July issue 2002

By | News & Politics | Published 18 years ago

Once again, Dera Bugti became the focus of an eyeball to eyeball confrontation between para-military forces and armed tribesmen, as the tribesmen resorted to violent means to protest their grievances against the gas companies at Sui. The situation was defused only after the concentration of a considerable number of forces backed with tanks and heavy artillery, besides armed personnel carriers.

In addition to para-military forces, the army rolled into the towns of both Dera Bugti and Sui, ostensibly to protect the gas installations from rocket attacks.

To protest against the policies of the gas companies and draw attention to their grievances, the tribesmen had resorted to firing rockets around gas fields and spraying bullets on gas pipelines last year. At the time, the gas companies and ministry of petroleum officials held out firm assurances that their problems would be solved, and the protest was halted. Finally, in June the local people resumed their protest, damaging gas pipelines.

“We sent extra forces to Dera Bugti agency from other areas to protect the gas installations and bring the situation under control and we had no other objective,” say Frontier Corps officials in Quetta. They maintain that the forces will be pulled out of Dera Bugti once the government is sure that the gas installations are secure.

Nawab Akbar Bugti, head of the Bugti tribe, however, denies that there have been recent rocket attacks on the gas installations, except for three rockets that landed on open ground and did not explode. “Gas installations are like a cow for the tribesmen who live on its milk and no sane person would want to destroy his livelihood. The build-up of forces in Dera Bugti instead of Sui town, where the installations are located, is actually aimed at stopping us from playing an opposition role from the ARD platform,” asserts JWP chief, Nawab Bugti.

The demands of the local population include the recruitment of local engineers and workers, the confirmation of the jobs of hundreds of temporary workers, development schemes for the welfare of the local population and protection of the rights of over 300 employees of the Sui purification plant which is due to be handed over after its sale to Pakistan Petroleum Limited (PPL) in late June. They also demand the restoration of the facility of recruitment of heirs of those who retire or die in service.

The gas company officials and ministry of petroleum reached an agreement over some of these demands but, according to the local population, the agreement was never implemented. “When the people start making a hue and cry over their just demands or the government anticipates a law and order problem in the area, delegations from Islamabad start visiting Dera Bugti and return after giving firm assurances about the implementation of agreements,” said Gul Mohammad, a labour union leader.

Officials representing the federal government have been promising to provide billions of rupees for the construction of both the Dera Bugti-Lehri (120 km) and Dera Murad-Pat feeder-Sui (107 km) roads, school, college and hospital buildings, setting up of a petroleum training centre for local people’s orientation, provision of water and gas free of charge to those living within a two-mile radius of gas installations, and the regularisation of over 500 casual employees.

According to an assessment, there are about 2700 employees of both SSGC and OGDC in Sui and of an 1800-strong labour cadre, 1100 employees are local while the rest belong to other parts of the country, particularly Karachi.

The fresh attacks on the gas pipelines were launched at the beginning of June, when the reservations of local people were not taken into consideration in the sale of the Sui Southern Gas Company purification plant to PPL. Three hundred workers of the Sui Southern Gas Company were asked to get their final dues as they would need a fresh appointment in PPL. The employees of SSGC, who draw handsome salaries and allowances as compared to workers of OGDC and PPL, wanted their economic rights to be protected.

“When the incidents of damaging pipelines in all three gas fields — Sui, Pir Koh and Loti — did not stop, the federal government decided to send in forces as the country could not afford the disruption of gas supply to the industrial sector for even a few hours,” said Frontier Corps officials. The forces laid siege to the ancestral fort of Nawab Akbar Khan in Dera Bugti to pressurise him to get his tribesmen to stop damaging pipelines in the area. Besides, forces were deployed in Sui town, 40 miles away from Dera Bugti.

The concentration of forces coincided with Nawab Bugti’s turning down an invitation to attend the meeting with politicians called by General Musharraf on June 18 in Islamabad. Calling attention to this, Nawab Bugti construed the siege around his fort as a punishment for his opposition to the Musharraf government from the ARD platform, in his capacity as head of the Jamhoori Watan Party.

Government sources assert that the purpose of putting a siege around the tribal chief’s fort was to get the message across that the writ of the government had to be upheld on the one hand and, on the other, to protect the gas installations. They may have anticipated a stepping up of the protest on the handing over of the Sui purification plant in June.

Hundreds of tribesmen armed with automatic weapons started reaching Dera Bugti soon after the forces set the siege into motion, and surrounded the Frontier Corps personnel. They took positions on the rooftops of their houses and in the mountains in Dera Bugti to defend their chieftain.

Armed Marri tribesmen loyal to Nawab Khair Bakhsh Marri, who are also at loggerheads with Islamabad over the exploration of oil and gas in the Kohlu Marri agency, reached Dera Bugti from the neighbouring district of Kohlu. They expressed their support to the head of the Bugti tribe, being fully prepared to participate in armed fighting against para-military forces. Other neighbouring Baloch tribes of Sindh and Punjab, including the Mazaris and Jhakranis are also known to have assured their full support if the fort was attacked.

Realising the gravity of the prevailing situation, Nawab Akbar Bugti called a meeting of notables of his tribe at Dera Bugti. He asked them to stop damaging pipelines in the wake of fresh assurances about the implementation of the agreements reached earlier. However, gauging his support on both political and tribal fronts, he rejected the government’s demands to vacate the tribesmen’s positions.

“In the wake of this demand, I asked my tribesmen to give up ventilating their anger by damaging the gas pipeline,” Nawab Bugti told Newsline on the phone from Dera Bugti.

Nawab Bugti played his cards well, mustering support from almost all political parties in Balochistan, besides tribal heads and some politicians on the national level. Political parties in Balochistan and tribal elders started pouring out their condemnation in the press to exert pressure on the government against the concentration of forces in Dera Bugti.

“The siege of Nawab Bugti’s residence is a condemnable act and it should immediately be lifted. Through such tactics the government wants to suppress him and take control of hidden natural resources in the area,” said Mir Sulaiman Daud, the Khan of Kalat, who holds the principal seat of the area in the Baloch tradition.

A delegation of various political parties headed by Nawab Ayaz Jogezai, a leader of the Pushtoonkhwa Milli Awami Party and former MNA, also called on the Governor and informed him of its concern over the situation. They demanded the government withdraw the forces immediately and resolve the matter through negotiations.

Finally, when the government realised that the issue had been politicised and its message conveyed, it decided to lift the siege of the Bugti fort. The vacation of positions by Bugti tribesmen and the withdrawal of para-military forces took place simultaneously.

Mir Sher Ali Mazari, son of Sardar Sherbaz Mazari and nephew of Nawab Bugti, who is considered to have cordial relations with the people who matter in Islamabad played an intermediary role between the two sides, shuttling between Dera Bugti and Islamabad to bring about a settlement.

The federal government released information in the press that the gas companies had paid Nawab Bugti some 200 million rupees during the last three years under the head of gas royalty and other charges. However, Nawab Bugti denied these claims.

“No royalty was paid either to me or the Bugti tribe. However, some amount was paid as land rent and for utilisation of water resources and transport and that belongs to the whole tribe, not just an individual,” he said. He further claimed that if there is any truth in the statements, the government should back them up with evidence.

While the local population complains of unfair treatment by the gas companies, the government of Balochistan has also lodged its protest with Islamabad for the transfer of provincial share on gas revenues, considered to be the lifeline of Balochistan.

At the time that the tension was at its height in Dera Bugti, Balochistan received 1.2 billion rupees less in gas revenues than the amount promised by Islamabad.

Adding to the resentment of the local population is the fact that, so close to the gas fields that cater to much of the domestic and industrial demand elsewhere in the country, only a very limited population is provided gas in the province. So much so, that the people of villages falling within a five kilometre radius of the gas installations do not enjoy the natural resource that belongs to their own area.

There are also complaints that since the gas companies control all aspects of gas production and marketing, the provincial authorities have no record of the amounts transferred by the company. “The present provincial government persuaded Islamabad to constitute a committee for gathering these facts and figures so that we could know about gas production and revenues,” additional chief secretary Balochistan, Ahmad Bakhsh Lehri, told journalists in a post-budget briefing.

The common man in Dera Bugti has been badly affected by the stalemate between the gas companies and the tribesmen. Shops and markets were closed, transport stopped plying on the roads, and people faced a shortage of food supplies and medicines. Vehicles remained parked at home for fear of being forcibly taken over by para-military forces.

The confrontation has been defused for the moment, but once again attention has been called to both the vulnerability of the gas installations and the need to address the legitimate grievances of the local population.

The writer is a journalist based in Quetta and is President of Quetta Press Club (QPC).