Bleeding dry of blood and gas

July 09 - 15, 2007

Cyclone YemYin, which hit Balochistan in the last week of June, has killed more than 130 people and displaced 250,000. The cyclone unleashed flash floods, high winds, and caused the overflow of dams. The floods have affected more than 2 million people, and with many of the survivors living in the open and drinking polluted water from rivers, the death toll is expected to rise. Chief Minister Jam Mohammad Yousuf, who is on a tour of flood-affected areas, said the calamity had caused a loss ranging between Rs60 billion and Rs70 billion to the province. "The magnitude of this disaster is not less than that of the 2005 earthquake in Azad Kashmir and the NWFP," he told a news conference in Quetta. The largest, desert-like province of Pakistan is not new to such disasters. In 2005 heavy rains caused flooding which killed more than 360 people as a dam burst its banks and swept away nine small villages, home to 800-900 people.

It cannot be denied that the impoverished conditions that people are forced to live in make them more susceptible to such climatic disasters. The extreme weather conditions that the coastal areas of Pakistan are prone to cannot be controlled, however the damage that is caused can be. Even the government's response to such calamities is far less than adequate. The provincial government had received information of the floods within four hours but failed to form a rescue and relief plan for the next three days. There have also been reports of an initial refusal to accept international aid, and failure to provide warnings to people about the cyclone and breaching of dams. Speaking at a news conference at the press club on Saturday, Baloch Students Organization (women wing) spokeswoman Farida Baloch said that the government has huge funds to construct cantonments and launch what she calls anti-Baloch mega-projects, but it has no money to carry out an adequate relief and rescue operation.

This anti-government stance of the Baloch people is not unfounded. Balochistan's natural wealth and strategic importance has caused it to face constant conflict and instability for many decades. The province has never enjoyed political and economic autonomy and has also been subject to frequent military operations. Balochis have been intentionally and systematically kept out of state offices with thirteen non-Baloch governors appointed to govern Balochistan to date. Under the MMA and PML provincial government, Balochistan has gone into a vicious cycle of debt and interest repayment burden. In June 2006, the provincial government's loans with State Bank stood at Rs15 billion after interest payment of over Rs262.7 million. The province had obtained Rs19 billion in loans in the 1990s and has paid Rs39 billion as interest and it still needs Rs14 billion more to service its debts.

Balochistan is thus the poorest and least developed province of Pakistan, with over 50 percent of the population living below the poverty line. Amazingly, the province is the richest in mineral resources and gas reserves. It contributes Rs85 billion per year through gas revenues from which it receives only Rs7 billion per year. Mining contracts for the province's copper and gold deposits were awarded to Chinese and Chilean companies without consulting the provincial government. Balochistan only gets two percent royalty from the contracts but Islamabad and Beijing share 48% and 50% of the profits respectively.

Balochistan's demands for revenues from natural resources have been constantly denied by the government on constitutional grounds. Article 172(2) of the constitution gave the ownership of all minerals, oil and gas to the federal government as a result of which the power to fix the price, the rate of royalty and the rate of excise duty rested with the federal government. The people of Balochistan thus feel that they are being robbed of their rights by the 'Punjab' dominated government and all the major development projects that are currently going on will not give them any benefit. For example, only 3.74 percent of the population in Balochistan has access to gas as compared to 51 percent from Punjab alone, which contributes only 4.75 percent gas.

As if the political and economic apartheid of the Baloch people was not enough, Balochistan is also used as Pakistan's nuclear test site. On May 28, 1998, Pakistan conducted five nuclear tests at Chagai. Generals of the Pakistan Army used the Balochi district though they very well understood the sentiments of the local population against such a move. A severe drought descended on the region after the nuclear tests, sending tribesmen to relief camps. Sardar Akhtar Mengal, a former chief minister, insisted the drought had a connection with the nuclear explosions.

The Baloch people thus understandably consider all government schemes and development projects with suspicion. Mega-projects launched in Balochistan including Gwadar port, the Mirani Dam, the coastal highway, cantonments, and the extraction of copper and gold deposits, do not envisage any participation or direct benefit for the province. These developments, the Baloch fear, may cause an economic influx of migrants causing a demographic imbalance.

The grievances of the Baloch population should not ignored until natural disasters bring them to our attention. The policies of the current government of military aggression against the population should be denounced by all and an unbiased political solution should be achieved. Pakistan should not repeat its mistakes and push Balochistan towards becoming another Bangladesh.