Balochistan is widely recognised as a pivotal point to create greater peace and security in Pakistan. As a province that is rich in natural resources, it offers great potential for development.
In reality, there are two Balochistans. One of them is considered to be the national epicentre for centrifugal drift and violence. It is characterised by illiteracy, poverty, oppression of women and an outmoded feudal system. The other Balochistan includes those who reject violence and extremism and aspire to build the foundations of sustainable peace, human dignity, prosperity and well-being for all. These peace-loving people believe that the road to durable peace in Balochistan can only be built through constructive development processes.
Balochistan presents a dismal state of affairs in terms of poverty, which is over twice the national average. Out of the 20 poorest districts in Pakistan, 16 are in Balochistan.
The situation has been further aggravated by the dwindling writ of the state, low rates of national economic growth, institutional decay, inequity, illiteracy, food insecurity and the rise in child and maternal mortality. According to a recent study by the Islamabad-based Sustainable Policy Institute (SDPI), approximately 52 percent of the province’s population lives below the poverty line. The province is among the poorest regions of Pakistan, with the lowest national ranking on the Human Development Index as compared to other provinces and administrative regions of Pakistan.
Balochistan has also performed dismally on many important indicators of social development in 2016-17, with the maternal mortality rate (MMR) to be 785 out of 100,000. This rate is almost three times higher than the national average. Compared to the MDGs target of 20 percent, Balochistan reported 43 percent children who were underweight at the end of 2015.
According to reports by UNDP and Unesco, around 1.8 million of the 2.7 million children below the age of five have never been to school in Balochistan. At least 57 percent of children do not resume secondary education after completing their primary schooling. Gender disparity in education is one of the highest in the world, with the literacy rate for women standing at between three percent and eight percent in the province – ie, only eight percent of girls in the 14-15-year-old cohort manage to attend a school in Balochistan.
Despite all its challenges, Balochistan presents enormous potential for national development and prosperity. The province has large reserves of copper, marble, coal, chromite and natural gas. According to a 2015 assessment carried out by the planning and development department, 12 exploration sites were identified for these reserves and the total value of all of these is estimated to be above a trillion dollars. For instance, the much-debated Reko Diq copper and gold reserves are among these 12 sites and are estimated at $270 billion. In addition, the province has an oceanic coastline that provides access points to the world’s most important shipping routes: the Straits of Hormuz. With its vast potential, Balochistan has become the ideal candidate for development investment. The most recent investment opportunity is the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).
CPEC offers a wealth of opportunities for the people of Pakistan, Balochistan in particular, with its enormous potential to create employment, productive economic activity, business opportunities and industrial growth. However, the benefits of the economic corridor cannot be translated into a prosperous future for Balochistan without creating preconditions for local development. The government and its civil society partners can anticipate this and ensure that communities are provided information, knowledge and expertise to avail opportunities that the CPEC projects have to offer.
This is not an alien concept as we have already witnessed this happen elsewhere in Pakistan. For example, investment in human and social capitals by the Aga Khan Development Network in Gilgit-Baltistan has positively impacted the lives of locals with the construction of Karakoram Highway (KKH). The transformation of Hunza from a primitive, backward and poverty-stricken mountainous community into a prosperous, peaceful and educated society, lends credence to investment in human and social capital as it enabled people to benefit from the opportunities offered. On the contrary, the Coastal Highway Project of Balochistan – if we are to quote an example – could not bring about a transformation in Balochistan despite the enormous opportunities it offered, such as the KKH. The only explicable reason is that no development preconditions were created through the investment in human and social capital. Investment in mega projects – despite their economic potential – produced results that were counter-productive for social change in Balochistan.
What CPEC needs to address first and foremost is the sense of deprivation faced by the people of Balochistan. They need to be made active participants of the CPEC process. This has to take the form of investment to build local institutions, human capacities, skills and ‘functional capabilities’ that can improve people’s access to the benefits of CPEC. This institutional approach provides a long-term view of continued benefit, ownership and shared value in that well-governed, transparent, equitable and inclusive institutions of people at the grassroots level articulate the vision of change. Investment in human and social capital is therefore fundamental to create preconditions for local development to reap the benefits of CPEC.
Pakistan takes great pride in its friendship with China and considers CPEC a means of cementing this relationship. While these sentiments may be true, we must not lose sight of the fact that CPEC does not have a magic wand to turn poverty into prosperity unless we have define our national priorities and turn the challenges of CPEC into opportunities.
The plans to invest in Gwadar are surrounded by debate and, even more so, excitement, as the Chinese government announced an investment of $1.62 billion for the area’s development in 2015. Gwadar was the cause of much anticipation and excitement in 2007 when $248 million had been invested to complete the first phase of the project. CPEC promises a sustainable continuation of that initial promise, with China’s pledge to invest further in infrastructure. The dual approach of rural development and urban planning is an ambitious and promising prospect and will require the collective efforts of NGOs, the government and local communities.
However, there have been concerns because the state of insecurity in Balochistan threatens the success of this mega investment. While work on CPEC’s early harvest projects are under way in Balochistan, there is a strong need for the strategic redressal of security threats by not just the government but all stakeholders. Involving local communities in the grand design of the programme, through a community-led socioeconomic paradigm shift, will be one of the critical success factors.
The message to our communities in Balochistan has to be clear: that CPEC offers tremendous mutually shared benefits and carries the message of holistic prosperity. Growing militarism in Balochistan, the problem of the return and rehabilitation of IDPs and the need to integrate conflict-affected and insecure areas into the economic and social mainstream are urgent issues. The nexus between sectarian militarism and extremism is strengthened when it is linked to poverty, and can contribute towards alienation and exploitation.
The writer is a freelance columnist based in Islamabad.