Economic catalyst or corridor of discontent? Why Gwadar locals don't like China-led development

Hopes of Gwadar emerging as a ‘game changer’ for the economy remain elusive, while Pakistan sips from the ‘golden chalice’ of Chinese benevolence

Rana Banerji December 16, 2021 10:18:22 IST
Economic catalyst or corridor of discontent? Why Gwadar locals don't like China-led development

File photo of a Pakistani Naval personnel standing guard near a ship carrying containers at the Gwadar port. AFP

The sit-in agitation by Gwadar’s fishermen, supported also by their women folk, has simmered for a month. It is symptomatic of a larger malaise, where top-down development is forced down throats of a hapless people, in utter disregard of age-old economic practices, employment patterns and cultural habits. The agitation reflects six years of disappointment with Chinese investments expected to benefit the area.

Nothing has changed for the locals, who continue to struggle with endemic water shortages, massive unemployment and spreading destitution. Inadequate planning by the state to cope with infrastructural shortfalls and haste to consolidate geo-strategic gains, if only to oblige a domineering China, have led to administrative bungling and slowing down of projects under the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).

Etymologically signifying ‘the door or gateway (Darr)’ for ‘air (Gwa)’, this area belonged to the Sultanate of Oman till 1958, when it was purchased by Pakistan at a cost of $3 million. Almost 70 percent of its population, presently estimated at 1,38,000, was of fishermen, living off trawling rights from the Arabian Sea. A Pakistan Bureau of Statistics survey of 2016 vintage found 33,680 housing units in Gwadar, of which only 20 percent were pucca, only 35 percent had electricity; 45 percent had piped water and 0.86 percent had cooking gas.

Gwadar’s topography offered two semi-circular bays forming a hammerhead, considered ideal for developing a modern port, especially as Pakistan’s only other port at Karachi was getting commercially clogged and after the 1965 and 1971 wars, was deemed strategically vulnerable. The western portion of this hammerhead, known locally as ‘Paddi Zirr’, is rather shallow, having an average depth of 12’ while the eastern bay, called ‘Demi Zirr’ serves as a more natural harbour. This is where the new port is being built. Construction was first given to Port of Singapore authority (PSA) in February 2007. The first ship, ‘Post Glory’, carrying wheat from Canada could not berth there in March 2008. In January 2013, the port was handed over to the China Overseas Ports Holding Company Ltd (COPHCL), cancelling the Singapore contract.

Since then, Gwadar has witnessed frenetic land development activity, mostly initiated by unscrupulous land developers from Punjab and Karachi. This has understandably alarmed local Baloch, who fear being reduced to a minority in their own province.

A large hotel complex has come up. A highly securitised fenced area has been set apart in the centre of the town, where living premises exclusively meant for Chinese engineers and other personnel are being built. A new Infantry Division (44th Light Infantry) has been headquartered in Gwadar, after 2019, with exclusive ‘special security’ responsibilities to look after their safety. The Chinese too have pitched in, investing $300 million for a coal-fired power plant, intended also to serve an ‘industrial estate’ later.

An international airport is being developed at a cost of $230 million, under aegis of the Pakistan Defence Forces, at Gurandani, 26 km north east of the old Gwadar city. The Military Estates Officer bought 6,600 acres for the airport at an estimated cost of Rs 1.05 billion.

The sheer pressure of construction activity has deprived Gwadar’s fisherman access to the sea. One of their current demands is to build a ‘breakwater structure’ along the eastern side of the port, to preserve their traditional trawling area. They also want to stop construction of a 19 km long ‘East Bay Expressway’, joining up to the Makran coastal highway.

In August 2021, hundreds of local fisher folk protested against ‘illegal fishing activity’ by trawlers, believed to be Chinese, equipped with latest fishing techniques. They were left hungry, poor and weak against the powerful trawlers. For months they failed to find fish to sell, posing a grave threat to their livelihood. Though China has officially denied their presence, these trawlers still remain in the high seas.

Acute water scarcity has always plagued Gwadar. Per capita water requirement for the town was estimated at 18 gallons per day. In 2012, Gwadar needed 5.5 mgd (million gallons per day), this rose to 6 mgd by 2017. The main source of water for Gwadar is the Akra Dam, located 15 km to the north, artificially constructed in 1995 at a cost of $24 million. It stretches over a catchment area of 27 sq miles (6,900 hectares). Even in the past, it could supply only 3 to 3.5 million gallons per day (mgd) to Gwadar and adjoining areas, including to Turbat city. The dam dried up in 2012. Again, in 2015, water levels there dropped alarmingly, causing immense hardship to the town inhabitants. Water tankers, costing Rs 17,000 per tanker had to be brought in by the district administration. Supply was rationed to 30-40 gallons per week to one family.

Securitisation of the city precincts is another problem. Sporadic attacks against Chinese personnel by Baloch insurgents belonging to the Baloch Republican Army (BRA) and Baloch Liberation Army (BLA) have taken place from 2003 onwards, intensifying in later years. A large number of checkposts have sprung up, which subject locals to harassment. Removal of these has been one of the demands voiced by the agitating fishermen.

Politicians representing the area have not been able to adequately highlight these problems. Dr Abdul Malik Baloch, elected from NA 272 Lasbela, Gwadar, was Chief Minister of Balochistan briefly, from 2013 to 2015 but he lost to Mohd Aslam Bhutani (Independent) in the 2018 elections. In the Balochistan Provincial Assembly, PB 51 Gwadar is represented by Mir Hammal Kalmati of the Balochistan Awami Party (Akhtar Mengal).

Of late, cudgels for the Gwadar fishermen have been taken up by Maulana Hidayat ur Rehman, a Jamaat e Islami cleric, through his ‘Gwadar ko Huqooq do’ (Give rights to Gwadar) rally. He is a resident of Surbandar, an outlying village near the old city and claims to be of fisherman lineage. Sources close to the Pakistani establishment allege he may be having links with mafias from Karachi, which support smuggling across the border, both of drugs and diesel, to Iran.

On 10 December 2021, the situation escalated after the police arrested veteran Baloch politician Mir Yousaf Masti Khan for an allegedly inflammatory ‘anti-state’ speech at the Gwadar sit in. Belatedly, Prime Minister Imran Khan extended an assurance to stop fishing by foreign trawlers. Whether this helps defuse tensions remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, hopes of Gwadar emerging as a ‘gemstone’ or a ‘game changer’ for the economy remain elusive, while Pakistan sips from the ‘golden chalice’ of Chinese benevolence.

The writer is a former special secretary, Cabinet Secretariat. Views expressed are personal.

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