The inauguration of the Gwadar port is a step forward in Pakistan’s infrastructural and economic development and for Balochistan in particular. However, much still needs to be done to ensure that the fruits of this development filter down to the average Baloch.
The announcement by the president that a second port is to be built at Sonmiani is good but care should be taken in its development and construction to ensure that the local population benefits both while it is being built – through employment on the construction site – and after it has been built. As for Gwadar itself, several articles on the subject have suggested that due to the lack of an industrial base in its immediate hinterland, it may well serve more as a transit point to receive goods coming into the country for destinations that will mostly be outside the province.
There is also debate on whether the port is a kind of ‘repayment’ by Pakistan to the Chinese for all the assistance that the latter have given to Islamabad over the years. The port has been built with extensive Chinese financial and technical assistance and many western and independent observers are of the view that it allows the Chinese a presence close to the very important and strategic Straits of Hormuz through which the bulk of the Middle East’s oil flows. Also, it may allow the Chinese navy a definite advantage over its regional rival India in terms of seeking influence over the Indian Ocean.
In the larger scheme of things, it remains to be seen what impact the opening of the port will have on Balochistan’s relations with the Centre. For example, there already was much controversy over reports that many people from outside the province were buying land in and around Gwadar, hoping to make a windfall gain from the rise in prices that would happen once the port was operational. This was followed by the appointment of a Singapore-based company to manage the port.
While the second decision may make perfect sense from a technical and feasibility point of view, so strained are relations between the Baloch and the Centre that this was taken by many in the province as yet another instance of ignoring the interests of Balochistan. Related to this issue also is the question where the money generated by the port will go – presumably since the port comes under the federal minister for ports and shipping, the funds generated by Gwadar port will go to the federal government.
One hopes that the government will have the good sense to ensure that most, if not all of this money, is spent on development work in the province. Several educational schemes and scholarships have been announced for Balochistan and this is good,. However, the matter of political engagement still remains unaddressed. Coupled with all this development, the Centre must engage in a long-term sincere effort to make provincial autonomy a reality for the province. This means empowering its people and assembly to take decisions without remote control from Islamabad or Rawalpindi, providing employment opportunities for the local youth through direct and facilitated investment and considering a substantial increase in the province’s share from the federal divisible pool.
Source: The News