The Platform

Goat herder in Balochistan, Pakistan.

Balochistan is mired in poverty and Islamabad has neglected Pakistan’s largest province for far too long.

Balochistan, Pakistan’s largest province, has been rocked by massive protests for well over a year. Maulana Hidayat Ur Rehman, one of the protest movement leaders, was arrested and sent to police remand by a court in Quetta. He had been arrested in January for inciting violence that led to the death of a policeman in the port city of Gwadar.

The protests were originally started by local women in 2021 who demanded clean drinking water, healthcare, and electricity. Other demands included easing restrictions on informal cross-border trade with Iran, reduction of security checkpoints in the area, and an end to illegal trawling. Illegal trawling affects a great number of poor fishermen who are barely getting by.

Massi Zainab, a 70-year-old housewife, asked the charismatic politician, Maulana Hidayat Ur Rehman, to help mount a series of protests in Gwadar. Within weeks, Massi Zainab was marching with thousands of local women, a first for this conservative society. Maulana launched a sit-in protest in November 2021. The protestors also demanded an accounting of missing persons. According to the Voice of Baloch Missing Persons, over 20,000 people have disappeared in the last decade.

The initial protests ended after a government official signed an agreement to meet the demands of the protestors. Unfortunately, illegal trawling is still in practice and not much has been done to meet the other demands. The government has stressed that Balochistan is large and Gwadar, in particular, has seen massive development in the last decade. But what’s also true is that many of the locals have been left out and believe that none of the development has benefited them directly. There is resentment against the projects which people think exploit the resources of the province.

Balochistan is a cash cow for Pakistan with its vast mineral and natural resources. The province contains plentiful supplies of oil, coal, gas, gold, silver, uranium, and copper. It provides Islamabad with direct access to the Indian Ocean, with a thousand kilometres of coastline near the entrance to the Strait of Hormuz.

Despite having such vast natural wealth, much of the population lives below the poverty line with limited or little access to education, jobs, electricity, roads, and clean water. Barely 41% of the population is literate, the unemployment rate is around 30%, and just 7% have access to running water. And while Balochistan provides one-third of Pakistan’s natural gas, only a handful of towns are hooked up to the supply grid. For example, gas reserves were discovered in Sui which lies in the district of Dera Bughti in 1952, but the locals are still using wood as fuel. Other social indicators such as infant mortality rate and life expectancy are also low compared to the national average. Locals fail to understand why they are forced to live in abject poverty while other provinces benefit from their natural resources.

The protest movement has spread deeper into Baloch society. Schoolchildren refuse to sing the national anthem or fly its flag, and women, traditionally confined to the home have joined the struggle. Universities have become hotbeds of nationalist sentiment. Pakistan’s political and military leadership have to understand that there can be no solution to the Baloch issue with repressive policies. Balochistan requires a political solution.

There is an immediate need to establish mutual trust among Balochs in order to resolve issues of insecurity, injustice, and anger among them. Instead of false promises, the people of Balochistan need real action on the ground so that they can feel themselves beneficiaries of progress and development in their own province.

Bearing in mind the decades of neglect, it will take time to address the people’s grievances. But the government needs to handle the matters with the utmost care, with empathy rather than the use of violence. Failure to do so in a fair and just manner will only alienate the Baloch people and result in more and more people taking up arms against the government.

Manish Rai is a geopolitical analyst and columnist for the Middle East and Af-Pak region and the editor of geopolitical news agency ViewsAround (VA). He has done reporting from Jordon, Iran, and Afghanistan. His work has been quoted in the British Parliament.