Balochistan: The unrealised potential | By Omer Siddique, M Ahsan Achakzai


Balochistan: The unrealised potential

BALOCHISTAN’S important geostrategic position in the region and the presence of substantial natural resources make the province an attractive investment hub.

However, despite the province’s importance, Balochistan is the least developed of Pakistani provinces, with very little private investment.

Even Quetta, which is the capital city of Balochistan and one of Pakistan’s largest cities in terms of population, is lagging behind the other provincial capitals.

While visiting Quetta as an outsider one notices that although there is a considerable development in the real estate and construction sectors – such as the construction of shopping malls and housing societies – there is little investment in other productive and employment generating sectors.

The lack of private investment in productive sectors and the relative and absolute backwardness of Balochistan is a puzzle.

Although private investment figures are not available at the provincial level in Pakistan, by looking at other indicators one can infer that private investment in Balochistan is quite low.

The low labour force participation rate (LFPR) in Balochistan is 24.93 (which is lower than in KP and Punjab) indicates discouraged workers, possibly because of the lack of employment opportunities.

Similarly, a low literacy rate of 46% (which is lower than literacy rates in KP, Sindh, and Punjab) signals a lack of a skilled labour force that can complement private investment.

One of the main reasons for the backwardness of Balochistan, identified by various stakeholders during PIDE’s researchers’ visit to Quetta, is that although the province is resource-rich, the benefits of abundant resources have not accrued to the province’s average resident.

A case is in point is the Saindak Copper Project.Even the Hub Industrial Estate, which was established to incentivize industrial activity in the province, has not benefitted Balochistan.

It is alleged that it is an extension of Karachi-based industries.These industries have set up their businesses in Hub for seeking tax relief.

Even the workforce that is employed in Hub comes primarily from Karachi and Sindh. Another factor identified is the quality of education.

Despite the growth of “hard” education infrastructure, the “software”, i.e., the quality of education, remains poor.

Inferior education quality forces those who can afford it to send their children to educational institutions in Karachi, Islamabad, Lahore or Peshawar.

Since everyone cannot afford to send their children outside Balochistan, the educational attainment and skills are very low in the province.

The same is true of medical facilities in the province; with little affordability, most people prefer taking their sick loved ones to Karachi or elsewhere for medical treatment.

Then there is the issue of water availability.The situation in Balochistan is dire.In Quetta, for example, rough estimates show that hardly 20% of localities are connected to the WASA water supply system.

While the government believes that Quetta’s water issue would be resolved through Mangi Dam, the business community believes that the Mangi Dam water will be diverted to DHA Quetta, which is underconstruction and is believed to accommodate 30,000 houses in the next ten years.

Thus, Mangi Dam might resolve the water problem for the future DHA residents, the rest of the localities’ water problem would remain if it does not worsen.

The lack of water availability is not only a cause of concern for households but is also a threat to the sustainability of agriculture in Balochistan.

To be sure, Balochistan supplies 55-60% of cold season fresh fruit and 35-40% of vegetable varieties to the country.

Adding to the woes of Balochistan’s residents is the closure of the Chaman and Taftan borders.

With the closure of these borders, the informal trade (smuggling) between Pakistan and Iran, and Pakistan and Afghanistan has been disrupted, affecting the livelihood of thousands of Balochistan’s residents.

It was revealed that, surprisingly, even when traders possess the proper import documents, the trucks containing imported goods are stopped at no less than 20 places starting from the Chaman and Taftan borders to other cities and provinces.

It delays the merchandise reaching its destinations, increases the cost due to the speed money paid, and creates frustration among the traders.

So what are the reasons for such a state of affairs in Balochistan? The socio-political structure in Balochistan is very complex, which is perhaps partly to be blamed for the prevalent situation in the province.

Scholars agree that Balochistan, for historical and other reasons, is divided among a tiny yet powerful class of tribal chieftains, the lower class, and a small group of public sector employees.

The middle class, which is a catalyst for social, economic, and political changes is missing. Thus, such a division in the society in Balochistan has created opportunities for rent-seeking, steering the economy towards more exclusivity.

Our discussions in Quetta made it obvious that the residents of Balochistan feel that they are ostracized.

There is, thus, a need to address and remove their misgivings. Balochistan is too important and large a province to be left hanging in the status quo.

With the right policies and planning, and assimilating the residents of Balochistan into the mainstream, the province can play a substantial role in uplifting Pakistan’s economy.

It has already played a huge part in Pakistan’s development by providing mineral resources, including natural gas, to the whole of Pakistan.

While our discussions highlighted the problems faced by Balochistan and Quetta, the discussions also made it clear that, despite the trust deficit, misgivings, and neglect of the province, the residents of Balochistan sincerely want to be a part of the mainstream politics and economy.

Some of the policy options to uplift Balochistan could be: improving the infrastructure in far-flung areas to facilitate access for different goods to the market; removing unnecessary security checkpoints to facilitate the transport of traded goods to other cities and provinces; setting up storage facilities and food processing units in public-private ownership mode; giving a fair share to the province in mineral extraction and production; and providing land and utilities at attractive rates so that private investment is encouraged.

—The writer is contributing columnist.


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