Letter from Pakistan: understanding the disquietude in Gwadar

One May afternoon, in 2017, in an interview at the under construction Gwadar port, the chairperson of the state-run Chinese firm China Overseas Port Holding Company (COPHC), Zhang Bhaozong, told me, he dreamed of leaving a “happier and prosperous” Gwadar when he returned to China.

The nearly USD 70 million mega project was launched in 2013 under the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and aimed to turn the once sleepy fishing town of Gwadar, southwestern coast of Balochistan province, into a powerful trade hub bringing prosperity to the local Baloch people. A decade on, it has failed in this objective.

The slow pace of business at the port and delays to major CPEC projects in Gwadar – such as the international airport, the completion of East Bay Expressway (which took five years), supply of freshwater, Pakistan-China Friendship Hospital, and the 300MW coal-fired power project – have tested the local’s patience.

Unfortunately, one of the responses has been an increase in anti-China sentiment. It has been fueled by the Haq Do Tehreek (Give Our Rights Movement, HDT), a peaceful people’s protest led by Maulana Hidayat ur Rehman, the general secretary of Jamaat-e-Islami in Balochistan. While little known outside the province, in the last few months he has become a poster boy for fighting repression, gaining a huge following, at least in Gwadar and its neighboring towns of Pasni, Pishkan, Zamran, Ormara, Turbat, Buleda and Jiwani because of his tenacity in putting forward the demands of the hapless local community. In other words, the HDT has given people a platform to unite.

Protestors at a Dec 22, 2022 demonstration, Image by anonymous

In one of his public addresses on Dec 22, he had demanded the Chinese to leave the town, as they had brought nothing but sorrow. He followed with a threat that the HDT would paralyze work on all CPEC projects in Gwadar.

In the last sit-in, the fisherfolk had blocked the port’s entrance as well as the East Bay Expressway that leads to the port. By blocking both points they halted the flow of supplies and movement between the port and the naval bases on the southern hill of the town.

An uneasy calm enveloped the restive port city after the arrest of Rehman in early January, following the killing of a policeman at the same protest on December 27, 2022. Since then the provincial government of Balochistan has imposed Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC) forbidding any public rallies for one month.

To understand the genesis of unrest, one must understand the geography as well as the dynamics of this fisherman town.

Gwadar: a tale of two sides

There is an east side and a west side of Gwadar and the twain never seems to meet.

The east is the rich side where the port is and where people (many of them outsiders, including between 200 – 500 Chinese who live within the confines of the port for security reasons) use bottled water to quench their thirst and has a desalination plant that converts the salt-laden Arabian Sea water into useable water. The port also generates its own electricity. Life on this side of Gwadar, called demi zirr, is easy, with all the amenities of the developed world taken for granted.

But traversing the four-lane Marine Drive, a majority of the 265,000 residents, on the west side live in squalor.

Going past a maze of narrow alleys of the Shahi Bazar in the old city, circumventing heaps of garbage, skipping the streams of putrid sewage, lies the western shore side of the sea called the paddi zirr. If days are bad, the locals say the nights have become even worse due to the constant attack of mosquitoes.

A map of Gwadar generated by Google

While the disillusionment has been building for the last several years, and justifiably so, it has now come to a head.

The HDT, founded in August 2021, has been protesting illegal trawling in Gwadar’s water, the huge number of security checkpoints the locals had to navigate and to allow ease in curbs on trade between Pakistan and Iran. What the government calls smuggling and thus the restrictions, is trade for the locals, because there are no other means of earning an honest living.

They have even convinced thousands of disgruntled Baloch women to come out on the street to vent their anger for not being able to provide water, electricity, healthcare or education for their children, as well as to protest the forcible disappearance of their male family members. This was the first time the women of the community, who have been campaigning on these issues quietly for the last ten years, came out on the street in show of anger. It was a radical event in this socially conservative community.

The fishing community

Conceding the local people’s woes genuine, the government has acceded to two of their demands. A majority of the check posts have been removed, those that remain are being manned not just by the army personnel, but also a local counterpart so when they are stopped and questioned, the latter feel less affronted. As for the border trade, the government has decided to look the other way.

However, the illegal fishing trade is ongoing, now under the cover of dark. Some, locals claim, are trawlers from Sindh and some are Chinese, despite protestations by the HDT.

For local fishermen, the restriction of access to their traditional coastal fishing waters has been the major point of contention and a blow to the livelihoods of the community. The rocky seabed of the East Bay is a perfect nursery for shrimp and prawn and literally a goldmine for the fishermen, who say they formerly fished all the year round. Today, that part of the sea is off limits, turned into a high-security zone. The local fishermen are given tokens to enter and a fishing schedule, with their every move watched by the marine security agency.

Young men working on their fishing net in Gwadar. Image by Nasha Ila

One positive outcome of the people’s movement is that in January the government of Balochistan became the first Pakistani province to declare fishermen along the 750-kilometer coastline of Balochistan as laborers. It is the only province so far to have done this. Under Pakistan’s constitutional laws and the International Labor Organization (ILO) charters, their rights can now be better protected. For example, their operations can now become registered commercial enterprises, and employees receive official documentation, minimum wage guarantee and access to social security and pensions.  The government has also announced the setting up of a 200-acre residential district for the 89,000 registered fishermen, and provision of all their basic amenities.

Uneasy peace

The government may have brought the situation under control, but if it wants lasting peace it needs to engage with the Baloch people on the other CPEC projects in the pipeline. When the city masterplan for Gwadar was being developed and approved in the early 2010s, the consultants never thought it important to take guidance from the locals, or listen to their demand of ensuring their access to the sea, their only means of livelihood.

While a strong social media presence (Rehman has 48.1k followers on Twitter and the HDT on Facebook has 22k followers) helped the movement gain momentum and increased Rehman’s popularity, it failed to attract mainstream media to carry out the kind of extensive media coverage which could have led to serious discourse in the corridors of power and in the run up to the general elections this year. There is a general perception within Pakistani media outlets that coverage of events that could be interpreted as “anti-Chinese” might incur the wrath of the ‘establishment’ (comprising the military, its relations with the intelligence and high-level political officials).

Sadly, with the arrest of Rehman, there is a danger the HDT movement may meet a premature death. The space that was last year carved out to voice the disenchantment of the people of Gwadar, and a window into understanding local concerns, may close once again.

Zofeen T. Ebrahim is a Karachi-based independent journalist. For the past several years, she has been following developments at Gwadar port closely.

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