In Balochistan the use of social media is increasingly helping people make their issues visible and bring attention to marginalization and inequalities. In that vein, on November 12 #GwadarNeedsUniversity was one of the top trending hashtags on social media in Pakistan.
The previously little known harbor town of Gwadar in Balochistan province emerged as port city in 2002 after work on a port project commenced. Since then, this little peninsula has gained enormous international attention, partly because of its importance since 2015 as the hub of the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative’s benchmark project, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).
With the goal of making Gwadar a full-fledged port city, the provincial and federal governments in Pakistan as well as Chinese government authorities continue to announce and work on different development projects. That includes infrastructural development including roads, new buildings, and hospitals. However, it remains uncertain how much this work has influenced human development in Gwadar.
As part of development efforts, in 2016 the government of Balochistan announced the establishment of a university in Gwadar. This decision was celebrated among the people of Gwadar, especially the youth, who would now be getting an educational opportunity in their home town. For young women it was even more of a momentous announcement, as very few of them have been able to leave their home town to get a higher education, given the extra effort and costs.
A university in Gwadar seemed a step closer to reality when former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif announced a development package for the port city in May 2017. This package included a 300-bed hospital, desalination plant, and a university. By this time, the government had already purchased a 500-acre plot of land for the same purpose.
In November 2018, the bill for the establishment of a university in Gwadar was also approved in the Balochistan Assembly during a session chaired by the deputy speaker, Sardar Babar Musa Khel – even after the opposition in the assembly strongly rejected the bill earlier in October 2018. That same year, provincial Finance Minister Zahoor Buledi (then the minister for information) announced that the federal government had approved 1 billion Pakistani rupees for the establishment of Gwadar University.
Meanwhile, the website of CPEC under the federal Ministry of Planning, Development and Special Initiatives also shows a plan for identifying a leading Chinese university for collaboration with the University of Gwadar on marine and maritime-related subjects, along with other disciplines.
These plans continued to raise the hopes of local people, but there was very little evidence of the actual establishment of such an institute, let alone its collaboration with any international university. Over time, government authorities began to avoid even talking about the plan, bill, or budget allocated for the university. Instead, they started referring to the sub-campus of Turbat University in Gwadar, which started in 2017 with four departments: education, commerce, business administration, and information technology. Hundreds of students had so far enrolled in the sub-campus.
“But these four departments do not necessarily reflect the needs of all students and a port city like Gwadar,” Nasir Rahim Sohrabi, an education expert and president of the Rural Community Development Council (RCDC) told The Diplomat. “With limited disciplinary areas, many students still have to travel to other cities like Karachi, Uthal, Quetta, or Lahore. But majority cannot afford do so and are eventually left out.”
Sohrabi added, “It is also questionable that a bill that approved the establishment of the university in 2018 is completely out of sight now. It should have been under consideration and the work should have been started by now.”
The online campaign for the promised university that began on November 12 was meant to hold the provincial government accountable during the recent visit by Chief Minster of Balochistan Jam Kamal Khan to Gwadar. The CM was in town to attend the stone-laying ceremonies for several development projects in Gwadar – which once again excluded the project of Gwadar University from the list.
When questioned by journalists about the university, Khan’s response was clear: “Turbat is not that far from Gwadar and Turbat University’s sub-campus in already running in Gwadar.”
However, on Twitter people asked why legislators in the provincial assembly approved a bill that they were not planning to implement in the first place. Many asserted that if the government had prioritized education along with the inception of port construction 18 years ago, Gwadar would now be able to supply the workforce needed for the future of this region.
On the current sub-campus of Turbat University in Gwadar, Barkatullah Baloch, president of Gwadar Youth Forum, told The Diplomat, “If the authorities claim the presence of a university campus in Gwadar, they should first know how its situation is today. Half of the lecturers appointed in 2017 are on study leave, leaving behind hundreds of students. While it is admirable to have the lecturers further their education, the students have to pay the price. How can the university authorities in Turbat approve study leaves for most of the teachers?”
According to the director of Turbat University’s Gwadar Campus, Ejaz Ahmed, “It was decided by the federal government’s Higher Education Commission (HEC) to upgrade the same campus as Gwadar University in future, but after 2018, the federal Public Sector Development Program (PSDP) did not reflect any funds for the university.” Ahmed added, “Including the project in the federal PSDP is neither difficult not impossible for the federal government, subject to their will.”
When The Diplomat asked about the fate of Gwadar University, Buledi, the finance minister of Balochistan responded, “The project was omitted from the federal PSDP by the government.” He did not offer an explanation for the government decision.
For the people of Gwadar, it is yet another battle in the fight to ensure that development plans for the port city actually benefit the local people. To many long-time residents, it seems that the sweet promises of developments are turning bitter almost as soon as they are made.
“This is government’s responsibility to make sure that a district like Gwadar has its own university with special focus on disciplines that are need of the time and the port city,” said Sohrabi.