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The power of the local

Chitral, with its gushing springs and awe-inspiring mountains, has all the credentials to become one of the best summer resorts for national and international tourism in Pakistan. Anyone with even a modicum of aesthetic sense would find solace in the highlands, gorges and pastures surrounded by the art-loving and cultured people of Chitral. Envy, competitiveness, hatred, jealously and intrigue lose their meaning in a life that strives to maintain the commune of coexistence in Kalash Valley.

Thanks to our demagogues of the self-righteous ideology of religious piety, the indigenous community’s forced conversion is turning them into an intolerant lot. It also involves the commodification of local culture. Even development agencies have exploited this indigenousness as a sellable proposal to donors.

With all its serenity and silence, Chitral is losing the peace and pluralism with the advent of sectarian politics that cuts across the traditionally cemented forces of art and culture. Among the people of Chitral, there is an increased feeling of being excluded from the process of development as the non-locals tend to control local businesses and trade.

The local intelligentsia is also sceptical of the role of social development agencies who have not been able to create a viable civil society movement. Islamuddin, a writer, intellectual and educationist from Chitral, states that: “instead of promoting the concept of citizenship, some NGOs have been engaged in dolling out grants and handouts to local people. This has resulted in instilling a parasitic mindset and dependence syndrome among the local people. There are very few attempts to invest in promoting human capital development and local entrepreurship which could bring about transformation in the area”.

He suggests that NGOs should focus on promoting local entrepreurship in the sectors of comparative advantage, such as fish farming, handicraft, fruit processing, skill development and herbal medicine. A local development practitioner suggests that in the wake of CPEC’s impending economic opportunities, the government and civil society must co-invest to create a development fund for skill development and entrepreurship among the local youth.

In addition to development challenges, the people of Chitral face an existential threat from climate-induced changes.  Abrupt changes in precipitation, melting glaciers, deforestation and the looming threats of seismic activity increase the vulnerabilities of Chitral’s people.

The oft-repeated slogan of ‘Naya Pakistan’ does not seem to work well in the case of Chitral.  There are some reforms in the local administration, governance and the police structure. But the physical infrastructure – including roads, schools buildings and health centres – are in a deplorable condition. In a district with a total area of 14,000 square kilometres, it is difficult to find a paved road as most of the road infrastructure was demolished during the floods of 2015 and has yet to be reconstructed.

Those who vie to control the natural riches and the economic potential of Chitral propagate vitriolic ideologies of hatred and divide to achieve economic control through political mileage. Under the visible silence of the art-loving people of Chitral, the peace is eroding fast. According to a local development expert, the very survival of people is at stake now.

The mortality rate has increased over the years and there is a surge in ailments like hypertension, diabetes and cardiac disease among the young people of Chitral. Stomach ulcers, cancer and hepatitis C are on the rise amid the large supply of low-quality food items from the down country. Traditional and healthy dietary practices, including the intake of organic fiber-rich food, have been replaced by substandard and unhygienic food items supplied from down country. According to a local nutritionist, unhygienic food items are processed at local factories in Hazara with no quality checks before they are sold in Chitral. These food traders mint money at the cost of the lives of people and there is no mechanism of quality assurance in place. No action has been taken against the processors and suppliers of adulterated food items.

Chitral needs serious attention from the proponents of a new Pakistan along with the federal government and civil society to avert further damage and address the real challenges of a burgeoning young population. The first step towards achieving this end is to establish a district development forum in Chitral where all the relevant stakeholders of development can come together to formulate an integrated framework of socioeconomic transformation in Chitral. This inclusive development forum must be guided by action-oriented, result-based and time-bound plans with rigorous follow-up mechanisms to assess outcomes.

The district forum must ensure the proportionate representation of the government, civil society and local communities as a working group to identify key development challenges and devise context-specific implementation strategies. The forum must be mandated to supervise and provide technical backstopping in the implementation of prioritised development needs of Chitral.  The forum must be empowered to take decisions on resource allocation and identify strategic and technical partners from all sectors to ensure the timely implementation of development work. Government, NGOs and local communities must pool together their financial, technical and strategic resources to optimise development outcomes, bridge the supply and demand gaps of social development and minimise the overlapping of resource allocation.

There are some genuine efforts which have already been put forth by social development agencies in Chitral. But their impact may not fully be realised if we do not create an ecosystem of development. The proposed forum will help create a larger ecosystem of development by engaging all concerned stakeholders in the process of social change and economic development.

During my visit to Chitral last week, I was impressed by the work carried out by some NGOs to promote local art and cultural products. These development interventions serve both as a means of economic protection against vulnerabilities and as bulwarks against the influx of cultural invasion.

Hashoo Foundation is one of the development agencies that initiated a sustainable development model of economic empowerment by training 80 local women to design, embellish and develop local cultural products and linking them with high-end markets. The foundation linked these skilled women entrepreneurs with national and international market outlets so that they could directly access the market and sell their products without being exploited by the middleman. Iran Bibi and Naseem Bibi of Kalash Valley were very optimistic when they said that the region’s art and culture were only a tourist attraction so far and the foundation had helped locals turn them into an economic opportunity.

This shows the power of engaging the local communities. There are several success stories which are the beacon of hope for change. The proposed district development forum must be an embodiment of this spirit of local engagement and inclusive development.

The writer is a freelance columnist based in Islamabad.  Email:ahnihal@yahoo.com


Amir Hussain, "The power of the local," The News. 2017-06-02.
Keywords: Social sciences , Social issues , Social change , Local communities , Economic opportunity , Development , Tradition , Economy , Iran Bibi , Naseem Bibi , Chitral , Kalash , CPEC , NGOs