THE federal cabinet’s decisions to hand over Gwadar port to the Chinese and to go ahead with the Iran-Pakistan (IP) gas pipeline project despite US pressure seem to be politically motivated moves made by an outgoing government ahead of elections.
However, the pipeline will remain a dream and Gwadar a commercial failure unless there is peace and stability in Balochistan.
It has been argued that Gwadar port could not be made fully functional due to a lack of rail and road connectivity and issues related to the acquisition of land for the development of free zones. These issues could have been amicably settled with the Singaporean firm that was originally supposed to run the port, and now will hopefully be resolved with the Chinese operator of the strategic port. Yet the real issue is the precarious law and order situation that has held all development schemes in Balochistan hostage.
Without laying a network of roads and railways throughout the province, Gwadar cannot be connected to the rest of the country and other regional states. Realistically speaking, the local contractors have so far been unable to even continue smooth work on small projects due to law and order problems. So how can a mega project such as Gwadar be expected to succeed in the violence-hit province?
In May 2004 three Chinese engineers were killed and nine others wounded when a van carrying 12 Chinese engineers and technicians was attacked by gunmen. Such acts of sabotage have made Balochistan an unsafe location for foreign investors, discouraging business groups from acquiring long-term stakes in Gwadar. Who will come to invest in a province facing multifaceted violence? Who will do business in Gwadar at gunpoint?
It is also legitimate to ask what Balochistan has received and what it will receive from the development of Gwadar port. The plan of setting up a military cantonment in Gwadar immediately came up as the construction of the port was started in 2002. Immediately after the Chinese completed work on the first phase of the project, a military operation was launched in Balochistan in 2005.
It would have been much better if a comprehensive plan for human development through the establishment of technical institutes imparting training in port-related operations could have been implemented in Balochistan. This could have had a salutary effect on the local population.
Also, the larger part of the proposed IP pipeline will traverse Balochistan’s territory. Security is a concern for this venture as well. Presently, incidents of targeting gas installations and the blowing up of gas pipelines have become routine in the province. The proposed Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (Tapi) gas pipeline could not materialise due to the uncertain security situation in Afghanistan. Can Islamabad effectively handle the security of the IP pipeline traversing the volatile province? India withdrew from the Iran pipeline project in 2009 raising concerns about risks confronting the project.
It is not the ports and pipelines that will bring peace and stability to Pakistan. Rather, peace is required for such projects — which are vital to economic progress and prosperity — to materialise.
Balochistan is a small — population-wise — and impoverished province, which has always remained on the political periphery of the country. The long history of neglect and discrimination against the province and the military operations undertaken in it have made Balochistan an extremely sensitive place.
Today, the province suffers from political unrest. It reels from sectarian terrorism and targeted killings along ethnic lines. The establishment’s suspected ‘kill and dump’ policy has further complicated the issue.
Lawlessness has also aggravated poverty in the province. According to a report launched by the Islamabad-based Sustainable Development Policy Institute last year, 52 per cent of Balochistan’s population lives below the poverty line. The study reveals that 20 districts in the whole country have an acute poverty incidence, out of which 16 are located in this province.
Last month, Balochistan’s coalition government led by Aslam Raisani was dismissed and governor’s rule was imposed. Yet in the present scenario no government — even governor’s rule — appears to be able to pacify the restive province. The fact is that Balochistan is virtually under the control of the military establishment. The provincial government has limited authority.
Without taking the genuine Baloch leadership on board, both the IP pipeline and Gwadar port will have an uncertain future. The province should be the primary beneficiary of any development activity planned there. The real issue is about the local ownership of projects that makes people directly responsible for their security and sustainability.
Yet there seems to be a silver lining. Last year, Baloch nationalist leader Sardar Akhtar Mengal paved the way for political reconciliation by presenting a six-point charter. Mengal demanded the disbandment of the so-called death squads suspected of operating under the intelligence agencies, the production of all missing persons before a court of law, freedom for Baloch political parties to resume political activities, bringing the killers of Baloch leaders to justice and the rehabilitation of displaced Baloch people.
Yet the establishment seems to be in a state of denial instead of exploiting the opportunity given by Sardar Mengal. As far as the state is concerned, all is well in Balochistan and everything is under control.
If this were true, what would all the fuss be about?
The writer is a development analyst and the author of Economic Development of Balochistan. firstname.lastname@example.org