PORTERS at Zero Point in Taftan carrying Iranian apples on their backs.—Photo by writer
PORTERS at Zero Point in Taftan carrying Iranian apples on their backs.—Photo by writer

ZERO POINT, where people trade goods across the Pakistan-Iran border in Taftan town, wears a deserted look. It is Pakistan’s turn to export goods to Iran but the access through Zero Point is closed. There is not a single person around, let alone traders, and I am told that Iran has flatly and unofficially refused to import Pakistani goods, including fruits, vegetables and rice.

“Our commodities, which are supposed to be exported to Iran, are rotting away on Pakistan’s side of the border,” laments Obaid Zehri, a forlorn trader.

The gate marking Zero Point opens six days a week during which people trade commodities with each other across the border, and it closes only on Fridays. Pakistan buys from Iran on three days and sells to Iran for the remaining three. That is, however, no longer the case.

Now Zero Point opens for only three days when people from Iran come to export their commodities to Pakistan. “Zero Point is also called Friendship Gate, but this is not friendship. Why do they (Iranians) not accept our commodities even though the fact is that these (Pakistani commodities) are better than theirs?” questions Gul Mohammad, another trader.

I returned to Zero Point the next day when it was Iran’s turn to sell. The place was brimming with porters and Mohammad Iqbal, one of them, carried 12 crates of apples from the Iranian side of the border on his shoulders. He is paid Rs55 per shift by his trader. He is happy with that amount because there is no other way to earn a livelihood in Taftan, where people’s main source of income is the border.

Many porters at Zero Point are underage. Instead of going to school, dozens of children work here as porters, because according to them, they have no option.

“Although we have disallowed them, they insist on working here to earn a livelihood,” says Jameel Mengal, who is in charge of Levies at Zero Point. “Due to this reason, we allow them. We have issued 1,200 porter cards.”

Situated in Chaghi district, Taftan is an old and remote settlement. Of the total eight international routes in the country, only three are still open — one of them is Taftan. There is also a thriving trade of goods via rail between the two countries.

An official from Koh-i-Taftan railway station shares with Dawn: “Our purpose is not only to trade rather we want to show that the international route of Taftan is still open. Hamarey train ko chalaney wala Allah hai (Allah runs our train), which supplies goods to Iran. Our railway tracks have not been upgraded since 1888 ... the government doesn’t pay us money or foot the bill for fuel.”

Pakistani officials are aware that the trade happening at Zero Point is entirely one-sided but they cannot do anything about it. Taftan Assistant Commissioner Zafar Kubdani says that he wanted to close Zero Point on the days Iranians sold their commodities. However, he says that local traders in Taftan requested him not to close it.

Mr Kubdani claims that he was told that the people of Taftan will suffer more because many of them are dependent on Iranian commodities.

“I will again write to the Iranian authorities and ask them to import our goods too,” he says. “Otherwise, we will have to close the gate.”

There are three trading points at Taftan — Zero Point is one of them, while the other two are sites of government-level trade between Pakistan and Iran. The two trading points, unlike Zero Point, are never closed and Pakistan Customs collects huge revenue there.

Yet the deficit also stretches into government-to-government trade at the Taftan border.

A Customs official requesting anonymity says: “On the part of Iran, there is officially a trust deficit ... [They believe] that goods coming from Pakistan are not of good quality. They do not accept our commodities so, as a tit for tat, we stopped buying Iranian apples ... We have to import oil products and by-products, among others, from Iran.”

As the Taftan border is a key trading point, goods from Central Asian countries are also exported here. A Customs official at the Quetta collectorate explains that the Taftan border was the biggest revenue collector.

“A year ago, in a month, we would collect between Rs350 to Rs450 million, and this has now increased to Rs800 plus million. We have managed to achieve 50 per cent above our target,” the official adds.

Some officials claim that the revenue generated at the Taftan border outstrips earnings at the Chaman border.

“Even though the government collects a huge sum of taxes at the Taftan border, the people here, to this day, lack educational, health, and other basic facilities,” says Jalil Mohammadani, a politician and former mayor of Taftan.

“Schools and hospitals are massively understaffed ... People have to travel 630 kilometres from here to Quetta for medical treatment. Furthermore, there is not a single female doctor in Taftan,” he adds.

I ask the Customs official if any of this revenue is spent on the people of Taftan, and he replies: “No.”

“We are merely a collecting agency. It is up to the federal, provincial, and local governments to use funds and money on the people,” he further says.

Taftan Union Council Chairman Nawab Khan Musazai sums it up: “In Taftan, we can only order [people] to do two things: kill stray dogs and pick up the garbage. Funds for the people of Taftan hardly ever reach their intended destination.”

Published in Dawn, January 5th, 2018

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