Pakistan Reader# 219, 1 October 2021
Yesterday, (Thursday, 30 September), Gwadar witnessed another round of protests. According to Dawn, “Thousands of people from different areas of Gwadar and Turbat on Thursday staged a protest against non-availability of basic amenities and shortage of drinking water, health, education facilities and increasing unemployment in Gwadar and other areas of Makran division.” (“Thousands demand basic facilities in Gwadar, Turbat,” Dawn, 1 October 2021)
This is not the first time during recent weeks that Gwadar is witnessing protests. In August, Gwadar saw protests, almost for the same reasons. The News reported: “Workers of all political parties, fishermen and members of civil society gathered in the city centre and blocked roads, burnt tires and used other means to express their anger towards the government. These protests continued for a couple of days and received much attention on social media but were ignored in mainstream media.” (Adnan Aamir, “Protests in Gwadar,” The News on Sunday, 5 September 2021)
Clearly, there is a pattern to the protests. And there is a problem.
Who are protesting in Gwadar, and for what?
The question of livelihood is of paramount importance. Given the coastal nature and the economic dependence on the maritime, the people of Makran coast are unhappy with what they consider as illegal fishing. Two issues are of importance here – the question of local ownership and the fishing rights, and the question of fishing by non-Baloch fishermen. Across the region, there have been skirmishes over who does the sea and what is found there belong to.
Fishing has become an issue; technological developments and access to the same, have made traditional fishing methods obsolete or less productive. All over South Asia, and beyond, fishing has become a big industry, and fishermen have become dependent on the industry. While some fishermen have become a part of the industry, not everyone is from the fishing community in the coast. The fishermen in the Makran coast, majority of them, are still using the traditional knowledge and methods, whereas, the new ones from Sindh are blamed for using trawlers. Usage of trawlers by the big fishermen results in local fishermen ending up with a smaller catch, thereby affecting the latter’s livelihood.
Second, the fishermen of Makran coast have another problem – fishing rights to the Chinese. There have been protests earlier in the region over the government allowing Chinese trawlers to fish. (“Gwadar fishermen hold rally against grant of fishing rights to Chinese trawlers,” Dawn, 16 June 2021)
Third, the expectation amongst the local community, that the Chinese investments in Gwadar as a part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) would revolutionise the local economy, and uplift the local population of Gwadar and in rest of the Makran coast. The economy of the Makran coast was heavily dependent on fishing, and smuggling (especially of oil and related products) from Iran. The CPEC projects of Gwadar are yet to materialize in terms of local population getting the primary benefit from the same. Given the gap between the expectations and reality, the local community (besides the fishermen, and those who are dependent on the coastal economy), there has been a gradual anger being built against the Chinese projects.
Fourth, the long-standing local Baloch grievances against the federal government in the region. This is not Gwadar specific, but relating to the entire province. This formed one of the reasons, why the opposition demanded a no-confidence motion against the Chief Minister. He is seen as a puppet of Islamabad. The question of handing over the local rights to outsiders (whether businessmen from Punjab and Sindh, or now from China) have been an emotional issue for the local population.
The latest protest and the recent ones provide an opportunity for the opposition parties to come together on the same platform, and raise the pitch against the Chief Minister, and thereby against the coalition led by the PTI.
Fifth, the trigger. While the above issues are long pending, the trigger for the latest round of protests seem to be shortages in water and electricity. While issues such as health, education and unemployment have been chronic, the water and electricity shortage have brought the people of Makran coast to the streets. The electricity shortage in the Makran coast has been triggered by the arrangement between Iran and Pakistan, over the former selling power to the latter. Coupled with problems of restrictions over smuggling of oil and gas products from Iran.
Will the protests expand?
The State has always been using force to pressurize the local population into submission. It would continue the same strategy. Besides, Islamabad cannot afford any problems over one of its CPEC jewels – Gwadar. While the issues get covered locally and in the social media, the national media gives less attention and space to what is happening in Gwadar. For the rest of Pakistan, Gwadar is more of a strategic asset, than a region made of people with their own aspirations.