Monday January 24, 2022

Tackling Balochistan’s problems

July 08, 2021

It is heartening to see that the prime minister is trying to heal the wounds of the largest province by offering mega projects and development schemes. What is more positive is the possibility of talks with Baloch insurgents.

It is not the first insurgency that has plagued the province; the largest federating entity revolted against rule of the center in the past as well. Much of this was caused by the imprudent policies of rulers of all shades who resorted to sledgehammer tactics to sort out a political issue that could have been solved through dialogue. The 1950s witnessed the resentment of Baloch politicians against the center. Such resentment could have been addressed by coming up with a formula that guaranteed provincial rights but the sense of deprivation of the Baloch was ignored during the 1960s, and the province witnessed one of the longest tensions with Islamabad during the time of Z A Bhutto. Baloch leaders were jailed and all those who spoke against the fascist tactics of the Bhutto regime had to face the wrath of the populist leader who could not get rid of his feudal attitude despite his tall claims of serving the downtrodden.

Unfortunately, it was a dictator who not only announced a sort of amnesty for Baloch leaders but all those who suffered during the time of Bhutto. But the regime of General Zia also failed to tackle the issue of Balochistan. He opened the war front in Afghanistan, creating a myriad of problems for Pakistan. The exodus of Afghan refugees and the introduction of Kalashnikov culture badly damaged the social fabric of Pakistani society besides negatively affecting Balochistan. The general sidelined the genuine Baloch leadership, pampering the tribal lords who were disliked by the people. With time, these tribal lords grew so strong that today no government can be run without them.

The recent insurgency, the longest in Balochistan’s history, was triggered by the arrogance of another dictator. General Musharraf’s provocative actions infuriated a leader who had always sided with the federation. The dictator decided to resort to the coercive apparatus of the state, triggering the recent turmoil.

Given this history, the offer of talks should be welcome. Prime Minister Imran Khan’s speech highlighting the woes of the Baloch people is worth appreciating. He mentioned a number of development projects that he believes will alleviate the suffering of the people, provide them employment and improve their standard of living. The prime minister also addressed the issue of deep sea fishing. There is much resentment among the locals about the trawlers of Sindh and foreign countries that are fishing in the waters of the area, depriving local fishers of the catch. A desalination plant is also much needed. Gwadar and other parts of the province have been facing scarcity of water for years now. A couple of desalination plants might go some way in addressing the water shortage problem of Gwader but for other parts of the province, the government needs to come up with a sustainable plan. Underground water is fast depleting and there is an urgent need to address this issue.

The largest province also has one of the highest child mortality rates in the country. One of the factors contributing to this is the lack of medical facilities. The announcement of a hospital has created a ripple of excitement among the people of Gwadar. The first big hospital and university was established by the elected government of NAP in the decade of the 1970s. The province did not witness much socio-economic development in the later decades. It is heartening that the current government is trying to implement development schemes, some of which were started by the PML-N government. It is irrelevant for the people to know who came up with the idea of various schemes. Mere announcement of projects is not going to impress people; the prime minister needs to ensure their timely completion and a fair share of jobs for the locals.

Many critics believe that socio-economic development cannot be successful unless the province gets a respite from the low level insurgency that has plagued parts of the federating unit. It is heartening that the government is considering talks with Baloch insurgents. But before such talks are initiated, many believe that the government should take some confidence-building measures. Some Baloch leaders believe that ensuring the safe recovery of missing persons, establishing a truth and reconciliation commission and announcing a fair share of income from the mineral wealth of the province could be some of these steps.

The government of Dr Abdul Malik had also launched a dialogue process – going all the way to London and holding meetings with some Baloch nationalists. Chaudhary Shujaat and Senator Mushahid Hussain Syed were also part of a committee in the past that was trying to reconcile issues between the center and Balochistan. The reports of such committees should be evaluated and assistance of those who can facilitate talks should also be sought.

The interior minister has recently revealed that some hostile agencies are trying to orchestrate plans of destabilization. Afghanistan is also sending dangerous signals. The US does not seem to be happy with Islamabad either. Given all this, it is possible that these hostile elements could use disgruntled youth to accomplish their plans. Therefore, it is important that we engage Baloch insurgents in talks, address the grievances of the Baloch people and come up with a solution that might help us restore peace in a region that is considered the gateway to Central Asia. However, such issues could be resolved through parliament and a parliamentary system.

The problems of the federating entities were caused by a centrist approach. After all, it was the democratic government of Dr Abdul Malik that increased health and education budgets in recent years. So instead of lambasting those who believe in parliamentary democracy, the prime minister needs to ensure that the people of Balochistan are able to elect their true representatives. It is widely believed that the National Party and Balochistan National Party enjoy mass support in the Baloch belt. What the PTI government needs to ensure is a level playing field for these parties. This could be the first step towards addressing the problems of the province.

If the government is really interested in seeking reconciliation, it should take the national political leadership into confidence, convening a meeting of all parties to deliberate upon the issue.

The writer is a freelance journalist.