Gwadar imbroglio

Published January 4, 2023
The writer is an academic and researcher based in Karachi.
The writer is an academic and researcher based in Karachi.

DISTURBING news has been emanating from Gwadar for several weeks now. People led by a political leader have been demanding their basic rights. Access to fishing in their own waters, the security of tenure of fisherfolk’s settlements, greater inclusion of the local population in the job market, limiting the role of security forces in daily city affairs and the provision of proper healthcare and education are not new demands. They have echoed since Gwadar was identified as the next important port after Karachi.

Seaports and the activities they generate attract sizable numbers of external workers and investors. The local population loses its preferential status in economic development. Thus, the demands of the people of Gwadar are justified. Although CPEC’s footprint is evident in many parts of the country, Gwadar, for those in Islamabad, seems to be the barometer of progress for the project.

Protesters in the Makran coastal region argue that hundreds of large trawlers continue to fish in deep waters without check. They even catch the small fish through prohibited nets and advanced technology. The local fishing community is dependent on traditional subsistence fishing practices, and in the presence of the trawlers, are deprived of fishing opportunities. Local fishermen fear that poverty and hunger will increase, impacting the fishing communities of Gwadar, Pasni, Khad Koocha (in Mastung), Awaran, Khuzdar and the adjoining locations.

The protesters also criticise the heavy presence of security personnel and their activities. Thousands of security personnel have been deployed to protect the Chinese from targeted attacks. The entire region has many checkpoints and surveillance installations, which are difficult for ordinary folk to navigate. Often, instances of mistreatment by security personnel are reported, exacerbating divisions between the administration and the people. Disappointingly, mainstream political parties have not engaged meaningfully with the people. Those who believe in Gwadar’s significance for Balochistan’s (and national) prosperity find the situation unacceptable. CPEC’s real benefits will remain elusive if this impasse continues.

The demands of the residents of Gwadar are not new.

The option of a deep-sea port on the Makran coast was originally conceived in 1964 but proper studies started in 1974. The development of Gwadar port was an essential component of Pakistan’s eighth five-year plan (1993-98). Technical and financial feasibility studies led to the decision to develop the port. The port became operational in 2016. At its inauguration, the then Balochistan chief minister said that the Baloch would have greater control and ownership of the assets in the province. It was announced that some two dozen ships would call at the port in the near future. That meant instant employment for skilled and unskilled labour, and other economic opportunities for the local people. Unfortunately, the promises never materialised, and benefits such as Gwadar’s proximity to Iran’s Chabahar port and the Hormuz Strait were never tapped.

There is no denying that several powerful interest groups at the regional and global level are against CPEC and Pakistan’s China policy. Our establishment and successive regimes have attempted to protect this vital tenet of our foreign relations. But still, there have been several blunders. Baloch society is least engaged in the Gwadar project. Decisions on CPEC and Balochistan are made without taking into account the interest and priorities of the local residents.

Take the case of the smart city masterplan for Gwadar, which was completed and approved by the provincial government some time ago. The plan was prepared by consultants, who did not pay heed to local requirements. For a very long time, the local people have been demanding that their access to the sea through traditional harbour routes be safeguarded. As fishing is the main activity of the people of Gwadar, local communities have been very wary about administrative control. They believe that with the proposed development projects, the entire control of the fishing enterprise will be transferred to foreign investors and companies.

Besides, Gwadar is a small town with a population of some 200,000 people. The masterplan projects high-density high-rise deve­lopments. It is feared that once the investm­ent boom lands in Gwadar, the main bene­­fi­ciaries will be international investors. The local population will lose their advantage and may become a minority in their own district. There is no socioeconomic safeguard for them, given the weak political clout they wield. Social and physical infrastructure has not seen any upliftment. People travel to Quetta or Karachi to seek healthcare and education. It is in the larger national interest of the government to address these issues and politically engage with the communities, and show them that it truly wants to introduce meaningful reform.

The writer is an academic and researcher based in Karachi.

Published in Dawn, January 4th, 2023

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