ONE of the houses damaged in the Mashkel earthquake in 2013 has not yet been repaired.—Photo by writer
ONE of the houses damaged in the Mashkel earthquake in 2013 has not yet been repaired.—Photo by writer

IN the tiny central bazaar of Mashkel, elderly Nako Allah Dad sits in front of an electric shop surrounded by friends, whom he often serves tea for free. He has been ecstatic since he heard that the multi-billion-dollar China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) will pass through his dusty town. He tells his friends: “China will also build a road in our area, so we will no longer have to travel on the kutcha (unmetalled) dusty roads while travelling out of Mashkel.”

However, one of his friends is sceptical. “What I know is that Mashkel is unlikely to see any roads for another few decades — at least in our lifetimes,” he says, adding a taunt: “Neither we nor our elders have seen any roads or development work here, yet you talk of the CPEC.”

Travelling through interior Balochistan in recent years, I have come across many people who believe that the CPEC will bring about development in their areas. They have been assured this by the notables and political leaders of their areas, even though these tiny villages are miles away from the planned CPEC route. Mashkel is once such place.

Situated in the far west of Balochistan, Mashkel is a small dust-strewn town along the Pak-Iran border which was hit with a devastating 7.8 magnitude earthquake in 2013. To this date, the town wears a dilapidated look. There are no roads in this unfortunate town. Leaving Quetta city, you first travel some 340km to Dalbandin, the headquarters of Chaghi district. The journey from there takes around three hours on a mostly kutcha road. The vehicles that transport passengers there are usually ancient double-seat vehicles. “If there is a medical emergency, patients usually die on the way. Only those who are lucky reach Quetta alive,” explains Mohammad Khair Reki, a resident of Mashkel.

Despite being the biggest tehsil of Washuk district, Mashkel is not the district headquarters because of its remote location. With a population estimated at around 40,000 residents, the town lacks basic health and education infrastructure. “We have one rural health centre that is run by a medical technician,” says Ameenullah Baloch, a social worker from Mashkel. “We have more madressahs than schools.”

This is a beautiful, picturesque town dotted with date trees and mostly deserted mountains. At a short distance of around 3km lies the Zero-point Trade Gate along the Pak-Iran border, which has been closed for quite some time. “It only opened in 2014 and 2015, and we could import tiles, cement, and edibles from Iran,” recalls trader Haji Nizamuddin. “Since its closure, we have been living hand to mouth. There is no trade currently and we enjoy no benefits from the Zero-point Gate.”

Recently, Iranian Consul General Muhammad Rafie spoke at a ceremony in Quetta to mark the 39th anniversary of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Speaking about the volume of trade between the two countries, he said: “It has reached the mark of $1.5 billion per year and Iran wants it to increase to a record level of $5bn.”

Yet, ground realities tell a different story. For instance, the Zero-point Gate at Mashkel, just like other border points, has been deserted for several months and years. “Iran shuts the gate unilaterally notwithstanding the fact that we, the people of Mashkel, are heavily dependent on Zero-point for a living,” says a trader.

On top of that, the 2013 earthquake reduced much of Mashkel to rubble. At the time, it was officially reported that 80pc of the homes in Mashkel had collapsed — partially or completely. Years later, many of the damaged structures stand the way they did back then.

Social activist Ameenullah says there was no rehabilitation of the town after the earthquake, adding: “The federal and provincial governments have done zilch for the affected people of Mashkel.” Whatever scant infrastructure this town once had, collapsed in frequent earthquakes that hit Mashkel over the past few years. As a result, the town reels from one crisis to the other, and there appears to be no end to the people’s suffering.

“After the earthquake, we were only provided food rations,” recalls Mohammad Khair Reki. “We built our houses on our own. There was no support from the government worth remarking about. Government officials do not pay us the least attention.”

Mashkel has one high school and three middle schools. There is only one middle school for girls. Because of that, there are no job opportunities for the young — the boys usually drop out after matriculation, while girls mostly quit school after grade eight. “We do not have a college, so youngsters usually get involved in drugs and other social evils, like human trafficking,” says another resident of Mashkel, requesting anonymity. “Because the whole town of Mashkel has been left abandoned, no one is interested in improving its affairs or solving its massive issues.”

Published in Dawn, March 20th, 2018