and development of agriculture, a significant component of the intervention was its Village Development Program.
KIDP was abruptly stopped in 1998 and nothing was put in place to replace it and take up the work that its was undertaking. At the eleventh hour, a few of the village organisations were capacitated formally with much haste. Owing to the lack of human resource development, the project could not yield impacts comparable to the huge amount of funds funnelled into it as most of the funds had to be spent on administration and the topmost management had to be hired from abroad.
Now as this Switzerland of Pakistan is threatened by poverty, migration (owing to the lack of livelihood), waste of resources, neglect and lack of education and infrastructure, the need is to reinvent it through government intervention. This way, we can reclaim the paradise we have lost.
The first thing that needs immediate attention is the infrastructure. For instance, the main road along with the side routes into the sub-valleys to high pastures and lakes should be fixed post-haste as this could impact many other development projects. Along with repairing the infrastructure, steps need to be taken to protect the environment as well. Many development projects often ignore the negative environmental impact that they will have; thus, being a detriment rather than a benefit to the region and its people. Development of the area must not come at the cost of its natural wealth and ecological balance. Tourism is another area just waiting to be explored. For instance, promotion of winter sports could prove to be a big attraction in the sub-valleys. This is but one example. The area is an embarrassment of riches when it comes to development possibilities for tourism.
Another area that must be paid attention to is the potential for generating cheap hydel electricity in the area. While leaving the sub-streams from the sub-valleys for the use of the people, the main river i.e. the Swat River can be utilised for mega projects. The feasibility studies for at least four mega projects on the River Swat have been conducted and they posit potential power generation of about 700 megawatts collectively. These are Kalam-Asrit Power Project (197 megawatts), Asrit-Kedam (215 megawatts), Kedam-Madyan (197 megawatts) and Mitiltan (84 megawatts). All these projects lie on the River Swat and do not have many adverse effects.
If such projects do take off, a 10 percent royalty from the income of these projects must be reserved for the area as a developmental fund. As to how to utilise this money, a constitutional board based on public private partnership should be formed exclusively for the area called Swat-Kohistan Development Board (SKDB). This writer has come to know that proposal for such development programmes have been pursued by certain officials in the province. It is essential that the local community be kept in the loop so as to avoid any conflict of interest. Otherwise, such moves by bureaucrats would be dismissed as mere tactics to secure jobs after retirement. The impoverished and exploited people are often sceptical of such programmes. Thus, the process must be kept transparent and participatory to ensure that people’s rights are protected or the people will view the measures as another in a long-line of state deception. A representative SKDB will be a step towards mitigating that.
An immediate source of funds for the proposed board could be 10 percent of the forest development fund. As of now, millions from this fund are missing. Nobody knows what has happened to the money and where it has been spent. So, a better use for the money would be to channel it towards this purpose. A great chunk of forest revenue is from this area; thus, it is only fair that it be re-appropriated for the region. Some kind of rules must be formulated which set out a framework for spending the funds on the area from where they were generated.
Further discussion is needed on the structure, jurisdiction and constitution of the proposed board but it must be first and foremost recognised that the most important thing is the participation of the most significant stakeholder: the community.
The writer is a researcher and civil society activist based in Bahrain Swat where he heads IBT, a local organization. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org