People in Pakistan’s Gwadar are bearing the brunt for opposing the State’s policy to impose a development model under the ambitious China-Pakistan Economic Corridor that overlooks their concerns and apprehensions. They are being controlled in their own land.
Over 2.6 lakh residents were locked inside their homes when they demanded their rights that are reportedly being compromised with the construction of the CPEC.
For a long time, the people of Balochistan have opposed the infrastructure project, which would stretch from Gwadar Port in Balochistan to Xinjiang Province in western China. The adopted development policies are discriminatory and overlook the concerns and apprehensions of the local people.
Neglect is a constant, CPEC or not
Till about a decade ago, Gwadar was a remote and insignificant area. It hardly figured in Pakistan’s political and economic calculations. It wasn’t even important for the Balochistan government. No attention was paid to the issues that the local people were facing.
When China decided to develop the Gwadar Port for the ambitious CPEC, and the China Overseas Port Holding Company (COPH) acquired the port on lease in 2013 for 40 years, Gwadar attained significance for the Pakistan government. It became essential to address the country’s economic woes as it could attract foreign investment. But the rights and apprehensions of the local people were entirely overlooked. Assurances were given but not kept.
The majority of the local population of Gwadar are involved in fishing. For decades, their livelihood has been threatened by illegal trawling in the area. With Beijing’s renewed focus on the region, Gwadar Port became more vulnerable. Despite the ongoing ‘development’ work, the local people’s basic issues remain unaddressed. While problems such as special fishing permits have been resolved, others like lack of provision of jobs, water and electricity facilities are still standing.
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Internal tensions making it tougher
A significant number of local people are involved in the region’s development projects. Chairperson of COPHC Zhang Baozhong said last year that “over 1,000 locals are employed at the port as well as the Gwadar Free Zone”. However, the project will result in the large-scale disempowerment of these people who will be further marginalised in their own area. People of Gwadar are turning subjects of these projects in their own area.
Moreover, Baloch militants have been targeting anything that is a State symbol in the area. Three Chinese engineers were killed and 11 others were injured in an attack in Pakistan in May 2004. Chinese nationals were once again targeted and two Baloch children were killed in 2021 in August.
The attacks on State symbols in Gwadar, its security forces, various projects, and foreign workers have led the authorities to tighten security in the area. A few years ago, chief minister Jam Kamal Khan was also planning a fence structure for Gwadar — the first time in Pakistan. While on the one hand, it was meant to separate the area from the rest of the province, on the other, it was acceptance of the failure to control the situation in Balochistan.
Subsequently, a number of checkposts monitoring the movements of the local people were built. It is this daily surveillance in the name of development projects that the local people have been protesting against.
The Balochistan government, however, appears bent on using the same old policy to delegitimise the protest by labelling it ‘anti-development’. “The protesters are causing damages to public and private properties in Gwadar,” said Balochistan home minister Mir Ziaullah Langau. The Pakistani State does not want to be challenged. The imposition of Section 144 shows that the State is casting the protestors as the problem instead of addressing its problematic policies.
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The ongoing protest
The genesis of the Haq Do Tehreek (HDT) — Give Rights (to Gwadar) Movement — led by Maulana Hidayat-ur-Rehman lay in the criticism of State development policies. In 2022, HDT leaders warned the government that if it did not pay heed to the concerns of the local people, it would block the area. But the government did not take it seriously. In fact, in an attempt to display its might, on 1 December 2022, the State posted 5,500 additional police personnel in Gwadar to “maintain law and order”.
The sit-in protests were going on peacefully until 27 December when the situation turned violent and a policeman was killed at the protest site. In reaction to this incident, the government cracked down on the protestors: Many of them were arrested, the internet was blocked, and Section 144 imposed. The situation continues to remain tense as neither side is ready to bow down. While the State has the power to delegitimise the demands of the local people, the latter have everything at stake — from their livelihood and future to their sense of belonging to their land.
CPEC: Changing ground realities
The grassroots crisis in Gwadar is contradictory to the larger-than-life claims of the Baloch government. It underlines the adverse impacts of the so-called development projects undertaken in the area. Pakistani leaders have been proclaiming that the CPEC is going to be a “game changer” for the country as it would boost development and welfare of the people. Former Prime Minister Imran Khan said in an interview with a Chinese daily in February 2022: “We want to build our economy and lift our people out of poverty… We see CPEC and Gwadar as a great opportunity for geo-economics.” Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif maintained the line and said in Karachi in June that “Pakistan’s economic future hinges upon the success of the CPEC with Gwadar Port as its major component”. Except the local people remain marginalised and have had no say in the development of the area.
The issues raised by the Gwadar people underline the fact that big claims made in the name of the people ring hollow. These people, disenchanted with the ‘development’ in the area, are already experiencing alienation. Rather than ensuring the local people’s welfare and survival of their professions, the State is making them dependent on foreign projects.
Dr Nazir Ahmad Mir is a researcher at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA), New Delhi. Views are personal.
(Edited by Humra Laeeq)