In the name of security of shipping lanes and port development, rich fishing areas belonging to the locals were taken away and given to the Chinese.

 

New Delhi: For more than a month, the people of Balochistan protested at Gwadar in large numbers before Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan Niazi sent his ministers to broker a peace deal. Finally the protests were called off on 16 December, Thursday. The people were not protesting for any special privileges but for basic amenities and livelihood due to the dark shadows of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) which not only snatched their livelihood but their very basic right to live. The peaceful protests were named “Gwadar Ko Huqooq Do Tehreek” which means “give Gwadar its rights”. The town which was promised would become the Dubai of Pakistan was in doldrums, with the locals struggling for even basic needs. They had strong reasons to protest. When Chinese companies were given over 2,000 acres of land to develop a Special Economic Zone (SEZ), rosy promises were made by the Pakistan government. The Chinese were not only supposed to employ over 40,000 locals in the project but also were to provide drinking water and other basic amenities to over 2.5 lakh people living in and around Gwadar Port City. None of this materialised.

Gwadar Special Economic Zone (GSEZ) was to start its operations by 2019 and all its phases were to be completed by 2025 but the picture today is horrible. They are struggling to cope with the work and barely 20% of their scheduled work was completed till August 2021. There is not even a single manufacturing facility functional in the entire GSEZ, and the drinking water plant which was supposed to provide water to entire Gwadar town has been limited to a Chinese colony. The road projects within the port area are moving at a very slow pace, rail projects have not yet started, and the construction of six big container berths as well as six cargo terminals (one each for bulk cargo, roll on/roll off, grain, LNG and two for oil) are seen only on maps and in masterplans.

This airport was to be completed in 2017 but the work has been stopped for over three years. As a result, it is still a dirt strip where only turboprop aircraft can land. Recently, Pakistan government has enhanced the project cost from US$22.2 bn to US$51.3 bn, which is more than double in just five years. Interestingly, the primary contractor is a Chinese company, which will be the ultimate beneficiary; the secondary contractors are the companies owned by retired Generals of Pakistan Army.

All the projects at Gwadar are not only slow moving, but also instead of employing local manpower as per the promises made by the Pakistan government, they started employing manpower from outside, ignoring the locals. In the name of security of their shipping lanes and development of port, rich fishing areas belonging to the locals were taken away; they were prohibited to go in the same waters where they were fishing for last so many generations. The same fishing areas are now allotted to Chinese companies who are employing massive Chinese trawlers and not only depleting the marine resources at an alarming pace but eating away the livelihoods of the local fishermen. This has rendered more than 5 lakh families connected to the fishing industry jobless, struggling to make their ends meet. If you snatch the livelihood of a person and give it to another, he will naturally protest and that’s what happened in Gwadar. There have been protests in this area earlier too, but this protest was special in many ways. We noticed some unique features in these protests. Here are some key takeaways.

  1. Fight for Livelihood: This protest was unique in a sense that people were fighting for their livelihoods and basic right to survive which has been snatched away and given to Chinese companies. The Pakistan government, which is responsible for its own citizen, kneeled to Chinese companies to such an extent that it snatched the fishing areas, drinking water resources and other basic amenities from the locals and gave that to the Chinese.
  2. The long duration of the protests: While other protests lasted for a few days, this time the protests continued for more than a month, which shows the determination of the locals and their organised fight for justice. Interestingly, for the entire duration of the protests, the number of people on the streets did not deplete but continuously increased, which forced the Pakistan government to announce that it would accept the protesters’ demands.
  3. Participation of Women: Among the protesters, there were many women who protested for their basic right to life. It is unprecedented in the history of Pakistan that such a large number of women protesters came out in the open. In an Islamic country, where women are not treated equally with men, such response from the local public against the government has rung many alarm bells.
  4. Peaceful protest: Unlike past protests in the area that turned ugly, this protest was largely peaceful, and protesters did not cross their line of dignity. People blocked highways, railway lines and communication points but nowhere did they clash with the police or create any unrest. This is unique in a country where almost every protest turns violent and results in a loss of human lives. Because of this peaceful nature of the protests, the locals did not give the government a chance to use force on them.
  5. Involvement of people from all communities: This protest did not only include people from Gwadar or nearby towns but many people from all over Balochistan and parts of Sindh province including the coastal belt of Turbat, Pishkan, Zamran, Buleda, Ormara and Pasni. Not only the fishermen but people from different communities joined hands to fight against the government. It was due to the large number of protesters that Prime Minister Imran Khan Niazi was compelled to send large contingents of police and paramilitary forces to Gwadar to control a peaceful movement.
  6. Religious angle to the protests: There is a religious angle too and the protests were led by Maulana Hidayat-ur Rehman, who is a local leader of Jamaat-e-Islami Pakistan. Traditionally, the Jamaat has been close to the military establishment of Pakistan but this time they were openly against them. Further, it has been the history of Pakistan that whenever a protest gets a religious turn, things get increasingly difficult for the government. The Lal Masjid episode and recent actions of Tehreek-e-Labbaik are live examples. To prevent any such unknown event that the government acted quickly.

WHAT NOW?

Although Prime Minister Imran Khan Niazi has promised the moon to the locals after which they agreed to call off the protests but how he will implement these promises is a very tough question.

Does he have the courage to snatch the fishing rights back from Chinese companies and give them back to the locals? Can he force China to speed up the work in Gwadar, especially when Pakistan is struggling to pay back even the interests of the previous loans? Can the Pakistani government itself invest huge sums of money to raise the living standards of the locals? Can a country which has been ruled by Punjabis all the time, ignoring other provinces in the past, support a state where Punjabis have limited stake?

Similar rosy promises were made when the Pakistan government acquired the land from poor locals forcefully to establish GSEZ, but what people got in the last one decade was “Sifar”, which means zero. In the light of the same, to what extent the new promises be implemented is no longer a question now. We all know the answers.

 

Major Amit Bansal is a retired military officer.