Balochistan at Crossroad

July 02 - July 08, 2007

The explosive advancement in the field of Information Technology (IT) and the globalization phenomenon has coined a new term of 'digital divide' in the international affairs underlining the importance of IT education for every region in the global village. Computer literacy is the high demand of present digital age.

Balochistan is the least developed province of the country. The local youth are still deprived of the opportunities and facilities, which are necessary to make development in any field of science and technology. Human capital and institutional capacity are considered as the essential components of the present knowledge-based economy, which produce ideas, make viable strategies and provide an impetus for growth and economic development of a region.

In wake of operationalization of Gwadar port, the province seems to be at the crossroad finding a way for ending stagnancy of human resources and for resource mobilization strategies to meet the future challenges. There is a dire need for qualified and professional port staff for successful marketing of the port management to potential customers, building of export processing zone, trans-shipment and warehousing facilities, fixing of port tariffs for shipping companies in order to be competitive. The emerging new information technologies in IT industry can assist the companies in the integration of IT with their work process, lowering of the cost and improving their product/services.

The IT ecosystem without its biotic elements (IT professionals) and abiotic factors (IT infrastructure) will have no meaning and use in Balochistan. There is a pressing need to protect these main actors of IT ecosystem for creating a favorable IT environment in the most backward province of the country. The IT professionals can guide the young entrepreneurs in solving their day-to-day problems and inform them the latest trends in IT especially in E-Commerce domain to answer all questions emerging due to dynamic change in IT and also suggest possible solutions to cope with emerging issues.

In recent past, some efforts at official level were made to develop IT sector in Balochistan, but it could not bear fruit for lack of proper planning. In 2001, a batch of 100 private and government employees from the province, were selected and sent to Islamabad for IT training under COMSATS Institute of Information Technology. Approximately Rs 25 million were spent for this purpose from IT fund allocated for the province. The training completed in one year and the first batch of IT trained personnel reached home. Unfortunately, the province could not benefit from the skill and expertise of IT trained personnel, who could promote and develop IT environment in Balochistan in the initial stages. These trained personnel could help computerize the official records of different departments at district level.

Unfortunately, no job was offered to them on their return as IT diploma holders. They were not employed, their skill remained unused and Rs 25 million went waste. IT is a field that requires steady practice. Practical wisdom demanded that the batch of IT professionals should have been adjusted or placed on various positions in public departments in the province, so that government could benefit from their expertise and knowledge. The military government had also launched IT educational programs at different colleges and institutions in Quetta, but the IT teachers were hired for the purpose from other provinces.

Presently, Quetta, the provincial capita has the presence of at least six IT firms in private sector including Innovative Information Technologies (IIT), Active Communications, Pearl Institute of Information Technology, Matrix Informatics and Origin Enterprises. The IIT is also an implementing partner with Government of Pakistan in e-government project.

The government should allocate more funds for setting up software houses in the province, said Rizwan Hashmi, who headed IIT from 2002 to 2004. He said, "The lack of encouragement of local IT professionals has been an important factor that could not promote the IT environment in the province'. "In provincial government department computers are merely being used as typewriters. We should not be limited to merely computer literacy in IT promotion". There is a dire need to impart training in data basis, networking, web designing, graphic designing and other areas of IT field", he added.

Rizwan told that the government was not taking initiative to use the skill of local IT professionals. "The provincial government IT department can play an important role in this regard. It should take concrete steps to encourage and strengthen local IT industry", he added.

According to a study, Pakistan' total IT industry revenue crossed US$2 billion in FY 05-06 and total exports crossed USD 1 billion in the same period. Growth in exports each of the last three years has been around 50% while the domestic market has grown at 33% per year. Though Pakistan is now on the world IT map, yet its strategically located and area-wise largest province is still lagging behind in IT sector. The scarcity of revenue and absence of venture capital are the main issues, which should be resolved by allocating more funds for consolidation of local IT industry in Balochistan.

"There is no industry in Quetta", said Dr. Altaf Husain, the Chairman Computer Science Department, University of Balochistan. He said, "Balochistan lacks the skilled and qualified persons to develop IT sector in the province. It also lacks the IT infrastructure. That is why, the skilled IT professionals move towards other provinces preferably to Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad", he added.

Dr. Altaf told this scribe that five students from Balochistan had been sent abroad, two in Germany and three in France for Ph.D under Higher Education Commission (HEC) program. "Bioinformatics and entrepreneurship" are the new subjects, we are poised to introduce in the province, he revealed. "The government must allocate handsome funds for IT education and developing IT infrastructure in Balochistan. It can arrange internship program in Karachi, Lahore and other cities for IT students of this province for a period of six months", he added.

Under the Musharraf administration, the federal government provided a fund of Rs. 39 million for the establishment of Balochistan University of Information Technology and Management Sciences (BUITMS). The department of Information Technology, Electronic and Telecommunication Engineering of BUITMS is currently managing a provincial IT Forum aimed at apprising and helping entrepreneurs in their changing business environment in Balochistan.

"The establishment of first IT University in Quetta in 2002 was an exemplary and welcome step by the federal government", said Professor Shamim Akhtar, Dean of faculty of Management Sciences in BUITMS. He said, "Balochistan needs human capital and trained IT professionals. At least 30 young professionals and teachers from the university have been sent abroad under HEC program for training in IT and Ph.D programs". It will take time, at least 4 to 5 years for promotion of IT skills and growth of the sector in Balochistan, he added.

He also told this scribe that BUITMS is also conducting an IT training program for the elected members of Balochistan. "We expect IT sector will get boost after completion of mega projects like Gwadar port, which is bound to generate tremendous economic activity in Balochistan for its geo-strategic location in the Asian region".

Pakistan Software Export Board should play its due role and make a viable strategy for placing IT products from Balochistan in the international market. The local software business should be exempted from taxes to create a friendly environment for IT companies in the province. The local companies need a healing touch from the government. If awarding contracts accommodates them, it will help them build their record and play significant role in griping a market for Balochistan, both nationally and internationally.

The key issue is the development and consolidation of IT industry in the province. There will be no use of producing an army of IT professionals without developing and strengthening IT industry in the province. Government should resolve the problems of IT firms, help them build their trade record and place them in the national and international IT market. Steps should also be taken for imparting IT education in Balochistan at school level by setting up computer laboratories. The Federal government and the province should equally share the expenditure.

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.