Thursday, March 09, 2006

Baluchistan — Economy and Infrastructure

The province of Baluchistan has an area of 347,200 sq km and is inhabited by approximately 7 million people—the latter figure has been extrapolated from the official Pakistani census of 1998, which itself was disputed by the people of Baluchistan for its methodology and its conclusions. What is not in dispute is the distribution of that population. People choose to live in regions that have water, roads, hospitals, electricity, and a congenial climate.

The population is concentrated around the highlands of Quetta and Kalat and in the districts bordering the plains of Punjab and upper Sindh. The other well-populated districts are along the Makran coast and in the Kirthar hill ranges along the western border of Sindh. However the map below can be misleading since many of these districts are several times the size of the thickly populated districts like Quetta and Jaffrabad. Moreover each district has cities and towns that have a larger density of population than the outlying rural areas.
Baluchistan population map
from darker shaded districts indicate a higher density of population

Water availability follows the pattern of population distribution. From the highlands around Quetta, flanked by the Brahui Range in the south and the Suleiman Range in the east, several rivers and streams flow down to the Kachhi plains and then into the Indus River—these water bodies and the land around them are thus part of the fertile Indus basin. The Makran coastal belt also has several marshy wetlands and seasonal rivers flowing down from the hills—these are part of the coastal basin. The Makran Range is denuded of top soil or green cover and is mostly bare rock—sudden bursts of rain rush down into the dry riverbeds and quickly turn into raging torrents that cause flooding in the coastal regions. In the central plateau the dry river beds and salty lakes are all that remains of former rivers and streams, which are cut off from the both the Indus plain and the sea and form an inland basin.

Lack of adequate rainfall throughout the province and availability of water only in certain belts of land decides the occupation of the people. There are small pockets of such land along the seasonal rivers in the south but the largest such areas border Sindh and Punjab—canals from the Sukkur barrage on the Indus bring water to districts like Jaffrabad and Nasirabad. In the plateau around Quetta small stretches of irrigated land indicate the use of tubewells, which have lately caused a sharp drop in the water table and have harmed the traditional system of water usage called Karez.

Woodlands and forests cover parts of the province—although different rainfall patterns and temperatures mean that this definition stretches from tall junipers in the northern highlands to stunted trees south in the Kirthar Range. In the cold, dry, and well-watered plateau around Quetta the main occupation is horticulture and the land is covered with orchards producing apples, grapes, pomegranates, and peaches—the natural dryness and low temperatures allow for the long preservation of such fruit. The major portion of Baluchistan is a desert littered with the occasional shrub and salt-lake formations—with portions of grassy enclaves and scrub-covered low hills—here the main occupation is animal herding.

a) Dams: The people of Baluchistan have a tradition of building earthen dams and deep wells to store and utilize rainwater. Irrigation channels called Karez took off from these structures and provided life-giving water to the scattered population and their farms and orchards. When the population moved into cities and towns the water needs magnified considerably—the need for modern dams was felt. Scores of concrete storage dams and delay action dams have been built to store rain water and check flash floods—some were built locally, some by the federal government, and some were built with international assistance. These dams had a short-term utility because inevitably they became clogged up with the silt and rubble washed down from the barren hills.

The first mega-dam project was constructed in the 1960s on the Hub River in the Kirthar Range of the southern district of Lasbela. Most of the water was supplied to the nearby metropolis of Karachi while some was used locally for irrigation purposes[1]. With the growing water needs of that Pakistani port city a dispute between Sindh and Baluchistan has erupted on the sharing of the Hub dam water. Another mega project is the Mirani Dam now under construction on the confluence of the Kech and Nihing rivers north of Gwadar.

The ostensible reasons for building this dam are that it will provide water for irrigation in the Makran belt; it will recharge ground water and the Karezes; and that it will provide much-needed electricity. As against this is the Baloch argument that this large dam will inundate arable land and render thousands of people homeless; far from providing water for irrigation it will actually dry up the downstream land; and by blocking flood water it will render those lands infertile[2]. The simultaneous development of the new Pakistani port cities seems to confirm the worst fears of the Baloch. The water needs of Pasni were catered to by the Shadi Kor storage dam[3] and of Gwadar by the small dams of Saiji and Akra Kaur—however the projected growth of Gwadar into an international port with a large population of immigrants requires much greater amounts of water and electricity. These will be provided by this mega dam—no wonder this project has become a favourite target of the Baloch fighters.

b) Ports: The long coastline of Baluchistan has many natural bays like Sonmiani and harbours like Gwadar, Pasni, Jiwani and Ormara. At both Gwadar and Ormara a natural headland forms an island that is connected to the mainland by a thin tongue of land—the protected waters between the headland and the mainland have been used for centuries as fishing harbours. The Pakistan Navy and Coast Guard have increased their presence at each of these ports but Gwadar is set to grow into a commercial port and a metropolitan city rivalling Karachi. Foreign governments like Oman and China are heavily invested in various projects in the port and the city.

The deep-sea port is being constructed by China’s Harbour Engineering Company (HEC), which rarely hires locals in the projects and is quite high-handed in its treatment of the provincial and district authorities. They of course have the backing of the Gwadar Port Authority (GPA), which is headed by a retired Pakistan Navy Vice Admiral based in Karachi—locals are not allowed near the port site[4]. Most of the land on the island has been acquired by the Pakistan Navy while unscrupulous local officials have sold land around the village and along the coastal highway to real estate developers from Punjab and Karachi. The provincial government has also given a freebie of one acre to any foreign investor that wishes to set up a plant on the outskirts of the proposed city[5].

Gwadar is of course more than just an alternative to Karachi—it is the ideal hub for exploiting the mineral wealth of Baluchistan, for accessing the markets of Afghanistan, and as the output point for the oil and gas pipelines of Central Asia. The Gwadar story is being repeated at the other ports and the biggest fear of the Baloch is that they will soon be a minority in their own land. Additionally fishing is the sole source of income and a way of life for the inhabitants of the Makran coastal region—they too are threatened by trawlers and fishing companies from outside coming in and plundering their natural wealth.

c) Roads & Railways: Baluchistan’s modern communications network was first built by the colonial British to support their military bases in the frontier region. The railway in particular was a marvel of early 20th Century engineering with its series of tunnels and the gentle incline to the heights of the Bolan Pass. That railway system has survived the ravages of time and has not been improved or expanded by the government of Pakistan. The British and the Sardars had also built roads connecting the main towns and district headquarters but the rest of Baluchistan had to make do with dirt tracks and shingle roads[6].

This situation remained unchanged till the four-year insurgency that broke out in 1973. The Pakistan army’s Frontier Works Organization (FWO) built metalled roads throughout the rebellious province with twin objectives—improving the local economy and addressing local demands but more importantly to provide the army access to the remote hideouts of the Baloch rebels. The civilian governments of Pakistan undertook the next phase of road building in the 1990s prompted by the desire to diversify the Pakistan economy. These projects however remained on the drawing boards for lack of investments till the military coup by General Musharraf in 1999—the army has relied on old allies and its new status as a member nation in the war on terror to finance these projects.

from existing and proposed highways

The most important of these is the Makran Coastal Highway connecting the Baluchistan ports of Jiwani, Gwadar, Pasni, and Ormara to Karachi—a parallel railway track is also proposed for these ports. Gwadar is also to be connected with the main motorway to Lahore but through Turbat and Khuzdar in central Baluchistan—bypassing the bottleneck of Karachi. The third important route is from Gwadar to Quetta and on to Afghanistan while smaller roads and highways will provide interconnectivity to the smaller towns and villages.

All of these projects are to be built and financed by foreign and non-Baloch companies, which have their own policies of recruiting labour and sourcing raw material—they are under no obligation to show favour to locals in this respect. On its part the military is determined to see these projects through since they are crucial to Pakistan’s economic future and strategic interests—for this and many other reasons they are proposing to build several new military cantonments and bases to secure these assets. And not surprisingly these communications projects, the companies that execute them and the army that protects those companies are all targeted by the educated Baloch fighters and the tribal militias whose independence they threaten.

d) Minerals: The rocky landscape of Baluchistan consists of numerous geological formations crumpled over each other by the shifting of continental plates. Lined along these layers of rocks is a bounty of metallic and non-metallic minerals just waiting to be tapped by prospectors[7].

In the hilly region bordering Iran and Afghanistan is the Saindak village where metals like copper, gold, and iron are found in abundance. Similarly in the hills around Khuzdar there are deposits of zinc, chromites, and silver while lead and manganese ore is found further south at Bela. And scattered throughout the province are deposits of gypsum, granite, uranium, graphite, limestone, and silica—foreign governments and companies are keen to tap this wealth and the military government of Pakistan is eager to facilitate this exploitation.

But more important than these minerals are the hydrocarbon deposits found beneath the rocky layers—namely oil and natural gas. As early as in 1918 the British Empire obtained a lease to prospect for oil in Baluchistan—the Government of Pakistan however annulled this contract after occupying the land. New contracts were signed with foreign companies and gas was finally discovered in 1952 at Sui[8]. A network of pipelines was laid across Pakistan to provide the people and industries with piped gas—however Baluchistan itself was not catered to by this network. The drilling and gas distributing company was nationalized in the 1960s with 70% federal government control and the Sui Gas network was split into two northern and southern companies catering respectively to Punjab-NWFP and to Sindh[9].

Baluchistan is poorly served by the gas network even today—Quetta first received gas connections as late as in 1985 when the Pakistan Army’s 12 Corps was headquartered in the provincial capital[10]! Most other remote regions still do not get gas from their province’s own gas field. The federal government placated the Bugti tribe that lived around Sui by promising an undisclosed rent to its chief and recruitment for its youth in the project. This tactic has been followed in other projects like the Saindak mines or the Kohlu prospecting wells where the surrounding tribes were bribed to let the projects run undisturbed.

e) Government finances: Baluchistan received the status of a province only in 1970. Since then the provincial government has functioned as a perennially bankrupt entity that needs to take annual loans from state-controlled Pakistani banks to pay the salaries of its employees. This situation has arisen because firstly the state is unable to earn revenue from activities like agriculture, horticulture, and animal herding that are the mainstay of the tribal population; money from taxable commercial activities is collected by the federal government from all provinces and federal regions into a central pool and is then divested to the provincial governments according to the award of National Finance Commission (NFC) 1997.

This divestment is made on the basis of the population of each province—Baluchistan with only 7 million of Pakistan’s 150 million people thus gets negligible amounts each year[11]. Secondly Baluchistan’s mineral wealth is classed as a national resource by Islamabad and all the gains from Sui gas and the numerous mines go straight to the federal government and are then divested as per the NFC award. These mineral-extracting companies though are obliged to pay an annual royalty to the provincial government, but even here Baluchistan is poorly served. By way of example Punjab gets royalty on gas at the rate of 190 rupees for a million BTU of gas, Sindh gets 140 Rupees while Baluchistan is given a mere 37 Rupees for that same amount of gas[12]. Thirdly Baluchistan has a negligible middle-class and the quality of education even in the big cities is abysmal. With its low resources the province is unable to provide either good infrastructure for the education of its children or a decent healthcare system essential for a growing population.

After the war of 1973-77 the Shah of Iran offered to build an engineering college at Khuzdar to pacify the rebellious Baloch, similarly Arab governments have in the past provided money for setting up such colleges and institutions at other places. The United Nations, the Red Crescent, and the Asian Development Bank all run numerous healthcare and primary education programs throughout the rural areas of Baluchistan—each of these is invested up to hundreds of millions of dollars in various aid projects.

f) Unmonitored trade: With a bankrupt provincial government and an exploitative federal government the people of Baluchistan are forced to resort to unscrupulous methods to make ends meet. Historically the Baloch tribes also live in the neighbouring regions of Iran and Afghanistan while Baloch men migrate to the gulf region in search of jobs. Within Baluchistan shepherds continuously move their herds with the changing seasons between the higher ranges and the plains.

In a poorly policed province with unmarked boundaries and vast open spaces this creates the conditions for one of the biggest commercial activities—smuggling[13]. Russian and Chinese engineering goods from Afghanistan; electronic goods, diesel, and LPG cylinders from Iran; and cheap Indian goods from Dubai are freely smuggled and traded throughout the border districts. Two undesirable items are also smuggled in exponentially larger value—assault weapons and drugs.

These items became widely available during the war in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Since then Baluchistan has become a convenient outlet to the drug consumers in India and the Middle-East and the Baloch have become low-end carriers who are paid a pittance for transporting this high-value item. The drugs trade has also caused a problem of drug addiction among the Baloch in the province and also among those settled and working in Sindh and Punjab. All variety of smuggling causes heavy losses to Pakistan but it has created a network of drug barons and smuggling kingpins who are well connected with the federal government and are sometimes even members of that government!

[1] See WATER AND BALOCHISTAN By Siddiq Baluch
[2] See Mirani Dam- Is it viable? Dr. Naseer Dashti
[3] which has since been destroyed by a flash flood on February 11, 2005. See
[4] See Unrest in Baluchistan (Paper no. 804) by B Raman
[5] See Balochistan to have Marble City. 10-May-04
[6]When I became Sardar in 1954 it took me 3 nights to reach my village from Bela by camel. In 1955 I built a "kacha" road in my area. When I became Sardar there was only one shop in my area now there are more than 200 shops in big bazaar and market in my village, that I have encouraged to create. I personally offered land and encouraged the people in my area to build these shops and the market in an organised way.” Sardar Ataullah Mengal interview to the Baloch2000 web site and the Balochi Zend magazine.
[7] See
[8] in eastern Baluchistan—subsequently gas was also struck in neighbouring areas like upper Sindh and lower Punjab
[9] See and
[10] See
[11] in 2004 it got Rs. 1,750 crore as against Rs. 11,522 crore for Punjab
[12] See
[13] See