November issue 2018

By | Bookmark | Published 3 weeks ago

The rugged mountains of Balochistan have witnessed five militant Baloch movements for the independence of the province. The Pakistan government has always been dismissive of them or undermined their emergence by describing them as insurgencies instigated by Afghanistan and India. No serious or concerted effort has been made to address the issue and correct the grave wrongs done to the people of Balochistan.  

Given this vacuum, Kaiser Bengali, who is an outspoken and independent economist and political scientist, has come out with his book, A Cry for Justice: Empirical Insights from Balochistan, highlighting the glaring injustices meted out to the people of Balochistan since 1948 to the present, through a rational discourse. It covers five major areas: the exploitation of Balochistan’s natural gas resources since 1952; the province’s development deficit as compared to other provinces; the complex issues of the Gwadar project which is now a part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC); the inequitable poverty alleviation programmes such as the Benazir Income Support Programme; and finally, the crucial issue of representational imbalances which is a sensitive  topic for the small population of Balochistan.

To emphasise his point, Dr Bengali states that, “While Balochistan has suffered from resource transfers in the form of gas pricing and neglect in the form of abysmally low development allocations, leading to high levels of poverty and deprivation, it has also been ignored in terms of distribution of social security coverage. Even in the Benazir Income Support Programme, Balochistan’s share stands significantly lower than its population share.”

He writes, “Balochistan is a province of only 1.5 million families. Its small population can be viewed as an asset, as at one job per family, it needs a mere 1.5 million jobs. This is eminently (sic) feasible, given the vast and varied agricultural, horticultural, fisheries and, in particular, mineral resources in the province. Balochistan can become a zero-unemployment province in less than half a decade and attain a single-digit incidence of poverty and illiteracy. That Balochistan faces mass unemployment, mass poverty, mass illiteracy and pervasive hunger is incomprehensible and inexcusable.”

But in the same book, Dr Bengali, who has had the good fortune of working with the Balochistan government as their adviser and consequently gained access to a lot of data, has not only analysed the problems listed above, but also made recommendations that can be put to use by the new government. Unfortunately, the establishment has always treated Balochistan as a colony ever since the state of Kalat was forcibly annexed in 1948. Balochistan was given the status of a province only in the 1973 constitution. 

The total population of the province stands at around 12 million, according to the provisional results of the latest census. Out of this, only 54 per cent are Balochi-speaking. This razor-thin majority of the Baloch population in the province has instilled in them the fear of being reduced to a minority if the population from other provinces is allowed to migrate to Balochistan. In fact, the present militant struggle of the Baloch Liberation Army (BLA) for independence is restricted to the Baloch areas of the province, unlike the 1973 upsurge against the dissolution of the elected government by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, which enjoyed the support of the Pashtun population and the left from other provinces. This xenophobic approach of the BLA has isolated the independence movement and made it easier for the establishment to crush and limit it to restricted areas. 

In his first chapter, ‘The Great Gas Grievance,’ Dr Bengali has shown, through historical data that although the gas was discovered in Balochistan in 1952, it was made available to the people of the province only in 1983, while the rest of the provinces have benefitted from it for decades. 

According to Dr Bengali, “Balochistan’s average share of gas output over 1955-1969 stands at 91%. However, with more discoveries in other provinces, particularly Sindh, Balochistan’s share has consistently declined to 21% over the last decade (2005-2014) and less than 20% currently.”

Dr Bengali makes the startling revelation that other provinces have been subsidised by Balochistan’s gas to the tune of Rs 7.69 trillion between 1955 and 2014. Till 2009’s seventh National Finance Commission (NFC) Award, Balochistan was treated unfairly by the federal government, which priced Balochistan’s gas at a much lower rate than that paid to  the new gas discoveries in the other provinces. 

Dr Bengali, who had represented Balochistan in the NFC as an independent member, has made some useful suggestions to correct the gas sector imbalance. He writes, “The remedial measures that are imperative are as follows. The first step is to respect Article 154 of the Constitution and prioritise gas supply to Balochistan. Next, it is proposed that the gas prices be raised by a factor of 3 by means of a corresponding increase in the excise duty to be levied on ad valorem basis. Further, Balochistan’s consumers in all categories should be provided gas at 20% subsidy for 20 years, with the subsidy to be borne by the federal government. Furthermore, Balochistan must also receive priority over the electricity generated from the Uch gas-based power plant.

“The above measures, apart from meeting constitutional requirements, will correct the price distortion that gas pricing suffers from and ensure fair returns to Balochistan for its, hitherto, prime resource. The subsidy of gas supply and prioritised electricity supply will address the past injustice to the province in this regard.”

In spite of the fact that Balochistan is recognised as a mineral-rich province, it did not feature in the economic planning for the first two decades after 1947. The whole focus was on the exploitation of natural gas obtained from Sui in Dera Bugti. Even in the ’80s and the ’90s, when decisions were taken to excavate its rich mineral mines, the Balochistan government hardly had any say in these decisions. The prime example of this, are the major decisions taken regarding the Saindak and Reko Dik Copper Gold Projects. 

Dr Bengali has recorded Balochistan’s vital statistics from 1970-90, showing first the decline in the gross regional product growth between this period, which resulted in a 5.2 per cent decline in the per capita income in the ’70s. The decline continued and in the ’90s the per capita income stood at a mere 1.6 per cent. “Over the three decade period…. the per capita growth was 0.3%; implying stagnancy,” Dr Bengali writes.

The importance and complexity of the role of Gwadar in the development of the province can be ascertained from a fact highlighted by Dr Bengali: “The role of Gwadar and the concomitant investment in security agencies and the federal civil administration infrastructure is indicated by the fact that the average share of allocations to infrastructure schemes relating to the three sectors – Gwadar Port and City, security agencies and federal civil administrations – in the Balochistan component of federal PSDP schemes escalated from 1% during 1990-2001 to 17% during 2002-11.”

Gwadar is, in effect, the pivotal point of the entire CPEC initiative. This project not only has economic, but great strategic importance too, changing the regional politics and even Pakistan’s relationship with the US. In the 80s, the US and Pakistani establishments were worried about the Soviet Union’s access to the warm waters and played the dangerous game of destabilising Afghanistan, for which Pakistan has paid a heavy price. But now, socialist China has been given access to the Strait of Hormuz, which is the corridor for almost 20 per cent of the oil transportation. This fact has made it a very complex issue for Pakistan and the region.

Dr Bengali has rightly observed that, “The half-century plus of neglect cannot be addressed by routine ‘business as usual’ actions, but will require comprehensive packages of measures to stimulate accelerated development in Balochistan in order to bring it at par with other provinces. More than half a century of exploitative resource transfers from Balochistan justifies a degree of reverse resource transfers for a decade or so.”

In fact, Dr Bengali’s book, A Cry for Justice could serve as a working paper for the new government if it has the political will to soothe the crying mountains of Balochistan. n