Recently, the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) government laid the foundation of an Economic Processing Zone in Azakhel near Peshawar, though the federal government has not made any progress to renew a request to the United States to revive its plan of establishing Reconstruction Opportunity Zones (ROZs) in the tribal districts of the province. The ROZs was the idea of the US itself while the Azakhel Economic Processing Zone is part of the multi-billion dollar China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).
After breaking the back of the terrorist group, Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), in its base of former Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) through several military operations, spanning more than a decade, it was expected that the federal government, with the collaboration of the KP government, would come up with a comprehensive strategy for the multipronged development of the region. The former Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) government and the present Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government allocated an unprecedented amount of public funds for the uplift of the tribal regions, but so far there is no substantial work that could be seen on the ground. According to the PTI government, under a plan for the uplift of the former FATA, whose districts (formerly called agencies) were merged into the province in May 2018, through the 25th Constitutional Amendment, Rs1,000 billion would be spent in the region in 10 years. Substantial funds in the last two years have been allocated by the PTI government for the uplift of the merged tribal districts since the party has been in the saddle. However, these are far short of the promised funds. The problem is that the federal government can only allocate funds for the merged districts if the provinces are ready to give up a negligible share of their respective funds under the National Finance Commission. When the 25th Constitutional Amendment was being made, it was promised that the merged districts were the responsibility of the whole country and, therefore, all provinces would contribute to allocate a collective three percent of the NFC for the development and reconstruction of the former FATA. As Khyber Pakhtunkhwa has singlehandedly borne the burden of the merged districts and the Punjab has shown its readiness to contribute its respective share to the rehabilitation and development of the tribal region, Sindh and Balochistan provinces have taken the position that the merged districts are the federal government’s responsibility. This is a sham argument, at least on part of the Sindh government, where the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) in the government, because a large number of residents of the tribal areas live in Sindh and an increasing number of them have been taking abode in the province, particularly Karachi, in search of employment. Moreover, the impact of the TTP insurgency and terrorist attacks emanating from the former FATA had affected the entire country and every province.
It is important to recall that when the military operations were going on in the erstwhile FATA and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in 2007, after the rise of the TTP in the tribal and Swat-Malakand regions, a large number of people from these areas also migrated to Sindh. At one point, Sindh, which has been ruled by the PPP on the trot since 2008, refused to provide entry to the Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) and even shut its borders to the unfortunate people. It is unfortunate that a party, which used to be a really federal entity, has been behaving like a parochial political group. It is despite the fact that its founder, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was the first Pakistani politician, who came up with a strategy for the uplift and opening of the FATA by exploring avenues of employment for the tribesmen in Middle East countries.
Now when all provincial governments are not ready to contribute to the uplift of the merged districts, and the federal government does not have what it takes for their reconstruction, rehabilitation and uplift, the revival of the ROZs has become critically important. Otherwise, the situation in the merged districts could be really disastrous. The TTP insurgency and the military operation have decimated the livelihoods of the inhabitants of the tribal areas, whether it was agriculture, trade, or miniscule cottage industries. In particular, unemployed and poor young people from the region, who were instrumental in the TTP insurgency, could resort to crime and possibly militancy in increasing numbers, if not immediately provided with jobs and occupations. In this context, the revival of the idea of the ROZs has become crucial.
The government of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) has come to understand the importance of industries in the economic development of the tribal regions and, therefore, it decided to request the US to revive its former plan of establishing elaborate industrial infrastructure in the former FATA. Acknowledging the grave mistake of the past governments, the ruling party, in November last had decided to request the United States to revive the idea of establishing ROZs in the Pakistan-Afghanistan bordering areas. Adviser to Prime Minister on Commerce, Textile, Industry and Investment, Abdul Razak Dawood, in an interview with a national daily had revealed that Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government was trying to convince Washington to restore the idea of ROZs as it was critically important for the socioeconomic development of the bordering tribal regions. The proposed ROZs were indeed an important project offered by the US and had a huge potential for bringing about a sea socioeconomic change in the remote and impoverished region. However, due to mismanagement by Pakistani policymakers, whoever they were, and the bureaucracy, the project had to be abandoned by Washington quite reluctantly. The ultimate losers have been the residents of the border regions and the country. The conflict and crisis prevailing in the border region of Pakistan along Afghanistan have a continuous outpouring in the adjoining KP province and the rest of Pakistan.
The US had came up with the idea of building ROZs in the Pakistan-Afghanistan bordering areas to ensure jobs for the locals in a bid to wean them off militant groups and terrorism. Alas, the idea was mishandled by the then economic managers of the country as they quite illogically had started asking US authorities to build ROZs in mainland Pakistan, including the quite peaceful Punjab province. Resultantly, the US ditched the project as establishing ROZs in mainland Pakistan could not serve the purpose of the idea. Despite it, the US made consistent bids to convince Pakistani authorities for establishing ROZs in the ex-FATA.
The US had come up with the ROZs idea in the Musharraf government while keeping in mind the success stories of the model in the bordering areas of Egypt, Vietnam, Jordon and Israel, where the industrial establishments had already been commissioned and were bringing dividends to the people.
Razak Dawood, during the interview, said, “We will refloat the idea for building industrial facilities on the pattern of the earlier proposed model of ROZs in the Pakistan-Afghanistan bordering areas to ensure job opportunities for the youth on both sides of the border. From the facilities, the products will be manufactured and exported to the US on zero duty. It will not only help increase the export of both countries but also ensure jobs on a reasonable scale.”
Unfortunately, like many initiatives of the PTI government or, for that matter, PM Khan, it could not see the light of the day, as convincing Washington to revive the program seemingly has fallen through. If it is ditched again, it will be a historic mistake.