Kalabagh deadlock: the media must mediate

The possibility of the current political polarisation over the Kalabagh Dam issue spiralling into a conflict, if not a crisis, cannot be ruled out. There are other divisive issues too that will rally at least three provinces against the Centre. The swords are out. In Sindh, General Pervez Musharraf’s advocacy of the dam was matched by the counter-moves of a united opposition. Many Sindhi and Pakhtun parties, irrespective of their political affiliations, are against Kalabagh Dam. It seems they are pulling out all the stops to organise unprecedented levels of agitation against its construction. Small anti-dam and anti-Thal-canal rallies are being organised across Sindh.

In an unprecedented move, the entire editorial team of a leading Sindhi daily published simultaneously from Karachi, Sukkur and Islamabad has resigned in protest against the owner’s pro-dam position. Sindhi parties are threatening to launch a ‘movement’ against Kalabagh Dam. Anti-government parties and individuals will also ride piggyback on the anti-dam protests.

In the NWFP the ANP took the unprecedented step of going to the US consul-general in Peshawar to complain against the Centre’s decision to construct the dam. Meanwhile the initial discussion in the Senate does not indicate that an informed and sober debate will take place. From the hankerings of Minister Sher Afghan, it seems there will be rowdy point-scoring walk-in and walk-out sessions.

The public discussion on any issue among bitter political opponents will always be political. Attacks and allegations will dominate all unguided freewheeling exchanges. The Nawaz Sharif government supported the dam project while Benazir Bhutto opposed it. Now all of them are opposing it.

General Musharraf’s ‘awareness raising’ on Kalabagh in this environment appears a tall order. Passions run high. Rhetoric is strong. In this din all the data that General Musharraf puts into the public space does not register. As of now the battle lines are drawn. No matter how much he tries to reassure them of ‘fair play’ by the Centre, it’s the baggage that makes him suspect, the baggage of the Centre and the army. Both have a historical track record of terrible credibility deficits. In this round a battle over Kalabagh promises to hurt the federation.

And this is a matter that neither the Supreme Court is competent to adjudicate on nor should it. There is no escaping the political context for a peaceful settlement. Kalabagh Dam requires a public hearing. The debate is obviously not over whether a critical water crisis is imminent but rather the best way of resolving the crisis. And not whether dams must be built but specifically which one must be constructed.

It’s clearly a deadlocked situation. General Musharraf’s fact-establishing tours of Sindh and maybe later the NWFP are unlikely to change the mindset of the dam’s lead and most vocal opponents. They are the ones who will ultimately determine the tenor of the activist’s voice that occupies public space.

Getting 139.5 million to not oppose the dam, or to even support it within the confines of their homes, will not change the texture of this confrontation. That will only change if the lead opponents, the ones who occupy public space, the ones who form the opinion-making community in Sindh and the NWFP, are in agreement with the Centre on the projects that need to be undertaken to resolve a potentially fatal water crisis.

In Pakistan’s current scenario, the only group that can and must work towards carrying forward a genuine and necessary dialogue on Kalabagh and the water issue is the electronic media. With all its drawbacks, the electronic media enjoys a degree of credibility amongst the public and the politicians. It has a track record of showing ‘all sides’ of any given situation. Pakistan’s television channels have led the debate on crucial national issues including social reform, political co-existence, the 1971 break-up and the role of the army.

What must the electronic media do? In attempting to provide relief and rehab support to the earthquake victims, it extended its role beyond that of a messenger to become a participant. It must play the same role in the current crisis.

The primary objective would be to raise, in a calm and simple manner, the Kalabagh-related fears that haunt Sindh and the NWFP and to dispassionately address these fears. The seriousness of the impending water crisis and how it can be resolved without losing time must also be discussed. Participants should include the politicians, the government and the experts — both opponents and supporters.

Rising above their otherwise healthy competitive instincts, all the major national channels should jointly organise a series of focused discussions on the water issue. These programmes must be jointly produced and shown live across the entire country. The same programmes can be shown on regional language television networks. Credible and experienced moderators would be required to conduct these programme.

Numerous questions need to be addressed. Will Sindh’s share of irrigation water increase? Will a canal be taken out from Sindh? How can that be guaranteed? What iron-clad guarantees will there be to ensure that the Centre and the provinces all honour the agreed upon Water Accord? What constitutional guarantees will be given to assure Sindh that no water channels will be constructed for the Punjab? What must be the fair distribution under the NFC award? Under the existing design of the dam, will the people of the NWFP lose huge tracts of fertile land in Nowshera, Peshawar and Mardan? Will the dam create waterlogging and salinity problems? How much royalty will the Punjab get from Kalabagh Dam?

In the current climate, the indirect dialogue between Kalabagh’s lead proponent, General Musharraf, and the opposition has been hard and harsh. Only intervention by a third party can help facilitate a desperately needed dialogue between the government and the opposition.

This crisis raises a broader question: who is the competent and institutional arbitrating authority within Pakistan when such a crisis emerges? At this point there is almost no one. Political systems which enjoy credibility function within unbendable constitutional and legal frameworks. These frameworks trigger a continuing dynamics of accountability and consensus-building within such a political system. It is this combination that provides the political system the ultimate privilege, the privilege of legitimacy, that it needs to play its primary role of managing national affairs, which includes resolving conflicts between contending interest groups. Without legitimacy, no system can enjoy the moral authority it requires to play the role of an arbitrator.

It is moral authority, legitimacy and, at the core, adherence to a consensual constitutional and largely unbendable legal framework that enables a system to mediate in conflict situations.

In Pakistan, moral authority, legitimacy and the dynamics of accountability are unfortunately all missing. This is what the latest round of the Kalabagh Dam-related crisis so clearly establishes. To work towards such a system has to be the first priority of state and society in Pakistan. For now the electronic media must step in.