January 10, 2010

BALOCHISTAN: Luckless Gwadar

Mir Mohammad Ali Talpur

Mir Mohammad Ali Talpur

The people see Gwadar’s so-called development and the VVIP fanfare as a move for further opening up Balochistan for permanent demographic changes and militarisation

The luckless Gwadar is running through a gauntlet of lethal blows being delivered by dispensations of both the military and the elected, who only have eyes on the lucrative returns rather than the needs and aspirations of the people. It suffers from a chronic run of bad luck and there is very little hope of it ever prospering in these conditions.

The government has a passion for inaugurating this port; the odds are that there may be yet another inauguration if a change of guard occurs. The inauguration of the first phase expected in April 2006 by none other than the Chinese premier, Wen Jiabao, could not go ahead because of genuine security concerns as three Chinese engineers were killed in Hub in February 2006 and previously on May 4, 2004, three Chinese engineers were killed by a bomb in Gwadar.

The formal inauguration was on March 27, 2007, by Pervez Musharraf and Li Shenglin, the Chinese Minister of Communications. Musharraf, piqued by the Baloch Students Organisation’s (BSO’s) successfully organised ‘black day’ in Quetta and other parts of the province to protest the security forces’ operation in Mand and Tump areas and the inauguration, in keeping with his gung ho attitude had warned anti-development elements to stop opposing the development process and abandon their “subversive activities”, adding that “they should surrender weapons, otherwise they would be eliminated”. The weapons to date remain with them and they have not been eliminated either; ironically it is Musharraf who is cooling his heels in London.

There was another inauguration on December 21, 2008, when the port became fully functional as a fertiliser carrying ship from Qatar anchored there. Shipping Minister Gabol and Chief Minister Nawab Raisani did this, as Prime Minister Gilani could not make it.

Gwadar’s run of bad luck reached new heights with the decision to hold the signing of the NFC Award there. On December 30, 2009, hordes of government leaders and officials, including the prime minister, federal and provincial ministers, chief ministers and their secretaries and supporting staff descended upon Gwadar creating mayhem and disruption for the locals who according to Malik Siraj Akbar, Panjgur-born and Quetta-based intrepid journalist, decided to show their resentment by pulling down the shutters there and in Mekran.

The prime minister arrived in a C-130 with 80 officials, 10 man strong security staff, 12 military and civil secretaries, physicians and two dozen media people. All bigwigs had their separate entourages and media people. The VVIP’s foray on this luckless place prompted the Intercontinental Hotel management, probably the only beneficiary of the visit, to make all the 94 rooms operational to accommodate them. Conservative estimates are that Rs 5 million were blown away on this jaunt but the real figure may be a lot higher.

Fearing May 2003-like incidents, the security and intelligence personnel took Gwadar over well before the VVIP hordes arrived. The entire place had become a no-go area for the locals. The irony of it all was that in spite of extra security the fearful VVIPs signed the Award on board the navy ship PNS Babar, a Type 21 class Frigate.

People in Balochistan and Sindh are asking that if signing of the NFC Award at Gwadar was to symbolise it as a showpiece of the federation, then why on earth was it signed on board PNS Babar? What does the PNS Babar symbolise?

These are not the only things that Gwadar rues; it has suffered and suffered immeasurably due to the malevolence of the rulers. The Citi banker Shaukat Aziz bestowed on his chosen operator Port of Singapore Authority (PSA) tax exemption for 40 years along with other concessions.

Syed Fazl-e-Haider, a respected developmental analyst, in his piece, ‘The limping Gwadar port’ in August 2009, said: “Pakistan Navy had acquired 584 acres of land with seafront from Balochistan government in 1980. On refusal of the Navy to hand over the land, the previous government decided that Pakistan Navy would hand over only 30 acres to GPA for developing the road-rail-link leading to the free zone at Gwadar port.” He adds: “Ports and Shipping Minister Babar Khan Ghauri recently told the Senate that the Navy’s occupation of the land was adversely affecting the functioning of the port and could force its closure.”

Khurram Abbas, director PSA Gwadar, says, “The land under possession of Pakistan Navy and coast guards has not yet been handed over to the PSA for development of free zone and other port-related infrastructure. We need land for the development of a free zone for the port related facilities at East Bay of Gwadar. Without land acquisition, the PSA is unable to develop offices, residential facilities, etc, with all possible facilities for doing business at Gwadar.”

Syed sahib added: “The ball is in the government’s court to make the port fully functional. Under the concession agreement signed with PSA in February 2007, the government was committed to hand over 923 hectares of land to the Singaporean firm by June 2008 on lease for the development of a free zone.” Little wonder that the PSA has done nothing so far and on the basis of this ground reality this mega-project can be termed a mega-failure.

Not surprisingly, the recent presentation before the Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission Sardar Aseff Ahmed Ali termed the Gwadar port project a disaster. The 40-year concession agreement with the PSA has not yielded any results in its first three years. The PSA reneged on its promise to spend $ 525 million in five years. The report suggested that the best option was to cancel the agreement. So that is where things stand today in spite of all claims to the contrary.

Another irksome factor for the people is that ports and naval bases hinder the livelihoods of the fishing community. Security concerns put rich fishing grounds off-limits to them and results in desperation on the part of the sufferers. Daily Times (January 8, 2006) reported: “Militants torched three Pakistan Navy’s submarine force launches at the Fish Harbour in Gwadar. Fishermen staged a sit-in protest against security forces for damaging dozens of their boats. Local officials said the administration had fixed a schedule for fishermen but they had violated the rules so ‘the administration took action against them’.” Fish according to schedule or suffer the consequences is the guiding principle for the fishermen in the vicinity of ports and bases. Either way they lose livelihood.

The demographic changes that the port has brought about or is expected to, has been a touchy issue with the people of Balochistan; as far back as May 23, 2003 complete strikes were held in Gwadar, Turbat and Panjgur to protest against allotment of lands to outsiders. The fear was not misplaced or exaggerated as land was appropriated, allotted and awarded to multinationals and individuals as if the locals were irrelevant.

The extent of the irregularities, transgressions and frauds in land deals must have been extraordinarily vicious to prompt the learned judges of the Supreme Court, Justice Javed Iqbal and Justice Raja Fayyaz Ahmed, in their October 2006 judgment to say, “The allotment of land in Gwadar has been made in violation of the policies formulated by the government itself. The discretionary power has been exercised in an arbitrary and capricious manner, which has been cited as a clear example of abuse of authority and misuse of power. Nobody knows how the settled land owned by the state has been transferred to private sector, that too on peanut price which depicts lack of transparency and mismanagement.”

They ordered cancellation of allotment of residential and industrial plots in Gwadar. They observed that the Balochistan government is not competent to allocate land quota for politicians, ministers, elected representatives, high civil officials and provincial judiciary without having proper legislation on the subject. They also observed that “every allotment, sale and disposed of land appears to have been made in a dubious and suspicious manner”. The officials being proficient at circumventing laws, the situation might not have changed on the ground despite this judgment.

The militarisation of Gwadar infuriates the people of Balochistan. The 6,500 acres for the new Gwadar airport were bought by the Military Estates Officer (MEO) in Quetta instead of the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA). Any land acquired by the Military Land and Cantonments (MLC) makes it the property of the Pakistan Army. Moreover, the size of this airport would be twice the size of London’s Heathrow (2,965 acres), where a plane lands or takes off every 46 seconds at peak time and handles more than 125 million passengers annually.

The people see Gwadar’s so-called development and the VVIP fanfare as a move for further opening up Balochistan for permanent demographic changes and militarisation. Had there been a glimmer of hope among the people of being able to enjoy the fruits of development they would not have observed a shutter down strike during the Award signing or inaugurations. Other than a token distribution of houses to selected workers by the prime minister, there was no VVIP interaction with the locals, which itself is an indicator of the extent of disconnect between the rulers and the ruled.

With the level of vision and wisdom of those who were and are arbiters of its fate, the ending of the run of bad luck of luckless Gwadar seems to be an extremely remote possibility. Successive bad decisions compounded by even more disastrous ameliorative measures have left the people of Gwadar, in fact, the entire Balochistan very angry and apprehensive of the intentions of the federal government and its minion the provincial government. Sham mega events and failed mega-projects are no answer to the aspirations of the people. Therefore, Gwadar along with rest of Balochistan will remain a potential powder keg unless the people’s wishes are heeded.

Mir Mohammad Ali Talpur has an association with the Baloch rights movement going back to the early 1970s. He can be contacted at mmatalpur@gmail.com


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