SITUATIONER: Crackdown on oil smuggling

Published February 2, 2021
It emerged during interviews with oil smugglers that a number of them have done graduation from different varsities, including the state-run University of Balochistan. — Photo courtesy Mohammad Akbar Notezai
It emerged during interviews with oil smugglers that a number of them have done graduation from different varsities, including the state-run University of Balochistan. — Photo courtesy Mohammad Akbar Notezai

IN BALOCHISTAN, thousands of people earn their livelihoods through illegally transporting oil or diesel from across the border. With widespread unemployment, economic activities being next to nil due to lack of industries and little involvement of the private sector in the province, even graduates from well-known varsities have turned towards smuggling. For them and those being aware of the ground realities here, the illegal transportation of oil/diesel from across the border is not smuggling but business.

It is in this context that the recent ban on oil/diesel transportation has created uncertainty among a large number of people. Many of them have no alternative to transporting oil/diesel from across the border. The restriction has sent shockwaves through not only those actively involved in this ‘business’ but also political parties which apprehend that the move amid joblessness could once again exacerbate disquiet.

It emerged during interviews with oil smugglers that a number of them have done graduation from different varsities, including the state-run University of Balochistan.

In all the districts bordering Iran, people from both sides of the border are involved in the business that keep on burning their stoves. It is for this reason that the recent ban followed by a crackdown sent shockwaves across the region. “Among other places, our Makran and Rakhshan regions are predominantly dependent on the oil/diesel trade,” says Khaliq Rind, a local journalist in Quetta. “If it is stopped, it can further compound their anxieties. There is nothing else, say, other economic activities, that they can engage themselves in.”

With no alternative source of income and few PSO stations in Balochistan, fears mount over impact of the move

The flow of oil/diesel through the porous borders with Iran has been going on for quite some time due to lack of official alternative mechanics. The first and foremost reason is that it is cheaper, and being cheaper, it attracts buyers in the province and elsewhere in the country. A case in point is a recently published Dawn report stating there are illegal petrol pumps in all the provinces.

Asif Baloch, who edits Daily Azadi in Quetta, says: “Iran is the source of it; oil/diesel transported from Iran is used in all districts of Balochistan, including Quetta, which is our provincial capital. From Balochistan onward, it is transported to other provinces of the country, and it is even taken to Afghanistan.”

Political parties, particularly nationalist parties of the province, have also been very vocal against the ban on oil/diesel transportation. The Balochistan National Party-Mengal (BNP-M) and the National Party (NP) have raised their concerns oove the crackdown on smuggled oil/diesel. Senator Kabir Mohammad Shahi of the NP and Senator Dr Jahanzaib Jamaldini of the BNP-M, while raising their concerns over the matter, feared that the move could trigger the Baloch insurgency if the youngsters of the province remained out of business for long and could not find alternative source of income after the ban.

While visiting the interior parts of Balochistan where the ‘business’ is thriving as part of field observation for this report, Baloch youngsters were found upset with similar complaints against the crackdown. One of them said there was no nothing else they could do to support their family. “If they stop it, what else will we do? We will die of hunger,” he said. “Then we will be forced to rob others. That is what will be left for us to survive.”

One way or the other, several districts bordering Iran are dependent on the oil transportation as that generates informal revenue for most people in this part of the province.

Despite the crackdown, many of them continue to transport oil/ diesel after bribing the officials concerned. Either way, it goes on as it thrives on economic survival of the masses, with tens of thousands of people being involved in this activity. Sources in the provincial home department in their private discussions with Dawn confirmed that despite the crackdown, the business had been going on as usual. “There are such petrol pumps in Quetta, the provincial capital, in hundreds that sell the smuggled oil/diesel,” they pointed out. “Other than the posh Jinnah Road, the rest of the city gets the smuggled fuel, on top of over 30 districts of Balochistan.”

Following the recently approved plan by Prime Minister Imran Khan to stop the sale of smuggled oil in parts of the country, the general feeling in Balochistan has been against the crackdown despite the reported losses to the national exchequer due to the smuggling. There are people who protested against the ban on oil smuggling. The move has also attracted opposition at different forums, including the Balochistan Assembly.

Even Pakistan State Oil (PSO) is reluctant to set up stations in Balochistan due to lack of profits. Background interviews suggest Iranian oil is sold through many of the stations owned by PSO. “It is the responsibility of the state to provide facilities of all kinds to its citizens, irrespective of profits and costs. Similarly, PSO can set up small oil stations in Balochistan despite the fact that it will generate little pro­fit,” said renowned economist Kaiser Bengali.

“If Iranian oil is banned in Balochistan and PSO is reluctant to set up oil stations, does it mean people should travel by camels now?”

Nothing should be banned from neighbouring Iran, Mr Bengali believed, as the people in Balochistan are in dire need of the items being transported. He explained: “Everything that comes from Iran should be allowed, and the government can fix a tax on it. Ban on anything, including oil/diesel, is not the solution. In Balochistan’s neighboring districts with Iran, people prefer Iranian edibles, biscuits, etc, because these are of good quality and affordable, while our products hardly reach these areas.”

Published in Dawn, February 2nd, 2021

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