Pakistan: Fighting for People’s Rights in the Chashma Region
September 8, 2006 | No Comments
by Brendan Snow, Greengrants Intern
MAUJ and the RURAL DEVELOPMENT POLICY INSTITUTE
Greengrants has provided a series of grants to help these organizations in their work regarding the Chashma Right Bank irrigation project. The most recent grant was for $5,000 to Mauj in 2006.
A huge irrigation project might sound like a great idea… unless you happen to be a farmer whose land gets flooded, or whose traditional way of life is destroyed, or who receives no benefit from the project at all. And you find that you have to pay special taxes for the already-completed project anyway.
Environmental activists and local farmers have organized to limit the damage caused by a sprawling state-funded canal system in the Punjab-Balochistan desert region. The canal system is undermining indigenous livelihoods and displacing several hundred native workers who utilize traditional irrigation and cultivation techniques.
In 1978, The Asian Development Bank (ADB) announced the Chashma Right Bank Irrigation Project (CRBIP), which includes construction of a 274-kilometer long irrigation conduit that would tap the river system in that part of Pakistan. The $254 million canal project obtained and appropriated indigenously owned land, and in many places it destroyed the native method of water irrigation (called rowed kohee), causing the flooding of many local farms which are able to cultivate crops despite the dryness of the area. The Project has three stages – stage I was completed in 1986, stage II in 1992, and stage III was largely finished as of October 2002, with the rest of the project closing in 2004.
The problems with the Canal Project are myriad. It disturbs water cycles, which has caused flooding, which in turn disrupts and displaces communities. As flooding occurs in some areas, other areas suffer from drought as water is routed away from its previous path. Beyond this, an influx of outsiders, land degradation, deforestation, and constraints on mobility have all resulted from this project.
In response to this, three environmental and social activist groups, MAUJ, the Rural Development Policy Institute, and the Chashma Lok Sath, have taken action to restrain canal construction and ensure that fair water, human, and cultural rights policies are enacted in their area.
MAUJ was founded in February 2003 as a non-profit, community-oriented center that focuses on policy research, advocacy and public action. By creating networks for the disenfranchised, facilitating public discourse, monitoring the international financial institutions, and initiating direct, non-violent political action, this group seeks sustainable and permanent change within the Pakistani community and beyond. Ultimately, members of MAUJ seek to create an informed and enlightened citizenry, as they believe this to be the single most powerful force in precipitating democratic governance.
The Rural Development Policy Institute (RDPI) was developed to aid in the creation of a socially just and culturally vibrant life for rural Pakistanis. It does so by engaging governments and assisting them in planning and executing rural development projects, conducting policy research, and attempting to influence policy in a progressive, sustainable direction.
One cause taken up by MAUJ and the RDPI in Pakistan is the struggle of communities that have been harmed by the CRBIP. In reaction to the Canal Project, the local people and activist groups directly affected created the Chashma Lok Sath (the People’s Tribunal/Assembly). It was generated to launch an extensive and organized campaign of non-violent non-cooperation with government and IFI exploitation, to understand the policies of the state and to assess them, and to serve as an alternative to the dominant mode of discourse with government. The Lok Sath is an old tradition that has been reinvigorated in response to the Canal Project. It consists of over 300 representatives from 50 villages, and involves a trial-like process of hearing testimonials, deliberation, and verdict rendering.
Taking On the Status Quo
Since the inception of the Irrigation Project, MAUJ, RDPI, and the Chashma Lok Sath have joined forces to ensure that it is implemented in fair, transparent, and environmentally sound ways. Global Greengrants Fund supported this cause, and issued grants to MAUJ in the sum of $7,000 and to RDPI for $10,000, both in 2004.
Utilizing this funding, MAUJ, the RDPI, and the Chashma Lok Sath have taken the following action between January 2004 and December 2005.
1. Unity in diversity. Many groups, one cause. MAUJ and RDPI, in conjunction with the Lok Sath, have held March 2005 community meetings in which affected community members have been able to congregate, discuss grievances, and coordinate their strategies for dealing with the irrigation project. One strategy they have implemented is a non-cooperation policy with unfair taxation. The Pakistani state taxes the use of irrigation water obtained via the new canal. However, taxes are levied upon villagers regardless of whether or not those villagers actually receive irrigated water or not. Forty percent of taxed inhabitants must render payment for services not utilized or available due to the stateís lack of proper design and materials. MAUJ, the RDPI, and Chashma Lok Sath have advised affected farmers to not pay these taxes, reasoning that non-cooperation with unjust tax systems in one of the most effective ways to voice peaceful dissent.
2. The Chashma Lok Sangh, or The Chashma Peopleís March. Created and implemented by 15 local activists, this event was a 130 km walk organized to promote awareness and garner support for the MAUJ/RDPI/Chashma Lok Sath cause. During the walk, the activists visited 60 villages. In each village, activists and local residents discussed and reflected upon the adverse conditions created by the Canal Project, as well as non-violent ways to remedy the situation. At the end of the trek, more than 200 farmers presented their declaration of grievances to the Pakistani Department of Irrigation office.
3. Inspecting the inspectors. The ADB has an inspection panel that assesses projects’ quality, efficiency and compliance with institutional safeguards. MAUJ, the Rural Development Policy Institute, and a group of non-profit organizations have interacted directly with this panel, conveying the ways in which the Canal Project is falling short of articulated ADB goals and human rights policies. This has acted as a fulcrum to achieve leverage within the Bank.
4. Ancient knowledge reinvigorated. Local communities are pioneering new ways to understand their traditional irrigation practices, in order to move their cultures into independent, sustainable systems that will be in place for many years to come. Going further still, they have utilized theatre, drama, poetry, celebrations, music, and even documentaries to re-contact, restore, and protect native ways of being and knowing.
Good News, Bad News
The funds issued by Greengrants helped MAUJ/RDPI/Chashma Lok Sath achieve some important victories in their fight against the lack of democracy in the Canal Project. First of all, the people are organized, passionate, and resolved to implement change. The non-violent non-cooperation campaign was successful in uniting the local communities, and it has pressured the ADB to acknowledge the problem. According the group’s report, this movement has achieved “a solid philosophical and political character.” Furthermore, networks have been established with other popular movements, and these organizations have exchanged valuable lessons, thus generating more sound methods for implementing people’s law, social transformation, and sustainable living.
But the struggle in the Chashma region of Pakistan against the Asian Development Bank and the Chashma Right Bank Irrigation Project is far from over. In early 2005, the ADB imposed a new law under which elected representatives from the farmer’s organizations would act as diplomats to the ADB. However, the law failed to obtain widespread support from local farmers, which in turn led the government and ADB to re-instate the oppressive colonial system of Lumbardari. According to this system, influential local individuals are directly nominated by the government to collect taxes, with the help of police and other law-enforcing institutions. Lumberdars, or village headmen, are given twelve acres of land and five percent of the collected taxes in return for their services. This colonial system is being reinstated to divide local communities and weaken their campaign of non-cooperation in the payment of irrigation tax.
A 2006 grant from Greengrants is supporting a continuation of Mauj’s work on the Chashma Right Bank Irrigation Project, including the convening of People’s Tribunals. Those Tribunals are taking villagers’ testimony and discussing damages caused by the project, as well as possible nonviolent responses.
In addition, the people of Chashma, RDPI, and MAUJ remain resolved in their struggle. “The response so far has been encouraging but needs mass level actions to sustain and strengthen it,” one MAUJ official said. Today, these groups continue to grow their network and peacefully take on the status quo.