A map shows the route of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/ Wanishahrukh
A map shows the route of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/ Wanishahrukh

The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which is a component of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, has become an economic national anthem in Pakistan. It comprises of a portfolio of projects whose value has reached US$60 billion.

Since the signing of the CPEC agreement in 2015, politicians in two small western provinces of Pakistan, Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, have repeatedly claimed that they are not getting their due share of CPEC projects. They allege that Punjab and Sindh, two relatively developed provinces, are the beneficiaries of Chinese development projects in Pakistan.

In the second week of April, Mir Abdul Quddus Bizenjo, chief minister of the southern province of Balochistan, alleged that his province was being neglected in the CPEC project. Addressing journalists in the capital Islamabad, Bizenjo claimed that Balochistan was not even getting 1% of the CPEC projects.

This is the first time that a high-profile person in government has endorsed the assertion that Balochistan is not getting a fair share of CPEC development. Therefore, Bizenjo’s statement holds paramount importance in the debate concerning equitable distribution of projects among the federating units of Pakistan.

In the past, Baloch nationalist politicians who believed in the federation of Pakistan have criticized the federal government for not giving Balochistan its due share in CPEC. The former chief minister of Balochistan, Sardar Akhtar Mengal, even claimed that CPEC was not meant for development of Balochistan but rather converting the Baloch nation into a “minority on its own soil.” Other ethnic nationalist politicians have echoed the same line of thinking about the CPEC.

Analysis of the CPEC projects based on the available information suggests that Bizenjo is not wrong in his claims about the CPEC not helping Balochistan at all.

The reason the CPEC project came into being was the deep seaport of Gwadar at the southernmost edge of Balochistan. The China Overseas Port Holding Company (COPHC) was awarded the contract to operate Gwadar Port. According to details revealed in the Senate of Pakistan, 91% of the revenues of Gwadar Port will go to COPHC and 9% to the Gwadar Port Authority for the next 40 years. Balochistan will not get a single penny from the revenue because ports are a federal subject and no steps were taken to make an exception for Balochistan, which is an impoverished province.

In addition to that, Gwadar city has been facing a chronic water shortage for the last few years. Gwadar is the centerpiece of CPEC and yet the residents of the city have a hard time getting water to drink on daily basis.

In order to address the drinking-water shortage in Gwadar, the federal government has announced many desalination plants, but none has materialized yet. Last month the foundations of another desalination plant were laid in Gwadar with the assistance of the United Arab Emirates and Swiss governments. This resulted in increasing the criticism that China is pumping tens of billions of dollars into CPEC but for desalination plants in Gwadar the government has to look for UAE and Swiss help.

Furthermore, major chunk of CPEC projects is for power generation, because Pakistan was facing a severe power shortage until 2015. CPEC projects are expected to generate almost 10,000 megawatts of electricity for the national grid. But again, Balochistan has not benefited from this power generation in any way.

Of the 21 electricity-generation plants planned under CPEC, only one is in Balochistan, and that will also supply electricity to national grid and not to Balochistan exclusively. The severity of the power shortage can be gauged from the fact that Balochistan requires 1,800MW of electricity and only gets 700MW. So the people of Balochistan genuinely feel left out of CPEC development when it can’t even fulfill their power needs.

After energy, infrastructure is the second-biggest focus of CPEC. But again, Balochistan is not benefiting from this at all.

At the moment all the major national highways in Balochistan are undivided roads. These narrow roads are the frequent sites of fatal highway accidents. In fact, five times as many people died in Balochistan in highway accidents in the last five years as from suicide bombings.

On one hand CPEC funds are being used to build the Karachi-Lahore Motorway, connecting Sindh and Punjab, but on the other hand they can’t be used to widen the roads in Balochistan and make them divided highways. Therefore, it is not unfair to say that CPEC has become a lost opportunity for infrastructure development in Balochistan.

Based on all the aforementioned factors, there is no reason to disagree with Chief Minister Bizenjo’s complaint that Balochistan is being neglected in CPEC. The federal government, controlled by the right-wing Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, is calling the shots about CPEC and its first priority is the ruling party’s support base of Punjab, which makes up more than 50% of the population of the country. They are not willing to distribute the CPEC development projects equitably among all provinces, and Balochistan is the primary victim of this approach.

Now that the chief minister of Balochistan has broken the ice on CPEC, he should pursue the matter to the logical end. The Balochistan government and the Baloch parliamentarians in the National Assembly and Senate must actively campaign against the approach of the federal government, which is based on ignoring Balochistan’s development needs because of its negligible importance in electoral politics.  (Balochistan only has 20 of the 342 seats in the National Assembly.)

If Bizenjo does not follow up on his complaints about CPEC, then it will prove to be mere political rhetoric, which will not bode well for the impoverished people of Balochistan.

Adnan Aamir is an award-winning journalist and researcher based in Pakistan. He has written extensively on Belt and Road projects in South Asia. He regularly covers politics, economy, and conflict in Pakistan. His work has been published by Financial Times, Nikkei Asian Review, Jamestown Foundation, Lowy Institute, Dawn, The News and others. He is also the founder and editor of Balochistan Voices, a digital news publication, which covers the Balochistan province of Pakistan.

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