Balochistan: Ignored and In Trouble

To understand the long-running and fast-growing insurgency in Balochistan, Pakistan's desperately poor western province, it is necessary to look at Islamabad's near-fatal economic and governmental negligence over what is geographically the country's largest and economically richest province in terms of natural resources.

Balochistan is Pakistan's smallest province by population. But contrary to its territorial share and economic potential, it is by far the poorest as well. Its land area is 347, 190 km and its population is 8.3 million. It is almost starved economically and generates revenue of only PKR1.6 billion, (US$16.2 million) just enough to pay the monthly salaries of government officials.

The new chief minister of the province, Abdul Malik, who took office this month, has urged security forces to end a campaign of enforced disappearances and support his hopes of opening a dialogue with rebels, but instead, dead bodies turn up routinely, violence is commonplace and calls are growing for Balochistan to become its own nation.

"We have to create an environment in which we are in a position to invite insurgents for negotiations," Malik told Reuters. "Before I go to them, we have to take certain measures to prove that we want change."

The unrest has simmered for decades and shows little sign of abating. The province depends largely on federal government grants for running its administration. Literacy rates are far below the national average, 22 percent against almost 47 percent. Only 20 percent have access to drinking water (not pure water) as against 86 percent of the country as a whole.

This discrepancy becomes even more acute when one looks at the province's resources. The province has significant quantities of metallic (copper, Iron, lead-zinc, Titanium etc.) and non-metallic materials (coal, fluorite, barite, gypsum and anhydrite, limestone and dolomite). Its coal reserves are estimated to be at 184 billion tonnes; Iron ore around 600 million tonnes; copper around 6 billion tonnes, and very large proven reserves of antimony, marble and sulphur.

Apart from these resources, the province's most significant resources are oil and gas. Pakistan has an estimated 25.1 trillion cubic feet (Tcf) of proven gas reserves of which 19 trillion are located in Balochistan. According to the Oil and Gas Journal (OGJ), Pakistan has proven oil reserves of 300 million barrels, most of which are located in Balochistan.

On the other hand, Balochistan is to-date the country's least explored province. Only six new gas and oil exploration wells were drilled through July 2010, and those with no meaningful success. Apart from natural resources, Balochistan has one of the most significantly located ports in the Indian Ocean – Gwadar, which is being developed by China as a strategic access point to the Indian Ocean.

Successive governments have claimed to have laid the basis for Balochistan's provincial development and have announced different plans for socio-economic uplift. These have included the Gwadar Sea Port Development (estimated cost PKR16.38 billion), Mirani Dam Project (estimated cost PKR.5.86 billion), Kachi Canal Project (estimated cost PKR. 31.204 million); and the Coastal Highway Project (estimated cost PKR15.01 billion). However, all the announcements and most of the plans have somehow remained on paper or at early stages of implementation. The reasons are varied. The Balochis have grown highly suspicious of such plans, believing these projects are only meant to facilitate the upcoming Gwadar city and naval base.

Although official documents do not mention such diversions, these concerns have been repeatedly raised at different forums including in Pakistan's mainstream media by Baloch representatives. Such concerns are to a considerable extent understandable. Looking at the ground realities, the dichotomy between this province and others is stunning, especially with Punjab.

The Baloch increasingly believe their resources are being exploited to "feed" larger provinces while they are forced to live hand to mouth. They frequently express their fear that these projects are dispossessing them of their lands, resources and distinctive identity.

Whether this belief is correct does not really matter because the people cannot possibly imagine any other valid cause for their extreme backwardness. Although gas was discovered at Sui in 1953, local people didn't benefit until 1986 when the central government stationed military forces in the provincial capital. Although gas produced at Sui accounts for 36 percent of Pakistan's gas production, only 17 percent goes to Balochistan, the remaining 83 percent is sent to other provinces. Apart from the failure of governments to deliver, the figures that depict the state of education, health and welfare are acutely worse than anywhere else in Pakistan.

Feelings of marginalization from national mainstream politics and dispossession of their land, identity and traditions are the fundamental issues creating a sense of alienation and driving the Baloch people towards perceiving secession as a positive alternative.

What else would they possibly need to harbor anti-federation thoughts?

According to government figures, almost 76 percent of the Baloch population live in rural areas. World Bank statistics show eight of Pakistan's 10 most deprived districts are in Balochistan, with almost no electricity. In addition to such low development levels, public disempowerment at the district and Union Council level is further fueling the sense of alienation. The average Baloch has never set foot even in the provincial capital of Quetta, where power tends to concentrate with little chance of trickling down to the far-off district and union council level, leading to worse socio-political conditions and widespread discontentment.

The resultant discontent, dissatisfaction, and disillusionment have paved the way for large scale insurgency. Baloch nationalism is creeping into the hearts of many. Although insurgency has already entered its 10th or 11th year, official circles continue to believe that this nationalism is restricted only to those "agents" bent upon destabilizing the country or merely exploiting the masses for their own agendas.

However, the reality is different. Baloch leaders have repeatedly made it clear that they want autonomy, not provincial autonomy as stipulated in the constitution of Pakistan, but national autonomy. And, they have been working to this end by resorting to arms.

The insurgency is spreading fast due to widespread frustration over the ill-conceived policies of successive governments both provincial and national. This is extremely dangerous because such unrest is likely to help the insurgents in prolonging instability unless the grievances are addressed.

The Baloch are poor not only in terms of development and basic services, but also in terms of power. The common people are powerless at the local level, while their politicians are powerless at the national level. This disempowerment is bound to result in a combined struggle to gain power to manage their own affairs and use their resources in order to better conditions.

Although disempowerment is not the only reason for their backwardness and powerlessness, it is difficult to ignore the role and responsibility of Baloch tribal and feudal lords. Many political and intellectual pundits consider them a major stumbling block. It cannot be said that the entire Baloch problem lies in the political domination of Punjab and the central government.

Pakistan has no other option but to devise a new power sharing formula whereby Balochistan gets its share not merely on the basis of its population, but also because of its economic potential and politico-strategic importance.

Only more representation in the central government and empowerment at the local level can assuage Baloch alienation and accommodate their distinct identity and traditions within the national culture.

(Salman Rafi Sheikh is a researcher in the field of International Relations and Pakistan Affairs.)