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BUSINESS: QUETTA’S LOST DREAMS

September 09, 2018

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Pakistani security personnel search the wreckage of vehicles after the bomb explosion at Baccha Khan Chowk | Dawn file photo
Pakistani security personnel search the wreckage of vehicles after the bomb explosion at Baccha Khan Chowk | Dawn file photo

It was a trickle that turned into a flood.

First the Punjabi businessmen left Quetta, then it was the Afghans and soon, the Pakhtuns left too. Slowly, Quetta is no longer the place for doing business — certainly not for those who used to be the city’s wealthiest investors.

“We left Quetta in 2012,” recalls businessman Sadat Achakzai, “and moved to Dubai.”

A majority of the businessmen have left the provincial capital of Balochistan for newer pastures due to uncertain security. They have also taken their businesses with them

Over the past 15 years or so, business in Quetta has gradually come to a standstill. From a city with much hustle and bustle, it has turned into a city of horror and uncertainty. Social life has undoubtedly suffered but big businesses are simply vanishing out of sight and gone with them are the jobs that they created.

“Insecurity had stopped trade in Quetta and investors would not get any profits,” says Achakzai. “That is why the major investors came to Dubai.”

Dubai is, of course, the melting pot for many nationalities. It offers easy access to visa, better business opportunities and less restriction on business. Achakzai, like other Pakhtuns before him, made a life there. He launched a restaurant that served Pakhtun food. Not only did he cater to a large number of Pakhtun and Afghan clientele, he also made many Arab clients.

Achakzai is now an executive member of the Quetta Business Council in Dubai. This organisation was formed by Quetta’s former big businessmen in Dubai, with the aim of helping new Quetta-based traders when they first arrive. They provide counsel about business, residence and other legal issues. Going by the number of migrants involved, this service is a great blessing.

“The number of Quetta-based businessmen coming to Dubai has increased four times after militancy and sectarian violence started,” claims Achakzai. “The majority of the businessmen try to restart the same businesses that they did in Quetta. That means restaurants, car showrooms, clothing shops, carpets and construction.”

Indeed, Quetta’s recent history is blood-soaked: Bacha Khan Chowk, one of the biggest and most visited intersections of the city, has been the site of around 20 small and big blasts. The last major blast on the chowk took place during a student protest on September 4, 2010, which left 56 dead and 160 injured. Another attack, in January 2013, killed 12 persons and left 50 injured. In the aftermath for businesses close to the blast site in particular, customers did not return for days, sometimes months.

Women shopping for Eid amidst tight security in Quetta
Women shopping for Eid amidst tight security in Quetta

Mirwais Lala has been running a perfume business at the chowk since 2005. “There are no customers, no one comes to shop here anymore,” he says. The blasts also claimed the lives of the loved ones of those who’d run businesses here. “Because of [repeated] disturbances, the victims abandoned their businesses here and went to peaceful places.”

Abdul Rahim Kakar, the president of Anjuman-i-Tajiran Balochistan, estimates that 3,000 billion rupees have been transferred out of Quetta as a result of this outward migration — which makes a whopping 60 percent of the total economy.

“The city faced two big losses,” argues Kakar. “[Not only did] the big businessmen transfer their money, they were also the owners of major markets, business centres and bungalows. They sold their properties to local investors and transferred that money out of Quetta as well.”

The traders’ chief goes on to claim that, were peace to be restored in Quetta today, businesses will need at least a decade to recover to pre-terrorism levels.

But can Quetta become an investor-friendly destination again?

Jaffar Khan, an economist based in the provincial capital, argues that prolonged insecurity has gravely affected businessmen’s perceptions about Quetta. And prospective investors are put off because they do not see peace in the near future, either.

“Businesses are totally dependent on peace and businessmen will transfer their capital from insecure to peaceful cities,” says Khan. “Insecurity has made Quetta an un-investable city. Business in Quetta is almost 50 percent lower than it was.”

Aside from insecurity, another issue vital to the traders are strikes. Tragedy has often been used for political mileage and strikes in Quetta have been observed over regional issues as well as to protest terror. Since 2006, Anjuman-i-Tajran Balochistan supported 60 strikes, of which 25 were only for attacks on the Hazara community. Besides these, many strikes were also observed without the support of Anjuman-i-Tajiran.

Abdul Rahim Kakar, the president of Anjuman-i-Tajiran Balochistan, estimates that 3,000 billion rupees have been transferred out of Quetta as a result of this outward migration — which makes a whopping 60 percent of the total economy.

“One strike disturbs the entire trade system. Its impact starts on trade before the two-day strike, and then it takes four to five days to return to normalcy,” Kakar says. “We have requested political parties that since Quetta has already lost much in the field of business, strikes are not the solution for the issues and you ought to adopt other ways of the protest.”

Before terrorism, a large number of people from Punjab and Sindh visited Quetta during summer vacations. June, July and August used to be the months when business would boom, as tourists thronged the markets. Quetta was considered the cheapest city of the country for shopping due to its proximity to Chaman border, where smuggled goods arrive.

When the situation worsened, people from Sindh and Punjab stopped visiting completely. Hotels lost their business and most of them have shut down.

Inside Quetta, meanwhile, Punjabi traders were being targeted by militants. Even those who had built a life in the city were not spared. Zeeshan Ahmed, for example, spent two decades building his jewellery business on Liaquat Road but it took just days for him to pack up and leave, in 2011, after receiving a threat from unknown persons.

The well-established jeweller fled with his wife, two sons, and a daughter to his ancestral city of Lahore, which Ahmed’s father had left many decades ago. It took two years for him to sell his shop in Quetta and establish a new business in Lahore. He still misses his beloved Quetta, however, and says he is “not adjusted and still in crisis.”

“When I first arrived in Lahore everything was difficult,” he narrates. “It was completely new, I barely knew anyone because my father left Lahore when I was two years old.”

Like Ahmed, most Punjabi families have now transferred their businesses to Punjab. Pakhtun traders and Afghan refugees also moved to Punjab or the Middle East. Similarly, members of the Hazara community fled to Australia. Among them, the Punjabi businessmen shifted with families for their safety but Pakhtun, Hazara, and Afghan businessmen shifted businesses while their families still remain in Quetta.

The writer is a freelance journalist

Published in Dawn, EOS, September 9th, 2018