GWADAR: The Pearl Continental Gwadar, located on the hammerhead that defines this coastal town in southern Balochistan, is deserted on most days. Only a few of the hotel’s 114 rooms are being kept operational; instead of central air-conditioning, split ACs are in place; the shrubbery outside needs some attention. Cost-cutting measures are clearly in place.
And yet, the building is well lit and inviting, the smell of freshly polished furniture lingers in the corridors, at least some of the rooms that are still open are luxurious and well maintained, and the staff is eager to show you around.
After a cycle of boom and bust that has lasted nearly a decade, there’s an air of expectation in Gwadar, a feeling that good times are just around the corner, although that depends on whom you speak to.
This small town of 85,000 people in Gwadar district was a sleepy little fishing village until not so long ago. Now it finds itself as a launching pad for big regional, if not global, ambitions based on the proposed Pak-China economic corridor, a role reinforced by the prime minister’s high-powered visit here on Thursday accompanied by the chief minister and army chief.
The port is the centrepiece of the optimistic narrative. Its logo is a stylistic depiction of a lighthouse and a windsurfer with the words “Symbol of prosperity” underneath. In 2013, China Overseas Port Holding Company took over operations at the facility from the Port of Singapore Authority after the latter quit over a dispute regarding land to develop the port.
“Things are moving very fast,” claimed Dostain Khan Jamaldini, chairman of the Gwadar Port Authority. “Unlike Pakistanis, the Chinese spend a lot of time in planning, then they do the execution quickly.”
Reinforcing the impression of the feverish pace of activity, Director General Gwadar Development Authority, Dr Sajjad H. Baloch said, “Several delegations of Chinese have visited within the last six months; that last one was here just a few days ago.”
Among the projects in the ‘Gwadar package’ are port expansion, construction of a new airport, an industrial estate, an export processing zone, desalination plant, water and sewage system for the city and transportation infrastructure such as a 19km expressway to link the port with the coastal highway, and other road and rail links connecting Gwadar to upcountry via Ratodero in Sindh.
It was recently announced that China would invest $1.8 billion in nine projects to develop the port and the city. In a way, China is picking up where it left off, for it had paid 75pc of the $248 million initial construction cost of the port.
The facility became operational in 2008, but on a very limited scale. For now, ships carrying subsidised wheat and urea from Canada and South Korea occasionally dock at the port for transfer via the coastal highway to Karachi and then elsewhere in the country. It’s an expensive exercise; direct transportation links from Gwadar to upcountry are crucial to make the port commercially viable.
And there’s the rub. Baloch insurgents are violently opposed to the port project, which they consider a means to further exploit Balochistan’s natural resources and render the local population a minority by bringing in labour from elsewhere.
Gwadar city itself is considered free of insurgent activity – mainly because only one road leads into this seaside locale, although it too has experienced its share of insurgent activity and enforced disappearances in the past.
However, step a little distance out on the M-8 that is to ultimately constitute one of the two vital road links to Ratodero (and beyond to Kashgar in China – the so-called ‘new Silk Road’) and the challenges begin to reveal themselves.
Every so often along the highway, also built by the Chinese several years ago, there are small lookout posts, which were manned by the Frontier Corps (FC) to provide security to the construction teams from attacks by insurgents. Bridges across en route river creeks, which flood in the rains, are unfinished. Work was abandoned when the security situation in Balochistan deteriorated rapidly after the killing of Nawab Bugti. Some Chinese contractors as well as labourers and FC personnel suffered casualties in attacks by Baloch militants.
The changing dynamics were reflected in Gwadar’s property market. A 1000 sq yard plot in the coveted Singhar housing scheme atop the hammerhead went from Rs50,000 in the ’90s to Rs5,500,000 in 2005 before plummeting to Rs300,000 where it languishes today. “Many made a fortune from real estate here,” said a local. “But those who didn’t sell at the right time were ruined when the market collapsed.”
Now that the hype around the port is being built up again, it remains to be seen whether investors will return, especially in view of the worsening insurgency in much of the province.
There have also been some unsettling incidents around Gwadar city recently. In March, insurgents launched a well-planned attack on a radar post in Pasni, and in Jiwani, some non-Baloch settlers have been targeted by the militants.
Nevertheless, government officials and technocrats working on government projects insist the challenge is not insurmountable. The Awaran section of the M-8 highway, for example, has been dropped so as to skirt the volatile district. They also point to instances even now of portions of the M-8 in insurgency-hit Khuzdar being constructed under military supervision.
Speak to locals in the rundown alleys of the town though and they shrug their shoulders, pointing out that so far, the port has made no difference to their lives. Abdul Hakeem, a fisherman, says, “All the change I’ve seen is that we’ve been moved from where we were living for generations to make way for the port.”
A 50-bed hospital constructed four years ago has still not opened due to shortage of medical personnel. Gwadar city uplift plans envisage its expansion to a 300-bed facility. “The functional district hospital is in a shambles. It lacks basic medicines, and doesn’t have even a single dialysis machine,” says a social activist. “Are we to believe that things are suddenly going to improve for us?”
All considered, there’s much work to be done if the ‘prosperity’ narrative is to be one that takes everyone along.