The journey from the exit out of the Gwadar Airport to the narrow passage through the old town – barely half a kilometer stretch – to the security check points before the Port Area and on the way to the Kohe Batil is not amusing at all.
The first thing that strikes a maiden visitor to the area during this 10 kilometer trip is the narrow entry-exit gate; all the vehicles on the way out have to meander through a dirt patch if the way is blocked by incoming traffic – a sad reflection indeed on the competence of the authorities.
Equally striking is the presence of about two dozen armed soldiers and their vehicles near and around the gate of the airport. The sight of this imposing presence of armed forces itself is a turn-off, in fact intimidating, particularly for foreign visitors who are not used to such scenes.
Thirdly, although over 95 per cent of the road – Padizar – has been dualized, yet lack of consultation with locals and apparent official indifference to the concerns of the local community – largely fishermen – has stalled dualization work on the road up to the port.
Fourth, the security check point before the Port Area itself is often quite testing not only for Pakistani visitors but also even for locals because of discomforting questions by the young soldiers manning the posts. They clearly lack the knowledge of local sensitivities. Nor are they equipped with the ability to distinguish between potential militants and visitors – most of whom travel in the official vehicle of the only hotel that is perched on the Kohe Batil.
These feelings are even more frustrating for person on a second visit to Gwadar – a city that is talked about not only in the length and breadth of China and Pakistan but also elsewhere, often referred to as the Jewel in the crown of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). For me personally, none of the aforementioned factors have fundamentally changed between October 2016, when I first visited the place, and Feb 2020, when I arrived here a second time.
And these factors often breed frustration among locals as well as give way to all kind of suspicion and speculation. Asharf Hussain, for instance, is a local politician and big name in the real estate because of ancestral lands his family has owned. He is mostly reluctant in coming to the PC Hotel on Kohe Batil because of questions ( in his words “insults”) that he some times has to face at the hands of soldiers at piquets.
Gwadar for outsiders, particularly keen investors and businessmen, evokes enthusiasm. They equate it with a place open to visitors and ready for investment. But the imposing omni-present physical and procedural security barriers kill that enthusiasm.
“Is it not annoying that I have to respond to silly questions when they ask me where I come from and where do I want to go,” says the elderly Hussain. We had owned most of the land that has gone into the Port and the Hospital area. It is painful that a former owner of these lands, a native son of the soil has to provide his identity every time he steps out of home,” he said.
The old town itself wears an extremely dirty look, with piles of trash in the dusty streets which smell of nasty stench that rises from the overflowing sewerage water.
Potable water and electricity is another chronic issue that Gwadar locals – nearly 80,000 in all – are struggling with. The new Chinese-build maternity care centre constructed adjacent to the Port remains non-functional despite having been inaugurated a few weeks ago.
Frustration with the slow pace of development and non-inclusion of locals in decision-making were in fact over-flowing at a dialogue where over 50 representatives from various walks of life – drawn from Gwadar, Jeewni, Pasni, Ormara, Kharan, Quetta – participated.
“How do you create social protection for, and ownership of, the port-related business if locals are excluded from the primary business,” asked Fida Hussain Dashti, a local businessman. He complained of low quality of work on various projects, including the Coastal Highway as well as the M-8, where commuters say most of the bridges have become dysfunctional within months of the construction.
How can business flourish in a securitized environment, where most locals feel being treated as terror suspects, asked a young Baloch fisherman.
Local officials claim that work on the 300 bed hospital, the Gwadar Vocational Training Center is already underway. They say planning for the three access points on the East-Bay Express Way to local fishermen, and water and sanitation projects is also underway. The Master plan for the Gwadar Smart Port City and the a review of the Old City Master plan is also under way to help being upgrade water, power and sewerage systems in the city.
We have no reason to dismiss these claims but the exclusionary planning, decision-making and execution has already poisoned many minds. Participants of the dialogue, including former Chief minister Dr. Mohammad Malik Baloch, demanded that federal and provincial governments should prioritise inclusion of Balochistan’s local communities in all the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) projects. Their interests and identities need to be protected through legislation for an economically sustainable and socially acceptable development.
“How can you expect the local people not to be resentful if their share of jobs in provincial institutions such as GDA or the Port Authority is minimal,” asked the former chief minister, adding that share of jobs must be increased for locals (Gwadar) in particular and Baloch people in general across the province, asked Dr. Baloch.
One mounting fear is the marginalization of local communities – traders, fishermen, contractors, transporters; locals allege that most of the contracts are gradually being doled out to outsiders from Karachi and Lahore, which means elbowing out locals.
This will not help the government in smoothly implementing CPEC projects.
The best way for blaming the bruised egos, removing the mistrust and neutralizing the nationalist militants is to create ownership of the local communities in all development and administrative structures, they said.
This article first appeared in Daily Times. Click here to go to the original.