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THE ROAD OUT OF GWADAR

Updated March 18, 2018

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It has taken 13 long years for the M-8 to see the light of day. Till date, however, both Bridge 1 and Bridge 3 have come under bomb attacks | NHA
It has taken 13 long years for the M-8 to see the light of day. Till date, however, both Bridge 1 and Bridge 3 have come under bomb attacks | NHA

Twenty-three billion rupees. This is the cost of ‘Motorway 8’ (M-8), which (ought to) connect the port city of Gwadar in Balochistan with Ratodero, Sindh. Forget the cost; It’s the status of this “motorway” that is intriguing: complete yet incomplete, secure yet insecure.

There is great buzz about the M-8 project in Balochistan — locals who use the road on a daily basis say that it has greatly reduced the time needed to travel from Gwadar to Turbat, and indeed, reduced the time for produce and supplies to be transported between cities.

And yet, great things in Balochistan tend to arrive in small, sometimes troubling packages.

A drive on the newly-constructed highway connecting the port city to Ratodero reveals the trials and tribulations of building infrastructure in conflict-ridden areas

Also known as the Gwadar-Ratodero Motorway, the M-8 falls under the purview of the National Highway Authority (NHA). In theory, it is an 893-kilometre-long “motorway” that is supposed to facilitate the movement of people and goods to and from the port city of Gwadar.

Explore: Footprints: Road trip Balochistan

The western end of this motorway is actually a junction known as the Karwat ‘zero point’, some 50 kilometres away from Gwadar. From Karwat, the road snakes through rugged terrain, first to Turbat, then to Hoshab and onwards to Khuzdar.

From Khuzdar, the highway takes a turn towards Sindh, to the town of Ratodero — the “eastern end” of the M-8. Ratodero has gained prominence in recent times for being the lynchpin of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). The town is a junction where the CPEC’s western, central and eastern road routes all converge. And it is from here that trade between provinces will originate.

The M-8, therefore, is what ties the CPEC plan all together.

Late last year, the Frontier Works Organisation (FWO), who were contracted by the NHA to build the motorway, completed construction of a 200-kilometre-long strip between Gwadar and Hoshab. And although the project is yet to be formally handed over to the NHA, the road is already in use.

We decided to travel down the motorway to discover if it lives up to its promise of being the main artery of CPEC. What we found, instead, were stories that pitted ancestral culture against modern development. There were tales of the troubles of living and surviving in conflict zones. And the permanent fear of being insecure while (somewhat) secure.

A rocky beginning

Twist in the tale: the M-8 wasn’t a CPEC-specific project to begin with.

The M-8 project is also known as the Gwadar-Ratodero Motorway. The project is divided into two sections; the first from Gwadar to Khuzdar, and the second from Khuzdar to Ratodero. Work on the 200-kilometre-long Gwadar to Hoshab segment began back in 2004 under the regime of General Pervez Musharraf. This track was supposed to have been completed in 2006. It has taken 13 long years for construction to conclude.

“The M-8’s first contractor was a Chinese company named Xinjiang Beixin Road & Bridge Group Co. Ltd," explains Muhammad Musa, NHA’s project director in Kech District. “But they left the project when three Chinese engineers were killed in a car bomb blast in Gwadar during the first week of May, 2004.”

The Chinese firm had managed to complete 30 kilometres of the project, from Naleint to Talaar, during their short stint. The construction contract was then awarded to D. Baloch, but for some reason (possibly security-related), they, too, were unable to complete the work.

“The M-8 has gone through many contractors but nobody was able to work on it properly,” says Musa, “until the project was awarded to the FWO in June 2014.”

The FWO was responsible for completing all aspects of construction by October 31, 2017.

But the construction process was marred by violence ever since work started. In July 2015, for example, a press release issued by the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) disclosed that six military personnel and 10 civilian employees of FWO were martyred and 29 severely injured in 136 security-related incidents. Similarly, on May 19, 2017, at least three labourers were gunned down in the Hoshab Bazaar. Despite the violence, work carried on and the highway finally saw the light of day late last year.

“The FWO finished all but a few things by the deadline but they have yet to hand over charge to the NHA,” says Musa. “Work on the [majority of the] first 200 kilometres of the M-8 has now been completed except for work on Bridge Number 3.”

That this much has even happened is being taken as a godsend in the NHA.

“In Balochistan, there are many roads that can only be seen on paper but, in reality, they don’t exist,” says a well-placed source within the NHA as he alludes to the difficulty of building roads in conflict-ridden areas. “Had it been a local contractor, he would have taken the amount and closed the file, noting the security risk. I doubt if any other contractors could have completed this project, except the FWO.”

NHA’s resident engineer on the project in Kech District, Awais Mustafa, explains that according to the preliminary cost (PC-1) of the project, the cost of building one kilometre is 90 million rupees. This corresponds to a total road construction cost of 8.04 billion rupees. But so far, the NHA has spent far in excess.

“All told, this section of M-8 cost the NHA almost 23 billion rupees,” says Mustafa. “We [NHA] agreed to pay 13 billion rupees to the FWO alone, which included security costs incurred [on protecting those working on the project].”

The resident engineer adds that had the project been completed on time, in two years, it might not have cost more than eight billion rupees to build the 200-kilometre-long section. But since it went through many contractors, over many years, the costs have simply multiplied. Meanwhile, today the scope and needs of the project are far greater than what it started off with.

Perhaps this is why calling the M-8 a “motorway” is a misnomer. It was never conceived of or planned as the main artery of CPEC. Even today, the M-8 is actually a two-track highway. But as goes the famous Balochi saying “Koor e chamma pit e ars baaz’e,” a drop of water is a lot in the eyes of a blind man.

Karwat to Turbat

With our expectations dampened, we planned a journey along the M-8 from Pasni to Hoshab, and perhaps, beyond. But to do that, we first had to head to the Karwat zero point.

We arrived in Karwat cognisant of how there was hardly any help along the way in case we ran into trouble. We had ensured that the car’s tyres had been checked in Pasni. And as an added precautionary measure, we also took two spare tyres along because, despite a newly-built motorway, this short journey to Turbat between rugged mountains is highly unpredictable. From Karwat, we had planned on restocking our water supplies.

Illustration by Creative Department
Illustration by Creative Department

But as we entered this outpost, civilian and paramilitary forces both stood alert at Karwat zero point. Since this is a junction, there is traffic to man from three directions. One road out of Karwat leads to Gwadar City, the other towards Turbat, and a third towards Pasni and onwards to Karachi (also known as the coastal highway). Although I attempted to photograph the soldiers manning the zero point, I was told that taking pictures is strictly prohibited.

“Where are you people going?” asked a soldier suspicious of our intent.

“Back to Turbat,” I reply and we quickly moved on.

Not more than 20 kilometres out of Karwat, we were welcomed by a broken bridge in Nalient. We had to take a short detour because Bridge Number 3 had been blown up by Baloch insurgents in 2017 and was never repaired. Nalient lies in Kulanch Tehsil and is renowned for its delicious and juicy mangoes. Produce is sent to Turbat by this highway. Before the road was constructed, it would take at least four hours for the produce to get to markets in Turbat. Now it takes no more than an hour-and-a-half.

Our second stop along the M-8 was Dasht, a sub-tehsil of Kech District.

Dasht is known as one the most unstable areas in Kech District. To pave way for the motorway, military operations had to be carried out to push insurgents to the mountains. Despite the fact that Dasht is now surrounded by check posts, it still sees insurgent attacks from time to time.

In 2015, about 20 workers were killed while working on a local bridge close to the motorway, near Mirani Dam. The labourers were hired by a local contractor named Zareef Rind. This incident intensified the military operation in the district. Among the places the M-8 passes, there are still some very vulnerable towns under the insurgents’ control. For security forces, it is hard to be in complete command of these towns because of the rugged terrain of these territories.

The motorway runs around 15 kilometres on Khan Muhammad’s land in the union council of Shahrak, Turbat Tehsil. “I have not visited the FWO to ask them for compensation. If I do, I might be labelled an agent and killed by the insurgents. Neither the FWO nor the NHA has contacted me about compensation money.”

As construction started on the M-8, Baloch separatists started attacking convoys of the Frontier Corps. Most attacks in the early days took place near bazaars, towns or populated areas. And as the paramilitary force began conducting widespread raids to hunt down the militants, ordinary residents started moving to Turbat. The operations had their desired impact as insurgents have now fled to the mountainside because of the paramilitary action.

Locals in Dasht, however, are very keen on sharing the information that the Pakistani Navy has bought almost 4,000 acres from them, paying 25,000 rupees per acre. The land that has been acquired is adjacent to the M-8. But this is not the case with all land acquired by the government for building the highway.

Till now, our journey had largely been comfortable and the road also mostly well carpeted. We inched ahead towards Turbat, the hotbed of Baloch nationalist thought.

Turbat to Hoshab

Turbat is the headquarters of Kech District but is also the second most volatile region in Balochistan. As it turns out, we could not stop over and were forced to bypass the city proper (although we could still pass through Turbat Tehsil). The city has long been considered as the ‘city of ideas’. And after Nawab Akbar Bugti’s demise, in particular, it has become one of the hubs of Baloch nationalist thought.

This breeds the fear of whether it is even safe to travel on this segment of the M-8.

Indeed, this question of security has led to paramilitary forces having carried out many operations in and around Turbat over the years. They have succeeded in removing the violent element to some extent if not completely. But that does not mean that they have managed to maintain peace in the district.

Work underway to repair and reconstruct Bridge 1, which lost two deck slabs in an insurgents’ attack on November 30, 2016 | NHA
Work underway to repair and reconstruct Bridge 1, which lost two deck slabs in an insurgents’ attack on November 30, 2016 | NHA

The matter is compounded, however, by the absence of any security measures as practiced in other provinces despite the loss of lives in the making of the highway.

Take the matter of security fencing, for example, or even the formation of a dedicated force to man the motorway, to enforce traffic rules and to provide help to those in trouble. In comparison, the Lahore-Islamabad motorway has security fencing to guard against intruders and bandits. But since there is simply no fencing around the M-8, many NHA properties continue to be unguarded despite the dire need of security.

Makran Commissioner Bashir Bangulzai told Eos that standing operating procedures (SOPs) for the security of this motorway specifically have yet to be finalised. Currently, each civil and paramilitary force is playing its role in protecting the M-8.

“As far as I have heard, one or two army divisions will be deployed to protect this highway,” says Bangulzai.

But while such decisions are being made in the corridors of power, the method of security currently employed is for repeated checks of travellers’ documents. Two questions frequently asked at nearly every check-post on the highway: where are you coming from and where are you going? And, on most check-posts, commuters are also told to show identity documents to prove that they are locals. This tends to rub people the wrong way as many are left frustrated with the harassment that accompanies this security check.

With Turbat City out of contention as a stopover destination, we decided to stop in Miri.

Miri is renowned for two things: the ancient site of Miri-i-Qalat, which in turn, is also the fortress of Sassi and Punnu – from the love legend of Sassi of Sindh and Punnu of Kech-Makran.

“Miri-e-Qalat on the Kech River was visited by the great explorer Sir Aurel Stein in 1928, who reported findings of some surface proto-historic pottery,” explains Dr Imran Shabbir Baloch, an archaeologist and researcher from Turbat.

“Then in 1990, the site was selected for systematic excavation by a French archaeological mission under the supervision of Roland Besenval. Radiocarbon dating of the archaeological materials confirmed the hypothesis that the site was occupied from the 5th millennium BC to the late 3rd millennium BC.”

The broken bridge in Nalient,  about 20 kilometres out of Karwat | NHA
The broken bridge in Nalient, about 20 kilometres out of Karwat | NHA

Since the French archaeological mission left in 2003 due to unrest in the area, the site lies in decay. The floods in 2007 wreaked havoc while there is great vegetation overgrowth on the site. Without a doubt, there is a part of Baloch heritage along the highway and, with a bit more care, it can be preserved and opened up as a tourist spot.

After saying goodbye to friends, we drove on towards Hoshab.

Ancestral culture versus modern development

Kech District is a place of great dichotomies. It has the most educated population in the province and yet is among the most violent of areas. While it is enveloped in security, fear still rules the roost. And although it has vast tracts of land, it also has great numbers of homeless people.

But there is a history to how these people lost their land.

Just short of Miri is a union council named Ginnah. It is one of the only towns in Kech District that lies along the M8. And when General Musharraf decided on constructing a highway back in 2006, Ginnah became a casualty of development.

“The government bought almost 300 acres in Ginnah,” narrates Dr Imran Shabeer Baloch, “paying 14,000 rupees per acre in 2006. The same amount was given for both fertile and barren land. The government also paid 25,000 rupees each for 5,216 fruit-bearing date and lemon trees.”

But a controversy erupted after landowners discovered that they had been fleeced out of their land.

“We found out through the minutes of official meetings that NHA-Islamabad had recommended to the Kech district administration to pay 500,000 rupees per acre. Those of us who owned the 300 acres bought by the government submitted a petition with the district executive officer (DEO) of revenue.”

The DEO rejected the plea, noting that the Land Acquisition Act of 1894 would apply here, and that the people affected in Dasht by the Mirani Dam were also compensated by the same law. Till now, the people of Ginnah have been unable to find relief.

But this was no one-off.

“My land has been allotted to the NHA just because it is not in a settled area,” says Nazeer Ahmed, a local. “But places such as Shapuk, Heeronk, Hoshab are not settled areas. How could I then present it as a settled area, when it is not?”

Locals such as Ahmed claim that they don’t get compensated for their land whenever there is mega-development work in their areas. What beats them in a legal struggle is that they only have “ancestral documents,” not settlement papers. Since many of these territories are not “settled areas” —registered with the government and with inhabited dwellings — residents don’t tend to have official documents. What they possess are ancestral documents as proof of ownership. Ancestral documents often predate the birth of Pakistan. Ahmed went to the Qazi court in Turbat to protest the NHA not compensating him for his land. But the court ruled against him because he only had ancestral papers to show ownership.

Sassi-Punno Fort
Sassi-Punno Fort

Another citizen from Shapuk with lands in Sammi, Shapuk (adjacent to the motorway) agrees with Ahmed.

“Our lands were snatched by force and we were paid nothing,” he claims. “I was told that the lands were not settled and therefore the government owns the lands. We have been living here for centuries, even before the inception of Pakistan.”

The notable goes on to state that most lands in this part of the country were acquired during the regime of General Pervez Musharraf. “Once he announced the construction of a road here, people began losing their ancestral lands.”

The trend hasn’t bucked. Instead it has gone ahead more aggressively.

In many towns in Gwadar and Kech Districts, locals have not received any monetary compensation. After the completion of the coastal highway, the majority in Pasni did not get paid for the land which lies on the route from Pasni zero point to Gwadar zero point. Similarly locals in Pasni, Rahelu, Belar and Kulanch were also told that they would be compensated since the Sawar Dam is being built on their lands. So far, they have received nothing.

What complicates matters is that ordinary people are often caught in the crossfire between the security forces and the insurgents. While security forces carry out raids to flush the militants from settled areas, insurgents have allegedly killed many Baloch civilians, accusing them of being agents of the intelligence agencies and the FC. This means that locals tend to stay mum in fear of being perceived as partisan to any conflict.

“It is dangerous to live with the insurgency,” says Khan Muhammad, who came to Turbat three years ago from Shapuk. “I have not even been compensated for my lands.”

The motorway runs around 15 kilometres on Khan Muhammad’s land in the union council of Shahrak, Turbat Tehsil. “I have not visited the FWO to ask them for compensation. If I do, I might be labelled an agent and killed by the insurgents. Neither the FWO nor the NHA has contacted me about compensation money.”

But this does not entail the bulldozing of people’s right to adequate compensation and resettlement.

“According to the land acquisition act, section 4 and 5, wherever and whenever the federal or provincial government need a piece of land they can acquire it and use it for collective public interest,” explains Advocate Qasim Ali Gajizai, President of the Kech Bar Association. “But it is necessary for the government to compensate the owners of the land through sections 18 and 25.”

Gajizai argues that in many cases of acquiring false settlement papers, the Balochistan High Court and lower courts have given their verdicts against the false papers holders. “Settlement, legally, should not be the main reason for not awarding landowners with compensation,” he says.

Meanwhile, ordinary people stay away from engaging in legal battle, as not only do such disputes become protracted but they are also very expensive to engage in. And Gajizai agrees with the strategy.

“When engaging in a legal battle with the government or state in any court and, more specifically, in land-related cases, it takes many years to come for the case to come to a conclusion,” he explains. “One needs sufficient money to pursue a legal battle. Many times projects tend to get completed but the court has yet to hand down a final verdict.”

The first trade convoy from China to Gwadar, through the M-8, arrived in November, 2016, and was welcomed by both Chinese and Pakistani officials. Former prime minister Nawaz Sharif had said in his speech at the occasion that development could never be sustainable “if it creates islands of property. It must reach the lives of those who have remained mired in a trap of poverty and backwardness.”

But the current situation is pushing many more towards poverty than lifting them out of it.

Hoshab onwards

The good news first: work on the Khuzdar-Ratodero portion of the motorway, 243 kilometres long, has been completed.

The bad news, in the words of NHA’s Awais Mustafa: “The 400-kilometre-long Hoshab-Khuzdar section might begin sometime after 2023.”

In principle, the M-8 ought to have been among the first motorways to have been completed under the CPEC project since it will be the main artery used for goods transport. It isn’t. And Mustafa doesn’t see much urgency in building the missing track as “the Gwadar Port itself is not [fully] functional yet and almost half of the Gwadar-Ratodero Motorway has not yet been completed.”

Meanwhile, an addition has also been made to the original plan. Former chief minister Dr Abdul Malik had requested former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to also connect Hoshab with Bela, which is only 160 kilometres away. Sharif accepted the proposal.

“This segment is to be funded by the provincial and federal governments,” says Musa. “But it is not yet known when construction of the Hoshab-Bela section will begin. This is an addition to the original plan but will not disturb the overall M-8.”

As beautifully carpeted as the first section of the M-8 is, it is essentially a two-track road. And compared to the Lahore-Islamabad Motorway, this road is a picture of consistent disrepair. In many places, the road carpeting has already eroded and potholes have emerged. There are no street lights as a town approaches, nor are there cat eyes to guide drivers at night. There is a dearth of appropriate signage. And, of course, there is no motorway police to guard the highway or to enforce order.

“The NHA will be responsible for its routine and annual maintenance once they get the project back from the FWO,” says Musa. “There will be a separate department for the maintenance of this road.”

According to Awais Mustafa, the NHA’s resident engineer of this project: “This road cannot bear heavy traffic. Substantial roads are needed for trade purposes [such as] CPEC. The plan is to have the type of road needed for CPEC and its heavy trade ready by 2030.”

While the M-8 only has two lanes at the moment, it needs four more lanes for it to be used for trade purposes and goods transportation. “If it is to be used for CPEC,” says the engineer, “then it also needs interchanges every 15 kilometres as well as emergency on/off ramps.”

One of the biggest issues with roads and bridges in Balochistan is that they are short-lived. A few of the existing bridges along the M-8 are already in dilapidated condition. Mustafa attributes the general state of affairs to improper planning and oversights on the load the highway can manage.

“The M-8, as well as bridges, cannot bear more than 17 tonnes of vehicle weight,” says the engineer. “But most vehicles in Balochistan carry smuggled goods, often in excess of 17 tonnes. There are no checkpoints to measure weight so this overloading breaks down the roads and bridges.” He adds that if these weight limits are enforced, roads are expected to last 10 years and bridges can survive for 50 years.

Mustafa claims that although the NHA requested the FWO to install weighing stations or toll plazas to weigh vehicles carrying goods, they did not do it. The NHA even prepared a 25-million-rupee proposal to fund the weighing station, but “the FWO said they were done with major works and could not assign an entire unit and security for just a few stations.”

FWO sources maintain, however, that no request was lodged with the FWO for building weighing stations.

Perhaps, what’s important going forward is to balance the demands of development with the lives of the Baloch. Balochistan isn’t the only province that has a parallel system of justice which is unrecognised by law. Instead of finding avenues to formally recognise land ownership and to resettle those affected, muffling the people’s voice is counter-productive and alienating. After all, CPEC is for all of us.

The writer is a freelance journalist.
He tweets @ShahmeerAlbalos

Published in Dawn, EOS, March 18th, 2018