Cranes tower above the first, 602-meter-long quay at the Gwadar port in Baluchistan on the southernmost tip of Pakistan last October. This is the site of what is supposed to become a giant trade port as part of China's 'New Silk Roads'. Photo: AFP/ DPA
Gwadar port in Balochistan on the southernmost tip of Pakistan. Just as they complain about gas distribution, irate residents of the underdeveloped province complain that they are not receiving an appropriate share of the benefits from the Chinese-backed port project. In both cases they see evidence of the center's traditional marginalization of their province. Photo: AFP / DPA

Temperatures falling below freezing point during winters is the norm for large parts of Pakistan’s largest province, Balochistan. Quetta, the provincial capital, customarily experiences snowfall during the months of December and January. Along with spells of rainfall and snow amid plummeting temperatures, another annual experience for the locals this time of the year is a plunging gas supply.

This winter, however, protests against the shortage of gas began in November. The demonstrators also expressed outrage over the fact that, despite the lack of gas in homes, the bills that they had been sent reflected a significant price hike.

In January, the Sui Southern Gas Company (SSGC), which supplies gas across Sindh and Balochistan, reported an additional 40 million feet per day (mmcfd) dip, which took the overall shortfall to 450 mmcfd. With total supply of 1,100 mmcfd, the shortfall stands at over 40%. Meanwhile, province-wide deaths continue to be caused by the severity of the winter.

This has prompted protests by the opposition leaders in the Balochistan Assembly. In demonstrations in front of the Senate’s Standing Committee on Petroleum, Senator Sarfraz Bugti said the energy crisis in Balochistan had reached a point where it might compel him to “pick a gun.” Last week, six lawmakers from the Balochistan Assembly staged a sit-in in front of the SSGC office in Quetta under the leadership of Opposition Leader Malik Sikandar.

“We’ve seen record low temperatures across the country,” says SSGC Spokesperson Kashif Siddiqui, “and there has been significant increase in the demand and supply of gas nationwide. Gas shortage isn’t a problem exclusively for Balochistan, it is experienced all over Pakistan.

“The main issue that aggravates the gas crisis in Balochistan is the fact that locals are using compressors that suck all the gas. So if the homes in the front of a particular street use the compressors, the households at the back remain devoid of any gas,” he added.

The misuse of compressors by locals to draw out additional gas, and large scale gas theft in the province, are officially cited as the causes for Balochistan’s gas crisis. In a statement issued to express his concerns for the locals, Balochistan’s governor, retired Justice Amanullah Khan Yasinzai, put the onus on “illegal connections.” However, the province’s predicament runs much deeper.

While SSGC supplies gas to both Sindh and Balochistan, which which on the surface might suggest similar shortages for both the provinces, the winters in Balochistan are significantly harsher. Similarly, where other provinces ensure closure of industries and CNG stations to direct their gas supplies to domestic users, Balochistan currently doesn’t have any industrial base.

Even so, the Sindh government, too, is at loggerheads over the lack of gas it receives, despite providing more than half of the country’s domestic supply. For Balochistan the grievances are decades-old.
Till 2017, Balochistan provided almost a quarter of the national gas supply, having been Pakistan’s largest supplier till around the turn of the century. From the 1952 discovery of natural gas in Sui – a small town in Balochistan’s Dera Bugti district, after which the SSGC is named – till the 1980s, the gas field supplied gas to the entire country barring the area it originates from. Even today, Sui itself doesn’t get direct gas from fields with a daily supply of 800 mmscf only four miles away.

For the locals in Balochistan, the fight for the right over its own resources has been ongoing since Pakistan’s inception. “They took gas away from us in 1950s and gave it to Punjab and Sindh with even Dera Bugti not receiving the gas it produced,” says Balochistan Assembly Opposition Leader Malik Sikandar, who led last week’s protest in front of the SSGC office in Quetta. “From Sui back then to Reko Diq [copper mine], Saindak [copper and gold project] and Gwadar [port], this is a long history of age-old grievances of people of Balochistan. But the gas crisis is more imminent. When the center has agreed to supply gas, it should ensure its supply.”

As things stand a mere four districts in Balochistan get direct gas supply: Quetta, Ziarat, Mastung and Kalat. According to the SSGC, 32 other towns in the province receive Liquid Petroleum Gas (LPG), with the loopholes in the current gas supply infrastructure facilitating the gas theft. “Lower level officials [of the SSGC] are themselves involved in the tampering of gas,” Sikander said. “The company itself should take note of it and cases should be registered. We’ve shared our concerns with the police and the FC [Frontier Corps] as well. If 10 people are arrested, there won’t be any tampering with the gas supply.”

For the opposition leaders, the gas crisis is symptomatic of the neglect that the federal government has historically showed for Balochistan with regard to the locals’ rights over the resources and projects in the province.

Such question marks now surround the China Pakistan Economic Corridor, an energy dominated venture with Gwadar as its geo-strategic locus, which is currently being dictated by Beijing under its Belt and Road Initiative. “The first right of Gwadar’s benefits should be for locals, then Balochistan,” says Sikandar. “For the past one and a half years we’ve raised questions for the locals’ rights [in the Balochistan Assembly]. We want provincial and national legislation to clarify exact designation of revenues that are extracted from projects based in Balochistan.”

The National Financial Commission oversees the distribution of resources between the center and provinces. Similarly with regard to the allocation of the resources, the Article 158 of the Constitution of Pakistan reads: “The province in which a well-head of natural gas is situated shall have precedence over other parts of Pakistan in meeting the requirements from that well-head, subject to the commitments and obligations …”

However, lawmakers from Balochistan maintain that further legislation would clarify the status of projects like the economic corridor and other ventures that are being developed within the province. With regard to the gas crisis, locals also demand better representation of Balochistan in SSGC and the Oil and Gas Regulatory Authority.

The SSGC, which has a solitary individual from Balochistan among its 11-member board of directors, maintains that it is currently working on a “five-year plan” to improve gas transmission in the province. “We’re working on a revamp of 20-25 year old lines, especially in areas where populations have increased,” says SSGC spokesperson Kashif Siddiqui. Our ‘Mid City’ project, which will be initiated this year, is dedicated to creating more high pressure lines in Quetta. Over the next five years, there will be projects worth more than Pakistani Rs1,000 million (USD$6.47 million) executed in Balochistan.

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