There is little sign of any blossoming of democratic culture in Pakistan, but the situation in Balochistan has been even worse. This was reflected in the people taking to the streets in the province in a bid to demand rights and raise issues that usually do not get coverage in mainstream media.
The recent demonstrations in Gwadar – which now stand resolved after an agreement between the provincial government and the protesters – were particularly focusing on the presence of large fishing trawlers along the coast of Balochistan. There is a lack of health facilities across Balochistan and potable water is even scarcer. Since democratic and leftist parties have not been allowed space to independently operate in Balochistan, the likes of the Jamaat-e-Islami and JUI are emerging as rightest alternatives to more liberal and progressive forums. In northern Balochistan, the JUI has had a sizeable presence for a long time. In southern Balochistan Maulana Hidayatyar Baloch of the JI is vying for political space.
There are various factors that have deterred civil society and political activists in Balochistan from playing a more dynamic role in the province. For any civil society to thrive, there is always a need for fundamental freedoms such as freedoms of assembly and expression so that there emerges a culture of debate and dialogue. Unfortunately, federal governments and state institutions have played a more invasive role rather than cultivating a harmonious relationship with the people of Balochistan.
The people of Balochistan have been raising their experiences of going through numerous check posts before they can enter their own cities and towns. In the absence of a functioning local government system, people have nowhere to turn to. Even at the provincial level, the leadership that claims to represent the people of Balochistan is not seen as representative of the people.
There have been several committees that pretended to negotiate with the disgruntled lot in the province; such attempts have failed to produce fruitful results. The people of Balochistan are as capable as from any other province in the country; but the opportunities afforded to them are not at par. Primarily it is the responsibility of the state to create livelihood opportunities for all capable citizens irrespective of their ethnicity or religion. They should be able to join the workforce with the facilities and skills required in the 21st century, but just skill won’t help.
In the past few years, protests and sit-ins have taken place in various parts of the country and the response from the government and state institutions has been quite different. As an example, we can recall the sit-in staged by the bereaved Hazara families with the bodies of their dear ones who had lost their lives in terrorist attacks. They demanded that PM Imran Khan visit them but there was an inflexible retort from the PM House asking the families to first bury the bodies.
We can also recall North Waziristan in 2019 when over a dozen peaceful protesters lost their lives. In northern Balochistan, the incident in which young college lecturer Arman Loni was killed while leading a peaceful procession. There have been numerous incidents in which peaceful demonstrators had to face brutal crackdowns when they simply wanted to register their grievances. Such demonstrations are a fundamental element of a democratic polity that calls for tolerance.
On the other side, we have witnessed the government of Pakistan and its ministers at the federal and provincial levels show an abject servility in dealing with extremist groups such as the TLP and TTP. Civil society groups and political parties that believe in diversity and liberal values face the wrath of the rulers. For the past nearly 75 years, they have witnessed a state policy that curbs the enthusiasm of democratic forces in the country, especially in areas such as Balochistan. If there has been any temporary boost to civil society and democratic parties – not using religion for political purposes – that was quickly reversed by even more curbs.
Balochistan enjoys more than 700 kilometers of coastline which is over 70 percent of the total coastline of Pakistan. The presence of fishing trawlers caused quite an unrest among the people living along the coast. Millions of people depend for their livelihood on fishing and they cannot ignore this kind of fishing by trawlers that are destroying marine life. This depletion in marine life will soon deprive the local fishermen of their livelihood. Their concerns are genuine and there is no need to associate these concerns with any anti-state sentiments.
These fishermen – be they in Gwadar or Pasni – have been fishing for generations. The residents of coastal towns in Balochistan are living mostly in primitive conditions, just like other citizens across the province do. Extreme poverty, illiteracy, disease, and malnutrition are common. The natural resources that we have been extracting from the soil of Balochistan for the past 70 years have not helped much in the development of their cities and towns.
More attention has been given to highways but there has been little focus on rural and urban infrastructure in so many cities and towns which are in a dilapidated condition. The government has not updated the infrastructure that can benefit and empower the locals of Balochistan in particular. Economic backwardness is rampant – despite the fact that there is no dearth of oceanic resources, at least for now. These resources need careful planning for their sustainable use in future.
Pasni, which could be a thriving coastal city, has a population of hardly sixty thousand people. Pasni and Gwadar need to be utilised more to benefit the local populations. Unless local people have sway over the affairs of their coast and their land, protests are likely to keep gathering every now and then.
There is a need to refurbish at least six modern fish harbours along the coastline of Balochistan with complete and unhindered access for local residents. Despite having over 700km of coastline the people do not have harbours to dock their boats. They have to travel hundreds of kilometers just to dock the boats and this makes their catch less cost-effective. The impoverished communities of Balochistan are not benefitting much. Though the significance of Gwadar has increased manifold, the promises made to the local people must also be kept.
The writer holds a PhD from the University of Birmingham, UK and works in Islamabad.
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