Swat and its cantonment

A majority of the people now think that the Taliban rising and the consequent military operations were actually an arrangement for making the beautiful valley of Swat a military base for the summer

If my memory does not fail me, I still remember that Mian Mohammad Nawaz Sharif made a promise to the people of Swat and Malakand division before he was elected the prime minister of Pakistan. In his address to the notables and youth of Mingora in Swat on January 15, 2014, Mr Sharif shrewdly evaded mentioning that promise. He mentioned the prime minister’s youth loan scheme (PMYLS) instead as his promise to the people.
The prime minister is daring enough to visit Swat despite the fear prevalent in the valley, especially after Mullah Fazlullah became the chief of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). His visit was kept so secret that until the evening of the previous day nobody but a few journalists and army officials knew about it. Apparently, the visit was meant to ask after Amir Muqam, the advisor to the prime minister, who had narrowly escaped a deadly attack by the Taliban a few days before near his hometown in Shangla district. The attack, however, martyred six police personnel along with his driver. It would have been better if the prime minister also paid homage to the civilians and security forces personnel brutally killed in Swat from 2007 to date. The people of Malakand division, especially Swat, deserve accolades for their sacrifices for the country. The largest internal exodus in Pakistan’s chequered history happened when the people of Swat, prior to the last decisive military offensive, left their homes for the internally displaced persons’ camps in other parts of the province during the sweltering months of June and July. The people evacuated Swat and enabled the military to tackle the militants head-on.
This was not the first time that Mr Sharif has visited Swat. In his first term, he even visited the hilly area of Mankiyal Valley near Bahrain in the Kohistan of Swat during the winter and in the aftermath of a deadly avalanche that fell upon the village of Sehri, killing dozens of people. During his visit, he approved a ‘college’ for the Mankiyal Valley and a higher secondary school was set up there immediately although it is virtually dysfunctional now.
On his recent visit, Mr Sharif ‘in principle’ approved the establishment of a ‘brigade level cantonment’ in Swat. As far as I can remember, the former president of Pakistan, Mr Asif Zardari, approved this cantonment. The other thing the prime minister focused upon was the PMYLS. One wonders whether we Swatis have no other problem except the lack of a military cantonment and the tedious loan scheme for the youth. His focus on the loan scheme indicates the ‘fear of youth’, which the PML-N and other political parties think are altogether in the camp of Imran Khan.
Swat is among the most populated districts in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Its population has crossed the two million figure with an annual growth rate of 3.37 percent. The majority of the people are poor. Poverty is at about 60 percent. Swat’s local economy was destroyed by two calamities — the insurgency and the floods. Tourism is the major source of income in Swat but it was damaged by the militant insurgency.
School enrolment is hardly 60 percent and only six percent of girls of Malala’s age are in school. There are areas in Swat that do not have basic infrastructure for healthcare and education. The main road to the tourist havens of Kalam, Utror and Ushu does not exist except for dangerous, bumpy tracks made by the Pakistan army after the floods. Work on a portion of the road is in progress by the National Highway Authority with the financial assistance of the Asian Development Bank but the remaining 40 kilometres of road from Bahrain to Kalam has no such funds. One thing — the single thing in Pakistan — about which one can boast abroad is the motorway from Lahore to Peshawar. The credit goes to Mian Nawaz Sharif. He is said to be focused on the economy and who else but he knows the importance of roads in developing the economy?
Much earlier than becoming the prime minister of Pakistan, Mian Mohammad Nawaz Sharif promised a motorway to Swat right from the Rashakai Interchange near Mardan. On the morning of January 15, 2014, a friend came up to me and announced that Mian sahib had approved the promised motorway. Later on, I came to know he was just joking, as there was no mention of that promise in his address to the youth and notables of Swat.
The motorway is a dire need for Swat. Malakand division is the largest of the divisions both in terms of area and population, and the Swat district is its business heart. A motorway or expressway is to be the main passage. The city of Mingora does more business than Mardan. It is next to Peshawar in its economic vibrancy. In a way, it is also the business hub for Gilgit-Baltistan. This is likely to increase if it is linked with the Karakorum Highway via the district of Shangla, Amir Muqam’s birth constituency.
Moreover, the tourist attractions of Swat need to be linked with mainstream Pakistan through a network of highways or expressways. Swat has seen many terrible years. It was better off during the state’s era, under the rule of the last Wali of Swat, Miangul Jahanzeb. We now hardly see any extension or improvement to what the Wali did in Swat. The schools and hospitals he had established have become dysfunctional over the years owing to the inefficiency and failure of the state of Pakistan.
Approval of a cantonment in Swat on the pretext that it will work as a bulwark against the militants does not hold much water. One wonders if the cantonments in other parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and FATA have so far kept the militants at bay. The militants can even attack the General Headquarters in Rawalpindi, Mehran Base in Karachi or the Aeronautical Complex in Kamra. The establishment of a cantonment in Swat has regenerated conspiracy theories once again. A majority of the people now think that the Taliban rising and the consequent military operations were actually an arrangement for making the beautiful valley of Swat a military base for the summer! Whether true or not, the theory is spreading in the valley.
People are fearful and find themselves stuck between the devil and the deep blue sea. They say they have been left in this abyss by design. They cannot show their resentment fearing that the attacks by the Taliban will rise again.
Instead of making Swat a cantonment, the government of Mian Nawaz Sharif should have taken some concrete measures for the betterment of the lives of the people of Malakand division, especially Swat. An expressway or motorway to Swat will make the beautiful valley a field of winter tourism. Pakistan’s single ski resort is in Swat and there are so many other similar places for winter sports in upper Swat. The only hindrance is the damaged infrastructure.

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