By Marian Sharaf Joseph
With high mountains, green meadows, and clear lakes, Swat was a place of great natural beauty, a must-visit place for all tourists, affectionately known as “the Switzerland of Pakistan.” Swat Valley now lies in shambles. It became the main focus of terrorist insurgency and now a battleground for the military operation. Unfortunately the by-product of this ‘titanic’ battle is collateral damage, displaced citizens and destroyed cities, towns and villages in the valley of Swat. The damage did not start overnight; it spread like a cancer over a period of time.
Swat led tourists to various spots in the north such as Shandur, where international polo matches attracted Polo lovers from all over the world. Trips arranged by Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation (PTDC), travel agents and individuals added to the economy of the region. However, tourism was not the only business in Swat Valley. Agriculture (Wheat, Dry fruit), construction and mining (precious, semi-precious gem stones and marble) also helped the locals earn their daily bread and butter. The terrorist insurgency (Taliban) was already playing havoc with the local economy; the military operation has caused additional damage and destruction. It will probably take years for the Valley to recover. Don’t forget all this damage was on top of the damage caused by 2005 earthquake.
While terrorists were creating a stranglehold in the valley, our seemingly concerned government and our hyper-active media was busy elsewhere. Pakistanis were panic stricken only when they found the Swat locals being threatened from sending their daughters to school. To top it all, Taliban bombed the area that caused unimaginable damage to the infrastructure. The historical asset Mingora Girls High School was one big tragedy.
Swat, our Swiss Alps, is one of the most beautiful valleys in the world. It spreads over an area of 4000 sq miles with a population of about 1,250,000. Its height varies from 2500 ft to 7500 ft above sea level and lies in the monsoon belt, which adds to its fertility and beauty. Its soil is more fertile than the valleys further north. Fields of wheat guard the river Indus on either side in the lower Swat while the rivers narrows down and tumble through forests of pine standing tall on snow-crest Mountains. History records the valley has an ancient history that dates back to the times of Alexander the Great, who conquered Swat in 326 BC. The Pathans and Kohistans (locals of the valley) may be direct descendants of Greeks. The valley of Swat is bordered by Chitral and Gilgit in north, Dir in North-West Buner in the South Hazara in East and Malakand. Swat has the highest percentage of education in the region. Though the economy is mainly dependent on tourism and hospitality, agriculture, mining and construction, money exchange is one major business and all credit cards are available here. Serena Hotel in Swat serves five star services to tourists.
According to various sources, the unrest in Swat has shaken the business and consumer confidence badly. The stock market has been low key as reflected from the consumption statistics. “The biggest loss we have suffered, apart from tourism, is in the mining and production of marble, granite and limestone,” says Humayun Ahmed, Bureau Chief of Value TV. “The loss has been around $500 million especially because the export orders were cancelled immediately. To top it all, the local consumption was also adversely affected. About 1200 marble industries closed down and 30,000 workers lost their jobs.”
Even after peace was restored in certain areas of the valley, businessmen are still reluctant to risk their safety or livelihood to that area. It seems that it will take a lot more effort and time to convince the locals about their security concerns. Valuemag talked to a few volunteers who recently visited the valley and found that the shops are still closed. Even the ‘khokas’ that sell basic commodities such as water and cigarettes are closed. Volunteers and NGOs continue to provide internally displaced persons (IDPs) with basic requirements such as groceries, toiletries, cell phone cards; chargers etc. according to them, the IDPs are selling them off to raise some much needed cash for re-establishing their livelihood and businesses.
Initially, United States has provided $28 million in agricultural commodities including 50,000 metric tons of wheat valued at $16.8 million, and 6,800 metric tons of vegetable oil valued at $11.2 million for IDPs. It has been reported that almost 37,500 metric tons of wheat arrived at Gwadar in mid-May to feed an estimate of 1.5 million IDPs. Aid and monetary funds continue even after the devastating blast at Peshawar Pearl Continental that was a direct threat to the foreign and local volunteers. The funds were used to purchase tents, blankets, cooking utensils, jerry cans, toiletries and bedding. The US also sent logistical equipment like generators and transformers to power water pumps and lights for the IDPs. Support equipment such as laptops, vehicles, and wireless internet connectivity to assist emergency support operations are being sent to NGOs and government volunteers.
Despite foreign aid and funds raised by local NGOs and individuals all over the country, many IDPs are inaccessible and ignored since they are lodging with friends and families in far off areas, places not accessible to NGOs or the government relief organizations as yet. Bushra, a Lahore based volunteer visited Swat with her team to distribute funds and rations recently. The situation as explained by her and many other volunteers Valuemag came across is pathetic. “The IDPs settled in remote areas are suffering rather badly,” says Bushra. The good thing is that the families in the adjacent regions of Swat Valley like Mardan for example decided to stay and face the war. These families have given shelter to the displaced that ran off in panic from the valley. Yet, there is shortage of food, scarcity of drinking water, power, sanitation and medical help despite the funds coming from the US. These families are living in areas covered with dense forests, there are no roads and you have to walk on foot. Surprisingly, no NGO or government volunteer has checked this location.” Even in Islamabad, some IDPs are living in the fringes of the capital. Electronic media has shown families of about a dozen people living in a single tent that is located near a drainage canal. These IDPs were fighting starvation until the local market traders living nearby noticed them. About 80 percent of IDPs fled to the Peshawar, Islamabad and Malakand division without food, blankets and clothes. Due to panic, some even forgot to bring their savings along.
President Zardari asked entrepreneurs to help rebuild Swat. He said that the government was not looking for money. “What I ask you is what your children would have asked you if they were in trouble. Let’s draw a map and take care of villages. This is not a very big region,” reported by media in May 2009. He specifically stressed on reconstruction of the area since this is the sector in which businessmen must contribute. “Let’s make groups of businessmen of Pakistan and let’s take ownership of caring of certain villages,” he said. The president’s idea is that businessmen around the country should form groups. Each group could adopt four to six villages to rebuild them. The government in return would create opportunity in EU for businessmen, which in return would strengthen Pakistan’s economy. The point is that if businessmen take up this project and engage locals in it, it would also create employment and support the rest of the country in helping IDPs. Some Pakistanis, however, do not agree with Zardari. “It’s a great idea that Zardari has put forward but the question is – Is it Feasible? No paper work has been done so far, it was only a statement he made,” said Javed Iqbal, chief reporter – Daily Pakistan. “Even though it’s a good plan, what assurances do we have that this plan would materialize? What do know that the money given by the businessmen will be spent on reconstruction of Swat? If we review the past, many governments made promises but nothing happened such as ‘Karz Utaro’ scheme of Nawaz Sharif regime and other projects initiated during Musharraf’s time. The nation is losing confidence in the government and the ruling parties are responsible for this. The fact of the matter is that Zardari should take the initiative himself, who is now head of two wealthiest families in Pakistan; Bhutto and his own. He and his ministers should adopt the villages and set the example themselves. These families can easily afford 2000 people.” Javed Iqbal further on mentioned that President Zardari can create opportunities for the five lacs families that were employed there but the question is how far this will succeed.
Swat may be a ‘valley of shadow and death’ but optimists like Humayun Ahmed, Bureau Chief Value TV believe once the operation is over and peace is restored in the valley, locals will get massive job opportunities. He said, “Looking at it from an optimist’s eye, there is not much to worry about. Once the operation is over, the locals will return home. In Budget 2009-10, the government has already allocated PKR 50 billion for the rehabilitation and reconstruction of the area. The government has ensured that homes, schools, markets and industries will be rebuilt. Definitely, labor will be hired and this will create employment for the locals. Furthermore, an aid of $540 million has been granted by USA, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey. The government has also ensured that locals will be trained for Frontier Constabulary and Police. Seeing this, despite the fact that the real estate market in Swat is doomed, it will regain strength once the operation is over.”
Even though, right now Pakistan’s socio-political situation is chaotic and economy is adversely affected, there is light at the end of this particular tunnel. According to Economists, this is the beginning of the end. Economic growth outlook, though bleak at the moment, will stabilize and go into positive progression in the FY10-FY11. The recent emergency funds from US, EU-Pakistan summit and Friends of Pakistan are prime developments that can help regain Pakistan’s economic strength. In this whole scenario, analysts expect a massive development outlay on infrastructure and reconstruction of Swat valley during FY10.
This article was originally published in the print edition of Valuemag, issue 13, August 2009