Balochistan, particularly its five bordering districts, is heavily dependent on the trade with Iran.
There has been a smooth flow of Iranian edibles into Balochistan through regular and irregular border points for years. One such point is in Panjgur, which is located in the Makran division.
The irregular border point through which Iranian edibles are imported is called Chedgi, near the Mashkel River in Panjgur. It generates handsome revenue for the customs department every year.
I recently had an opportunity to visit the said border point. I saw a number of Iranian edibles coming in. Zamyad vehicles are used to transport oil and diesel from Iran. The road between Chedgi and the Panjgur town is in bad shape. Hence, one prefers the dirt road to the main road.
The distance between the Panjgur town and Chedgi is around 95 kilometres. But it took us more than three hours to reach there, although we were in the deputy commissioner’s Toyota Hilux Vigo. This raises the question: what challenges do traders usually face in reaching Chedgi?
I spoke to locals in the villages of Panjgur during my stay there. All of them said they went to the Chedgi border to earn a livelihood as coolies. But trade activities have now come to a halt following the outbreak of Covid-19.
The local Baloch who depend on the trade with Iran will soon be out of food even if they manage to escape Covid-19
With the exception of Zamyad vehicles loaded with oil and diesel coming from the Parom tehsil of Panjgur, formal trade has stopped altogether. According to one local named Rafique Chakar, the illegal trade is still going on, albeit at a slower-than-usual pace.
The situation is so bad that the local Baloch who depend on the trade with Iran may starve to death even if they manage to escape Covid-19. Unfortunately, the performance of provincial government officials as well as that of deputy and assistant commissioners is limited to photo shoots — a recent trend in the province that helps them conceal their inefficiency and apathy.
Like Panjgur, the other three bordering districts namely Turbat, Gwadar and Washuk also have irregular trade points with Iran. The situation there is more or less the same.
Chaghi, at the Taftan border point, is the sole official border point between Pakistan and Iran. Pakistan would import edibles through that point three days a week until recently. The customs would collect revenues of over Rs800 million in a month on the Taftan border. It is now closed owing to the Covid-19 threat.
In background interviews, officials in Taftan said they appreciated Iran’s gesture of kindness as they let the export of edibles continue through Zero Point. As a result, residents of Taftan can get such items at throwaway prices.
But Quetta is hundreds of kilometres away from the Iranian border. This makes it too difficult to send imported edibles to Quetta. Owing to the Covid-19 threat, the economic situation has become even worse. The provincial government does not have a mechanism to cope with the situation.
Prime Minister Imran Khan has announced a stimulus package to minimise the adverse impact of the Covid-19 outbreak on the national economy. Balochistan-based businessmen and traders are dissatisfied as they don’t expect to reap the benefits of the financial package. According to them, benefits of the package will go to the textile industry and other big businesses based in Karachi and Punjab that are involved in trade with other neighbouring and European countries.
Quetta Chamber of Commerce of Industry Senior Vice President Badruddin Kakar has got many reasons as to why he believes the trade with Iran has “officially and deliberately” been discouraged. He says he understands the trade on the whole is now suffering amidst Covid-19 and that the cross-border movement of goods via barter trade (owing to sanctions on Iran) has been affected.
“But no one is bothered. Trade is being affected because of not only Covid-19, but also mismanagement from the top. The provincial economy is collapsing,” Mr Kakar says.
He says thousands of local people have become jobless in recent weeks. He also referred to a senior Balochistan High Court judge who asked the customs chief why he had not been to the places bordering Iran where locals suffered because of his department’s mismanagement.
Federal and provincial officials, Mr Kakar points out, have not bothered to look into the issues the province is confronted with. Their focus is on Punjab, he says, because their vested interests lie there. “They do not care about public interest.”
As the Covid-19 threat is not likely to fade away for months, it will leave long-lasting and irreversible effects on the trade with Iran and Afghanistan. At the same time, the government lacks proper planning and mechanism to tackle the issue by taking different stakeholders on board.
The Iranian government has written a letter hinting at the possibility of continued trade, said Mr Kakar. “Based on the Iranian letter, we have also written a letter to higher-ups, requesting that, as per the terms and conditions of the World Health Organisation, they should allow the trade through safe means.”
Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, March 30th, 2020