• July 19, 2024

What’s eating Gwadar

‘Dream big. But keep it simple,’ instructed Art Williams’ aspirational audio back in the 1990s. For those who don’t know, Arthur L Williams Jr is a school football coach turned insurance executive in Palm Beach, Florida. He made a fortune in his adopted career and has been spreading the word through his aspirational talks and speeches since. I found his audio tape in a relative’s study. In his speech, he also discusses the importance of finding clients before establishing a brick-and-mortar shop.

When you land in Gwadar, the first thought that strikes your mind is how difficult it is to keep this big dream simple. For one, to the untrained mind, there is hardly anything there. And if you are returning to the city after 17 years, like me, it takes a while to connect the old memories with the new ones to recognise what has changed and how much. For instance, new roads with fancy names have been built. An elaborate port has sprung up. But so have security pickets.

As you must have guessed, my previous visit to Gwadar was in 2005. That was before the start of the insurgency. This meant that three accompanying fellow journalists and I could travel by road via Coastal Highway. We had to rent a car from Karachi, and the long journey did not fail to impress us with its imposing beauty. And when we reached Gwadar, the four things we found were pristine beaches, fish, coast-to-coast property dealer shops selling Gwadar masterplan for 10 thousand rupees a pop, and rudimentary trappings of the hospitality industry. One benefit of this visit and a vagabond’s lifestyle was that you could connect with the ordinary folks on the streets. The local population was exceedingly friendly. Since then, the port city has remained close to my heart even though I did not get a chance to visit again.

The city kept returning to the headlines for one reason or another. Still, it wasn’t until the 2015 launch of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor that it would claim its rightful place in our collective imagination. Since then, I have been itching to go back and see the progress for myself. And finally, this month, an opportunity presented itself. When I was asked if I would be willing to be a part of a delegation of the Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad (ISSI) to Gwadar, I jumped at the chance. The delegation was headed by the former foreign secretary and the institute’s current Director General, Ambassador Aizaz Chaudhry. If you are the only journalist in a delegation featuring distinguished career diplomats, academicians/researchers, and businessmen, the journey can be its own reward. I have a bag full of insights and anecdotes that I am putting aside for the rainy days when the topics of discussion are scant and/or I am facing writer’s block. For now, let us return to the subject at hand.

The air travel between Karachi’s ageing but bustling airport to Gwadar’s airstrip is almost one hour long, was smooth and uneventful. The first shock was the airstrip itself. The new under-construction airport will start functioning next year. Until then, the current one gives you the feeling of landing a crop duster on an abandoned airstrip far away from civilisation. The city’s character, as experienced, at first sight, has not changed much in the last 17 years and resembles a dust-blown shanty town in the middle of nowhere. As I said earlier, the road infrastructure, at least along the coastline, and the hospitality industry have come a long way, as there are two international quality hotels (PC and Gwadar Business Centre, where we stayed). But in the middle of nowhere isn’t an exaggeration. Gwadar is still not hooked up to the national grid for electricity. For power supply, the local population relies on Iran and, as is the case of businesses, the generators run by the China Overseas Ports Holding Company Pakistan (Pvt) Ltd (COPHC). Likewise, water supply is a big issue. The 2017 census shows the local population to be around 90 thousand, but the local authorities claim it is about 130 thousand now. Gwadar now has a university, although it is still in its infancy and will soon be shifted to a formal building. The internet and mobile connectivity is also unreliable. As we entered the city, three out of four mobile networks were down. They came back online within hours. But complete day-long outages are a matter of routine.

During our interactions, we met with the DG of Gwadar Development Authority, senior officials of Gwadar Port Authority, the representatives of the COPHC, public servants, and senior security officials. The COPHC office bearer showed us how the company is developing climate-resistant breeds of vegetables, fruits, flora, and fauna to turn the entire region green despite the dearth of water. They have also created job opportunities for local women. When during our interaction with a senior security official we asked if there was any local requirement we could highlight, we were told the university needed at least two buses for the university. Our interactions with the students and faculty at the university brought to our attention the infinite human potential this region has. The only people we could not meet were the politicians because they were not there. And this lack of political interest shows.

In hindsight, one thing stuck with me. Our Chinese friends told us that they had been here for years, but because of the security situation, they could not go outside the port or the security cordon. As an ethnic Baloch who has covered the sub-nationalist politics for a considerable time, I have to flag the stupidity of attacking the investors who create immense opportunities for the local population. The idea that the local people will not benefit from economic growth is preposterous. So if I were a part of a sub-nationalist group supported by foreign elements and asked to attack such investment, I would use my right to be selfish for my people and region and refuse the ask.

This is your city, and no one can take it from you. The Chinese staff has restricted itself to the port and has not used any aggressive tactics, showing the value China attaches to the bilateral relationship. These projects can potentially uplift Balochistan’s entire population out of poverty. Why not benefit from them?

In conclusion, let me point out that Gwadar’s potential is not hidden from the naked eye. It is there. And all office bearers we met are too eager to do their part. But somehow, the inertia so far gives the impression of an abandoned dream. Brick-and-mortar work is slowly underway without full-blown local business activity, connectivity, amenities, and foot traffic.

Published in The Express Tribune, October 22nd, 2022.

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