BALOCHISTAN DIARY-I: Compensating for neglect

Updated 16 Sep 2020


The southern Balochistan region wears the scars of state neglect. — Photo by Khurram Husain/ File
The southern Balochistan region wears the scars of state neglect. — Photo by Khurram Husain/ File

Southern Balochistan is in focus. A high-level delegation led by Planning Minister Asad Umar is currently visiting the region to prepare for the announcement of a major package by Prime Minister Imran Khan aimed at the uplift of this long-neglected and under-developed area.

So what’s happening?

The districts of Balochistan comprising the southern belt include Gwadar, Kech (Turbat), Panjgur, Awaraan and Lasbela. The port at Gwadar — considered important both for commercial and strategic reasons — is gradually transforming into the project it was originally envisioned nearly two decades ago, while the other districts are witnessing a slow return to normalcy after years of insurgent activity. This region wears the scars of state neglect. Much needs to be done to pull it into the national mainstream — and it needs to be done fast.

“Asad Umar is visiting Makran division to consult the authorities concerned and stakeholders on the special package,” the province’s chief minister Jam Kamal Alyani was quoted as saying in a report in this paper. According to the report, Prime Minister Imran Khan is expected to visit Gwadar next month to announce the package for southern Balochistan.

A few days spent in this region speaking to civil and military officials and visiting various projects and development schemes provide a sketch of where the situation stands.

Gwadar port

The aerial view is stunning. Dry, barren and parched desert landscape blends into sheer rocky terrain that scales into jagged and desolate mountains which give way to the shimmering blue waters of the Arabian Sea. Gwadar’s deep water port, garlanded with its giant red cranes, overlooks this striking vista. Initial work here had started in 2002 under the direction of the then president Gen Pervez Musharraf. The port was expected to attract shipping traffic to and from the Persian Gulf. It was also envisioned as the preferred port for goods en route to the sea from China and Central Asia transported through road arteries traversing through the length of Pakistan. Progress over the years, however, has been slow. Today there is greater focus to speed up the development of the port and its related facilities. One reason is the rapid pace at which the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is unfolding.

Read | CPEC to bring peace, prosperity to Balochistan: minister

As per official briefings, work on highways that constitute CPEC projects is under way at a fair pace. Travelling on a few such roads in this region shows that infrastructure development is a state priority. In the next few years, most major population centres of southern Balochistan will be connected to each other through highways while Balochistan itself will become much more accessible from upcountry via international standard motorways.

CPEC has enhanced the importance of Gwadar port. But some issues are holding back the port from utilising its full potential. Electricity shortage is the major problem. Currently, Wapda provides no electricity here and 85MW electricity is bought from Iran. A power plant is being put up that will produce 300MW electricity. This will be more than enough for Gwadar and the industry that is expected to be set up here. But this power plant will not be completed before the end of 2022.

For the port, however, there are three main enablers that will spur the growth of shipping and investment traffic: (i) Secure environment (ii) Energy (iii) Connectivity. Officials say all three are progressing well but it will take another two to three years for all categories to reach their targeted levels.

Security is a key concern. In April 2019, fourteen people, including personnel from the navy, were shot dead by terrorists after being offloaded from buses on the Karachi-Gwadar coastal highway. In May the same year, three gunmen attacked the PC hotel in Gwadar. All three assailants were shot dead by security personnel but not before they had entered the hotel and killed at least one guard. Now the military high command has designated two entire army divisions for the security of CPEC. 44 Special Security Division (SSD) is responsible for CPEC in Balochistan and Sindh, while 34 SSD looks after all CPEC projects in Gilgit-Baltistan, Azad Jammu & Kashmir, Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

Major General Aamir Najam, the General Officer Commanding (GOC) of 44 SSD, says the geography of the region, with its 700km-long coastline, makes it vulnerable. However, the number of incidents of violence is gradually decreasing. In 2016 there were eight such incidents recorded, in 2017 the number jumped to 28, but in 2018 and 2019 it came down to six incidents each. “The important thing is none of the local residents of Gwadar are involved in any such attacks,” says the general. In addition, the entire 700km length of the Makran coastal highway is now heavily secured, as per officials. In fact except for a few hundred metres stretch, the highway is also covered for mobile phone connectivity.

The other big project is the fencing of the Pakistan-Iran border. According to Maj Gen Aamir, 220 kilometres have already been fenced while work on the remaining 700km is progressing at a steady pace. Once completed, the fence will lead to a significant decrease in the smuggling and narco-trafficking on this route.

Other mega-projects are also coming up fast. The new Gwadar international airport is expected to be completed by December 2022. It will be capable of handling the landing of A380 aircraft and will be the fourth largest airport in Pakistan after Islamabad, Karachi and Lahore. The airport is a grant project funded completely by China.

However, below all this optimistic talk of projects, plans and potentials, there runs an undercurrent of local grievances. For years now residents here have feared demographic rearrangements in the region whereby people from outside would come, take up the bulk of the jobs and deprive them of employment, land and even rights. Much of these fears have been fanned by political vested interests, but some are genuine enough to be addressed. Officials here say the Gwadar Port Authority is making a concerted effort through vocational trainings for the local population in order to upgrade their skills and make them more employable at the port. The Director General of the Authority Asim Tiwana says residents whose land has been procured by the port have been more than compensated.

Published in Dawn, September 16th, 2020