Ex-tribal districts continue to suffer

A cruel joke has been played with the development funds, writes Farhatullah Babar

Ex-tribal districts continue to suffer
In 2018, when the tribal districts were merged in the adjoining province, polls were held to elect their representatives to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provincial assembly and a massive development plan was announced, hopes were raised that at long last the woes of its people were coming to an end. These hopes were further strengthened when it was claimed that the militants’ back had been broken, normalcy had returned to the area and the internally displaced families were coming back to their homes and businesses which were being rebuilt. People seemed to take a sigh of relief.

Unfortunately this sense of relief was did not last long. Two years later, those hopes have not yet materialised. As a matter of fact, the situation has gotten even worse for the people of merged tribal districts.

Take the case of internally displaced people running into tens of thousands. Their homes and businesses, which were destroyed in the operations, have not been rebuilt. The uprooted families have not been allowed to return. Indeed, the Bakkakhel camp on the outskirts of Bannu, the largest of the camps housing several thousands of displaced families, is out of bound for outsiders lest the inmates pour out their hearts’ lament to any visitor. Last year, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) sent a fact-finding mission to the tribal areas. The team, of which the present writer was also a member, was not allowed to meet inmates of the camp, nor permitted to go beyond the check post into Miranshah.

North and South Waziristan are the two most affected tribal districts ravaged by the war on terror. The affected people have been holding protest demonstrations not only in their own districts but also in Peshawar and DI Khan. They have not yet succeeded in drawing the attention of the authorities. The protestors have also been levelling allegations of massive corruption in the distribution of rehabilitation funds.

The claims that militants’ back has been broken and the areas cleared of all types of militants have proved illusory at best and downright lie at worst. The residents of these two districts complain of mysterious resurrection of what are commonly known as ‘good Taliban,’ the supporters of the Haqqani network and members of so-called peace committees. There is a strong perception that the Haqqani network is not only tolerated but also aided by the state agencies for its potential in advancing the state’s security policies. The network in turn extracts its pound of flesh by supporting Tehrik Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in some areas for selected purposes.

A cruel joke has been played with the development funds. A huge chunk of the funds meant for development schemes for the internally displaced people this year was quietly transferred to the military in the name of ‘security enhancement.’

The approved budget for the current year had earmarked Rs32.5 billion each for special development programs and for ‘security enhancement,’ a term not explained in publicly available documents as to what it means. A report quietly issued by the Planning Commission last Friday, however, revealed that while the allocation for development schemes for internally displaced people had been reduced to Rs17 billion, that of ‘security enhancement’ had been enhanced to Rs53 billion.

No reason has been given as to what necessitated sacrificing development at the altar of ‘enhanced security.’ An official has been quoted saying that it had been done with approval of the Economic Coordination Committee of the Cabinet. There is no explanation for this travesty beyond that the cabinet has so decided.

Officials may claim that the development fund was grossly underutilised as only Rs5 billion had been spent so far and that was why it was transferred to the military. But this is no explanation. Why only the development allocation and not the allocation for ‘security enhancement’ underutilised? More importantly, why transfer the unutilised funds to military and not to, say, fighting corona virus?

Just when the Planning Commission report about transferring development funds of tribal areas to the military became public, the prime minister appealed to the world and international financial institutions for financial assistance in fighting corona virus. He also made another appeal to expatriate Pakistanis to contribute generously towards fighting the pandemic.

The prime minister’s appeal is unlikely to be heeded. Half a century ago, French philosopher and writer Jean Paul Sartre said that a people are what they choose to be. “We are our choices,” he said. We seem to have made a conscious decision to be a security-driven, paranoid state instead of a welfare-driven state. Who will listen to the pleas of a prime minister of such a state?

The corona virus pandemic and lockdowns is fast changing the ways people will conduct themselves in all fields of human endeavour. In ‘digital Pakistan’ access to high speed internet has become a critical right but it has been denied to the people of tribal areas. Security considerations again seem to have trumped tribal youths’ basic right to distant learning. People have protested but demands for access to 3G and 4G internet have been ignored. There is no official explanation as to why it is being denied. Mobile phone towers were recently blown up in Waziristan when the chorus demanding high speed internet became louder. Surprisingly there has been no official word on it. Why?

The writer is a former senator.