The Platform

Men armed in Balochistan.

Local Baloch fishermen staged a 28-day sit-in against the exploitation of their fishing grounds by Chinese fishing trawlers forcing the government to take remedial steps. More recently, the governments of Pakistan and Balochistan entered into an agreement with Canada’s Barrick Gold Corporation for copper and gold resources-mining, with Balochistan getting 25% of the profit-shares. Previously, for similar projects, Balochistan was receiving 2% of the profits. This is good news for the local population of Balochistan, but a lot more needs to be done to alleviate poverty and other disparities.

Pakistan’s Balochistan is a historically underdeveloped region. This underdevelopment can be explained in terms of conflicting narratives. On one side is the popular narrative that tribal elders have resisted infrastructural development and the establishment of educational institutions to keep their fiefdoms intact. Contrarily, the urban-educated middle class is wary of both local Chiefs and neglect shown by the central government in helping the province to develop along the same lines as the rest of Pakistan.

Balochistan is a southwestern province, bordering Afghanistan and Iran. It is home to Gwadar Port which is central to China’s Belt and Road Initiative. It comprises 44% of Pakistan’s landmass. But Balochistan is more than a place on a map. As one Baloch leader told me, “I have been a Baloch for several centuries. I have been a Muslim for 1,400 years. I have been Pakistani for just over fifty.” One of the most fundamental problems facing the central government is to assimilate the centuries-old Baloch experience into Pakistani statehood through creating avenues of economic and political inclusiveness.

Baloch’s experience of Pakistani statehood is structured around political excesses exemplified in the unilateral annexation of the State of Swat in 1948 with Pakistan and economic exploitation manifested through underdevelopment of the province.

These two experiences generated and strengthened an armed insurgency which continues to this day. These anti-state feelings and actions of regionalist forces have found ample strategic support from neighboring countries, especially India. India has used Balochistan and nationalists to destabilize Pakistan by providing these groups with weapons and financial support. In this context, the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) comprising of multi-billion dollar investments through infrastructural development, has been dubbed a “game-changer” by political elites, especially for Balochistan, where it was hoped that infrastructure development and economic growth will help to pacify the region.

A train travels through Balochistan. (Arslan Arshad/Wikimedia)

CPEC ushered in Pakistan’s relationship with China in a new direction where partnership became more concentrated in global-level economic engagements. This was a massive transformation from erstwhile cooperation that focused on military partnerships. Pakistan, and especially Balochistan’s economy, needed massive support and reforms and the CPEC was a timely and appropriate opportunity to improve the region’s growth and inclusiveness. Six years after its launch, has CPEC achieved its goal of economic and social uplift of the people of Pakistan and Balochistan?

Balochistan is the most underdeveloped province of Pakistan, but it is also the most resource-rich region as well. Over the last many years it has supplied natural gas to the rest of the country for industrialization. It is rich in mineral resources such as gold and copper. Importantly, it can connect with Iran, Afghanistan, the Persian Gulf, and Central Asia. But still, it is the poorest of the provinces of Pakistan with the highest mortality rate.

Resource exploitation is so central to the psyche of Baloch that they fear investors will take away their resources. And this fear is not unfounded. Balochistan has sustained the industrial growth of the country through the supply of natural gas for many years and it was only fair that Balochistan would have developed at the same pace as some of the other provinces.

The popular narrative is that the local tribal leaders (Sardars) have not allowed the development of educational infrastructure as they needed uneducated masses to support their fiefdoms; similarly, they have resisted infrastructural development to maintain control over the local population and for rent-seeking from natural resources. But Balochistan’s educated middle-class denouncement of both the local Baloch leaders and the central government clearly exemplifies that underdevelopment in Balochistan cannot be ascribed to manipulative designs of local tribal leaders to perpetuate their fiefdoms as no steps have been taken to alleviate poverty in the province.

Despite massive resource-utilization in the province, the trickle-down of economic benefits have eluded the local population. Gold and copper reservoirs at RekoDiq did not lead to prosperity for the local population. For example, the Metallurgical Corporation of China had been aggressively mining gold and copper since 2002 with annual yields of 25 tons of gold and 12 to 15,000 tons of copper. It took home 50% of the profits from these mining operations. The federal government took home 48% of the profits, and Balochistan was left with 2% of the profits.

But the region has to pay a huge cost associated with resource extraction. Copper sources have been depleted by over-extraction; local-level development is non-existent; the local labor force is in ill-health; and, the water is highly contaminated and not useable. Balochistan is a site of infrastructural development disparities. It suffers an acute shortage of water and none of the planned hydropower plants are operational. The severity of this problem is exemplified in the acute non-availability of clean drinking water in areas located near natural gas deposits. Gwadar, where the port is located, which is pivotal for CPEC, suffers from a shortage of clean drinking water and the situation is worsening with every passing day. Most of the districts are without health facilities; and, finally, roads are in terrible conditions which make traveling hard.

The way-forward

Inequalities, especially economic inequalities, are structured around political biases. It is particularly true in cases where politics is instituted around ethnicities that transverse the ideological base of the country through tribal-based politics of identity. In modern nation-statehood, some identities are more sacred than others and identities-based otherness is always marginalized and oppressed.

Like the agreement with the Barrick Gold Corporation, similar other actions will need to be taken including installations of tube-wells for clean drinking water, job-creation for the local population, and provision of educational and health infrastructures are some of the few steps that can be taken to increase the trust of the local population in infrastructural development of the province.

Muhammad Azam is a development practitioner in Pakistan. He is currently pursuing a Master's degree in Sustainable International Development from the Heller School for Social Policy and Management, Brandeis University. He is interested in land planning, digital geographies, and infrastructure-development.