Pakistan needs a new vision — an intra-elite war isn’t the answer

Imran Khan and Shahbaz Sharif both represent a model of development that has betrayed most Pakistanis — and will again.

Pakistan's former Prime Minister Imran Khan gestures as he speaks to the members of the media at his residence in Lahore, Pakistan, May 18, 2023.
Pakistan's former Prime Minister Imran Khan gestures as he speaks to the members of the media at his residence in Lahore, Pakistan, May 18, 2023 [Mohsin Raza/REUTERS]

Crisis is now passé in Pakistan. Admittedly, the current standoff between the authoritarian populist Imran Khan and the military has an element of novelty to it, but even in the most dramatic scenario, it will likely end with not much more than regime change and some further weakening — though not annihilation — of the military’s outsized political role.

This might be significant in the long run, but only if the social forces that move into the ceded political space do something different – and difficult – with it. This remains highly unlikely.

There have been bigger crises in this country of 220 million people. Long wars have been fought inside and outside its borders, prime ministers have been hung and assassinated, and in 1971 half the country broke away to form Bangladesh.

But one thing has never changed through all this. The vision of development held by Pakistani elites and the international development establishment has displayed remarkable stability from the 1960s to now. This stability – and the corresponding lack of alternatives – represents a much bigger crisis than the inter-elite warfare currently underway.

For those familiar with the history and politics of the Global South, the vision is familiar. The green pastures at the end of the rainbow are replicas of the industrialised North. Pakistan’s Vision 2025 sets itself the goal of making Pakistan the ‘next Asian Tiger’.

Substantively, this means increasing both the quantum and value of production and consumption through a top-down, modernising approach that does not brook challenge. Large infrastructure is therefore built to extract, process and transport resources. Agriculture is transformed into a high-productivity, low-employment, cash-cropping sector. Production for export continues to be prioritised because of the potential for growth and foreign exchange earnings.

All of this relies on ever-more intensive energy use enabled by burning fossil fuels and, increasingly since the 1980s, by private capital unaccountable to anyone. The social and ecological impact of this trajectory has been devastating.

While average lifespans have gone up and many people now enjoy amenities that they couldn’t dream of 100 years ago — think electric lighting, access to motorised transport, sugar, and so on — the failures have been much bigger. The floods of 2010 and 2022 in Pakistan are perhaps the most dramatic examples of this.

Pakistan’s ministry of climate change and its COP27 country delegation focussed their blame for the floods on global heating, something that Pakistan has barely contributed to so far. Pakistan is a victim of Western greed they say, paying the price without having eaten the cake.

There is obviously truth to this – the last three centuries have seen rapidly rising rates of planetary resource consumption and concomitant environmental degradation by Northern countries. But the evidence clearly shows that the effects of climate change have also been significantly enhanced by the physical, social and political results of 75 years of development.

For instance, researchers have long observed that Pakistan’s extensive hydrological engineering works ignore centuries-old patterns, natural flows, and local knowledge of watersheds, deltas, hill torrents and rivers. Two large hydrological projects in particular have come under close scrutiny for their contribution to recent flooding: Sindh’s Left Bank Outfall Drain built in the 1990s and financed by the World Bank; and the Asian Development Bank- (ADB) financed Chashma Right Bank Canal in Southern Punjab, whose construction began in 1978.

In both cases, local communities filed formal claims to investigate and redress violation of environmental and social standards. In both cases, these violations included significantly increasing flood risks in the project area. And in both cases, the inspection panels found many of the claimants’ assertions valid, including those related to increased flood risk. Chashma locals pointed out in 2002 that the canal blocked the course of the western hill torrents channelling rainwater to the riverbanks where they lived.

Seasonal rushing water, which previously used to irrigate fields, now posed a threat to life and livelihoods. And indeed, when the extreme rainfall of 2010 and 2022 swept down the hills, it breached the embankments and destroyed a huge area that has still not recovered. The volume of rain was such that flooding would have occurred even without the canal, but expert and local assessment is that both in Southern Punjab and Sindh, last year’s floods were made significantly worse by the hydrological infrastructure.

In 2004, the ADB inspection panel found in favour of the Chashma inspection claimants and recommended a number of measures to correct existing faults. But it did not push Pakistan’s government to implement them, and certainly did not impose any conditions on future aid as it should have if it was serious about ensuring changes.

Two decades later, none of the recommendations has been taken up and people were left to drown, lose everything they had, and suffer the consequences of hubris and complacency. The irony in Pakistani officials now championing the new United Nations loss and damage fund for assistance to climate-hit developing countries is impossible to ignore.

Making passionate appeals to the principle of justice in international forums, the same Pakistani state plays Global North within its own borders and engineers the futures of land and people with no thought to loss and damage in these cases.

Critical geographer Daanish Mustafa diagnoses the broader problem thus: “Pakistani water managers (like their counterparts in most of the Global South) suffer from an acute case of mega-projectivitis: a deadly disease caused by modernity and a blind commitment to colonial thinking and practices”. ‘Mega-projectivitis’ in Pakistan began with the construction of the most extensive canal irrigation system in the world in the late 19th century, continued with the post-colonial construction of large dams, barrages, canals and drains starting in the mid-1960s, and carries on today.

This, despite the fact that the state has no money and thus has resorted to crowdfunding new dams. It manifests in the preoccupation with building huge roads, housing estates and sprawling, shiny, empty airports like the new one in Islamabad. All are kickback-friendly, large, highly-visible monuments that are supposed to perform the twin function of leapfrogging Pakistan into an urbanised modernity and catalysing economic growth.

Without a doubt, Pakistan needs a plan. It needs to feed, house and nurture 220 million people without externalising – on any beings or any things – the costs incurred.

The real crisis in Pakistan is that no one is thinking about how to achieve this. Not those in charge, not progressive intellectuals, not even the anticapitalist left which has a well-developed critique but no capacity to do anything other than weakly defend against further violence and deprivation. There are therefore no alternatives to capitalist industrialisation, mega projects, and consuming the planet for profit and pleasure.

It is extremely likely that there are better ways of organising and managing large-scale societies, we just do not know what they are yet. Latin America is ahead of others in its imagination of (and experimentation with) alternatives.

Although concerns about scalability, replication, and the dangers of romanticising indigenity are valid, what emerges from that experience is the necessity of effecting a fundamental shift in how we think — with the planet, not against it. With the knowledge and experience of local communities, not against them.

Development as growth has brought us ecological and social degradation so serious that sustaining decent life becomes more difficult every year. Whether Imran Khan or Shahbaz Sharif form the next government in Pakistan does not matter. What matters is breaking with the idea that there is no alternative.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.