FOLLOWING his election as prime minister, Shehbaz Sharif announced several policy measures, including a commitment to focus on the development of all provinces of Pakistan, and not simply Punjab. While this remark is welcome, overturning the image of PML-N as a Punjab-centric party will require much more than verbal commitments.
Although the PML-N has demonstrated some willingness to shed its Punjab-centric image in favour of a more inclusive federal outlook post-2008, the party also appears to have embraced the regionalisation of politics and given up on peripheral Pakistan in favour of consolidating its power base in Punjab. The PML-N’s strategy for smaller provinces has relied almost solely on appeasing tiny regional elites and cultivating alliances with representatives of smaller ethno-regional parties. While successful in resisting the hegemony of the establishment, the elite-centric appeasement strategy hasn’t necessarily translated into improved standards of living for the people. The result is that the perception of the PML-N as a Punjab-centric party remains strong in the peripheries.
To cultivate popular support outside Punjab, the PML-N-led government will have to prioritise the socioeconomic development of the smaller provinces, especially areas like ex-Fata and Balochistan. With regard to Balochistan, here is a plan of action:
Firstly, political reconciliation and peace-building must be the foremost priority. No major economic development initiative in the province can succeed without first devising a strategy for peaceful management of the ongoing ethnic conflict. In this regard, the government needs to appreciate the complex landscape of the violent conflict in Balochistan: there is a low-scale but ongoing ethnic insurgency mainly in southern Balochistan, as well as sectarian and religiously motivated militancy concentrated mainly in northern and central Balochistan.
Political reconciliation and peace-building must be the priority.
This conflict landscape implies that restoration of peace requires a holistic but differentiated strategy.
To begin with, tackling religiously inspired and sectarian militancy requires a fundamental shift in our national security policy and foreign policy. Our security thinkers need to appreciate that durable peace in Balochistan and KP cannot be established without peace in Afghanistan. Our current Afghan policy is more likely to turn Afghanistan into a battleground for yet another regional proxy war.
Further, we need to play a balancing act in our ties with Iran and Saudi Arabia, rather than tilting in favour of the latter. Lastly, no tolerance should be shown towards sectarian and religiously motivated militant outfits.
The Baloch ethnic conflict merits a different strategy. The key takeaway from the nearly 17-year-long insurgency is that repressive measures and cosmetic development packages have both failed to bring the disaffected Baloch into the political mainstream. Also, the resurgence of violent conflict proves that a security-centric approach alone cannot deliver peace. Here is what needs to be done:
a) The government should prepare a comprehensive strategy for reaching out to Baloch insurgents. This strategy should entail the engagement of credible political voices to lead negotiations and implement CBMs such as stopping military operations, withdrawing the FC from certain areas, releasing all Baloch missing persons and compensating the families of those killed extrajudicially. Mere offers of amnesty or exhortations to abandon violence won’t work.
b) The military establishment’s support is a must for the proposed reconciliation efforts to make headway. The military needs to appreciate that a hard approach alone will ensure only temporary peace at best and that a low-level insurgency can continue almost indefinitely no matter what security measures are taken. The low-level violence is enough to put the state on the defensive, draw international attention and unsettle foreign investors. Moreover, the state should also be willing to abandon patronage of the cadre of artificial leaders it has propped up. These people are the main beneficiaries of the conflict and, therefore, have an interest in its continuation.
c) Previous efforts to reconcile Baloch insurgents failed because a) repression went hand in hand with reconciliation efforts, and b) those leading the process had little credibility or freedom to make meaningful offers.
Secondly, Baloch concerns regarding control over their natural and coastal resources must be addressed. In this respect:
a) A powerful parliamentary committee led by a credible Baloch parliamentarian should be constituted to ensure the effective implementation of Articles 172(3) and 158 of the Constitution. Balochistan must be given its due share in the ownership, management, and revenues of federally owned oil and gas companies. The province’s concerns with regard to pricing, taxation and distribution of its natural gas must be addressed.
b) Ownership of the Saindak copper-gold project may be transferred to the Balochistan government as committed under the Aghaz-i-Haqooq-i-Balochistan package.
c) The Reko Diq agreement should be made public. The establishment of a refinery in the province should be ensured. A Chagai foundation with a corporate management and board must be established. At its disposal must be CSR funds, two per cent of the company’s profits, 2pc of federal profits and half of the royalty payments to ensure the socioeconomic uplift of the local community.
d) As far as CPEC is concerned, Islamabad must shift to a more inclusive development approach prioritising the basic rights, dignity and development needs of the local people, respecting the marine ecosystem and promoting local livelihoods. Unnecessary check posts must be abolished and drinking water projects expedited. A public sector company should be created to harness the potential of desalination and reverse osmosis technology along the coastal belt. Balochistan should be given a share in revenues from the Gwadar port.
Thirdly, measures are needed to alleviate poverty and mitigate the adverse impact of fencing the border on livelihoods.
a) A formal border trade gateway with all allied facilities and necessary trade logistics is necessary in each district along Balochistan’s borders with Iran and Afghanistan.
b) Balochistan’s share of the Benazir Income Support Programme may be increased to 10pc at least. Its current share is around 4pc, which is even less than Balochistan’s share in the total population. This is inequitable. Enhancing the share would not only reduce poverty but also lessen conflict. Furthermore, the capacity and resources of BISP’s administrative set-up in Balochistan should be upgraded, while representatives of the province should be made members of the governing body as well as the project’s management team.
The writer is a public policy and development specialist from Balochistan.
Published in Dawn, April 21st, 2022