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A ‘Charter of Development’

TURMOIL and mayhem need not be an essential fallout of the present political transition. Earlier, during a similarly complex crisis, two exiled political leaders in 2006 had agreed on the Charter of Democracy (COD).

Despite several setbacks, the COD played an important part in providing bipartisan consensus on the direction of legislative decisions, reflected in the 18th, 20th and 25th constitutional amendments, the seventh NFC Award, and special status for Gilgit-Baltistan, among others. Given the country’s precarious economic condition, this is the time for political leaders to collectively craft a covenant for an accelerated and sustainable economic turnaround. The country needs a ‘Charter of Development’ to lay the foundation for transformational change through climate-resilient and low-carbon development.

The COD was the first agreement between two large national political parties on the future of democracy. It set the tone for a rights-based approach to politics by committing greater economic and political powers to the provinces and even to local governments. This and many other expectations, particularly dealing with a code of conduct and a truth and reconciliation commission, remain unfulfilled.

The recent PPP-MQM-P ‘long-term partnership’ agreement on the ‘Charter for the Rights of the People of Sindh’ builds upon the COD. It shows how political parties can outline the contours of economic development in the midst of political jockeying. It was endorsed by all opposition parties, creating the possibility for similar rights-based agreements with leaders of the smaller provinces.

The 18-point PPP-MQM-P agreement can be divided into two categories. Most points cover primarily local issues such as enhancing quotas and jobs up to grade 15. This category reflects the dictum, ‘all politics are local’. These points show how Sindh’s politics in general and the MQM-P’s in particular are still held hostage to the post-Partition agenda of integration of Mohajirs in the local economy through misplaced affirmative actions.

The agreement also includes the introduction of local government in the province, as per the Sindh High Court’s decision. This is an unmet promise of the COD on which the PML-N also failed in Punjab. Not having fully functional and empowered local governments will stunt economic development and increase climate vulnerabilities. It is only at this level that the country can build the foundation of climate adaptation and climate mitigation and their co-benefits.

The PPP-MQM-P partnership will need to address issues in light of long-term climate trends.

The second part constitutes the core of the agreement. The fundamental aim is “to promote social justice and secure economic well-being” of the people of Sindh, “especially those who are left behind”, a notion borrowed from the SDGs, even if the agreement has not made any reference to them. These points focus mostly on long-term urban development issues at the operational level: a) prevent ghettoisation, b) channelise urban growth, c) a master plan for Karachi d) a transportation system, and, e) rehabilitation infrastructure in the city’s industrial areas. While these are important, the agreement does not show what transformational benefits will accrue if implemented.

Urban-rural bifurcation is only an administrative measure. Every urban settlement has an ecological footprint that goes well beyond its boundaries. Only an integrated approach can help deliver sustainability. Yet, the agreement is totally silent on rural development and on such issues as water distribution, salinity, groundwater degradation, malnutrition, stunting and decreased agricultural productivity. These are core development issues for Sindh and every other province in Pakistan. While MQM-P pretends that the urban settlements can survive without a hinterland, the PPP, despite its huge intellectual reserve, has missed an opportunity to weave into the agreement the growing climate vulnerability that is detrimental to the economy and people’s rights in Sindh, as elsewhere in the country.

For climate resilience, the PPP-MQM-P partnership will need to address these issues in light of the long-term climate trends (decreasing rainfall and increasing temperatures, droughts and seawater intrusion) and recurring threats such as heatwaves, tropical storms, epidemics and urban flooding. Likewise, no charter on the rights of people can gloss over land grabbing, encroachments, mining of riverbeds, tanker mafias and street crime.

Finally, the agreement has not addressed the stubborn challenge of determining the federal, provincial and local governments’ roles and responsibilities necessary for providing essential environmental or municipal services such as potable water, solid waste, sewerage, health and urban transportation services, or clean air. Without constantly stepping on each other’s toes, the signatories needed to craft a vision for dynamic urban development. Starting with Karachi, but also incorporating other places like Faisalabad, Peshawar, Rawalpindi, Multan, Hyderabad etc, cities need to become engines of growth that build robust backward and forward linkages with the hinterland. For this, the country needs a new development paradigm to serve as the basis of a ‘Charter of Development’.

The COD is a unique example in Pakistan’s democratic history of creating common ground and constructing a shared vision. Its declared purpose was strengthening democracy and restoring the country’s constitutional character. Development was not the fundamental consideration.

During the last 16 years, more than two-thirds of the COD’s 36 points have been implemented, fully or partially. While it may be an opportune time to seek COD’s renewal and endorsement by other political parties, new existential threats posed by climate change have emerged. The mainstream political parties now need to co-create a shared direction for climate-smart development. The present political transition offers an important opportunity to build upon the COD experience.

Finally, the road to democracy in Pakistan is littered with alliances, coalitions, long marches and movements, not to mention dharnas and strikes; it is rare that Pakistan’s political parties have worked together to create common ground.

Going forward, such agreements and consensus-building initiatives are important tests of democratic leadership. They will help build the norms and social infrastructure of democracy. Dismissing them as unethical deals or mukmaka can be detrimental. At the time of the signing of the COD, the PTI had not emerged as a national political force. The test for the initial proponents of the COD is to see if they can reach out to PTI leaders for creating necessary common ground for climate-resilient and low carbon development under a ‘Charter of Development’.

Ali Tauqeer Sheikh, "A ‘Charter of Development’," Dawn. 2022-04-14.
Keywords: Political science , Political issues , Political aspects , Political parties , Political leaders