AFTER month-long protests, the ‘Gwadar Ko Haq Do’ movement has called off its sit-in, following a written commitment by the government to impose a ban on illegal trawlers, abolish unnecessary check posts, restore border trade and provide basic necessities.
One hopes that the agreement is implemented in letter and spirit. However, if history is any indication, Islamabad has a long legacy of broken promises to Balochistan. While multiple causes explain this ill-treatment, key structural drivers include the province’s insignificant political weight in the country’s majoritarian federal scheme, systemic under-representation in power structures and ruling coalitions, and Islamabad’s extractive approach towards economic development in Balochistan.
The Gwadar crisis is indeed a product of Islamabad’s extractive development model that has, over the years, not only disregarded social and political rights of the local people but also expanded in scope from exploitation of natural resources to control over land, the informal economy and water resources. Let’s examine how this approach has brought us to where we are today.
Firstly, CPEC’s being launched without devising a strategy for peaceful management of the ongoing ethnic conflict was an ill-advised move that was bound to backfire. Literature on mega projects in conflict-affected regions reveals that successful economic development efforts are typically preceded by political reconciliation. Economic development amidst conflict is fraught with a number of risks.
Social development and public service delivery remain dismal in Gwadar.
a) It inevitably leads to a situation whereby the military assumes a greater role not only in security matters but also economic development interventions. This, on the one hand, increases militarisation in the region, which is bound to deepen alienation in a place like Balochistan with a history of resentment towards check posts and cantonments. On the other hand, military-driven economic interventions create issues of legitimacy and local ownership.
b) Furthermore, economic development in a highly militarised environment fosters radical politics and delegitimises moderate political voices — a phenomenon that ends up benefiting Baloch separatist elements.
c) Lastly, such an approach inadvertently puts off prospective investors and foreign governments for whom the enhanced security measures are intended.
Secondly, the public discourse that projects CPEC as a ‘game-changer’ has created false and unrealistic hopes among ordinary people, who have come to view it as a panacea and substitute for domestic growth and development policies. Even today, the state, much of the media and mainstream academia are interested more in manufacturing a falsely positive picture of the reality than presenting the reality itself.
Thirdly, the investments made in Gwadar over the past two decades have been targeted mainly at upgrading the port infrastructure and improving connectivity with the national highway network.Given that displacement of people and livelihoods and degradation of the environment are almost intrinsic to large infrastructure projects, an inclusive resettlement and social development framework should have been an integral part of the strategy for developing the Gwadar port. Furthermore, domestic financial resources should have been mobilised on a war-footing to ensure the provision of basic facilities to residents of Gwadar.
However, in reality, the concerns of the fishermen of Gwadar were not given due consideration at the planning and design stage, mainly because the process through which CPEC projects were finalised was centralised, opaque and non-participatory. Instead, a piecemeal approach was adopted to address minor concerns every now and then to defuse rising pressure. Similarly, the provision of basic facilities to the people of Gwadar was placed at the altar of commercially driven early-harvest projects. For example: nearly $15-18 billion were spent on energy generation during the early-harvest phase but not a penny was spent to ensure the provision of electricity to Gwadar. As a matter of fact, for all these investments in energy, the entire Makran region, including Gwadar, remained disconnected from the national grid. A project to extend the national transmission network to Makran region was approved in the federal PSDP only three years ago, but that too has seen slow implementation.
As far as provision of drinking water facilities is concerned, there is no denying that federal and provincial resources have been allocated for this purpose. Indeed, work on connecting the Swadh and Shadi Kaur dams to Gwadar city through water pipelines has been completed but long electricity shortages and a rusty, outdated and limited water transmission network have meant that even the available water couldn’t be supplied to people in their homes.
Similarly, efforts have been made to harness desalination and reverse osmosis technology to meet drinking water needs but nearly all ended in failure, thanks to the poor technical capacity of government agencies and cumbersome regulatory processes.
The bottom line is that we have ended up in a situation where security check posts and port infrastructure have expanded significantly but the state of social development and public service delivery remains dismal.
While the storm in Gwadar has subsided for the time being, it can flare up again at any time. For a durable solution to the crisis, Islamabad must shift to a more inclusive development approach that prioritises the basic rights, dignity and development needs of the local people, respects the marine ecosystem and promotes local livelihoods.
Such an approach may entail political reconciliation with insurgents, abolition of unnecessary check posts, making the government of Balochistan a shareholder in revenues from the port, fixing of job quotas for residents of Makran in industries planned in free zones, provision of solar home units to all Gwadar residents, upgradation of the water transmission network and the creation of a public sector company to harness the potential reverse osmosis for drinking. Furthermore, special subsidy on fuel may be announced in Gwadar district to attract more traffic via the Gwadar port. Lastly, a formal trade gateway with all allied facilities and trade logistics may be opened in each district along Balochistan’s border with Afghanistan and Iran to offset the adverse impact of fencing.
The writer is a public policy and development specialist from Balochistan.
Published in Dawn, December 19th, 2021