Dec 31, 2007 - Jan 06, 2008

While inaugurating the Gwadar port this year in March, President Pervez Musharraf had announced that the Balochistan's second port project at Sonmiani would be launched in December. Though the plan for Sonmiani port on Balochistan coast had been approved in April, yet no development work for construction of the country's fourth port has yet been started in Lasbela district. One wonders, has the project gone in the background?

The second port project in Balochistan could not attract the interest of local or foreign investors. Though official plan indicates that it would be a mega sea port project with a proposed modern port city on the pattern of Gwadar, yet no foreign country has so far shown interest to fund and assist the construction of Sonmiani port. The government has also not pointed out whether it will fund the project through its own resources or arrange some foreign funding for carrying out the mega project.

Sonmiani is a small fishing village of 3000 people. The people of Sonmiani Bay live mostly in four villages, Sonmiani, Damb, Bhera and Baloch Goth. The population of the three villages located on the coastline is estimated at about 12,000 people. It is strategically located between two port cities- Karachi and Gwadar. The new port at Sonmiani would not only add to the strategic significance of Balochistan's coast but also make it a regional hub for trade and business activities. It would further unlock the country's potential of hinterland. According to the official plan, the new port city would be equipped with world-class infrastructure including roads, airport, hotels, resorts, IT, banking, industrial parks and oil refineries. The new port city would be an industrial hub and will open new vistas of economic opportunities and create thousands of jobs for the people.

The proposed port city called Allah Din Cove would be located at Miani Hor in Sonmiani on the Balochistan coast. 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. In April, Balochistan government had imposed a ban on transfer of all kinds of land till the completion of a survey of the Sonmiani and Lairi tehsils in district Lasbela, where the construction of a port had been proposed.

Provincial government also withdrew the official Exploration Lease that was granted to the Gulf Minerals, a Dubai-based company due to Islamabad's move to construct Sonmiani port. The company had been engaged in setting up mineral exploration and allied facilities in the proximity of Sonmiani. The company had started the project of the minerals sand with an investment of $199 million last year in 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. This particular project was 100 percent export-oriented with minimum export of Rs. 500 million per year.

The project politicized: Soon after its announcement, the Sonmiani project was politicized. Baloch nationalist political parties expressed their serious reservations about the project, as they did in case of Gwadar port. They contend that the proposed construction of Sonmiani seaport would cause a demographic imbalance and convert the Baloch into minority. Former Deputy Speaker of the Balochistan Assembly and elected member from Sonmiani Muhammad Aslam Bhootani had criticized the federal government for not taking the elected representatives and people of the area into confidence before planning and announcing a new port in Sonmiani.

The political parties held rallies in different parts of the province to mobilize people against the usurpation of land, resources and the coastal belt of Balochistan. They demanded of the government to ensure protection of rights of the local people in terms of jobs and lands and a guarantee that no injustice and discrimination would be afflicted on them. Referring to the Gwadar port project, they claim that reservations and apprehensions of the local people have not yet been removed by the federal government. There seems however no need and rationale behind building another port on Balochistan coast, close to Karachi, until Gwadar port becomes fully operational. Balochistan Assembly has also unanimously rejected the proposed construction of Sonmiani port in district Lasbela.

The existing mangrove forests in Sonmiani spread over 2,500 hectares, which have been declared a protected area. 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 relish 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.

Before construction of another port in the province, 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 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.