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The tough road to corridor

Updated July 18, 2016

The last time this rights campaigner (name withheld on request) went to Gwadar from Quetta in late winter, he found the small port city to have “virtually turned into a military fortress”. The presence of the army and police in the city had significantly been stepped up and a cordon around it established. All but one route had been closed to traffic moving in and out of the city.

“Once there, you get this uneasy feeling of constantly being watched; it was virtually impossible to move around without running into soldiers and police manning the checkpoints set up all over the town,” the rights activist told Dawn in Quetta towards the end of last month.

The massive security arrangements in Gwadar have been made to protect Chinese nationals working on the city’s nearly-complete deepwater port. The port will give China’s north-western region of Xinjiang shortest possible access to markets in the Middle East, Africa and Europe through a network of highways, rail and pipelines being built under the $46 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project.

A soldier and his dog search cars traveling at a checkpoint on the main highway outside Quetta. -Reuters/File
A soldier and his dog search cars traveling at a checkpoint on the main highway outside Quetta. -Reuters/File

Although there are reports of a ‘noticeable improvement’ in Balochistan’s security situation which has been wrecked by years of sectarian militancy and Baloch insurgency, the safety of Chinese workers and trade corridor remains overriding concerns for the government.

“Our cities are much safer today than they were a year ago as sectarian and separatist violence has decreased. But it is still a volatile situation,” a senior district administration official said by telephone from Panjgur.

Panjgur is one of the three districts of Makran division; Gwadar and Kech being the other two.

“A low-intensity conflict continues to rage outside major cities, particularly in Makran and Kalat divisions where the Baloch separatists have a presence and where they continue to frequently target security forces, and government employees and installations,” he explained.

The Baloch separatists have expressed their disapproval of the trade route project, terming it a design by the establishment to steal the province’s resources for the benefit of Punjab and China. The rebels have also threatened to attack anyone and everyone who is somehow linked to the development of the corridor.

The military has been assigned the task of securing the trade route and Chinese workers against militant attacks.

Conversation with senior police officials in the provincial capital confirmed that the military, which is raising a special division to protect the route and foreigners working on CPEC-related projects, has considerably enhanced the number of its troops in Gwadar in the recent months as more Chinese workers are expected to arrive over the next few months.

But police officials in Quetta argued that shielding the Chinese workers in Gwadar or elsewhere in the province in “fortified” areas was relatively easier.

“The harder part is to protect the labour engaged in the construction of the western branch of the trade route, which mostly passes through Baloch areas where rebel groups are more active,” a senior police official said.

The Frontier Works Organisation, which is constructing the 873-km long western route to help fully operationalise Gwadar port, has lost 30 of its workers in various incidents of IED (improvised explosive device) explosions, rocket fire, or sniper attacks by the Baloch insurgents, an FWO official said by telephone from Islamabad.

“We’ve taken measures to protect our workers, but it’s virtually impossible to guard every inch of the (under-construction) road,” he said. The number of militant attacks against FWO workers and fatalities has drastically receded since November last year though, he added, hastily.

Concerns over the safety of foreign nationals and the route apart, some extreme measures taken by the security forces in the name of security along the corridor route is seriously affecting common people and their livelihood, and could well fuel greater disaffection among the Baloch population.

“Actions like restrictions on fishing area of Gwadar, ban on the use of motorcycles by civilians between Turbat and Panjgur (because militants use this mode of transportation to attack the security forces), and forced removal of small settlements and villages along the trade route are only increasing the Baloch mistrust of the corridor project,” the rights worker quoted above insisted.

The government claims that the completion of CPEC will make Gwadar a regional trade hub, boost the provincial economy, create jobs and bring prosperity to a province whose three-quarters of population is estimated to be poor. The Baloch are unimpressed.

“Even if they do not subscribe to the tactics of the insurgent groups, a lot many of (the Baloch) people remain sceptical of the government’s intentions and share the separatists’ view that the corridor is nothing but a ploy by the establishment in Punjab to deprive them of their resources,” Ghani Parwaz, a Baloch author and retired college professor from Turbat, argued.

In his opinion, the Baloch scepticism of the project stems from their experience of last 70 years. “Those who are aware of Balochistan’s history know that this project is for the central Punjab. Name a single project that was ever executed for the common people?” the professor asked pointedly.

An Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad briefing paper on the benefits of CPEC for Balochistan contends that with an estimated $7.1b initial investment under the project, Balochistan ranks second in its share from the promised $46b Chinese investment.

A 'mirage'

But Wahid Shahwani, a journalist from Khuzdar, insisted that the promise of CPEC-related prosperity was nothing more than a “mirage” for the people. “Basically, you’re promising to give Mercedes cars 20 years from now to people who need drinking water and food today. It is but a cruel joke with the poor.”

Examine: Gwadar's long wait for water

A now retired provincial finance secretary agreed with him. “Not a single early harvest project under CPEC is in Balochistan. Why? What is stopping it from developing the Baloch majority areas of the province to isolate the separatists? Where are the promised jobs for them?” he asked.

A general view of Gwadar on the Arabian Sea. -Reuters/File
A general view of Gwadar on the Arabian Sea. -Reuters/File

Many agree that the Baloch population of the province will not become a stakeholder in the trade route project unless they are educated and trained in skills that will be needed for the CPEC-related projects.

“The very fact that the labour for the road projects has been brought from southern Punjab, Sindh or elsewhere is only widening the trust gap between government and people. The fear of a demographic change in the province with the local (Baloch) population being reduced to a political minority after completion of the CPEC projects is fast becoming a reality for the Baloch,” said a pro-PPP politician.

Akber Durrani, who served as provincial home secretary for five consecutive years before he was assigned a new job as finance secretary in May, claimed that the government was taking steps to allay whatever fears local people had about the corridor project. “It’s going to be a game changer for the province, its people and economy. And the people you are talking about realise this. It is becoming harder for the insurgents to sell their anti-CPEC propaganda as is reflected by improving peace conditions across the province.”

He went on to state that the provincial government was changing laws to protect political and economic rights of local populations. “A new law is being shaped to deny the right of vote to new settlers in Makran. Similarly, it will be mandatory for investors to give preference to local labour while hiring.”

But will these measures be enough to build the people’s confidence in government and CPEC? Ghani Parwaz does not think so. “People want development. They want schools, hospitals and jobs. But before that they want to be masters of their own future. Unless they’re recognised and treated as a stakeholder in the decisions affecting them and their economic and political future, they will continue to view the trade route as another conspiracy by the Punjabi elite to plunder their land and resources.”

Published in Dawn, July 18th, 2016