A TWITTER hashtag, #JusticeForBorderVictims, surfaced when four drivers starved to death on the Pakistan-Iran border within the last week. These drivers were among those transporting fuel through the Pakistan-Iran border. They didn’t have access to food and water and had been stuck there for more than 10 days. At the moment, around 12,000 Zamyads, a model of Iranian vehicles that are used for transporting Iranian fuel into Pakistan, are stuck with their drivers and conductors at different crossing points in Balochistan’s Makran Division. They have virtually no access to water and food. Images coming from the area show the Baloch drivers digging wells in search of water. Scorching temperatures rising above 40 degrees Celsius is another reason to be concerned.
People in Balochistan consider the closure of the Pakistan-Iran border a violation of their economic rights. In the absence of a formal economy and few job opportunities in the province, many depend on transportation of fuel as a means of survival.
The problems started when a specific number of Zamyads were given tokens to transport fuel each day, and the introduction of more checkpoints led to an increase in the number of days — from five to more than 10 — for a single Zamyad trip. Along with the introduction of the token system last month, small hotels and puncture-mending points along the way were also reported to have been closed by the authorities.
Initially, 2,000 Zamyads could get a token per day at each crossing point, but over time the number halved and now only 400 Zamyads per day can cross over, resulting in a long wait for the others. The tokens can be used only once and do not apply for the next trip. With hotels and puncture-mending points closed, drivers and conductors started running out of food and water.
Will the rulers be moved by the sight of Zamyad drivers dying of hunger?
Protests erupted in Kech district against the token system, the increased number of checkpoints, the closure of hotels and puncture-mending points — and now the death of drivers. The latter include Fazal Baloch, a driver from Turbat city, employed for Rs18,000 a month. According to reports, he left his house for one of the border crossing points in Kech district on March 30; his food and water lasted for only a few days and on April 15, he started feeling unwell. His conductors couldn’t give him anything to eat and drink because of the closure of small restaurants.
During the protests at Shaheed Fida Chowk, Turbat, protesters tried to convince the state that they had not gathered under any political agenda but were demanding their basic economic rights including the means to make a living for their families. Surely, this is a fair demand — instead, the state has ignored the plight of drivers and conductors who face death by starvation along the border crossing points. The protesters tried to remind the authorities that trade — much of it in the informal sector — along the Pakistan-Iran border was their only source of income, and they had been a part of this for decades. These protests are going unnoticed by Pakistan’s mainstream media channels that prefer politics to unfolding national tragedies of this nature. Not even starvation can draw the media’s attention to the state of the marginalised Baloch.
Protests are a norm in Balochistan. While border trade union members (to whom this writer owes much of the information about the Zamyad drivers) were protesting in Turbat for normalisation of trade traffic between Pakistan and Iran, the employees of the government of Balochistan and Global Fund contract teachers were protesting in Quetta for an increase in their allowances and regularisation of employment and payment of wages etc. The chief minister of Balochistan kept conveying to the protesters that the government did not have sufficient financial resources, and if allowances were increased, the authorities wouldn’t be able to provide new employment opportunities in the next fiscal year.
Knowing that the government has neither the revenue needed nor the capacity to provide new employment opportunities, putting restrictions on the border trade is tantamount to depriving people of their only source of income. With this situation, it is no wonder that they block roads to draw attention to their plight.
Of late, there has been much talk about Pakistan changing its focus from geopolitical matters to geo-economics. So why place restrictions on the poor Zamyad drivers in Balochistan who could help the country to win at geo-economics? It is ironic that the goals of both the government and the border trade union in Turbat are linked to geo-economics. The union is asking the government to ease restrictions and normalise trade between Iran and Pakistan. But seemingly, geo-economics takes a backseat when the Baloch demand trade freedom. Then it is all about geopolitics.
The writer is a researcher analyst at the World Bank and a Fulbright alumna.
Published in Dawn, April 21st, 2021