Pakistan Reader# 127, 11 August 2020
Conventional wisdom states that infrastructure development in a region is followed by an uptick in socio-economic indices. However, Balochistan fails to follow this trend due to CPEC's failure to address core socio-economic issues, a history of disparity between Balochistan and Pakistan's Punjabi heartland, China's objectives relating to CPEC, and the Baloch perception of China' colonizing' Balochistan in cohorts with the Pakistani establishment.Shishir Rao
Conventional wisdom states that infrastructure development in a region is followed by an uptick in socio-economic indices. However, Balochistan fails to follow this trend due to CPEC's failure to address core socio-economic issues, a history of disparity between Balochistan and Pakistan's Punjabi heartland, China's objectives relating to CPEC, and the Baloch perception of China' colonizing' Balochistan in cohorts with the Pakistani establishment.
The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), launched in 2015, brought with it the promise of bringing prosperity to the impoverished province of Balochistan. By 2020, the value of projects under CPEC has swelled to around US$50 Billion despite reductions as compared to previous forecasts. (Adnan Aamir, "Pakistan Slashes Budget for Belt and Road Initiative Projects," Nikkei Asian Review, 19 June 2020) The CPEC projects encompass several infrastructure and connectivity projects that connect Xinjiang province in north-western China to Gwadar port on Balochistan's Makran coast through a slew of mega highways and railway lines that cut across Pakistan.
The intention behind CPEC is to reduce China's dependency on Sea Lanes of Communication (SLOCs) for its energy imports and trade exports; its impact on Pakistan's economy is incidental. Unsurprisingly, Gwadar has been the jewel in the crown of CPEC, with the port project being the centre of attention and nearly all infrastructure focussed on improving connectivity with Gwadar. As a result, Gwadar has witnessed industrial-scale growth, while surrounding areas in Balochistan have seen rapid construction of roads, railway lines and power projects. However, this has done little to improve the socio-economic situation in Balochistan.
The Socio-Economic Situation in Balochistan:
Poverty, Disparity, the HDI and the domestic debate about Balochistan being a Colony
The people of Balochistan continue to reel under poverty, low levels of education, poor healthcare, inadequate housing and sanitation, and lack of access to potable water; the population is also caught in a tug-of-war due to the long-drawn insurgency waged by the Baloch Liberation Army (BLA) against the Pakistani Army, whose ham-handed tactics have only served to strengthen the insurgency.
Balochistan ranks last among Pakistan's administrative units (accounting for merger of Federally Administered Tribal Areas with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) in the Human Development Index (HDI) as per the United Nations Development Programme's 2018 report. Three years after the launch of CPEC, the HDI scores of Balochistan's districts had seen little change. Of the 32 districts, only provincial capital Quetta was placed in the 'medium' category with an HDI score of 0.666. Ten districts were placed in the 'low' category, and 21 districts were placed in the 'very low' category. Awaran district garnered the lowest HDI score in the country at an abysmal 0.173, while Dera Bugti, Harnai, Washuk, and Kharan scored less than 0.300. (Nadil Shah, "Deteriorating Condition of Human Development Index of Balochistan," Daily Times, 25 September 2018)
The average HDI for the province was 0.421. In contrast, the average HDI score for Punjab was 0.732, followed by Sindh at 0.640 and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa at 0.628. Only six districts in the country out of 154 were categorized as highly developed, four of which were in Punjab. Punjab also enjoys the lion's share in the medium HDI category with 19 districts. In parameters assessed, including healthcare, education, gender equality, youth development, and poverty and unemployment, Punjab consistently topped the charts while Balochistan consistently found itself at the bottom. ("Punjab Tops Human Development Index Report, Balochistan Lowest," Pakistan Today, 20 May 2018)
These statistics lend currency to arguments made by the Baloch legislators, separatists and other public figures who state that Balochistan is being 'colonized' by China. Balochistan's leaders have for long complained of step-motherly treatment by Islamabad. This has heightened in recent years as the socio-economic gap between Balochistan and Pakistan's Punjabi heartland has grown. (S. Khan, "Why Chinese Investment Is Stoking Anger in Pakistan's Balochistan Province", Deutsche Welle, 15 July 2020)
Balochistan, an arid land, holds an overwhelming majority of Pakistan's natural gas and mineral reserves. These reserves have been systematically exploited by the Pakistani establishment without profits reaching the local populace, which remains involved in low-income occupations like animal husbandry and small-scale farming. Taken from the above viewpoint, the increasing Chinese investment in Balochistan is merely accelerating the exploitation of Balochistan's resources without giving anything back to its people. (S. Khan, "Why Chinese Investment Is Stoking Anger in Pakistan's Balochistan Province", Deutsche Welle, 15 July 2020) This is further observed in the progression of CPEC projects in Pakistan. Most completed infrastructure projects have been on the east-west axis between Sindh and Gwadar, and the north-south axis between Xinjiang and Karachi. The Western Route, which passes through Balochistan, has seen much slower progress. "CPEC Projects Progress Upgrade," CPEC Authority, 13 August 2020)
Yet, the Pakistani establishment stresses that the economic deprivation Balochistan has been subjected to and the social development that has eluded the population for decades will witness a turnaround with completion of CPEC projects. (Saleem Shahid, "CPEC to Change Fate of Region: Balochistan Governor," Dawn, 11 July 2020)
The socio-economic upliftment of the province is premised on further development of Gwadar, the establishment of more economic zones and increasing connectivity in Balochistan. For this, the government plans a slew of measures to boost Pakistani investments in the province such as tax incentives, increasing transit trade and corporatizing agriculture, fisheries and animal husbandry sectors; it also aims at providing vocational training to the local youth. ("Chairman CPEC Authority, Chinese Ambassador Stress Importance of Gwadar Port in the Region," The Nation, 8 August 2020)
A fundamental problem with the above approach is that the vast majority of Balochistan's population lacks the capital to make such investments. Besides this, the corporatization of key rural industries is likely to further impoverish and alienate the local population. Clearly then, the benefits of these schemes are geared towards increasing investments from other parts of Pakistan rather than Balochistan, which in turn has the potential to alter the province's demography. Driving the local youth from traditional occupations into low-income vocations hence only serves to change the structure of exploitation from centralization to de-centralization.
The Future of CPEC:
Chinese Imperatives and Baloch Perspectives
Recent global developments amid the Covid-19 pandemic and resulting economic crisis have seen an increase in China's assertive behaviour that has brought it eyeball-to-eyeball with major powers such as the US and India. While currently limited to sabre-rattling and aggressive actions below the threshold of conflict in areas such as the Line of Actual Control (with India) and the South China Sea, China's contestations have the ability to fast develop into a conflict. In such a scenario, an adversary is highly likely to exploit China's maritime vulnerability, and its Malacca Dilemma as a vast majority of China's trade and energy passes through the narrow Malacca Strait. The overland CPEC is China's answer to this dilemma and increasing the pace of infrastructure development in Pakistan is hence likely to gain traction in China's strategic calculus in the near future.
The big-ticket projects in Balochistan are Gwadar focussed. Some of the projects currently underway in Balochistan include the Gwadar East Bay Expressway, Gwadar airport and the Mainline-1 Railway projects. ("Time for Masses to Reap Dividends of CPEC: Asim Bajwa", The Express Tribune, 7 August 2020) Here again, the focus remains on Gwadar and the east-west axis, while the rest of Balochistan continues to reel under underdevelopment. Political rhetoric over the development of Balochistan via CPEC does not figure in China's imperatives, which are speedy infrastructure development irrespective of the route for its economic and energy security through access to an Indian Ocean port.
As a result, far from the benefits of CPEC reaching Balochistan as it has done in the rest of Pakistan, CPEC projects have instead become synonymous with oppression and forced population displacements. This includes not only evictions from sites proposed for CPEC projects but also the displacement of villages that lie along major roads and rail lines out of fear that they will be used as launchpads for attacks by the BLA or its affiliates. The use of the Pakistani Army for these forced evictions is further adding to existing tensions. ("Kech: Military Forcibly Evicts Residents," The Balochistan Post, 6 May 2020)
Despite assurances by Islamabad, the ground realities of CPEC are worsening the socio-economic situation in Balochistan by displacing locals, depriving them of their livelihood and turning the province into a heavily militarized zone. Furthermore, most projects, especially in Gwadar, provide no direct financial benefits to the local population. The heavy-handed military approach adopted by Pakistan is further alienating the local population and strengthening the insurgency. ("China-Pakistan Economic Corridor: Opportunities and Risks," International Crisis Group, 29 June 2018)
Finally, the CPEC is in the crosshairs today, testing Chinese resolve. The BLA and its affiliates have made it abundantly clear that CPEC and other Chinese investments in Balochistan, besides also Chinese personnel, are legitimate targets as China is perceived to be hand-in-glove with Pakistan in exploiting the region. The insurgents' growing strength and China's ambitions vis-à-vis CPEC may hence soon see China and BLA acting in overlapping areas. (Yumi Washiyama, "Balochi Militants Take Aim at Chinese Interests," The Diplomat, 24 July 2020)
China has already started reinforcing its economic interests around Gwadar with its own troops and military infrastructure. However, this has further strengthened the perceptions in Balochistan of a Sino-Pak nexus that now aims at not only economic exploitation, but also military subversion of Baloch demands. ("Balochistan: China Secretly Building High-Security Compound at Gwadar", The Balochistan Post, 3 June 2020)
To conclude, is Balochistan worse off after the CPEC? CPEC has done little to mitigate the socio-economic neglect of Balochistan. As a result, CPEC projects now face the ire of Baloch nationalists. However, there is little Chinese interest in addressing the socio-economic causes, while Pakistan has chosen to ignore Balochistan in favour of its Punjabi heartland. The solution China and Pakistan envision for CPEC is militarisation instead of inclusion, which is likely to drown Balochistan further into the mire of poverty, backwardness, alienation and prolonged violence.
About the Author
Shishir Rao is an post graduate scholar from the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations from Manipal Academy of Higher Education. He has worked as a journalist for five years and also holds an MA in English and a Bachelor's in Media Studies (Journalism)