Gateway to prosperity

March 24, 2019

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The writer is a security analyst.
The writer is a security analyst.

GWADAR can radically transform the economic and geopolitical arithmetic of Pakistan as well as the whole Indian Ocean region.

However, the full potential of this port city, which is also referred to as the lynchpin of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), has been neither explored nor exploited yet.

The city has already received $19 billion for the development of the port and is eyeing another $11bn of Saudi investment for the establishment of an oil refinery. But it faces acute problems related to health, water, and education, as well as basic infrastructure. The available health and education facilities are not only inadequate but also difficult to access. Although recent rains in the Makran coastal region, which occurred after about four years, will significantly contribute to addressing the water crisis and ease pressure on the Gwadar Development Authority (GDA), inhabitants of the city will continue to face power shortages in the coming summer.

Gwadar residents are waiting for the prime minister to help resolve the fishermen’s issues.

The people of Gwadar are waiting for Prime Minister Imran Khan, who is to visit later this month, to inaugurate the Gwadar Expo 2019. During his visit, the inauguration of a number of projects is expected, including the Gwadar power plant, a new (international) airport, a vocational training institute and a hospital. However, residents are cautious in their celebration and say former prime minister Mian Nawaz Sharif also announced $1bn for the development of the city. Mr Khan’s visit may artificially boost the real estate market, that has absorbed billions of investors’ rupees from across the country, and now wait for the port city’s master development plan to kick in.

Indeed, the people of Gwadar have for long been waiting for the Gwadar Smart Port City Master Plan. The government says a consensus has been developed, but it has not been finalised and approved of yet. Chinese companies working on the port and engaged in several projects on Special Economic Zones have also shown their displeasure several times over the delay.

However, residents are waiting for the prime minister for a more local reason; they hope the premier’s visit will resolve the fishermen’s issues linked to some Gwadar projects. They have been conducting a protest campaign for several months now. Citizens are also concerned about the relocation of the natives of the old city and wary about their future. Though the provincial government and the GDA have reiterated repeatedly that the relocation of locals is not part of the city’s master plan, people will only be satisfied once they see the final plan before them.

Balochistan Chief Minister Jam Kamal Khan Alyani has announced the conversion of the status of the Gwadar Municipal Committee to the Gwadar Metropolitan Corporation, but that development too is expected to materialise upon Mr Khan’s visit to Gwadar. The people here are proud of their culture and history and want to preserve the old town, which puts the rich heritage of the city on display.

The bureaucracy’s handling of the situation has made the fishermen’s otherwise apparently simple and easy-to-resolve issue quite critical. The fishermen’s demands are linked with the six-lane East Bay Expressway, which will connect the 2,300 acres Free Trade Zone of Gwadar port with the Makran Coastal Highway. Fishermen believe that the road cuts them off from the sea, and they will have to navigate around it. In the original design, a small causeway was provided to facilitate fishermen’s access to seawaters, but the fishermen maintain that the size of the causeway is very narrow, and demand that it should either be wider, or they be provided access through bridges. The government has promised several times to fulfil their demands but nothing concrete has been achieved.

Mr Alyani claimed in a meeting that the provincial government was working on redesigning the road and that a proposal has been forwarded to the federal government to build bridges instead of culverts. However, according to the chairman of the Gwadar Port Authority (GPA) Naseer Khan Kashani, the cost of just one bridge runs into in millions of dollars, while the fishermen are demanding three bridges. According to another official’s account, the bureaucracy has made this issue complex; it has been arranged for the Chinese to pay for the cost of the bridge, and but the process has been delayed in the hope that the fishermen will let go of the issue in time. Officials gave the impression to the government that a redesigning request to the Chinese firm concerned may increase the cost several times and the Chinese may demand other favours.

Mr Khan has taken the notice of the issue but it will prove a real test case for the provincial government, the GDA and the GPA. The delay in fulfilling the fishermen’s demands is causing unnecessary anger against CPEC.

During this writer’s recent visit to Gwadar, traders and shopkeepers shared their views about CPEC and the Chinese presence at the port. One thing they miss is direct interaction with the Chinese. Few recalled the time before 2006 when Chinese engineers and workers were free to move around, which had boosted local businesses. But then, a terrorist attack on the port changed everything and the common citizen can only see the Chinese travelling on highways in strict security, or inside the port walls.

CPEC has brought no change to the residents’ lives yet, but optimism remains intact. So far, 269 Baloch people have been recruited in the GPA from grade 1 to 16, but the chairman of the GPA is sure that by 2025, when most of the CPEC projects in the city are to be complete, it will definitely have a positive impact on the livelihood of city dwellers.

Gwadar is secure these days; incidents of terrorism are rare. But more than physical security, there is an environment of fear; the local journalists cannot report much about residents’ issues, not even water supply problems. Perhaps Mr Khan’s upcoming visit and candid talk and action will help locals retreat from the jaws of uncertainty and fear.

The writer is a security analyst.

Published in Dawn, March 24th, 2019