Par­adise Lost

The Swat Valley may be not be a slice of heaven any­more but a pub­lic-pri­vate part­ner­ship can do won­ders for its lost glory.

Southasia - - Contents - By Haseeb Ah­san Haseeb Ah­san con­trib­utes to var­i­ous pub­li­ca­tions on en­trepreneur­ship and skill de­vel­op­ment.

Swat Valley, also known as the Switzer­land of South Asia, is tucked deep in Khy­ber Pakhtunkhwa ( KPK). The valley’s snow-capped moun­tains, clear rivers, del­i­cate streams, mys­ti­cal lakes and lush forests are cur­rently the hot­bed of ter­ror­ism.

Alexan­der the Great first cap­tured the valley in 327 BC from the lo­cal in­hab­i­tants. Since then Swat has hosted var­i­ous the Bud­dhists, Hin­dus and Mus­lims, be­fore fi­nally fall­ing un­der the pro­tec­tion of the Bri­tish Em­pire. Af­ter par­ti­tion of the sub-con­ti­nent in 1947, the state ac­ceded to Pak­istan. kistan. The former princely state was conse- conse quently dis­solved in 1955 when the Prince of Swat, Muham­mad Au­rangzeb Khan mar­ried the grand­daugh­ter of Field Mar­shal Ayub Khan. Ly­ing to the north of the coun­try, Swat to­day hosts a pre­dom­i­nant eth­nic com­po­si­tion of Afghans and Push­tuns (Pakhtoons).

The valley con­trib­uted greatly to Pak­istan’s tourism in­dus­try from the late 60s to 2005. Since then its fate changed dras­ti­cally and Swat be­came a vic­tim to ter­ror­ism fol­lowed by a grand op­er­a­tion by the Pak­istan Army and later suf­fered from se­vere floods. Hav­ing been de­stroyed by both mankind and na­ture, Swat to­day holds ru­ins of schools, hos­pi­tals and in­fra­struc­ture as well as bro­ken dreams and a de­te­ri­o­rat­ing life­style. Adding to the mis­ery is that even af­ter two and a half years no en­cour­ag­ing de­vel­op­ment ac­tiv­ity has taken place in the area.

Schools and the aca­demic sys­tem in Swat had served as a model for ed­u­ca­tional and vo­ca­tional in­sti­tutes. Cater­ing to a num­ber of dif­fer­ent ed­u­ca­tional sys­tems, rang­ing from madras­sahs to pub­lic schools, the area also housed mis­sion­ary schools serv­ing the stu­dents of Swat since the 18th cen­tury. Je­hanzeb Col­lege, founded by Prince Au­rangzeb in the late 60s, shows the valley’s in­ter­est and com­mit­ment to­wards ed­u­ca­tion. Apart from a high lit­er­ary un­der­stand­ing, the peo­ple of Swat ex­ude a hos­pitable na­ture, thus mak­ing the area a prime tourist des­ti­na­tion.

The Swat valley has dras­ti­cally changed, mak­ing it al­most un­rec­og­niz­able for those who wish to re­turn home. Most of the roads, be­yond Min­gora (the main town of Swat) or Saidu Sharif (the cap­i­tal of Swat), have been wiped away by the floods. Be­yond Min­gora, lie ex­otic re­sorts and lo­ca­tions in­clud­ing towns of Madyan, Bahrain, Kalam, the Glacier, Mahu­dant Lake and the fa­mous Malam Jabba, the ‘ski­ing re­sort.’ With miss­ing in­fra­struc­ture, much of this tourist spot has been lost.

The Swat Valley served as a pre­miere tourist spot for for­eign vis­i­tors who would swarm the area. The roads were smooth till Kalam and the Matal­tan Forests, con­tin­u­ing to the heav­enly lake, Mahu­dan. To­day, the roads have de­te­ri­o­rated and a 2 to 2.5 hours drive takes ap­prox­i­mately 5 hours. Bad in­fra­struc­ture cou­pled with a ris­ing threat of rad­i­cal­iza­tion and ter­ror­ism, de­prives the world from vis­it­ing his­toric land­marks such as the White Palace - the King’s palace sit­u­ated in the heart of the moun­tains, built es­pe­cially for Queen El­iz­a­beth’s visit.

Apart from los­ing tourism rev­enue, agri­cul­tural loss has also se­verely af­fected life in Swat. The valley is fa­mous for the best qual­ity of wheat and rice as well as fresh veg­eta­bles like toma­toes, radishes, cu­cum­bers, onions and spinach. Fruits such as peaches, plums, apri­cots, straw­ber­ries, ap­ples and wal­nuts are also a spe­cialty and are ex­ported to other parts of the coun­try. Agri­cul­tural ven­tures al­ways op­er­ate in a chain process; the profit of one pro­duc­tion is con­sumed in the cul­ti­va­tion of an­other. How­ever, se­vere floods have dis­turbed this prac­tice, mak­ing the land un­cul­tivable.

Life in Swat will not re­turn to nor­mal with­out the sup­port of stake­hold­ers in the re­gion. The tourism in­dus­try pri­mar­ily drives the eco-sys­tem in the valley. With­out any ad­e­quate in­fra­struc­ture, no tourism can take place.

In or­der to solve this prob­lem, the ba­sic but most ur­gent re­quire­ment is the re-build­ing of roads. The road from Bahrain to Kalam is hardly 35 kilo­me­ters but needs ma­jor re­pairs. The road be­tween Bahrain and Ma­dian is hardly 3 kilo­me­ters but has not been re­stored af­ter the floods. It is only when in­ter­na­tional tourism events take place, that the gov­ern­ment takes note of the de­te­ri­o­rat­ing and, in many cases, ab­sent in­fra­struc­ture. Some patches have been re­paired, es­pe­cially those on the way to Malam-Jabba, solely be­cause of the ski­ing fes­ti­val that was held there a few months back.

It is im­per­a­tive that the gov­ern­ment act im­me­di­ately in or­der to save its dy­ing tourism re­sources. Pak­istan has un­par­al­leled nat­u­ral po­ten­tial which re­mains to be tapped. Once the roads are con­structed, tourism will be re-es­tab­lished and the ecosys­tem will be re­stored.

Lo­cal el­ders along with many NGOs are work­ing hard to re­store and re­con­struct the valley but a lot more needs to be done. With­out the key sup­port of the pub­lic sec­tor, the sit­u­a­tion will re­main chal­leng­ing and dif­fi­cult.

In times like these, it is im­per­a­tive for Pak­istan to dis­play its soft im­age. The tourism in­dus­try can serve as a cat­a­lyst in chang­ing the per­cep­tion of peo­ple around the world. The more the global per­cep­tion changes, the bet­ter for the im­age of Pak­istan.

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