One of the most touted phrases in the security lexicon is Gwadar port on the Balochistan coast. This ambitious project, initiated in the 1970s and which finally went online in 2007, is still to become operational. This is despite Chinese efforts to make the port active. Strategic vision apart, which informs us that the Chinese will use it as a re-fuelling point and parking place for their vessels operating in the Indian Ocean, the port itself has not turned out to be commercially viable, as was originally envisaged. This is so for several reasons.
Contextualing the Gwadar experience with that of Pakistan’s fifth largest province’s available statistics for poverty and unemployment paints a bleak picture. Connectivity from Gwadar to the hinterland is poor. One indices of this is the fact Gwadar district experienced a average annual growth rate of -0.09% from 1981 to 1998. Additionally, the federal government gives a step-motherly treatment to the entire province making it difficult to convince major players that it is destination worth investing in.
Currently, 924 hectares of land required for the development of a free-trade zone at Gwadar port is yet to be handed over to the Chinese company tasked with managing and operating the port. And work on the electricity, gas and water connections for the project has yet to begin. Recently, the Pak Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs was told that Gwadar port would become operational by May 2015 after completion of the M-8 Khuzdar-Ratodero motorway project.
The 2013 ‘Clustered Deprivation’ report published by the Social Policy and Development Centre states that 45.68% of people in the province live below the poverty line. That percentage has increased since then and presently, 52% of households live below the poverty line. It also goes without saying that poverty incidence in Balochistan is highest among all four provinces of Pakistan. According to the data provided by Pakistan Bureau of Statistics, the unemployment rate in Balochistan is 4%. Excluding Quetta, the other 31 districts in Balochistan provide no employment opportunity whatsoever! Agriculture is the primary source of employment in Balochistan and it has been badly affected by electricity shortages.
Therefore, no matter what the government in Islamabad does, Gwadar port cannot be a successful venture, with or without the Chinese. The operation of the port, he said, was handed over to the company through an assignment and transfer agreement in 2013 from the Port of Singapore Authority. The accord covered areas such as multi-purpose terminals (Phase-I and its expansion), container terminals, marine services and the free trade zone. The Chinese, who took over the contract to run the port, face problems of their own. Chinese engineers and workers face local resentment as they take away any little employment opportunity that might exist. Many incidents of attacks on Chinese workers have occurred, forcing the government to provide security. Indeed, on several occasions already, Chinese engineers have been targeted for attack by the Balochistan Liberation Front in Balochistan. This adds to the existing feeling that the province is already militarised. One has to only mention the phrase, missing persons in Pakistan and it gets associated with Balochistan!
There has also been an increase in militancy in Balochistan which can be loosely attributed to poverty. Of course, Jihadi terrorism comes from other provinces, but it is natural that poverty and resentment would make locals join the underground separatist movements that are spread across the province. Even as poverty and unemployment remain rife, the area has witnessed an upsurge in religious extremism in Gwadar, which recently saw a private school principal who had established a modern school, gunned down.
As one looks ahead, one foresees Gwadar port as an important hub, but recall that Karachi is already performing that task with aplomb. One wonders why Pakistan is so keen on Gwadar? Is it to draw the Chinese into the quagmire that is Balochistan? Perhaps there is some merit in the argument that China does not know what they have got themselves into!