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Pakistan Needs to Move Past the Intra-Elite War

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The situation is over in Pakistan. Although the present confrontation between authoritarian populist Imran Khan and the military is unusual, even the worst-case scenario is likely to result in nothing more than a change in administration and a diminution in the military’s excessive political power.

To have any long-term influence, the social forces occupying the empty political space will have to execute fresh and radical policies. This is still quite unlikely.

Worse disasters have befallen the country of 220 million people. Prime ministers have been hanged or slain, and after years of civil conflict, a substantial chunk of the country broke off to become Bangladesh in 1971.

But one thing has been consistent throughout. From the 1960s to the present, the development vision advocated by Pakistani elites and the international development establishment has remained mostly unchanged. This stability, and the resulting lack of choices, is arguably more worrisome than the current inter-elite conflict.

Anyone who has studied the politics and history of the Global South will recognize this sight. The promised land is really a carbon replica of the beautiful meadows of the industrialized North. Being the “next Asian Tiger” is one of Pakistan’s Vision 2025 ambitions.

Substantively, this includes increasing productivity and consumption in both quantity and quality by a top-down, modernizing technique that tolerates no opposition. As a result, huge infrastructure is built for resource extraction, processing, and transportation. The industry changes to producing cash crops for sale rather than food for human use. Export production is a primary goal due to growth potential and currency benefits.

All of this is based on the ever-increasing use of energy enabled by the combustion of fossil fuels and, since the 1980s, increasingly unaccountable private capital. This pattern has had disastrous consequences for society and the environment.

Life expectancy has grown, and many people now enjoy comforts that were unthinkable a century ago (for example, electricity, motorized transportation, sugar, and so on), but the drawbacks have been considerably more severe. The floods that devastated Pakistan in 2010 and 2022 are among the most dramatic examples of this.

The Pakistani government and its representatives to COP27 have blamed the country’s disastrous floods on Pakistan’s comparatively little contribution to global warming. Some argue that Pakistan bears the expenses of Western greed while obtaining no advantages.

This is definitely true; resource consumption and environmental degradation have surged in the Northern Hemisphere during the previous three centuries. However, the physical, social, and political repercussions of the previous 75 years of prosperity have amplified the effects of climate change significantly.

Experts, for example, have long noted that Pakistan’s enormous hydrological engineering projects ignore local knowledge or the region’s centuries-old patterns and natural flows in its watersheds, deltas, hill torrents, and rivers. Recent flooding has heightened interest in two major hydrological projects: the Chashma Right Bank Canal in Southern Punjab, which began construction in 1978 and was funded by the Asian Development Bank (ADB), and the Left Bank Outfall Drain in Sindh, which was built in the 1990s with World Bank funding.

In both cases, formal claims were filed by local communities requesting an investigation and settlement of suspected infractions of environmental and social standards. Due to these violations, the project area was threatened with floods in both cases. The inspection boards agreed with the assertions on many aspects, including the legitimacy of their fears about increasing flood levels, both times. Residents in Chashma protested in 2002 that the canal diverted rainfall away from the riverbanks where they had previously lived.

Seasonal floods, which had been used to keep crops fertilized, was increasingly endangering human lives and livelihoods. A wide area was wiped away and is still recovering from the massive rains that fell in 2010 and 2022, causing the slopes to collapse and the embankments to breach. Flooding would have occurred anyway, but scientists and villagers believe that the canal exacerbated last year’s floods in Southern Punjab and Sindh.

Imran Khan or Shahbaz Sharif may form the next government of Pakistan. It is critical to reject the idea that one has no viable choices.

In the Chashma inspection in 2004, the ADB inspection panel concurred with the claimants and proposed many improvements to address the concerns uncovered. However, the US did not put pressure on the Pakistani government to implement the suggestions, and future aid was not contingent on the nation implementing the essential changes.

Twenty years later, none of the recommendations have been adopted, and people continue to drown, lose all they own, and endure the weight of hubris and apathy. The irony of Pakistani officials now campaigning for the new United countries loss and damage fund to help underprivileged countries affected by climate change is impossible to overlook.

While the Pakistani government makes passionate arguments for the rule of law abroad, it plays Global North at home, rearranging territory and populations with little consideration for the potential for damage.

“Pakistani water managers [are] acutely afflicted with mega-projectivitis: a deadly disease caused by modernity and a blind commitment to colonial thinking and practices,” writes critical geographer Daanish Mustafa. Post-colonial enormous dams, barrages, canals, and sewers were created in Pakistan beginning in the late nineteenth century with the world’s biggest canal irrigation system. This “mega-projectivitis” is still present today.

Despite the state’s financial woes, crowdsourcing efforts are being used to build new dams. The new Islamabad airport exemplifies this obsession with massive public works projects. All of these enormous, publicly visible monuments provide possibilities for corrupt officials to profit while also assisting Pakistan in making the critical transition into the modern, urban world and fueling the economy.

Pakistan urgently needs a plan. It must cater for 220 million people without transferring the load to other living beings or inanimate things.

 The real issue in Pakistan is that no one is thinking about alternative solutions. No one in power, no liberal intellectuals, and even the anticapitalist left, with its profound analysis but limited capacity to prevent more killing and suffering, can prevent further bloodshed and misery. The only alternatives are capitalist industrialisation, megaprojects, and global consuming for profit and pleasure.

It’s possible that there are more efficient ways to operate large-scale communities, but we haven’t found them yet. Latin America is far ahead of the rest of the globe when it comes to thinking outside the box and attempting new ideas.

Despite legitimate concerns about scalability, replication, and the hazards of romanticizing indigenous cultures, what emerges from that experience is the need for a fundamental shift in how we think – with the planet, not against it. Rather of working against the people who live there, use their knowledge and insight.

With each passing year, the ecological and social harm caused by development as progress makes it increasingly difficult to live a good existence. Imran Khan or Shahbaz Sharif may form the next government of Pakistan. It is critical to reject the idea that one has no viable choices.

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