Gwadar enjoys a strategic location on the Arabian Sea in Balochistan, accessible to South Asia, West Asia and Central Asia.
In 1958, it was bought by Pakistan from Oman and since 1993 has gone through various processes to extract the potential of this port.
Due to inadequate funding, political unrest and lack of proper management, in 2007 the port and its related works were handed over to the Port of Singapore Authority (PSA) on a 40-year lease.
This handover, however, was not done with the approval of Balochistan’s own governor, Zulfiqar Ali Khan Magsi, who expressed his grievances towards the process for lacking transparency and ignoring local interests and concerns.
He filed a petition against the Government of Pakistan, and this petition along with imminent issues of security in the region, resulted in a premature termination of the lease with PSA.
Today, Gwadar is known as one of Pakistan’s rapidly growing cities and is expected to reach a population of two million as the development of the port continues.
As per the master plan of CPEC, a direct connection is proposed from the port of Gwadar to Kashgar, greatly reducing the amount of time it takes China to transport oil and goods from the rest of the world.
Although rich in mineral resources, Balochistan has not been able to contribute significantly to Pakistan’s economy. However, officials now state that under CPEC it will able to generate substantial economic activity, for both the province and the country.
Gwadar is set to receive hundreds of millions of dollars in investments from China, which has been given tax exemptions to operate the port for the next 40 years.
Last year, Federal Minister for Ports and Shipping Mir Hasil Bizenjo revealed that during this time 91 percent of the profits will go to China. The major projects for Gwadar Port include a coal-fired power plant, expansion of existing railway lines, Pak-China Friendship Hospital, Gwadar University and Special Economic Zones (SEZs).
In the midst of the construction on Gwadar, lives the indigenous fishing community, which has seen the port change hands since its acquisition from Oman.
They have experienced displacement, seen ecological degradation and fear loss of livelihood as the infrastructure boom in Gwadar continues to ignore their plight.
The fishermen of Gwadar
“We knew we would be displaced during former president retired General Pervez Musharraf’s rule... and we know we will also be displaced from here one day. Because it is true that we do not feature in the country’s logic of development in general and Gwadar in particular.”
Development cannot take place if it does not enhance the capabilities of the people of the region.
Although construction in Gwadar Port promises to bring much needed growth in the city, it fails to develop and enhance the lives of those who have occupied the region since before it garnered economic interest.
The success of CPEC and the investment in Gwadar cannot be measured purely through quantitative analysis of large data sets, but rather only at a scale where the impact of these investments on the indigenous community is clearly visible to the researcher.
To better understand this impact, some of the factors that needed to be looked at include:
Quality of life
Hafeez Jamali, in his working paper on the "Anxiety of Development" sheds light on the first phase of construction in Gwadar in 2007, when the fishermen lived in “adobe and thatch houses” in a neighbourhood known as Mulla Band.
This neighbourhood was to be the site for future development in the city.
Drawn by the promises of just compensation and adequate amenities, the fishermen agreed to be relocated to the New Town Housing Scheme on the outskirts of the city.
“We wanted pukka (formal) houses, wide streets, and steady income. Price of land was increasing by the day in Gwadar and we thought that having our own piece of land and house in New Town scheme will allow us to benefit from the opportunities in the future city. We dreamt that our children would study in an English medium school and grow up to be doctors and engineers, not poor fishermen like us.”
The vision of development marketed in the country, one that idolises the skyscrapers and highways of Dubai and Singapore, has embedded itself so deep within the minds of the ordinary citizens that the promise of a ‘better looking house’ led them to ignore the intangible benefits they had when they lived in Mulla Band.
Their mistake became obvious once, after purchasing washing machines, television sets and motorcycles, they found themselves having to spend more to commute to the shore for their livelihood as fishermen.
They had difficulty accessing good schools and hospitals as these facilities became concentrated in the now rich neighbourhood they had left behind.
Today, under CPEC, they face similar threats again.
Gwadar sees physical infrastructure growth, a new international airport, a new university, a new hospital, but all these remain mere sculptures of concrete if they do little to enrich the lives of the people who are in most need of them.
Human development initiatives
The fishermen in Gwadar today make up 80 percent of the total population of 185,000. Gwadar is set to become a hub of industrial and trade activities and in a press conference in 2017, officials claimed that the development of the Gwadar free zone has created 404 direct, and 2,000 indirect jobs for locals in the area.
Since no data has been published to verify this number, it appears that the public will have to accept this statement at face value.
Additionally, this statement does little to assure the workers in the district whose main source of income is through fishing.
Merely 2,000 construction jobs, which are temporary employment in any case, cannot be used as justification to offset the concerns of these workers.
The fishermen say that they don’t know anything other than fishing. What is required, then, are workforce development programmes to train fisherfolk to be able to operate the emerging technology.
There is no mention of any such programme in the media, or in the limited official documents released by the government.
The government seems to believe that development follows the boom in infrastructure. Former prime minister Nawaz Sharif during his visit to Gwadar in 2017 said, “When roads are made, success follows.”
However, the people of Gwadar still await basic services such as quality education and accessible healthcare; many women must travel to cities 500 kilometres away, through the very roads the prime minister mentioned, for basic childbirth services.
It must be noted however that in some projects along the corridor, where multinational corporations are managing power plants, substantial efforts are being made to train local workforce to enable them to handle new machinery.
Engro is overseeing the Thar coal power plant project and will employ trained local workforce as part of Block II of the project.
A report by Hagler Bailly Pakistan states that the workforce will be trained by the Sindh Technical Education & Vocational Training Authority for the 200 staff positions that are expected to be created for the project.
A similar approach is required in Gwadar.
Transparent, democratic and participatory process
“We [the Balochistan National Party] convened an All Parties Conference in Islamabad in January 2015 and put forth concerns that we have over the mysterious CPEC project, including the fisherman issues, and agreed on a resolution which was even signed by Minister of Planning Ehsan Iqbal and Information Minister Pervaiz Rasheed, but to no avail. No serious step has been taken to resolve these issues. This is quite disappointing.”
The issue of democracy can be raised if first, the presence of those who make up the democracy is acknowledged.
The chairman of the China Overseas Ports Holding Company views Gwadar as a “clean slate” for them to work on. He and his team live in a gated community cut off from the general public due to security concerns.
Whereas the security concerns are valid in light of the insurgency by Baloch separatists, the answer is not to ignore the causes of insurgency and isolate projects, but rather to address security concerns first so as to enable inclusivity in the process of development.
“In my own country, my own town and on my very own land, I am being welcomed as an outsider by someone who is actually the outsider. They smiled warmly, shook our hands and asked us how they can help us since we were their guests! How would you feel, tell me?”
Irrespective of what officials announce in the media, if the intent of this project was truly to develop and improve the lives of the people of Gwadar, it would be evident in the process.
Because of lack of inclusion among other reasons, a project that has the potential to uplift the economic conditions of Pakistan’s people may just, as Michael Kugelman states, “exacerbate the country’s provincial and ethnic tensions.”
The fishermen live in fear of the future, and some have said that once the port is operational, they will lose all access to the jetty.
These fears have not been addressed publicly by the government officials or those running various CPEC projects in the region.
Access to opportunities and services
Due to the threats to Chinese workers and officials, the government and the Pakistan army have taken strict security measures to protect all construction sites in Balochistan.
The recently opened Pearl-Continental Hotel also hosts seminars from time to time, attended by high profile officials who require the same measures.
This, however, often results in closure of the jetty. For a family that is dependent entirely on fishing for their food and income, this can cause considerable financial and psychological stress.
An article published in The Diplomat discusses the influx of new businesses in Gwadar Port, for which the Fisheries Department plans to issue 100 licenses to various foreign fishing vessels that will operate in the SEZs.
The local fisherfolk are already expressing concern over the increasing prices and decreasing number of fish in the sea, and the issuance of licenses to larger corporations threatens not only the ecology of the sea but also the livelihood of these fishermen.
Clean and safe physical environment
In light of concerns raised by locals on the environmental impact of the energy plants under construction in Gwadar, environmentalist Saqib Ejaz Hussain insisted in a public hearing that adequate technology was being installed to “control air and water pollution.”
Seawater would be used to regulate temperature, keeping in mind that measures are taken as to not harm marine life.
Wastewater, however, will be discharged back into the sea, and no impact evaluation documents have been issued to the public regarding this or the technology mentioned by the environmentalist.
The primary incentive given to locals was free household access to the electricity produced by the plant.
However, there are no details available on how many households this can cater to, and how the rising real estate development will affect the demand and supply of this energy.
Additionally, part of the Gwadar port project is an expressway that runs through the port, which stands to harm the natural environment of the port. Many locals use this area as a space for leisure and recreation.
The aforementioned factors are a grossly reduced list of measures that should be incorporated into assessments of development projects such as CPEC.
The GDP and construction rates continue to grow but our dependency on them forces us to ignore the very valid concerns of the indigenous communities who have very little access to this growth.
Although investment in a region is a good step towards progress, it can be disastrous if an adequate policy and implementation framework is not in place.
This framework needs to ensure that investment benefits not only larger corporations and the white-collar sector, but also blue-collar workers and smaller local businesses.
Read next: Chinese perceptions of CPEC
In a time where environmental degradation is costing the country almost $3 billion a year, this framework also needs to set forth regulations to protect local ecology.
More importantly, feedback from the community, and voices of the community need to be incorporated at both the conceptual and the implementation stages of these projects.
Pakistan has its fair share of experts on economics, urban development, environmental preservation and the like, but if all those who come forth with dissenting views are dismissed, I see very little hope for equitable development in our country.
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