December 30, 2011

Balochistan: Hidden treasure wallowing in neglect

Sonya Fatah Dec 26, 2011, 05.42AM IST

It may not be the first place on your 2012 travel agenda but if you're an intrepid traveller and you enjoy nature's bounty, Pakistan really should be on your list.

Once you arrive you'll quickly realize that this is a land of untapped treasures, much of it in the wild, rugged beauty department. Where tourist footfalls have stamped and stomped about wrecking heavy environmental and cultural losses in other places, the Taliban in unknown collusion with our tourism ministry have done us one roundabout service - they've kept our best-kept secrets well and properly hidden, and reasonably untouched.

There is terrain enough to suit all needs: sea, mountain, desert, plateau. You have heard of the pleasures of the north - the Karakoram range, K-2 , the breathtaking vista of the Hunza and Kaghan Valleys, Chitral and Kalash . But not so far away in the south-western part of the country is another hidden treasure - Balochistan.

In newspaper idiom it gets clubbed with the frontier as the country's 'wild badlands.'

The logic of Pakistan's battle with the Balochis beats conventional or unconventional wisdom. It doesn't matter who rules Pakistan - every leader seems to have been blind to the basic logic of collective development and integration. If you want to build a state you've got to at least try to include the largest province into the equation . And Balochistan, occupying 45% of Pakistan's landmass , is hardly dismissable. Quite apart from the fact that just above eight million people live there, Baluchistan is home to a vast array of valuable natural resources - gas, copper, hydrocarbon and gold among them.

It is alleged that the Prophet Zarathustra roamed the vast lands in search of converts to Zoroastrianism. The remains of one of the oldest agricultural societies were excavated here in Mehergarh in 1974; they date back to a period as far back as 7000 BC.

None of this history bears any resemblance to the fate of Balochis today. Quetta, once a proud and powerful garrison city, has the unsettling feeling of being the location of a spy thriller sans the excitement. Oddly the tribal leaders have marched in sync with the establishment by not promoting development opportunities for their people.

But even they are helpless today. Ataullah Mengal, the head of the Mengal tribe, has called PM Gilani's Aghaz-e-Haqooq package - an alleged effort to rehabilitate Balochistan - a joke.

Historically, Pakistanis haven't known much about Balochistan apart from reading newspaper reports about separatists bombing gas distribution lines or providing further roadblocks for foreign investment in the energy sector , including the once much sought after IPI pipeline.

But I digress. The reality of Balochistan is this: It is a land of special rugged attractions . If you travel west from Karachi and cross over into the province you find yourself in Hub. In Karachi where the Arabian Sea licks the shore, a muddy greenbrown liquid spreads across a sandy expanse. Here the water turns a rich, pure, azure, the sand, soft, almost white.

Some 40 km south off the coast of Pasni, a fishing spot, is Astola Island, a stunning craggy spot in the centre of the ocean that sometimes hosts off-the-beaten-track campers and budding astronomers . Off the Makran Coast there is still a coastal culture of fishing and boatbuilding.

And if you consider yourself a modern day Lawrence of Arabia, Balochistan had boundless desert to offer. There is also Hinglaj, some 250km from Karachi, an important Hindu pilgrimage site where Lord Ram is alleged to have gone to pay penance for committing Bhramhatya.

Sadly, the economic indicators tell the story of Baluchistan's relationship with the centre. Pakistan's attempt to redress the inequality of the Balochistan condition was to build Gwadar, a major port on the Balochistan coastline . There was talk of boosting employment but the government brought in labourers from other cities and Chinese skilled labour to put the project together.

It was Chinese-style development . The way the Chinese centre populated Urumqi in its western Xinjiang province with Han Chinese to ensure that local Uyghurs could have little to none of the economic pie the richly endowed province offered. Here in India those who know a thing or two about Balochistan express a feeling of camaraderie for the suffering Baloch - unemployment is allegedly near 40% and 90% of rural girls are not going to school.

The best way to frame Balochistan in a South Asian context, as far as I can see is this: Balochistan is to Pakistan what Kashmir has been to India - places of great beauty in their own ways raped, pillaged by their own people and governments.

It's unlikely that you'll take up my challenge to visit either the old temples or rugged spots or snorkel in that part of the Arabian Sea in 2012. But nowhere does the phrase 'Happy New Year' matter more than in Balochistan. If good karma travels west perhaps your children or grandchildren will one day enjoy its offerings.

The author is a Delhi-based Pakistani journalist.

1 comment:

maham said...

Great to hear quite close comments regarding balochistan, the most ill treated part of the world from within and outside. But the hope is still alive.few parts which the auther left were the Harnai spring, the snowy mountain of Quetta.

Maha from lambris PVC plafond