A closer look at Balochistan's roads of change
Published October 6, 2019

Newly constructed highways in Balochistan are not only bringing connectivity to remote areas of the province. They are also boosting a process of unplanned urbanisation which is bringing about socioeconomic and political shifts within the populace and challenging stereotypes about it

The Gwadar-Panjgur Highway, also known as M-8 | White Star
The Gwadar-Panjgur Highway, also known as M-8 | White Star

Cruising down the newly constructed Gwadar-Panjgur Highway, also known as M-8, one can feel like one is in a Hollywood film. We have all the ingredients for a Western — mountains as far as the eye can see, a bleak desert landscape, a harsh sun and a backdrop of violence. Except, instead of riding on horses, commuters are driving cars. And instead of 19th century American Old West, we are in current-day Balochistan.

Along the way, signboards of newly-built housing schemes tell the story of a transforming Balochistan, or at least hint at an aspiration to urbanise. Young vendors are selling watermelon seeds and eggs in the public transport and transit areas along the M-8. One restaurant owner on the Panjgur bypass tells Eos that the highway is providing economic opportunities to low-income groups living in the vicinity. “An egg-selling boy in Panjgur sells a minimum of a dozen eggs a day in the winter. If there is more than one such vendor in a small family that pools its income, it helps to support the family,” he says. The transit and resting areas along the highways have also helped small businesses — mainly related to agriculture and the domestic handicrafts industry — to flourish.

The new highways in coastal and southern parts of Balochistan were planned to improve connectivity and to boost the process of urbanisation. But these highways are also attracting rural populations towards their nearest cities. Panjgur and Bisma are apparently expanding alongside the highways. The Makran Coastal Highway (National Highway 10) and M-8, which were completed in 2004 and 2016 respectively, have made a huge impact on the economy and socio-politics of southern Balochistan. A new Baloch middle class has begun to emerge alongside these highways, significantly contributing to the process of urbanisation. “The coastal highway has not only increased the connectivity of the coastal region of Balochistan but also boosted trade and business opportunities,” says Bahram Baloch, a Gwadar-based journalist.

This is contrary to the perception that the nomadic Baloch with agro-pastoral economic foundations consider all other professions other than warfare below their masterly tribal status. This false perception also undermines their skills in trade and commerce. A restaurant owner and a fruit vendor in Panjgur share that they never imagined their small businesses would bring prosperity to their families and that they would be able to send their children to private English-medium schools. But the new economic and business opportunities have allowed them to do exactly that.


Some locals believe the M-8 will be used to transport oil to China | White Star
Some locals believe the M-8 will be used to transport oil to China | White Star

The newly constructed M-8 — which connects Gwadar to the old RCD highway near Surab and passes through Turbat, Hoshab, Panjgur and Basima — had been under construction since 2007 but the project only completed in 2016 because of the security situation and fiscal difficulties. Dozens of labourers from Sindh and south Punjab lost their lives during its construction in attacks by insurgent groups.

Now that the project has finished it has created new avenues of economic activity for the inhabitants of the areas it crosses, but in a province with a long history of people being suspicious of development projects, some are still sceptical of the M-8.

Curiously, this highway is also called the CPEC highway, although it was not built by China or under the CPEC infrastructure projects; the Frontier Works Organisation (FWO) constructed the highway which, through RCD highway, connects eastern Balochistan with Quetta and rest of the country.

Some locals believe this route will be used by China to transport goods and oil from Gwadar to the Xinjiang region. They fear heavy traffic will not only damage the highway but will also make commuting difficult for locals. Adding fuel to the fire, the recent heavy rains dilapidated parts of the two-year-old M-8 and locals fear that heavy containers will further deteriorate the roads. Others say that the highway is well made but, being a single road, it will get blocked or slow down public transport when a convoy of five to 10 containers will drive on it. These perceptions will only be tested when the load will come on the highway.

Locals also think that this highway has been built to facilitate trade and oil supply to China. And the neighbouring country should set up an industry, training institutions and other infrastructure alongside the road for the development of the area. These narratives appear to be a bit simplistic. The highway was planned before the CPEC and the Chinese footprints in the province. Nonetheless, these claims say a lot about the high hopes locals have pinned on the highway.

The locals are, however, not the only ones placing high hopes on these development projects.

“Urbanisation has a great role in bringing about these changes. It has upgraded people’s lives, their income levels and their well-being. Political activists might view all this with ridicule and describe these observations as naive but, from a purely sociological, economic and statistical point of view, this is a great story.”


Pakistan’s civilian and security establishments have been dreaming of an urbanised Balochistan, albeit for different reasons. While the civilian governments see new townships as the means for better service delivery in the sparsely populated, nomadic and semi-rural parts of the province, the military establishment deems urbanisation the remedy for Baloch insurgency.

However, not much has been done on the ground to realise that dream.

Although the Urban Planning and Development department has been set up for this purpose, yet a structured urban planning framework is still missing in the province. Policy circles in the province believe that conflicting interests of the power elites offer major impediments for such plans as some among the elite thrive on Balochistan’s informal economy. However, unplanned urbanisation is increasing in the province, which would build pressure on the government to come up with better urban planning.

A common perception in Balochistan is that droughts and insurgency are two primary drivers behind the unplanned urbanisation. The long spells of rainfall this year have brought some relief to parts of Balochistan, with locals assessing that water in reservoirs and ponds will be sufficient for many months ahead. But southern Balochistan has faced a 74 percent decrease in rainfall between 2013 and 2018, which has negatively affected water management, agriculture, livestock and health. According to an International Islamic Relief assessment, 35 percent of the population from Chagai, Nushki, Kharan, and Washuk has migrated to different places, mainly Kalat, Quetta, Turbat, Panjgur and Gwadar. Such migrations are both permanent and temporary. Those associated with livestock mostly go back to their native areas once the situation improves. However, better health and education facilities entice many migrants to remain in major urban towns.

The ongoing insurgency is also triggering an uneven migration from hamlets to villages and from villages to cities. Journalist Bahram Baloch sees a clear pattern of migration towards cities, triggered by the insurgency. “The insecurity in small towns is causing migration towards Gwadar and Turbat. However, exposure to urban life and facilities available there play an important role in the migrants’ decision to stay on in these cities,” he explains.

A busy market in Turbat | Banaras Khan
A busy market in Turbat | Banaras Khan


The real estate boom in Gwadar is no more the only “success” story in the region. Turbat city is following in its footsteps. Real estate in Turbat is attracting investment from not only the Makran region, but also from other parts of the province, which has transformed the whole city and become a symbol of the urbanisation of Baloch towns.

Turbat city has grown. Turbat University’s beautiful campus on the highway and billboards of new housing societies that frequently pop up along the route tell the story of expansion of a city which has welcomed a number of inhabitants from neighbouring towns. Five degree colleges affiliated with Turbat University offer better opportunities of higher education to students in the adjoining districts of Panjgur, Gwadar and Awaran. Apart from the university, the Makran Medical College, smaller elementary colleges and other public and private educational and health institutions have made Turbat a major urban centre in Balochistan after Quetta. These facilities are not yet comparable with those in major cities of Punjab and Sindh, but they have reduced the locals’ dependence on Karachi and Quetta in terms of educational and employment opportunities.

The credit for this development goes to the former Chief Minister of Balochistan Dr Abdul Malik Baloch, who diverted development funds to the region and envisioned these new townships. “Growing insecurity [in small towns of Makran] and growing economic activities in Turbat are attracting the migrants towards Turbat,” says Abdul Hameed Baloch, a political figure from Turbat. If Gwadar is developed to reach the same level as Turbat, both these cities have the potential to transform the entire Baloch region — or at least its southern and western parts. Panjgur and Basima, located along the National Highway 30 are also slowly but steadily following the path of Turbat and both towns have the potential to become new urban centres.

The new highways have not only made travel easier and connected the far-flung and neglected areas with the urban centres, but have also helped in pushing the Baloch armed resistance to the fringes of rural Balochistan.

Turbat has emerged as a model for urban transition in southern Balochistan in which forced and voluntary migrations have also played a role. These changes are shaping an urban culture in the province and pressurising the government to provide more and better educational and health facilities and economic opportunities. The ongoing change in the Makran region has the potential of bringing about a massive socioeconomic and political shift in the province, where one could see an agro-pastoral economy give way to small-scale trade and commercial activities. From within a previously largely classless society, a rapidly growing middle class is emerging, with norms and values almost incompatible with the traditional tribal mores of Baloch society.

Malik Siraj Akber, a Baloch journalist based in the US, believes that despite the bad security situation and political tensions in Balochistan, a parallel untold story of remarkable social change and transformation is unfolding in the province. People are in a better place than their ancestors in many ways: they are more educated, they make far more money and they have better homes and facilities. “Urbanisation has a great role in bringing about these changes,” he elaborates. “It has upgraded people’s lives, their income levels and their well-being. Political activists might view all this with ridicule and describe these observations as naive but, from a purely sociological, economic and statistical point of view, this is a great story.”

A somewhat contrary view exists in the area as well, however, suggesting that the improved road infrastructure has also helped insurgents to increase their mobility and speed up their operations. During the last few months, major terrorist attacks in Balochistan have taken place alongside the Makran coastal highway and M-8. The terrorists have multiple targets to hit including bridges, security checkposts and convoys, trade fleets and workers, including those from other provinces and countries. The security threats to the construction of CPEC-related projects in Gwadar have appeared from the neighbouring districts of Gwadar, e.g. Kech, Awaran and Lasbela, and the Makran coastal belt. All this has increased the security cost of the highways.

However, the pragmatic view dominates public discourse as most believe that the new highways have not only made travel easier and connected the far-flung and neglected areas with the urban centres, but have also helped in pushing the Baloch armed resistance to the fringes of rural Balochistan. Economic activity has engaged a good number of previously unemployed youth in Makran.

A plaque that was put up when Nawaz Sharif inaugurated M-8 | White Star
A plaque that was put up when Nawaz Sharif inaugurated M-8 | White Star


Balochistan is now the largest market of non-duty-paid, i.e. smuggled, vehicles in Pakistan along with the tribal districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. There are approximately 35 truckable and 250 unfrequented routes along these borders. The remoteness of these areas and the government’s inability to provide efficient governance drive the local population to engage in illegal trade and smuggling activities.

The most prominent feature of southern Balochistan highways are the blue Iranian pick-up trucks known locally as Zamyads. Their presence shows how the new highways have given a boost to the scale of the informal economy in the province. Mostly non-custom paid, these Zamyads are solely used for oil and diesel smuggling in Balochistan as well the illegal transport of other Iranian goods such as cooking oil and soap. Loaded with blue barrels in the back, they can be spotted across the province. The M-8 highway has made it easy to access the Iranian border towns as a significant portion of the highway passes near the border.

Zamyads can be seen on both sides of the road, giving the impression that they rule the highway. They can also be seen plying the deserts and hilly terrains. The drivers of these vehicles follow the more familiar roads to avoid certain police checkposts.

“Iran seems to be the major beneficiary of the highway, as it has expanded its outreach of Iranian oil and goods in Balochistan,” says journalist Shahzada Zulfiqar lightheartedly. But this is evident in every town in Balochistan where Iranian goods and oil have captured the whole market. “This is equally beneficial for both of us,” says a grocery store owner in Panjgur. “Iran needs cash and people need easy access to necessities.”

Apart from the Frontier Corps (FC) and the customs department, the Levies and police personnel have also established checkposts on major highways of Balochistan from where Zamyads pass to reach their destinations. At times, the provincial government bans the smuggling of oil. The smugglers often complain that they have to pay half of their income at different security checkposts and to Arbabs. A story published earlier in this very magazine, elaborated the role of the Arbab: “The Arbab are Baloch on both sides of the Pak-Iran border who are in direct contact with each other. When a Pakistani Arbab receives an order through his Iranian counterpart, he sends his Zamyads to the border. The Pakistani Arbab can make around 40,000 rupees off one truck full of oil or diesel.”

While the new highways in Balochistan have helped the informal economy and illegal trade flourish, the volume of formal trade has failed to enhance and security fears still bar businessmen and investors from other parts of the country from investing here.

From time to time, the government imposes a ban on the illegal trade of oil and groceries, but a large population depends on these goods. In September 2018, transporters and the local population launched protests against one such ban. News of the fencing of the Pak-Iran border by Pakistan due to security reasons also caused panic among the local population. However, the government is also aware that fencing of the entire border is not feasible because of the difficult topography of the area. Security institutions have started fencing a few critical parts of the border that have been exploited by militants and insurgents. If fencing is scaled up, it could cause further migration towards urban centres as most of the villagers living on the border will find it difficult to survive in the absence of border trade and smuggling.

Though the highways have caused an increase in illegal trade from Iran, they have simultaneously also boosted economic activity and helped reduce the crime rate and the appeal of militant and insurgent groups among the youth. This impact can be felt not only in the towns situated near the highways but in the whole of southern and southwestern Balochistan and northern Sindh.

Even in central Balochistan, Mastung city is one of the beneficiaries of this changing socioeconomic landscape. Once facing a high crime rate and violence by Baloch insurgents as well as religious and sectarian-oriented violent groups, Mastung is currently experiencing relative calm mainly due to what locals describe as “busy, money-making youths.”

Money has also brought prosperity. “Even the architecture of houses is changing,” says Adeel Baloch, a student at Balochistan University from Mastung. “Even in small towns and villages, mud houses are transforming into ones made with bricks and concrete.”

While the new highways in Balochistan have helped the informal economy and illegal trade flourish, the volume of formal trade has failed to enhance and security fears still bar businessmen and investors from other parts of the country from investing here.

On the Iranian border at Taftan, the trade balance remains in Iran’s favour. Pakistan exports mainly rice and seasonal fruits while imports from Iran include liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), tiles, dates, scrap and cement, etc. In Taftan city, hundreds of tankers can be seen bringing LPG from Iran where it is shifted to Pakistani tankers. A majority of these tankers are headed towards Punjab. In the winters, this business expands due to the shortage of gas in the country.

A roundabout in Turbat | Banaras Khan
A roundabout in Turbat | Banaras Khan


Despite the fact that highways are transforming parts of Balochistan, many development experts are not willing to deem this as ‘progress’. Local community leaders believe that a highway alone cannot transform the whole region. Other institutions are required in tandem and, most importantly, development-focused policies.

“The opportunities which the highways have created have not been cultivated properly,” says Bahram Baloch. “For example, the coastal highway has created enormous opportunities for the tourism industry, but the government has not prioritised the development of this sector.” An urban planning and development department was created in 2008, which received some attention from Abdul Malik Baloch’s government, but mostly it remained a non-functional body. Senator Anwarul Haq Kakar believes that state institutions want to fast-track the urbanisation process, but a structural approach and framework to make this possible are missing.

Structured urbanisation needs a development plan. The Balochistan government claims it is planning to initiate several projects, to increase connectivity and development in the cities. These projects are related to special economic zones, the development of mineral resources, the boat industry, the tourism sector and, most importantly, the master plans for major cities including Quetta and Gwadar.

Chief Minister Balochistan Jam Mir Kamal Khan believes all these issues are linked to weak governance. “My major focus is on improving the governance,” he stressed during an interview in March with this writer. The CM secretariat plays the most crucial role in the governance model in the province he said. “I have been working on giving it a professional look, trying to change the traditional governance model and focusing on improving the capacity of the provincial bureaucracy and systems. [All this] has started with the process of decentralisation of fiscal matters on the district level,” he explained.

Meanwhile, Rafiullah Kakar, a public policy professional and technical assistant to the government of Balochistan, thinks that the new urban centres have neither any political ownership nor a thought-through economy. Without a considered political economy, scaled-up urbanisation cannot sustain itself, and the flow of human resources will remain towards major cities, such as Quetta, Turbat and Gwadar, he says. Political capital grows with local ownership, but state institutions do not seem interested in local bodies’ elections, which can help contribute to the process of urbanisation.

Whatever else the impact of building highways on the economy, urbanisation and the daily lives of people, it has certainly challenged the common perception of the policymakers in Islamabad that the Baloch are against development. Many political workers, businessmen, professionals, academics and journalists from southern Balochistan reiterate this view.

“If a highway can make a big difference, organised urbanisation and development will completely transform the province,” remarks a teacher of economics from Turbat University. “But the question remains, are the power elites ready to accept a transformed Balochistan?”

The writer is a security analyst

Header illustration by Leea Contractor

Published in Dawn, EOS, October 6th, 2019