Game changer in more ways than one

The proposed change in the route of Pakistan-China Economic Corridor draws stiff resistance from political parties despite its immense economic potential

Game changer in more ways than one

The 45 billion US dollars Pakistan-China Economic Corridor (PCEC) is believed to be the game changer for the region. It will connect Gwadar with Kashgar town in the autonomous Xinxiang region in China through highways, railroads and pipelines of gas and oil, boosting the economy in all the towns that would become part of this mega economic project.

The PCEC is likely to serve as gateway for trade between China and the Middle East and Africa. The project is to cut a 12,000-kilometre route between Middle East and Chinese ports. The two countries, Pakistan and China, have already signed agreements for constructing an international airport at Gwadar, upgrading a section of 1,300-kilometre Karakorum Highway and laying a fibre-optic cable from the Chinese border to Rawalpindi. In November last year, Chinese government announced financing companies to build energy and infrastructure projects worth $45.6 billion under the PCEC.

The project has hit controversy after major political parties in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan launched protests against the change in the original route, which is believed to deprive a major portion of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Balochistan and Fata of an opportunity of development, business and jobs. Though the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz government in centre has convinced Maulana Fazlur Rahman and his Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam, major political parties in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan are still opposed to any change in the route of the Pakistan-China Economic Corridor.

The opposition parties have expressed anger over change in the route in the Upper House by staging walkouts twice in a single session. The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Assembly unanimously rejected any change in the route by the federal government. The Awami National Party has also written a letter to the Chinese envoy to Pakistan, seeking a meeting to discuss how the change in the route is to affect the two already backward provinces and Fata.

Opposition leader in National Assembly and PPP stalwart, Khursheed Shah, also wrote to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif not to change the route since the new route will deprive the backward parts of the county of an opportunity to develop. Pakistan Tehreek-Insaf, Jamaat-e-Islami and all other parties have also rejected the new route, leaving only the PML-N who supports the idea. A high level delegation from China is scheduled to arrive in Islamabad in the coming days to discuss the project and serious opposition by a huge population to the new route.

The eastern route does not include a major portion of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa from where the project was otherwise supposed to wind through. There are reports that now a third plan is also under consideration.

Not only the political parties, but the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Chamber of Commerce and the Peshawar High Court Bar Association have also strongly opposed any change in the route of the corridor. A body of the bar has been constituted to meet all the political leaders to form a united front for opposing the changed route.

Federal Minister for Planning and Development Ahsan Iqbal held two press briefings within a couple of days over the issue to convince the opposition parties and the public that nothing wrong is being done in the original plan. "The vision of the corridor is not only constructing roads but to strengthen the economy of the country," defended Ahsan Iqbal who termed the route maps circulated on social media fake.

According to Ahsan Iqbal the route is to connect the under-developed parts of the country through linking various highways. He said the plan included energy projects to produce 16,000 megawatt electricity. "Those who have announced to oppose the project are in fact enemies of development in the country. The corridor is not a game changer but fate changer for Pakistan and for the prosperity of three billion people of the region," argued the federal minister who had to hold another press conference with Maulana Fazlur Rahman. Though the Maulana seemed to be convinced after meeting Ahsan Iqbal, he stressed the federal government to make the feasibility report public just for the satisfaction of the people of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

Unlike the Maulana, the rest of political parties are not convinced with the arguments of Ahsan Iqbal and others in the federal government. The Qaumi Watan Party has announced launching a protest movement against the changed route while the Awami National Party has called an All Parties Conference in Islamabad on February 17 to take up the issue properly. Some political parties expect more stiff resistance than that of Kalabagh Dam if the federal government did anything wrong with the smaller provinces.

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Senators of the ANP and Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party staged a walkout from the Upper House to oppose any plan by the PML-N to deprive the Pakhtuns of a better economic opportunity through the corridor. "We had launched movements against one-unit and Kalabagh Dam in the past. Now a new issue is being created for Pakhtuns by changing the route of the economic corridor," Haji Adeel told the Senate. Adeel claimed the government changed the route on the pretext of security, but the fact is that the issue of security exists everywhere in the country.

Jamaat-e-Islami chief Sirajul Haq, talking to TNS, said the change in the route of PCEC will be dangerous. "It seems the rulers are yet to learn from the past. Changing the route will be dangerous. The federal government itself is making such national projects controversial," said Sirajul Haq. He added he will take up the issue with the federal government as the decision regarding such projects should be taken with consensus.

Recently, the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Assembly unanimously passed a resolution opposing any change in the western route. The western route connects Kashgar with Gwadar via Karakoram Highway, Abbotabad, Hassan Abdal, Peshawar Valley, Dera Ismail Khan, Dera Ghazi Khan, Mianwali and Zhob. The new eastern route, according to opposition parties, connects Kashgar with Gwadar via Karakoram Highway, Havelian, Islamabad, Multan, Sukkur, Ratodero, Gadani. The eastern route does not include a major portion of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa from where the project was otherwise supposed to wind through. There are reports that now a third plan is also under consideration.

"The economic corridor route was planned to connect Gwadar with China’s Kashgar through Karakorum Highway, Abbottabad, Dera Ismail Khan, Mianwali and Zhob. This project will have positive effects on the economy of KP, Fata and underdeveloped areas of Balochistan and Punjab," said a resolution read out in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Assembly. The resolution added that aligning the economic corridor through another route via Punjab would be great injustice with the people of the less-developed KP, Fata and Balochistan.

Independent analysts believe the changed route will only benefit Punjab, affecting the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan. "The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is already hit by militancy and the economic activities are at its lowest. The PCEC is expected to accelerate the economic activities in the backward parts of the province but change in the route will deprive the people of the province of this opportunity," Nisar Mahmood, a senior journalist and president of the Khyber Union of Journalists, tells TNS. Nisar added that the western route is not only shorter but it will be easy through it to access the reserves of oil and gas in southern KP through this route.

Qaumi Watan Party has already announced launching a countrywide movement to oppose the plan. "We are ready to go to any extent over the issue and launch a protest campaign. Change in the route will increase the sense of deprivation and alienation among Pakhtuns," said Sikander Sherpao, the provincial head of the QWP and member of the KP Assembly. According to Sikander Sherpao, the economic corridor is a 45 billion US dollar project that includes construction of roads, railway tracks and laying pipelines of gas and oil. It will create thousands of jobs for the locals. Sherpao estimated that the corridor would add 100 million US dollars to the economy of the country every year.

The parliamentary leader of the ANP in KP Assembly, Sardar Hussain Babak, believes Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his government are interested only in the development of Punjab. He estimated that the western route of the Pakistan-China Economic Corridor is 635 kilometres shorter than the eastern one, proposed to go via Punjab.

The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf is against the eastern route and its members supported the joint resolution in the KP Assembly in favour of the old route of the PCEC. Workers of the party carried out an aggressive campaign through social media against any change in the route. Even the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz did not oppose the resolution when it was tabled in the KP Assembly and unanimously adopted by the entire house, giving a strong message to the federal government.

Game changer in more ways than one