It is intrinsically a backlash against the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), the flagship project of China’s multi-billion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative and hence the spirited protests in Pakistan’s port city of Gwadar against obstructionist checkpoints, a severe shortage of water and electricity and threats to the livelihood from illegal fishing. Thus far the protests, organised by political parties, civil rights activists and fishermen, have stretched to a week in Gwadar, in the restive Baluchistan province.
The demands include removal of unnecessary security checkpoints, supply of drinking water and electricity, eviction of big fishing trawlers from Makran coast, and opening of the border with Iran from Panjgur to Gwadar. Maulana Hidayat-ur-Rahman, the head of the entity called “Give Rights to Gwadar” has warned that the protests will continue till the demands are met.
Not that this is the first time that such issues have been raised; there has been strong criticism of the government in Islamabad in the past over its failure to resolve the basic problems of Gwadar. On closer reflection, the protests are an echo of the increasing discontent with China’s presence in Gwadar, where the port is integral to the $60-billion CPEC.
Prime Minister Imran Khan has played to the Beijing gallery with an assurance that his government will support China’s enterprises in Pakistan on a priority basis. Deft in playing the diplomatic card, he has directed the authorities to resolve the issues related to road connectivity and the dearth of utilities being faced by investors from China. Apparently, to mollify sentiment in China, the Prime Minister met a business delegation from that country last weekend.
“We will support Chinese businesses in Pakistan on a priority basis and are grateful to them for their keen interest in accelerating their investment in Special Economic Zones,” he was reported to have said.
Despite massive protests in Gwadar, it is hugely unlikely that Imran Khan’s government will effect a compromise on the CPEC project and annoy its main benefactor globally. Having said that, the basic needs of people must be met. They are severely handicapped in the absence of electricity, a crippling shortage of water, the removal of trawlers, not to forget the opening of the border with Iran.
In parallel to the discord over Gwadar, one that has prompted Prime Minister Imran Khan’s intervention, is the political challenge posed by the banned Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) which has urged the government to let it open a political office in a third country ~ a demand binned as “unacceptable” by the federal authorities. In the aftermath of the blockade in Lahore, the TTP has raised two other demands ~ the reversal of the merger of FATA (federally administered tribal areas) with Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province (Imran Khan’s electoral turf) and the introduction of the “Islamic system” in Pakistan.
It is unlikely that Pakistani civil society will readily concur with the second demand. The Prime Minister urgently needs to respond to two major challenges ~ the economic-cum-diplomatic in Gwadar and the TTP with its nerve centre in Lahore.