Blowing hot & cold on Balochistan

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

The crisis in Balochistan has reached a boiling point. The turmoil in Pakistan’s largest province that had generally been ignored by the rest of the country has now shot into public awareness.

Although events in Balochistan were being reported in the press regularly, they have been taken note of only now by people generally when the gas purification plant at Sui was hit by rockets last week. Triggered off by the rape of a lady doctor at the Sui field hospital, the latest spate of violence has deepened the crisis.

The present attacks have affected the gas supply to the country and the gas companies have had to institute a regime of what is euphemistically called load management. How the government plans to handle the situation is not very clear.

It has reacted by blowing hot and cold on the issue. The knee-jerk response of President Pervez Musharraf was to threaten stern action against the “so-called nationalists and sub-nationalist elements”. He told a private television channel, “Don’t push us. This is not the seventies. [This time] they will not even know what has hit them.”

Then followed the political instinct of the government that was expressed in a statement by the federal information minister denying that any military action was planned in Balochistan.

The economic approach came in the prime minister’s speech at the ground-breaking ceremony of the Sabakzai dam when he declared that the “future of Pakistan was linked with the development of Balochistan” and the government wanted to change the economic conditions of the people of the province and enhance their living standard.

True, the government cannot change the 50 years’ history of the province, as prime minister Shaukat Aziz pointed out last Saturday. But the government can certainly learn from it.

Balochistan has experienced three army actions in the post-partition years. Democracy was late in coming – the first provincial assembly was elected in 1970 only to be interrupted by military coups in Islamabad. Economic development has been slow.

The fact is that all the three elements, namely army intervention, economic backwardness and political under-development are very closely intermeshed at the root of Balochistan’s insurgency.

The failure to evolve strong democratic traditions and political structures (partly due to the army’s intervention among other factors) helped perpetuate the sardari system and consolidated the hold of the tribal leaders.

The sardars on their part have used the underdevelopment of the province to pose as the champions of the underdog. They have played on the poverty of the people to mobilize their followers in their power struggle against Islamabad.

As for the federal government, all these factors have helped the powers-that-be in Islamabad – whether civilian or military – to strengthen their control over Balochistan and exploit its riches to their own advantage. Who has been the loser? The common man of Balochistan, of course.

The problem is that the government which now claims to be trying to address the issues that are agitating the Baloch mind has failed to see the link between them.

When it speaks of economic development it forgets that political autonomy and social development as well as participatory governance should also be developed simultaneously. Take the case of the mega projects, which are supposed to bring the fruits of development to the Baloch. They have instead become a major cause of contention.

The Baloch, as well as their leaders, are convinced that the seaport at Gwadar, the coastal highway, the airport at Pasni, the Mirani dam and the naval base at Ormara have been designed as a composite project which will not benefit the locals.

They fear greater sufferings. For instance, the displacement which the seaport at Gwadar is expected to cause will move the fishermen of this locality more than 10-15 kilometres inland affecting their livelihood.

Even the employment that had been promised has not come by – just a few scores of jobs have been created for Baloch workers. No training facilities have been set up to train indigenous workers for future recruitment. With the developers in Karachi and Punjab having entered Gwadar’s real estate business in a big way, the locals do not stand to gain much.

What has brought deeper concern is the influx of people from other provinces. The Baloch fear that their province will be swamped by these ‘foreigners’ and they will be reduced to a minority as has happened in other places.

Hence the staunch resistance. The example of Karachi is cited again and again where the locals have been outnumbered by the people who came from outside looking for jobs and refuge.

Allegation has also been made that the sardars are fuelling the agitation because they do not want their people to reap the benefits of development and thus get empowered. Development would undermine the sardari system, but the leaders deny this.

There is not much to argue on this score. Islamabad has itself created the conditions that have generated lack of confidence among the people and strengthened the hands of the sardars.

The record of exploitation of the Baloch has been horrendous. Gas was first discovered at Sui in 1952 but it was only in the eighties when General Ziaul Haq decided to make Quetta a corps commander headquarters that the city was connected with the gas fields.

At this time the rest of Pakistan had already been enjoying the comforts of gas as a fuel for two decades. Even today, only six per cent of the population of Balochistan has been provided gas.

As for the price paid to the province for the gas extracted from Sui, Balochistan feels severely discriminated against. Its sense of injustice is substantiated by the figures available.

Punjab, Sindh and NWFP receive royalty on gas and oil at a higher rate than Balochistan – Rs 140 per million BTU for Sindh, Rs 80-190 for Punjab and Rs 36 for Balochistan.

Besides the development surcharge calculated on the formula worked out by the NFC for the federal divisible pool is on the basis of population and that goes against Balochistan with only six million people.

It is estimated that in 2004-05, Balochistan which provides the bulk of gas supply to the country will receive Rs5.9 billion for gas royalty and development surcharge when Sindh will receive Rs19 billion.

Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz probably feels that he can win the hearts and minds of the people of Balochistan by pumping in a lot of funds into the province to make a visible difference. This strategy could backfire at this stage.

It would be on the presumption that the sardars have no clout or following. Had the social and economic development of the people of Balochistan been a continuous process, it could have produced a change in its mindset. But that has not been the case. With less than a quarter of the people of the province being literate and most being impoverished, they can hardly be expected to throw off the tribal yoke and ditch the sardars.

Besides, at present the Baloch have no other leaders who can speak on their behalf and sell a compromise solution to them. Nawab Khair Bakhsh Marri, Sardar Ataullah Mengal, Nawab Akbar Bugti and others speak for their people and while they remain entrenched in their position they will continue to do so.

Hence a dialogue has to be conducted with them and them alone. Sidelining any one of the leaders will not throw up a solution because key sections will remain un represented.

Neither will army action resolve the problem. As it is three shadowy groups – the Baloch Liberation Army, the Baloch National Army and the People’s Liberation Army – are involved in an armed struggle and appear to enjoy the sympathy of many of the political leaders and the people.

They have set up training camps – the number quoted varies from 50 to 150 – and have caused 650 bomb blasts and rocket attacks in 2004. If President Musharraf feels he has the weapons to annihilate these groups, he would be well advised to remember that such guerilla fighters have the upper hand when fighting troops which do not enjoy the backing of the people in whose territory the war is taking place.

Hence dialogue remains the only feasible option. The government has done well to set up a parliamentary committee and its subcommittees which have met a number of Baloch leaders and prepared their recommendations which were discussed by the federal cabinet on Sunday.

Until the contents of this report are made public, it is difficult to comment on them. But some recommendations have been leaked out. For instance it is reported that the plans to build three military cantonments (at Gwadar, Sui and Kohlu) have been deferred.

It is also said that 10,000 jobs will be created in the Frontier Constabulary which will be filled by the locals. The gas royalty rates are to be enhanced substantially while the province will be empowered to sign petroleum exploration and sale deals.

It remains to be seen what course the dialogue takes and whether the government in Islamabad will be wise enough to exercise restraint when dealing with the militants. Ultimately it is important that the recommendations made by the committee, especially if they have the backing of the Baloch leaders, are actually implemented and in good faith.

Commitments on paper which are not carried out can misfire by leading to despondency. The government’s record in this matter has been poor. How else can one interpret the disclosure by Balochistan’s finance minister that in 2003-04 only 25 per cent of the annual development plan fund in the province was actually utilized?