Prime Minister Imran Khan visited Quetta in September. He hinted at a mega-development package for south Balochistan during his trip. After his announcement, Minister for Planning and Development Asad Umar visited the southern districts of Balochistan and announced that the government was finalising a huge development project to uplift this under-developed region of the province. Official sources claimed that this package would be valued at Rs150 billion and newly merged districts of tribal areas will also be developed from this package.
On one hand this news generated a wave of happiness among people in south Balochistan. On the other, nationalist politicians spoke of evil designs behind this scheme. They claimed that this development package was focused on south Balochistan because the federal government wanted to divide Balochistan in two provinces. They believe that south Balochistan would compromise Makran division and Lasbela district, and the entire coastal belt of Balochistan would be part of the newly carved province. That’s not all: they fear that the south Balochistan province would be in complete control of the federal government and Balochistan as a whole will lose its precious coast and Gwadar port.
Moreover, the issuance of a presidential ordinance to establish the Pakistan Islands Development Authority (PIDA) further lent credence to this theory of nationalist politicians in Balochistan. They claimed that PIDA will be used to take control of all islands off the coast of Balochistan, signalling complete federal takeover of the entire south Balochistan.
National Party is at the forefront of the opposition campaign against this south Balochistan province and the PIDA. It held Balochistan-wide protest demonstrations against the establishment of PIDA earlier this week. They vowed not to allow division of Balochistan under the pretext of development packages.
Senator Kabir Muhammad Shahi of the National Party alleges that the PIDA ordnance is part of a scheme to take control of all coastal belts of Sindh and Balochistan. “All important sites of CPEC in Balochistan are on its coastal belt and by taking them under federal control, Balochistan will be completely removed from CPEC,” he told The Friday Times. He vowed to highlight this issue in the Senate and claimed that it will not be easy for the federal government to successfully divide Balochistan.
While the package faces criticism for political reasons, it has not been scrutinized in terms of economic viability
The sentiments of the National Party on this issue are shared by other parties and some intellectuals. However, not all political parties agree with the concerns of the division of Balochistan in the name of south Balochistan. Senator Anwaarul Haq Kakar from Balochistan Awami Party (BAP) thinks that claims of the division of Balochistan are nothing more than conspiracy theories. “The thinking behind the south Balochistan development intervention is to uplift the people most prone to militancy in the province,” He told The Friday Times. He added that if and when the islands of Balochistan were taken over by the federal government, then the appropriate forum to deal with the problem would be the Council of Common Interests.
Aslam Bhootnai, a member of the National Assembly from Lasbela and Gwadar, disagrees with the term ‘southern Balochistan’ which has been used by the federal government for the said development package. “This term will create a sense of discrimination among the people in northern districts of Balochistan because they also need development,” he told The Friday Times.
Bhootani further said the underlying reasons for this package were more strategic than developmental. Using this package, the federal government wants to pacify the Makran region so that the work on CPEC projects in Gwadar can continue without any disturbance, he claimed. He further said that the nomenclature of the Southern Balochistan development package will be changed to the Rehabilitation of Conflict-Affected Areas package after he highlighted this issue in a high profile meeting of the Planning Commission.
While the package faces criticism for political reasons, it has not been scrutinized in terms of economic viability. According to official claims, the value of this project will be more than Rs100 billion. An official of the Balochistan government told this scribe on condition of anonymity that it is still unclear where the funding will come for this ambitious project because there is no provision for them in the on-going Public Sector Development Program. He said it would be a huge challenge to arrange these resources during a time when the federal government was facing a financial crunch.
This is not the first time in recent years that the federal government has claimed to launch a mega-development package for Balochistan. In November 2017, then prime minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi announced a 10-year equalization package for Balochistan. Under this package, the federal government was supposed to fund development projects to uplift cities and towns of Balochistan and bring them at par with developed areas of Pakistan. Unfortunately, that project was never implemented and it was nothing more than a stunt for elections which were due six months later.
In this context, the people of Balochistan have every reason to be sceptical about the proposed package. In order to prevent this package from becoming controversial, there are some actions that the federal government must take. First, the government has to change the name of this project, as Aslam Bhootani said. Second, the government should explain sources of funding for these projects along with the timeline of completion so that people can know that the claims of the government are more than political rhetoric.
Lastly, the PTI government must know that the decisions about the development of Balochistan made in the confines of the Planning Commission, even if they are sincere, will not work. Therefore, the democratic thing to do in this context is to develop consensus on this project. Prior to finalising this package, it must be thoroughly debated in the parliament and the provincial assembly of Balochistan must also be taken in confidence. These steps will prove decisive in achieving the aims of this development package.
The writer is a journalist and researcher. He can be reached on Twitter: @iAdnanAamir