Balochistan, Pakistan’s largest but least-populated, most impoverished province, deserves a more equitable share in major Chinese investments.
While Beijing and Islamabad count on the restive southwestern province’s strategic location to connect China to the Gulf, west and Central Asia, Chinese investments are unlikely to change the fate of Balochistan’s 10 million residents, who are reeling from extreme poverty, militant attacks, and military crackdowns.
The local politicians know their people’s feelings toward the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), as these investments are collectively called. In a rare display of unity, Balochistan’s legislature recently adopted a resolution calling for a national commission with the mandate to examine the distribution of CPEC’s burdens and benefits.
Opposition lawmaker Sanaullah Baloch argued that while CPEC inevitably affects the social, political, economic, and cultural lives of Balochistan’s residents, Islamabad has excluded them from the decision-making, which will only accentuate their alienation. The region has been reeling from a simmering Baluch separatist insurgency since 2004, which is the fifth and largest nationalist insurrection in the region since 1948.
Baloch and Jam Kamal Khan, Balochistan’s chief minister or senior elected civilian official, have demanded public disclosure of details of the lease agreement of Gwadar Port with China, all CPEC projects, and all 52 MoUs signed between Pakistan and China. They condemned the opaque deals concluded with China by the former Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz-led (PML-N) government since 2014.
Baloch also questioned the mega-project agreements, particularly the key criterion of vertical and horizontal distribution of burdens and benefits of projects among Pakistan’s provinces. He argued that the projects disproportionally benefit the developed eastern rim of the country, areas of eastern Punjab and southern Sindh provinces, where the per-capita income and literacy rates are higher, standards of education and health are better, and the entire system of irrigation and 99 percent of Pakistan’s industry are located.
On the other hand, areas on the western rim of the country were completely neglected in project benefits. The northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, including the now-merged districts of former Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and Balochistan, are already the most underdeveloped regions of Pakistan. Balochistan and FATA respectively have 74 percent and 71 percent multidimensional poverty. Some 62 percent of people in Balochistan have no electricity while 88 percent are deprived of any means of energy.
The present arrangements will only increase regional differences in development and economic prosperity.
CPEC has a portfolio of more than $60 billion, of which Islamabad allocated only a meagre $400 million to Balochistan, mainly focused on the development of Gwadar Port. Investments in road and energy infrastructure in the vast swathes of the province are nearly non-existent.
Yet Balochistan shoulders most of the CPEC burden. The region has 700 kilometres of coastline, including the deep seaport of Gwadar, which is slated to be the lynchpin of CPEC. It has rich mineral resources and provides 62 percent of the land for the corridor. Its residents will also face the environmental fallout of the mega projects.
Leaders in Balochistan say that out of a total 15 energy projects worth $33 billion, only one was slotted for Balochistan while the rest went to Punjab and Sindh. Of the 13 electricity grid stations for 500 KV transmission lines, Balochistan got none. The energy projects have started producing and distributing 7000 megawatts into the system. As part of CPEC, two 500 KV transmission lines, each 1,000 kilometres long, worth $4 billion were approved. One line goes from Matiari district in southern Sindh to Punjab’s capital, Lahore, while another goes to the nearby industrial hub of Faisalabad. Not a single kilometre provides electricity to Balochistan.
Such unfair distribution has greatly alarmed politicians in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan. They now fear CPEC will only result in their already-impoverished populations falling even farther behind and becoming increasingly alienated.
This is why lawmakers in Balochistan are pushing for a social contract among the federating units so that all have equal stake and say in CPEC investments. They want an inclusive, deliberative, and consensus-based decision-making process. Their proposed commission has the potential to evolve a social contract with terms acceptable to all provinces. Perhaps such an arrangement would pave the way for addressing the past and present grievances of the people of Balochistan.
The concerns expressed by the assembly only scratch the surface of much deeper and longstanding resentments among the people of Balochistan that have been one of the most important causes of conflicts in the region. CPEC now offers a golden opportunity to the state elites to address those resentments.
The promised development of Balochistan through a series of large-scale projects has not entirely convinced the people. Their exclusion from key decisions and the distribution of resources has rather instilled fears in residents of being dispossessed of their land, resources, and identity. Moreover, their misgivings about economic migration to the province and fears of becoming a minority in their own land as a result are genuine problems that need to be taken seriously.
Islamabad must listen to the sane voices of Balochistan. A house divided against itself cannot stand for long. Renegotiation of the federal contract among the provinces through CPEC will only strengthen the Federation of Pakistan.