By S. M. Hali

The port of Gwadar is strategically located at the apex of the Arabian Sea and at the mouth of the Persian Gulf. Newly Constructed as a strategic warm-water, deep-sea port, developed by the Government of Pakistan with Chinese assistance at a cost of USD $248 million and inaugurated by the President of Pakistan on 20 March 2007, the port held great promise for the people of Balochistan, whose province, despite being the richest in mineral resources and having a 750 Kilometer coastline, offering tranquil beaches and abundance of marine life, remains the most neglected part of Pakistan. Subsequent governments have not only left the Balochis in gross neglect but plundered its riches, leaving the inhabitants in shabby and decrepit condition.

When the project for the construction of the Gwadar Port was commenced under a master plan, it was being projected that the tiny, underdeveloped fishing village with a population of only few thousand, which had been purchased by Pakistan from Oman in September 1958, would become a major metropolis. It was expected that Gwadar alone would change the quality of life of the downtrodden Balochis; provide them with means of livelihood and take them from rags to riches. Unfortunately, as soon as the construction plans were announced, real-estate investors pounced at the location like vultures. Banners went up in major cities of other provinces to invest in the projected real-estate schemes, some were genuine but others mere scams, with the local Balochis benefitting nothing. The second problem arose because of its strategic location mentioned earlier. It’s ideal location between three key regions, South Asia, the oil-rich Middle East, and oil and gas-resourced Central Asia caused alarm bells to toll in Washington, New Delhi and a number of other capitals. It was perceived that the Chinese presence at Gwadar could choke the US, Indian and other interests plying through the Persian Gulf and Arabian Sea. For Pakistan, Gwadar Port offered a short and direct warm water access to the landlocked but energy rich Central Asian States and Afghanistan.  Gwadar was to bring the same benefits to Pakistan as the Suez to Egypt. Completion of the port of Gwadar was to not only enhance the efficient process of the transfer of goods but also secure Pakistan’s maritime interests. During the 1971 Pak-India war, the single port of Karachi as well as the Naval base was blockaded by India. Being 470 kilometers away from Karachi, Gwadar is a secure alternate. Additionally, to link Gwadar Port both with Karachi, the 653 km-long Makran Coastal Highway was constructed linking Gwadar with Karachi via Pasni and Ormara. After its completion in 2004, Pakistan’s National Highway Authority (NHA) commenced the construction of the 820-km long M8 motorway linking Gwadar with Ratodero in Sindh province via Turbat, Hoshab, Awaran and Khuzdar and onwards with the rest of the Motorways of Pakistan and the north, to enable the transit of goods to and from Afghanistan and the Central Asian States. To provide efficient aerial link, in 2007, hpw the Civil Aviation Authority of Pakistan acquired land to construct the new Gwadar International Airport on 6,000 acres, at an estimated cost of Rs. 7.5 billion.

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Unfortunately, vested interests are putting impediments in the fruition of the project. To deter China, a number of its engineers were abducted and some were killed. Strife and insurgency has enveloped the province of Balochistan, with separatist elements fanning hatred against fresh settlers while simultaneously sabotaging the road communications project. Besides the foreign hand, numerous sources point fingers at internal machination too.

Sajjad Shaukat, international affairs expert and author of the book “US vs. Islamic Militants, Invisible Balance of Power”, in his article ‘Gwadar Seaport completion requires immediate attention’, posted on January 5, 2013, reveals that “Although secret agencies like American CIA, Indian RAW and Israeli Mossad have been arranging acts of sabotage in Balochistan including other parts of the country for their countries’ collective strategic interests, yet it is our misfortune that Pakistan’s political leadership has caused delay in the completion of Gwadar Seaport owing to lack of interest and willingness, instead of vigorously pursuing the project. Unfortunately, short term vested interests of these politicians have prevailed over the long term national interests, creating differences between the state institutions which further complicated the situation rather than a progress for the rapid development of the project.”

The erudite scholar apportions blame on Pakistan’s Ministry of Port and Shipping, stating that on August 28, 2012, in a meeting of the Senate Committee on Ports and Shipping, it was presented that government’s failure to transfer 584 acres of land in possession of Pakistan Navy at the mouth of the port was a major obstacle with Port of Singapore Authority (PSA) and resolution of the related issues. When this scribe contacted Naval Authorities, they confirmed that the 584 acre tract of land at Shambha Ismail near Gwadar, was acquired legally by PN but in interest of the project, it has offered to vacate it, provided alternate real estate is allotted. To-date they have not heard from official sources.

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Similarly, impediments are being placed on the development of the northern road link so that the dependence on Karachi continues. Moreover, it has been disclosed that the Gwadar Port Authority’s agreement with PSA is flawed and rules were bent to benefit some blue-eyed persons. Now, Pakistan has decided to give the operations at Gwadar port to China as soon as the terms of agreement with the PSA expire. In this regard, the Planning Commission’s task force on maritime industry has proposed that an operational agreement with PSA be cancelled, which had undertaken to spend $525 million in five years, but nothing was spent during the last three years. No commercial vessel had arrived at Gwadar port during the same period. If Gwadar Port is to meet the same fate as PIA, Railways, energy sector and steel mill, it is indeed abysmal but in this case, the poor people of Balochistan will continue to be submerged in the quagmire of neglect. It is time to save the project, which holds immense potential for the uplift of impoverished Balochistan.