Wednesday August 10, 2022

A plea for Balochistan

May 24, 2021

The emerging situation in Afghanistan is indicative of a political and military meltdown, with serious multi-pronged security consequences for Pakistan.

In this respect, the spate of insurgent strikes in recent months in Balochistan casts an ominous shadow. Although they are occasional, they indicate a growing level of disaffection of the population. The situation requires a serious attempt at political reconciliation.

National security demands that all possible internal fronts be closed to enable the state to face threats emanating from across the borders. The conflict in Balochistan is of local origin and the state holds all the cards at resolving it.

The alienation in Balochistan can be attributed to political and economic factors. The former has arisen on account of the consistent denial of political rights. Balochistan stands bereft of any semblance of provincial autonomy, despite the passage of the 18th Amendment to the constitution. The latter is a consequence of the exploitation of the province’s resources to enrich the rest of the country – leaving the province itself poverty stricken.

To date, no attempt has been made in earnest to integrate Balochistan with the country’s political and economic framework. Provincial representation in national legislatures is nominal at best. The state is visibly present only in Quetta, in the districts around the offices of the deputy commissioner, and around security installations. Provincial governments are installed, with the writ of the provincial bureaucracy – including that of the provincial police – limited by the overbearing presence of federal appointees. Colonialism is writ large.

Economic infrastructure to support productive activities is derelict in the northern and north-eastern divisions of Quetta and Naseerabad and largely absent in the rest of the province. Gwadar has been reduced to an ‘island’, rendered inaccessible to the local population. Products from the national domestic market are available in and around Quetta and in Hub Chowki, but the rest of the province is mainly catered to by Iranian and other foreign products. The latter are available through what the local population call cross-border trading, which is a major source of livelihood for the population in border districts. The law terms this trading as smuggling.

Cross-border trading is the principal economic lifeline for most of the population in the western half of Balochistan and fencing the border with Iran and Afghanistan has choked their principal source of sustenance as well as created severe shortages of daily use items. The fencing project has been driven entirely by security considerations formulated by ground-reality insensitive policies, with no regard to livelihood consequences for the people inhabiting the area.

Addressing local needs will now urgently require constructing gates at various points and allowing duty free or nominally taxed flow of goods across the border. Population centres along the border are few; as such, less than a dozen gates along the 950 km stretch from Jiwani to Taftan will be needed. Of course, this will require developing a Balochistan-specific border trade policy.

A complementary condition for border trade to develop to its full potential is an efficient road network; connecting, at least, all the district headquarters. Balochistan is a province of 347,000 square kilometers. As such, surface communications is of relatively greater and critical importance in its economic life. Yet, its road density is half that of the national average.

This is a consequence of historical neglect. Examination of NHA investment expenditure data over 2002-2007 showed that a mere nine percent of allocation was made for the province that comprises over 40 percent of the country’s land mass. Roads that have been built post-2000 are designed to serve the transit needs of CPEC traffic and generally bypass local population centres. Significantly, there is as yet not a single dual carriageway in the entire province.

NHA bias is writ large. And the bias cannot be attributed to oversight. The organization needs to be replaced with six provincial highway authorities, including for Azad Jammu and Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan, with an inter-provincial coordination committee. Alternatively, NHA must be restructured into six divisions, each with head offices in respective provincial/regional capitals. Each authority must have a separate budget commensurate with its share of the country’s land mass, with allowance for higher costs for mountain roads.

Attending to Balochistan’s economic needs – apart from necessary political measures – will require a major rethink in the corridors of power. Does the state have the necessary empathy and foresight?

The writer was a member of the 7th NFC and is now a member of the 10th NFC.

Twitter: @kaiserbengali