ISLAMABAD - President Asif Ali Zardari Monday called upon the people of tribal areas to actively participate in the forthcoming general elections, terming it a good opportunity for them to change their destiny.

He was addressing a grand tribal jirga of notables from Fata here at the Aiwan-e- Sadr which was attended by Senate Chairman Nayyar Hussain Bokhari, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Governor Shaukatullah, federal ministers, Fata ACS Dr Tashfeen Khan and others.

The president said that security concerns and fragile law and order situation should not be a hindrance in the way of voting, adding that he himself has suffered in the war against militancy and gave sacrifices, the death of his wife Benazir Bhutto being one of those.

According to prepared text of the speech, the president said the government in the past five years took a number of steps for the uplift of Fata and opened up for the first time the door for reforms in tribal areas that had been shut for the past over a century. Besides giving a new judicial system, the tribal people have been now allowed to freely participate in political activities, he said.

He said the new judicial system in Fata ensures due process, the right to appeal and the right to bail. Actually it is a leap forward for the people towards freedoms, liberties, human rights and political participation. He however stressed that the driver for change in Fata must come from within its people and not imposed from outside. Any changes and reforms must respect tribal customs and traditions, he added.

President Zardari said some people say that bring peace to tribal areas is more important than introducing reforms as they think that reforms must follow, not precede, peace in the region. The other view is that political reforms act as a catalyst for peace. He said that reforms and efforts for peace should go hand in hand and people of tribal areas, more than the land, should be given importance.

The dynamics of political reforms will release energies promoting peace, the Zardari said. Dismissing the assumption that the people of tribal areas do not want change, he said that change and forward movement is the destiny of the people and assured that the forward march will continue.

The president stated that there was a time when they rejected female education, but today they insist on giving education to their girls and similarly for a long time it was assumed that the people of Fata were not interested in elections and voting but when adult franchise was extended, the people of Fata including the women participated in the elections.

President Zardari urged the need for devising a monitoring mechanism to oversee the implementation of Fata reforms and said that it was important that the reforms were fully implemented and that it must be ensured that the people actually benefit from the reforms and their confidence level is raised.

The president on the occasion congratulated the tribal elders over these historic achievements and complimented the previous government, the Pakhtunkhwa governor, all political parties, Fata MPs, the Shaheed Bhutto Foundation and the tribal people for working together to build a consensus on basic minimum reforms.

On development needs of the tribal areas, the president said that he was conscious of the needs of “our tribal brothers and sisters” and aware that development of tribal areas has long been neglected. President Zardari assured that along with the Gomal Zam project, the government will also construct the Bara Dam to meet the water and energy needs of the area. He also urged the Fata Secretariat to step up efforts of the setting up of Fata Information Technology University and Fata Medical College. He noted that the annual budget for Fata has already crossed the 16 billion rupees mark that is the highest ever during the last five years.

On IDPs problems in Fata, the president said that he was aware of their problems and they will address those in right earnest. The militants, the president said, have always targeted schools particularly girls schools because they fear education and enlightenment the most.

He said assured the tribal leaders that the government will rebuild the damaged schools and establish new schools, colleges and academic institutions in the tribal areas and fight the militant mindset by spreading education.

Complimenting the efforts of KP governor, the Fata Secretariat and the political administration for implementing the development projects in tribal areas, he said that the governor himself belongs to a tribal agency and he has been taking keen interest in the development of those areas. He said appointment of a governor in KP from Fata was in fact an acknowledgment that tribal areas are an important part of the country and it was also recognition to the sacrifices of the people of Fata.

Paying tributes to the sacrifices of the people of tribal areas and KP in the ongoing war against militancy, the president said that they have suffered the most due to this war and have made huge sacrifices. He said that “we value and respect the sacrifices they and their children have made and that their sacrifices will not go in vain.”

The president said they have developed a new model for development wherein the people of tribal areas will be partners in the projects and the industries that will be set up through the concept of Reconstruction Opportunity Zones (ROZs). He said the government was negotiating with other countries to allow market access to the products made in the tribal areas, which he said will promote the industrial development of tribal areas besides creating jobs to the youth and economic opportunities to all. President Zardari said that besides present facilities being offered through BISP, they would soon initiate giving education, health and stipends to the tribal people through BISP social safety net.