Pakistani naval personnel stand guard near a ship carrying containers at the Gwadar port. Photo: AFP / Aamir Quereshi

PESHAWAR – A Chinese multi-billion-dollar infrastructure project in Pakistan faces a popular revolt in the southwestern province of Balochistan over alleged massive displacement of people, loss of livelihoods and a shortage of basic necessities.

The protest marks the latest snag in the $60 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor infrastructure scheme, which took a hit earlier this year when Islamic terrorists attacked a bus carrying Chinese workers involved in a power plant project.

The current unrest centers on the Gwadar port project, which is part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) that has pumped billions of dollars in investment into Pakistan. Chinese investors have recently committed to invest as much as $15 billion in Gwadar’s petrochemical facilities.

Protesters say Pakistani authorities have failed to provide alternative jobs for people in the traditional fishing community who have lost their livelihoods and have been dislocated from their ancestral native lands on what many view as empty promises.

A massive protest in the volatile province entered its second week on December 3. The demonstrations are growing and may spread to other parts of the province unless the government takes practical steps to address the protesters’ grievances.

Maulana Hidayat-ur-Rehman Baloch, of a native fishing tribe, is leading the Gwadar Ko Huqooq Do Tehreek (Movement for Gwadar’s rights). The movement has staged massive rallies and sit-ins in various parts of the province’s Makran division during the last few weeks to press their demands.

Traders and businesspeople joined the movement by declaring a complete shut-down strike on December 2. Protestors have blocked national highways in Gwadar, Turbat, Pishkan, Zamran, Buleda, Ormara and Pasni regions and have held a sit-in for two weeks.

Demonstrating a rare show of solidarity with the protestors, thousands of women have also marched, demanding basic rights and an end to illegal trawling in the Arabian Sea, which the protesters say has rendered the local fishing workers and others jobless.

Pakistani naval personnel stand guard near a ship carrying containers at the Gwadar port west of Karachi, where a trade program between Pakistan and China operates. Photo: AFP / Aamir Qureshi

Baloch plans what he calls an unprecedented rally in Gwadar on this Friday. He told Asia Times, “I invite my friends from all over the country to join this huge gathering that will be a historic protest in this part of the country.”

He said the movement, which initially focused on Gwadar issues, was now spreading to the whole of the province and was now also struggling for Balochistan’s rights.

On December 2, the Punjab Legislative Assembly passed a resolution pressing the federal government to accept the demands of the people of Gwadar and to address their complaints.

The lawmakers regretted that women and children were agitating for their just demands. “Gwadar played an important role in the development of the country and ignoring its residents would not be a wise thing to do on the part of the government,” the resolution said.

The main demands include a ban on trawling in the Arabian Sea, access to coastal areas near the Gwadar seaport, and reopening of the Iranian border, which is a major commercial and trading center for the local population.

The protestors are demanding the removal of checkpoints erected for the security of Chinese nationals and are calling for basic amenities like drinking water, health, education and employment opportunities in Gwadar and other areas of the Makran division.

On December 2, the provincial government deployed more than 5,500 police in Gwadar from different parts of Balochistan to keep order and for anti-riot purposes.

“We will welcome them and treat them with the traditional sweets of Gwadar if they come over here,” Baloch sarcastically remarked.

He said he has so far held two rounds of talks with the provincial government. “They agreed with our demands but never took measures to implement them,” Baloch added.

In its first public reaction to the demonstrations, China rejected media reports and what it said were attempts to smear the CPEC and China-Pakistan relations.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said at a regular briefing on December 2 that some media outlets had reported protests in the Gwadar region against excessive fishing rights given to Chinese trawlers, which deprived the local people of their livelihood.

The spokesperson said, “This is completely fake because certain media outlets publicized the protests in the Gwadar to target China. Our investigation revealed that no Chinese trawler has gone to the Gwadar Port area for fishing or docking purposes.”

He said the Gwadar Port was a leading project of the CPEC, which has focused on the development of the whole region and which offered job opportunities to the local population.

However, media reports in June said Pakistan had issued permits to Chinese trawlers for deep-sea fishing in Karachi and Gwadar. The media quoted Abdul Berr, chairperson of the Fishermen’s Cooperative Society, as saying that Chinese vessels would help the Pakistani fishing industry to diversify its exports of fisheries products and develop the industry on modern lines.

However, the Chinese would not use bottom trawling in the deep sea to avoid the threat to marine life, he said.

Pakistan exports around $600 million worth of fish and bycatch annually and about three million fisheries workers earn their livelihood on Sindh and Balochistan’s 1050 kilometer coastline.

In February this year, dozens of Chinese fishing vessels of the Fujian Fishery Company docked at the port of Karachi after returning from Gwadar, which caused a wave of resentment in the local fishing community. They were worried that commercial fishing vessels and bottom trawling would deplete fish stocks off Sindh and Baluchistan.

In mid-June, hundreds of fisheries workers, political staff and civil society group members staged a protest rally in Gwadar against the federal government’s decision to grant Chinese trawlers licenses to trawl in the Arabian Sea.

However, the organizers of the Movement for Gwadar’s Rights claim that local trawlers belonging to influential Sindh trawler mafias were more active in Gwadar. “How powerful this mafia is that they did not end their illegal trawling in Gwadar despite our protest and demonstrations,” Baloch said.

“Our struggle is against those who restricted our movements, snatched our livelihood, denied us the amenities of life and treated us as subhuman in our land,” Baloch said, making veiled reference to the excesses meted out to the local population by the military personnel on security duties in Gwadar.      

Chinese fishing trawlers are seen in Pohnpei in Micronesia. Fishery workers in Pakistan fear trawlers like these will damage fish stocks. Photo: AFP

Gwadar is being promoted as an efficient trade channel that will help to reduce Beijing’s dependence on costly and circuitous South China Sea routes for its energy import needs.

Beijing is also set to reap the economic benefits from Gwadar’s seaport as part of a 40-year lease deal finalized by Pakistani authorities with the China Overseas Port Holding Company.

The port contract, awarded in 2013, allowed China to bag over 90% of the gross revenues generated from the port and 85% from surrounding “free zones.”