Balochistan, the largest yet underdeveloped province of Pakistan, has long been plagued by a myriad of problems, such as poverty, illiteracy, poor health facilities, corruption, and lack of infrastructure. The province has been the site of a separatist insurgency, fueled by grievances over the lack of political representation and economic opportunities for the Baloch people. Despite its vast natural resources and strategic location, the province has remained marginalized and neglected by successive governments. The people of Balochistan have been living in a state of deprivation and despair, with little hope for a better future.
However, a new ray of hope has emerged for Balochistan in the form of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a flagship project of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) that aims to enhance regional connectivity and cooperation through the development of infrastructure, trade, and investment. CPEC is a comprehensive and long-term partnership between China and Pakistan, encompassing energy, transportation, industrial, and socio-economic projects. The corridor will link China’s northwestern region of Xinjiang with Pakistan’s southwestern port city of Gwadar, which lies in Balochistan. It is expected to bring about $62 billion worth of investment to Pakistan, out of which $19 billion has already been spent or committed.
The potential benefits of CPEC for Balochistan are immense and multifaceted. The project will not only improve the physical connectivity and accessibility of the province but also create numerous opportunities for socio-economic development and empowerment.
- Employment generation: CPEC will create a large number of direct and indirect jobs for the local people in various sectors, such as construction, operation, maintenance, transportation, logistics, tourism, and services. According to one estimate, CPEC will create 700,000 jobs in Pakistan by 2030, out of which a significant proportion will be in Balochistan. The project will also enhance the skills and capacities of the local workforce through training and education programs.
- Industrialization: CPEC will establish nine special economic zones (SEZs) in Pakistan, out of which three are planned in Balochistan. These SEZs will attract foreign and domestic investment and promote industrialization and diversification of the economy. The SEZs will also provide incentives such as tax exemptions, duty-free imports, and subsidized utilities to the investors.
- Energy security: CPEC will address the chronic energy crisis in Pakistan by adding 17,000 megawatts of electricity to the national grid. Out of this, 3,000 megawatts will be generated from coal-fired power plants in Balochistan.The project will also construct new oil and gas pipelines from Gwadar to China and other parts of Pakistan.
- Regional integration: CPEC will enhance the regional connectivity and integration of Balochistan with its neighboring countries such as China, Afghanistan, Iran, and Central Asian states. The project will facilitate cross-border trade and transit through the development of road and rail links. For instance, CPEC will connect Gwadar with Kashgar in China through the Karakoram Highway, considered one of the highest paved roads in the world. Gwadar is the linchpin of CPEC, as it will serve as a gateway to the Arabian Sea and a hub for trade and commerce between China, Pakistan, and other countries in the region. CPEC will also link Gwadar with Chabahar in Iran through a coastal highway, which will provide an alternative route to access the Indian Ocean.
However, CPEC is not without its challenges and controversies. Some of the issues that critics and stakeholders have raised include:
- The lack of transparency and accountability in the planning and implementation of CPEC projects. Many details about the financing, contracts, feasibility studies, environmental impact assessments, and social safeguards of CPEC projects have not been made public. This has raised concerns about corruption, debt trap and violation of national sovereignty.
- The security risks and threats posed by various militant groups and separatist movements that operate in Balochistan and other parts of Pakistan. These groups have attacked CPEC workers, installations, and convoys on several occasions, causing casualties and damages.
- The environmental and social costs and impacts of CPEC projects on Balochistan’s fragile ecology and diverse culture. Some of the CPEC projects involve large-scale land acquisition, displacement of people, destruction of natural habitats, pollution of water sources, and disruption of livelihoods. These projects may also affect the historical and cultural heritage sites of Balochistan, such as Mehrgarh and Mohenjo-Daro, which are among the oldest civilizations in the world.
Therefore, CPEC must be implemented in a way that is inclusive, participatory, sustainable, and beneficial for all stakeholders, especially the people of Balochistan. Some of the measures that can be taken to ensure this are:
- Enhancing the transparency and accountability of CPEC projects by involving the provincial and local governments, civil society organisations, media outlets, academic institutions, and community representatives in the planning, monitoring, evaluation, and oversight of CPEC projects. This will help to ensure that CPEC projects are aligned with the needs, priorities, aspirations, and rights of the people of Balochistan.
- Improving the security situation in Balochistan by addressing the root causes of violence and conflict, such as political grievances, economic deprivation, social injustice, human rights violations, and cultural alienation. This will require to create a conducive environment for CPEC projects to proceed smoothly and peacefully.
- Minimizing the environmental and social costs and impacts of CPEC projects by conducting rigorous environmental impact assessments to enhance Balochistan’s resilience to climate change.
CPEC is a game-changer for Balochistan and Pakistan. It offers a unique opportunity to transform the province from a backward and conflict-ridden region into a prosperous and peaceful society. However, this potential can only be realized if CPEC is implemented in a transparent, accountable, sustainable, and inclusive manner. This will require the cooperation and collaboration of all stakeholders, especially the people of Balochistan, who are the ultimate beneficiaries and owners of CPEC.
Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.