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The Balochistan Issue

By Rashed Rahman

11 August, 2004
Daily Times,Pakistan

Events in Balochistan in the last week threatened to spin out of control. Hardly had the news of the attack on off-duty soldiers in Khuzdar on August 1 been absorbed when an ambush of the convoy of Chief Minister Jam Yousaf, was reported, again in the Khuzdar area. In the first incident, five soldiers and a civilian were killed. In the latter, also blamed later on a misunderstanding, a police bodyguard of the chief minister and one of the attackers, dressed in the uniform of the Levies, the provincial militia, were killed.

This produced a carrot and stick response by the government. On the one hand, Akhtar Mengal, an ex-chief minister, and others were charged in the first Khuzdar incident. Nawab Khair Buksh Marri and his sons were named as suspects in the case of a landmine explosion near Kohlu in the Marri area in April this year. On the other hand, placatory noises were heard (amidst some discordant threatening ones) from government spokespersons. A significant meeting between the prime minister, finance minister, information minister and President General Pervez Musharraf yielded little by way of what exactly was discussed, except that the government planned talks with some nationalist Baloch leaders.

The prime minister was to go to Sann to talk to Sindhi nationalist leader and late GM Syed's son Syed Jalal Mehmood Shah, but could not make it. Secretary General of the National Security Council Tariq Aziz was despatched to see Nawab Akbar Bugti. The government has hopes Jalal Shah may be able to intercede and help defuse the looming confrontation between the troops deployed in Balochistan in recent days ("protective deployment" according to the ISPR chief, Major General Shaukat Sultan, "unannounced army operation" according to the Baloch nationalists) and the nationalist forces in the province. As to the Aziz-Bugti meeting, according to Akbar Bugti, the on-going mega-projects in Balochistan were discussed, including Gwadar. The 6-8 military cantonments the army wants to set up all over the interior of the province did not come under discussion.

The government accuses the nationalist Sardars of being opposed to the mega-projects in particular, and to development in the province in general, for fear their traditional hold on their areas may be weakened by modernisation. The fact, however, is that enlightened nationalists, including the three main nationalist Sardars, Marri, Bugti and Mengal, oppose not development, but deprivation of Baloch people's rights in the name of development and modernisation.

Do the nationalists have a case? Let us briefly examine the record. Gas was discovered in Sui around 1952. Since then, Pakistan has benefited enormously from this cheap source of energy. Balochistan, however, neither had gas for its own use nor was paid royalties which were its due till the mid-1980s, when General Ziaul Haq was trying to mollify the Baloch nationalists since he had his hands full with Zulfikar Ali Bhutto's People's Party. Even today, the only gas pipeline in Balochistan runs up till Quetta, with a proposed pipeline to Khuzdar still to become a reality. The lack of alternative fuel has denuded whatever little forest cover the arid province had. Only under international environmentalists' pressure has the federal government lately conceded the need for gas supply to Ziarat to save the unique Juniper forest from extinction. The royalties being paid to Balochistan for its gas are lower than those being paid for later discoveries in Sindh and Punjab. This is cause of much
heartburn for the Baloch.

Given this background, it is easy to understand nationalist misgivings about further exploration for gas and oil in the province. The tribes have been resisting exploration activities without a fair share in gas and oil development. Whatever little exploration activity has occurred in the past has been either under the protection of military deployments or under agreements with local chieftains. In the case of the latter, the exploration companies have been accused by local people of bad faith and reneging on promises of providing jobs, schools, healthcare and other social infrastructure to the local populace.

The Saindak copper and precious minerals project was supposed to train and employ local youth. Instead, after many false starts and remaining in limbo for almost a decade because of the unwillingness of the federal authorities to provide a paltry Rs 1.5 billion as working capital, the project has been revived under Chinese management. The latter, who put up the project in the first place, never forgot its export and earnings potential, and have a contract to run it in return for 50 percent of the profits. Out of the remaining, 48 per cent goes to the federal government and Balochistan receives 2 per cent. There are no local youths trained or employed in the project as far as we know, another broken promise in a long line of similar disappointments.

Gwadar port's strategic and economic value has never been in doubt. In fact it was the Baloch nationalists, at that time in coalition with Nawaz Sharif, who invited the former prime minister to announce the initiation of the project at a rally in Gwadar. But subsequent developments have left these very nationalists bitter. The master plan for the Gwadar port, city and military base adjoining it have never been seen by either the chief minister of the province or been laid for discussion in the Balochistan Assembly. Along with other development work on the ground, the new Gwadar city has turned out to be a major land grab for investors from outside the province, as advertisements in the national and even international media show. Initially, the federal authorities envisaged 2.5 million people being inducted from outside the province. This has now climbed to 5 million. Given that the population of the entire province is only 6-7 million, the people of Balochistan are protesting that
this massive influx will swamp them, deprive them of a share in the opportunities created by these mega-projects, and wipe out their identity from the face of the earth.

The clash in Balochistan is between aggressive modernisation (backed by military force) and the Baloch people's demands for their rights. Force has not yielded good results in the past. It is unlikely to do so in future. The government therefore would be better advised to seek a consensual mode of implementation of the mega-projects the poor people of Balochistan desperately need to overcome decades of neglect and deprivation of rights by bringing the nationalists on board through a fair distribution of the benefits of development and modernisation.

The writer is currently a freelance contributor who has held editorial positions in various Pakistani newspapers






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