June 25 - July 01, 2007

Since President General Pervez Musharraf announced plans to build another port at Sonmiani in Balochistan after Gwadar, a controversy over the new port project has developed. The Balochistan Assembly has unanimously rejected the proposed construction of Sonmiani port in district Lasbela. While Baloch nationalists term it as another effort by the federal government to capture Baloch coastline and resources, the environmentalists feel a threat to the mangrove forests in Sonmiani bay, which is a good source of seeds for all three mangrove species in the country.

The coastal areas of Lasbela and Mekran constitute the 770-km long Balochistan coast, which is strategically located in relation to Central Asian Republics and Strait of Hormuz. While Gwadar lies in Mekran district, Sonmiani lies in Lasbela district, which forms the border with Sindh province. The Lasbela coast extends from Hub River in the east to the Hingol River in the west. The Lasbela coastal belt, in close proximity to Karachi, has two fishing villages and a more developed character. There are two industrial estates, a major power plant, and a ship-breaking yard. Dominated by Sonmiani Bay, the Lasbela coast comprises of Sonmiani, Hub and Gaddani towns.

The government has imposed a ban on the sale, purchase and lease of various properties in Sonmiani to avoid an artificial price hike of land values. The Ministry of Ports and Shipping is currently conducting a site survey for the country's new free port at Sonmiani called Allah Din Port. The initiative has created uncertainty among foreign companies involved in the exploration of minerals for the last few years. Gulf Minerals, a Dubai-based company, which had been engaged in setting up of an export-oriented mineral exploration and allied facilities in the proximity of Sonmiani is currently rolling back due to Islamabad's move to construct the country's fourth and Balochistan's second port at Sonmiani in Lasbela district. The Balochistan government reportedly issued a notification to the Gulf Minerals in which the official Exploration Lease has been withdrawn due to the strategic importance of the area.

The Balochistan government had granted the Exploration License covering area over 978 square kilometers last April. Since then, the company started conducting geo-topographical survey and exploratory drilling in its licensed area. The investment in the drilling, survey, testing, pilot plant setting, planning, consultants hiring, offices in Karachi and Gwadar, machinery and other related tasks cost around $5.5 million. The company started the project of the minerals sand with an investment of $199 million. This particular project was 100 percent export-oriented with minimum export of Rs 500 million per year. The company had managed successfully to form a syndicate of the expatriates and others to invest as well as planned the future prospects of investment in Pakistan. Hence it launched a project with the pre-leased investment of $500,000. According to the plan, the company was to set up permanent and 100 percent export-oriented industries in the country that includes, establishing and managing the processing units at the mines site and in Karachi. The company had also procured machinery for mining, earth moving, processing, logistics and processing chemicals, etc, from local and international market.

Sonmiani is a coastal town of 3000 people in the southeast of Balochistan, approximately 80 kilometers northwest of Karachi. It is strategically located between two port cities- Karachi and Gwadar. SUPARCO's space launch facilities are also located at Sonmiani Beach on the Arabian Sea. The proposed port city called Allah Din Cove would be located at Miani Hor in Sonmiani on the Balochistan coast. Miani Hor is actually the large lagoon formed at the mouth of the Porali River and is a distinctive feature of Sonmiani Bay. Miani Hor tidal estuary extends for 45 km from the delta of the Windar River and extensive mudflats are exposed on the west side of the lagoon at low tide.

Sonmiani literally means port of gold. Historically, it has been a famous port from which gold. and silk were exported to Gulf countries. Since time immemorial, the great trading route between Sindh and Persia has passed through Lasbela. The plains of Lasbela on the north-east corner of the Arabian Sea are fertile and irrigated by two rivers from the north, the Purali and the Kud. To the east lies Sindh province, and to the west Mekran. The bay of Sonmiani once extended over most of these plains, where the Purali delta is now growing with measurable strides. This was undoubtedly one of the greatest trade routes of the medieval days of Arab ascendancy in Sindh, and it is to this route that Lasbela owes a place in history.

The officials also plan to develop the future port city of Sonmiani as a tourist resort for its immense potential in tourism. The area consists of shallow sea bays, estuaries, sea beaches, inter-tidal mudflats and mangrove swamps. Arid subtropical climate results in very hot summers and mild winters with annual rainfall averaging less than 150mm. The bay is characterized by upwelling and sea fronts creating ideal conditions for high fish catch. Thousands of years ago, it was once an open bay but a spit of land finally closed off the lagoon from the sea. Indus Civilization site of Kot Bala is located in the interior of the Sonmiani Bay, along the Lasbela coast. This site is of great importance for its location close to the Arabian Sea. It is supposed to be one of the main harbors from which the Indus traders sailed their ships to the coasts of the Arabian Peninsula.

Balochistan coast is considered by virtue of its geophysical position the gateway to Central Asian States. In a rational scheme of the things, the two ports, Gwadar and Sonmiani, on the Balochistan coast can make the coastal region a regional hub of trade and business activities. The ports have increased the value of land along the coastal belt. Some people say that the government announced to build another port on Balochistan coast to shift focus from Gwadar.

The Sonmiani is currently being streamlined on the pattern of Gwadar. This remote area is attracting the attention of real estate mafia, who are currently engaged in speculative real estate business in Gwadar. The land prices in Sonmiani will skyrocket as soon as the President Musharraf performs the ground-breaking ceremony of the country's fourth seaport in Sonmiani bay by the end of this year. The local fishermen would sell their land for a song of development and ultimately they will lose their homes and livelihoods as outsiders rush in to buy property. This is exactly what the local people have witnessed in Gwadar

There seems however no need and rationale behind building another port on Balochistan coast, close to Karachi, until Gwadar port becomes fully operational. According to the environmentalists, the Miani Hor is a closed lagoon with a four kilometer wide mouth that opens out into the Arabian Sea and through this feature nurtures life forms that are distinct from the open shores of the Mekran coast. Much of the lagoon waters lie within mud flats and islands. In the waters of the bay, there are bottlenose dolphins, turtles and a multitude of water and sea birds. Over the years, with the help of international NGOs, the fishermen of Sonmiani Bay have come together to protect their natural resources and save the mangrove forests for their children. The dense mangrove forests provide an abundance of fish for trade and food, as well as fodder and fuel for the local residents. The mud crabs which grow in the mangrove roots are considered a delicacy in south East Asia and if marketed properly, can provide profits for the local community. Sonmiani is a small fishing village and the local fishermen earn handsome money during fishing season. The environmentalists say that people of Sonmiani Bay should be consulted before this seaport is even planned.

Undoubtedly, the new port will unlock the economic potential of hinterland, but only a development strategy compatible with geography, demography, political economy, socio-economic conditions, local needs and rapidly changing regional politics can help Pakistan to exploit Balochistan's geo-strategic location to its advantage making the local people primary beneficiary of the development process. The ongoing development process must bring a positive change in socio-economic and political milieu of Balochistan. If the people still feel socially alienated, economically frustrated and politically discriminated, then merely infrastructure development cannot appease their feelings. The development should be in accordance with the local needs and demands. Drastic administrative measures should be taken for enhancing human security indicators in the province.

It is also a hard fact that the province's geographical location has also been the reason for its underdevelopment, as rulers for five decades could not formulate a strategy to exploit its geographical position to the country's advantage. It was also not developed for its geo-strategic location of immense geopolitical importance and kept less attractive to the international players of resource politics. Even the British were cognizant of this fact about the province and they deliberately kept it backward, underdeveloped and a dark region to the external colonial forces. Hence, the province was denied all forms of reforms under British rule. The same British policy was followed by the successive governments in Islamabad.

Before construction of another port at Sonmiani, the government should take concrete steps for improving the law and order situation in Balochistan and take the local people into confidence. It is actually the peace that gives a boost to development activity and it is not the development that will bring peace and prosperity in the province. The military operation must immediately be halted and a constructive dialogue with genuine representatives of Balochistan be initiated to resolve the ongoing conflict. A need is also felt for a participatory federation providing constitutional guarantees for social, cultural and economic rights to the people without any discrimination. The drastic administrative and infrastructural reforms should be carried out in the province, followed by more powers and autonomy to all provinces.

Syed Fazl-e-Haider,, is a Quetta-based development analyst in Pakistan. He is the author of six books, including The Economic Development of Balochistan, published in May 2004.