It is a common sight in Balochistan’s Panjgur district: a convoy of distinctively blue, medium-sized pickup trucks snaking through the desolate terrain, carrying a deadly cargo of contraband petrol and diesel. They rumble through Damag pass, cutting through the mountain ranges in tehsil Pharom near the Pakistan-Iran border, to make their way home with what is the only means of sustenance for entire communities. These blue trucks are known locally as ‘Zambad’ — a reference to their capacity to carry outsized loads. They are the unlikely symbols of an entire grey economy — the transport of choice for smugglers operating fuel routes between Iran and Pakistan.

Over the years, the fencing of the Pakistan-Iran border and checkpoints raised by over-zealous Frontier Corps (FC) personnel had made it increasingly difficult for Zambad drivers to make a living. On paper, the restrictions on ‘importing’ Irani fuel are still very much in place. However, most on-ground hurdles have quietly been removed. In background interviews, officials in the Makran division explained that the local administration had come to realise that fuel smuggling was the only way of putting bread on the table for a major chunk of the population residing in five towns bordering the province.

And so, the Zambads were allowed back on the highways. You’ll see them zipping around, carrying stacks of 60-litre jerry cans full of highly combustible petroleum tied down willy-nilly with nylon rope.

One Zambad driver — Nasir Baloch, father of three — transports smuggled fuel from Damag in Panjgur to Surab, a town that serves as a key hub for the distribution of Iranian petrol to the rest of the province.

Many families are supported by the tacitly allowed increase in fuel smuggling from Iran into Balochistan

“Unlike in the past, we no longer face many difficulties in the transportation of oil,” Mr Baloch recently told Dawn over the phone. He sounded jubilant, even ecstatic. His happiness was due to Pakistani petrol prices sky-rocketing to around Rs250 a litre at the time, while Iranian petrol was still retailing for Rs200 a litre.

“We are being paid handsomely these days. Demand for our petrol has increased manifold,” he explained.

“I have been transporting oil for several years now,” Mr Baloch continued. “When I started, I did not own a vehicle. Today, I have my own. It [the work] is more than enough for me to support my family. In fact, I support my siblings in Panjgur too.”

The Zambad he drives was manufactured by the Zamyad Company in Tehran. As are all other Zambads. They are, in fact, a licensed version of the Nissan Junior — but that name never stuck. Since they are all non-custom paid vehicles — there is, after all, little point in registering a smuggling aide — there has been no official count of their numbers. It has been estimated that it may run in the thousands. Each costs several hundred thousand rupees.

Turning a blind eye

On a trip to the Makran division, which comprises the districts of Panjgur, Kech and Gwadar, it became clear to this correspondent that there is little objection, official or unofficial, to the illicit petroleum flowing in freely from Iran.

“We know their [smugglers’] stoves are burning because of this business. It is impossible to stop oil and diesel smuggling from Iran,” a senior official in Kech told Dawn. He requested anonymity as he is expected not to comment on the illicit trade happening right under his nose.

“Every day, to our knowledge, about 1,500 vehicles bring oil and diesel from Iran to the Makran division. It engages the youth in economic activity, and it has the potential to keep them from taking up arms in this already volatile region.”

Security analysts agree. They argue that this is a far better occupation for youth than the insurgency raging on for over two decades in the province.

A necessary evil

Ever since the US imposed sanctions on Iran in 2013 to choke its oil exports, the smuggling of petroleum products has become almost an industry in Balochistan’s small economy.

During a recent visit to Quetta, economist Dr Kaiser Bengali shared his thoughts on the matter. Sitting behind a laptop, he stopped typing when posed with the question of what should be done about the oil being smuggled in from Iran.

“It should be allowed,” he started. “And not just the oil: many things of comparatively better quality make their way to Balochistan because they’re coming in from Iran. Instead of banning or preventing trade in these goods, they should be taxed, especially the oil and edible items.”

Though both Pakistani and Iranian authorities agree — they had finalised a draft for a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) between the two countries back in 2017 — US sanctions have pushed the Pakistani side to put the matter on the backburner.

Mr Bengali is of the opinion that, despite sanctions, trade, including in oil, remains possible between the two countries and ought to be legalised as well. As for the FTA, he asserts: “There should be an FTA not only with Iran but Afghanistan as well. The three countries should secure an FTA in the greater interest of the region.”

When such a trade agreement will be officialised is the least of Nasir Baloch’s concerns. He’s presently over the moon over his own booming oil trade with Iran. “I wonder why the officials ever wanted to restrict it. It supports tens of thousands of people in Balochistan,” he said. He addressed a final request to higher authorities before hanging up.

“Let us do this so that we can continue to feed our families.”

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, July 25th, 2022

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