September issue 2018

By | Newsbeat National | Published 6 years ago


Chinese nationals wait to receive luggage after arriving at Gwadar.

Balochistan, the Wild West of Pakistan, has been in a perpetual state of conflict since 2004. First, it was just the Baloch ethno-separatist insurgency that was destabilising Pakistan’s largest province. Later, from 2010 onwards, the province was also engulfed by sectarian militancy. The way Balochistan has been governed in the past has a lot to do with the current ongoing conflict, and every election sees the people of Balochistan seeking change for the better.

The 2008 elections marked the end of military dictatorship in Pakistan, but failed to pull Balochistan out of the crisis that was engendered in the province in the Musharraf era. Likewise, while the 2013 elections put in place a coalition government of ethnic nationalists in Balochistan, which seemed a dream come true,  that setup also failed to deliver. And so, come Elections 2018, once more the people of Balochistan waited with hope for a dispensation that would actually be their salvation. In these early days, however, with the new governments at the centre and the province still struggling to finding their feet, and with monumentally daunting tasks to tackle before any real semblance of normalcy can be restored to Balochistan — if not the country — that remains to be seen.

The biggest problem in Balochistan is that of the ethno-separatist conflict that has riven the province for several years. Since 2005, a wide array of Baloch separatist organisations have been fighting against the state of Pakistan seeking secession  from Pakistan. This fight has affected every walk of life in Balochistan. Every decision made about the province by the federal government is made through the security prism, which leaves very little room for disagreement on how the province is to be managed. As long as this conflict is not resolved, no reform agenda can work in Balochistan. So if the PTI government thinks of instituting real reform in Balochistan while merely putting the conflict in cold storage, they will achieve nothing.

There is an oft-repeated cliché that the inhabitants of Balochistan are the ‘poorest people of the richest land.’ This cliché is not without basis. Poverty is endemic in Balochistan. In fact, 71 per cent of the people in the province live below the poverty line according to the Report on Multidimensional Poverty 2016 released by the Ministry of Planning and Development Reforms. This, despite the rich natural resources the province has in the form of natural gas, coal, copper, gold and chromite, among others. And then there is the potential  goldmine — its long coastline. The fact is, however, that at the end of the day,  it’s a question of ownership: who has control of the natural resources of Balochistan? At this juncture, it is certainly not the people of the province.

All the mega projects, be it Saindak, Sui Gas or CPEC, have ownership or a profit-sharing structure, which is detrimental to Balochistan. For instance, the next 40 years, the profits of Gwadar Port will be shared: 91 per cent to the China Overseas Port Holding Company and 9 per cent to the federal government of Pakistan (thanks to the ‘deal’ negotiated by the outgoing government). The host province, Balochistan, meanwhile, gets nothing.  Therefore changing the ownership structure of the mega projects in Balochistan is vital for addressing the grievances of the people of this province.

Similarly, the economy of Balochistan is in an appalling state. Unemployment is skyrocketing and government jobs, which are the primary source of livelihood, are fast dwindling. There is no private sector for employment and the trading sector has already reached its saturation point. What is more troubling is that Balochistan is not suitable for any foreign investment at the moment due to the dire lack of an enabling environment. Security woes and bad governance, coupled with a chronic energy shortage due to long hours of electricity loadshedding, which significantly increases the cost of doing business, effectively stymie independent commercial activity. As a result, economic backwardness has increased in the province, which in turn perpetuates destabilisation.

What has added to the province’s woes is the fact that Balochistan did not take advantage of devolution. The province failed to develop a robust Local Government system which could help develop the area from the grass roots. Instead, the powers-that-were in the Balochistan Assembly,  prevented the trickledown effect of the hundreds of billions that came their way as development funds, choosing to utilise the money  at their discretion. 

Against this backdrop, the PTI government at the centre, and the PTI-BAP coalition government in Balochistan have clearly inherited mega problems to deal with. They have a fresh mandate to resolve the problems, but so far, there are no  signs of an agenda regarding how change will be brought about.

In his first address to the nation, Prime Minister Imran Khan spoke of a myriad issues, but only mentioned Balochistan once, and that too in a vague statement. He said, “The sense of deprivation among the people of Balochistan will be redressed and efforts will be made to reintegrate dissident Baloch representatives into the national socio-political fabric.” He failed to mention the practical details of how he would address the sense of deprivation in Balochistan. 

BNP President Akhtar Mengal in the National Assembly.

However, what did inspire hope was the conduct of Imran Khan’s new ally from Balochistan – Sardar Akhtar Mengal. The Balochistan National Party (BNP)-Mengal, which is led by Akhtar Mengal, supported PTI at the centre, but it did not demand ministries in return like other coalition partners. Instead, BNP-Mengal presented six points outlining the rights of Balochistan, and made their support to the PTI contingent upon the implementation of those points. The six points include the  release of missing persons, the protection of the demographic identity of Balochistan, renegotiating Balochistan’s share in the natural resources of the province, the construction of dams, ensuring a six per cent job quota for locals and the  repatriation of Afghan refugees from Balochistan.

Even a cursory look at the BNP-Mengal’s demands illustrates that they have addressed most of the province’s major problems. However, it is still not clear if its ally at the centre, the PTI, shares the BNP’s enthusiasm or resolve.

Mir Muhammad Ali Talpur is a political activist and author who has been associated with the Balochistan movement since the 1970s. He believes that positive change in Balochistan can only be expected when the provincial and federal setups are answerable to the people in Balochistan. “As long as [government] setups are engineered, fabricated and custom-made to follow  the instructions of the powers-that-be there is no hope for positive change,” he contended.

Questioning the ability of BNP-Mengal to ensure the implementation of the six points they are demanding, Talpur asked, “Why should the establishment have a change of heart because of the few seats Akhtar Mengal has won, is beyond me.” He added that BNP-Mengal’s  standing as the defender of Baloch rights while supporting the PTI, which has no concrete plan for Balochistan, will not work.

Dr. Barkat Shah Kakar, Assistant Professor of Pashto at the University of Balochistan, still nurses some hope from BNP-Mengal. He maintained that it is a positive sign that the BNP-Mengal has joined the opposition in the Balochistan assembly despite winning significant seats. “Balochistan’s ethnic nationalist parties  are effective only when they are in opposition, and so BNP-Mengal can give the [BAP-PTI] government a tough time in Balochistan,” he said.

Kakar, who also writes political commentary, further added that in order to renegotiate the share of Balochistan’s natural resources, as demanded by BNP-Mengal, the constitution needs to be amended, which requires the support of all political parties. “Balochistan’s major problems can only be resolved if the federal government changes its approach to Balochistan — and I do not see that happening,” he concluded.

At the moment, the Balochistan problem requires a major push which will not only bring it on the new government’s priority list, but also effectively resolve it. This can be achieved by constituting an all-parties committee of parliament on Balochistan on the lines of the Aghaz-e-Haqooq Balochistan Package of 2009. At that time the PPP government made sincere efforts to placate Balochistan, but those efforts were not successful for a plethora of reasons. Now, the PTI government must introduce a similar package for the province, which can include amending the constitution to increase the share of Balochistan with regard to its natural resources; provide a financial aid package to compensate for seven decades of neglect, solve the energy woes in Balochistan and assist in providing an enabling environment for businesses in the province. Apart from that, and perhaps most critical for the very survival of the province, this package also needs to make a unanimous decision to resolve the Balochistan conflict by employing political means.

If the PTI government manages to achieve this unanimity, then this would be its biggest success in the context of Balochistan. The resolution process itself can take a lot of time and may include a series of frustrating negotiations and All Parties Conferences. However, all of these are imperative because resolving the armed conflict is the key to the solution of other problems which are the product of this conflict. This will not be an easy process,  and the PTI government might lose allies and earn the ire of powerful forces. However, PTI will have to swallow this bitter pill if they want to go down in history as the party which finally healed a 70- year-old wound.