The indigenous people of the coastal town of Gwadar – gateway to the much-discussed China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) – very much have their own opinions when it comes to reaping the benefits from this $46 billion project. As such, concern is rising over speculation that the project will benefit only Chinese interests, with little to offer locals.
“It is a conspiracy to convert the local population into a minority, rather than empowering them,” said Syed Essa Noori, a Baloch Nationalist Party legislator in Pakistan’s National Assembly. Noori cited Karachi as an obvious example the local populace being marginalized in the name of economic development.
“At the time of the creation of the country, Karachi was Baloch-majority. Within a decade, it had turned into a city of migrants, from parts of India as well as from other parts of Pakistan.” The Baloch nationalist fears the same will happen with Gwadar unless safeguards are put in place to guarantee the rights of indigenous Balochs before the massive development kicks off under CPEC.
Asked about the future of Gwadar, Lt. Gen. Abdul Qadir Baloch, Minister for States and Frontier Regions, told The Diplomat, “It is uncalled for that Balochs will be converted into a minority when Chinese investment floods the coastal town.” A retired general, Qadir Baloch was elected from Balochistan’s remote Kharan district, representing the center-right Pakistan Muslim League (N). The party, headed by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, is claiming credit for opening the floodgates of Chinese investment in Pakistan since coming into power in May 2013, and insists that Gwadar would be a major beneficiary from CPEC, with radical improvements in the economic and social lives of local residents.
That assumes, of course, that CPEC will be able to overcome the challenges it faces, most notably a lack of political will and a surge in Baloch militancy. In late August, heavily armed militants stormed an airport and destroyed its radar system, killing two engineers in the coastal town of Jiwani in Gwadar district. The airport is located strategically near the Pakistan-Iran coastal border.
Gwadar Deputy Commissioner Abdul Hameed Abro told The Diplomat that a group of around 12 militants, riding motorbikes, launched the pre-dawn attack on Jiwani airport, killing two electronics engineers while kidnapping a third. The Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) has taken responsibility for the attack, adding to its reputation as one of the deadliest militant groups, with regular attacks on Pakistani security forces and installations in the province.
In another assault, this time on the outskirts of Gwadar port, at least four were killed when containers carrying cement were incinerated. The Baloch Republican Army (BRA) claimed responsibility for kidnapping the container crew, and later killing them. Baloch insurgents said the privately owned container was targeted because it was engaged in building a road that is opposed by the militants.
Police Superintendent Imran Qureshi says the militants whisked the container along with its crew, before killing the crew and torching the tanker. The militants sped away on their motorcycles after the incident.
Baloch militants have been attacking key government installations, security forces, multinational companies, gas pipelines, construction companies, and containers for years now. Recently, however, laborers have become their primary target.
A particularly deadly attack took place in April this year, when Baloch militants attacked a labor camp near a dam construction site in Pakistan’s southwestern Balochistan province, killing at least 20 workers and wounding three.
A large number of construction companies are operating between Gwadar and the provincial capital Quetta, working to connect the port city with other parts of Pakistan. The companies have never been secure in Balochistan, partly because of the activities of Baloch militants and partly because of a nationalist insurgency by nationalist and separatist Baloch groups who want complete autonomy from Islamabad.
Who is behind Balochistan’s deadly unrest?
Frontier Corps (FC) Balochistan chief, Major General Sher Afgan and the powerful Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency both blame Indian and Afghan intelligence agencies. At a recent conference in Quetta, Afgan said that India and Afghanistan were behind subversive activities to disrupt peace in the province. He also claimed to have foiled their plots on several occasions. A Foreign Ministry spokesperson said that Pakistan would raise the issue of Indian involvement in terrorism activities in Pakistan at the international level.
Baloch rebel leaders and New Delhi deny the allegations of the Pakistani government. Rebel leader Dr. Allah Nazar, operating in Balochistan, rejects any claim of foreign support for his movement, although he says he will welcome foreign help from any country, whether India or America. Balochistan’s Chief Minister Dr. Abdul Malik Baloch has a somewhat more nuanced stance. He doesn’t completely rule out foreign involvement in his province, but emphasizes that former military ruler Pervez Musharraf is responsible for the current unrest. The minister said that Musharraf’s policies worsened the situation. Malik says the issues cannot now be resolved through investment alone, but will only be resolved when locals are empowered and unemployment as well as poverty ratios are decreased.
Indeed, poverty is a root cause of the conflict. Apart from security challenges, Balochistan has been hit by both abject poverty and unemployment. The ratio of poor here is much higher than it is in other parts of Pakistan, despite the fact that Balochistan is endowed with rich reserves of gas, oil, coal, gold and copper.
A 2013 report compiled by the Islamabad non-governmental organization Social Policy and Development Center had Balochistan at the top of the nation’s poverty list, with 45.68 percent of its population living below the poverty line. Another report, “Clustered Deprivation,” published in 2014 by the Sustainable Development Policy Institute had 52 percent of the region’s nine million people living in poverty.
The coastal towns of Gwadar district are among the most deprived places in Pakistan, struggling with high unemployment, poor health, weak infrastructure, a poor education system with just a single college, and rampant crime. The crisis starts from Jiwani and continues through Gwadar city to the towns of Pasini and Ormera.
The $46 billion that China has announced it will invest in the economic corridor will be allocated to projects encompassing mining, infrastructure, textiles, energy, and industry. In the meantime, the people of Gwadar must make do with a single 12-bed hospital and a college with 13 classrooms.
Kiyya Baloch is a freelance journalist who reports for the leading Pakistani English newspaper Daily Times in Balochistan and other outlets on foreign affairs and the insurgency, militancy and sectarian violence in Balochistan.