By Amir Mateen
GWADAR: The Gwadar Port was ambushed by a rocket attack this Sunday but the news went generally unnoticed in the Pakistan media. One reason was that the rocket fell short of a ship parked in the docks; nobody got injured, no damage was done to the Port. Uninterrupted, the country remained busy in Eid celebrations.
This may just explain Balochistan’s dilemma. Islamabad betrays a nonchalant disregard for the threats faced by these distant but strategically important outposts. The rocket attack on the upcoming second biggest Port of Pakistan may just indicate a possibility of accelerated action. More so because the Gwadar Port is about to shift gears after its command is, most likely, given to the Chinese in near future. Ironically, a rocket that is available in the border wastelands of Balochistan for as low as 50 dollars can threaten the prospects of a billion dollar project that is crucial to the global energy politics. A similar rocket attack, a failed one again, on the only five-star hotel in town halved its occupancy last month. In another related incident, two policemen got injured when they were attacked by gun fire while they were on a routine patrol during Eid holidays in Gwadar city.
Such sporadic happenings have a way of impacting public psyche even when the physical damage may not be much. And this might be the exact intention of the saboteurs in Balochistan. Local PPP intellectual, Rahim Zafar, aptly said that the scale of sporadic incidents may not be much, say in comparisons to earlier cycles of violence in the province, but it has definitely shattered the local nerves. The reasons for the chaos in Gwadar are no different from the rest of Balochistan. Besides the over-arching feelings of economic deprivation and political alienation, the larger issue is bad governance.
Journalist Robert Kaplan rightly points out that Islamabad’s attitude towards Balochistan is similar to how cowboys treated Native Americans in the wild West. Not a single culprit has ever been caught in about a dozen target killings in the last 14 months. DPO Abdul Ghafoor, a police ranker like former DSP Chief Minister Aslam Raisani, brags more about his being a cousin of the ‘kingmaker’ Provincial Minister Asim Kurd and less about his work.
A political vacuum exists as the popular parties boycotted the last elections and MNA Yaqoob Bizenjo hardly comes to the area. Stories of corruption in transfers and postings, smuggling through permits and licenses abound.
Unfortunately, Gwadar is uniquely placed in Balochistan for its political awareness, culture of tolerance and grass root politics. Many agree that it is one place in the province which is, in relative terms, curable. The timing may be ripe for that.
Dr Allah Nazar of the separatist Balochistan Liberation Front (BLF) holds a certain influence in Gwadar, particularly among its student cadres. But the murder of former Nazim Maula Baksh Dasti, which was owned by the BLF, has caused resentment against the separatists. Mekran politics, unlike the sardari system in Balochistan, rests on its intellect and humanism. Recently, a son of local politician, Shaukat Punjabi, was killed and almost most political parties participated in a joint protest. This is different from the rest of Balochistan where most Punjabis killings are not condoled or compensated. The free-spirited Mekranis love their music which is more attuned to Arabian beats than Indian ragas, the Gwadar fish and, most important, football. All of this is discussed on roadside cafes followed by no-holds-barred political discussion. Their collective interests remain focal point of their discourse. For instance, the ancestral fishing, from which the word Mekrani (meaning mahikhor) comes, recently came into conflict with the ever bustling smuggling trade. Gwadar, the whole region for that matter, thrives on smuggling of oil, CNG and tar coal from Iran largely through fishing trawlers. Oil spills during unloading spoils the fish harbour. Local fishermen are in revolt against the smuggling mafia which, by the way, has been an equal part of the local culture.
The same business concern makes the development of Gwadar and its port attractive for them, provided that their political concerns are addressed. Academic Kiran Chowdry quotes a local in her recent thesis, saying that “we don’t want be like those animals in a zoo that people from Punjab will come to watch in our homeland.”
Political activist agrees that the development of Gwadar is “a win-win situation; who does not want progress, we want our children to go to better schools and eat better food.” Each ship brings about 500 trucks for unloading which roughly means the involvement of 1500 persons. The Port can cater to only three ships simultaneously. “Gwadar at its maximum will require a whole city to provide labour to the shipping trade,” says GPA Director Shafi Mohammad. “The government pays extra for every truck because the trucks have to first go east towards Karachi before turning north.”
Experts believe Gwadar will become viable only when the linking road or railway are established, the foremost being the completion of Highway M8, which links the port city to Ratto Dero via Turbat, Pajngoor and Khuzdar.
Some locals suspect that the mafias in Karachi and Islamabad have deliberately delayed because “they do not want a cut in commissions from the KPT”.
All hopes rest on the Chinese takeover of the Port. Locals hope that the new administration might also fulfil the promise of building a modern ship harbour. “Our tuna goes to Iran for packaging and is then sold in Mekran,” said Rahim Zafar. “The banned trawlers from Karachi and Iran are stripping our fishing fields dry as they hunt in bredding seasons also.”
Others hope that a new deal has to be finalised for a fairer division of resources. All those plots grabbed by politician, bureaucrats, particularly in the picturesque Sanghar Scheme should be cancelled. The Navy should be forced to vacate the extra land on the see front and the army too kept to its limit. Land deals in Gwadar are a mess.
“The 10,000 acres available in Gwadar have been sold ten times over,” said DCO Pasand Khan Buledi. Former President Pervez Musharraf ganged up with a mafia that included the then provincial government to distribute prime land among cronies for pennies. “A judicial probe should be conducted before new rules are formed,” opines Editor Huma Ali. “Gwadar remains as great as ever but it’s just the class of rulers that has changed.” More prophetic words there cannot be.
One can hear the drum beats of Alexander’s army marching back from India from Gwadar shores; hear the hooves of Mohammad Qasim’s camels or the fluttering of Portugese masts that sailed here 500 years ago. The people of Gwadar still use the techniques to build dhows that they learnt from the Greeks, Arabs or the Portugese. Will someone lead them to a shade of modernity.