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EDITORIAL: Prime Minister (PM) Imran Khan’s visit to Turbat, Balochistan on November 13, 2020, had a familiar ring to it. Dilating on the need for equal development of all federating units for a strong federation, he announced another development package, concentrated this time on southern Balochistan. Familiar, because previous governments too have made soothing noises about dealing with Balochistan’s neglect and its poverty and deprivation as a result. For example, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) government 2008-13, when Asif Ali Zardari was President, announced with great fanfare the Aghaaz-e-Haqooq-e-Balochistan package. For all intents and purposes, that package sank without a trace when the PPP left office. Similarly, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) government 2013-18, held out the benefits of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and the development of Gwadar port for the lives of the people of Balochistan, but the latter are still waiting for those ephemeral benefits to bring about any meaningful change in their lives. Farther back in time, the grievances of Balochistan stretch back 73 years to the emergence of Pakistan on the map of the world. During this long period, Balochistan has been dealt with harshly at one end through repression, and subjected to neglect at the other, a combination guaranteed to deepen the anger and alienation of its people. Now PM Imran Khan has traversed a similar path by promising ‘milk and honey’ to the impoverished people of Balochistan through a raft of development measures in infrastructure, education, health, housing, small industry, irrigation, employment, etc. The icing on the cake, according to the PM, is CPEC and Gwadar. It should be noted that the entire package is focused on the nine districts of southern Balochistan. These are almost exclusively Baloch areas. It is also argued that this region is relatively free of sardari (tribal chiefs) control. An emerging middle class in the region informs the package’s thrust to offer internet and modern IT technology to kick-start a hoped for transition into a modern economy. While none of the measures announced can be objected to, there are troubling unanswered questions.

Concentration on southern Balochistan begs the question what is the ‘sin’ of the rest of the Baloch areas of the province for which they are ignored in this package? After all they suffer from the same poverty and deprivation as the south. If tribal chieftainship is considered an obstacle in the rest of the Baloch areas, is it not a fact that they are no longer as isolated as may have been the case in the past? Strictly speaking, what is the ‘sin’ of the non-Baloch areas? The only logical explanation seems to be the security concerns regarding the CPEC, emanating from the long running nationalist insurgency. But if that is a consideration, is it not a reality in the rest of the Baloch areas too? Development of the whole of the Baloch areas riven by the insurgency makes sense if their common long-standing grievances and various types of neglects are taken on board. But the elephant in the room is how to deal with the insurgency. Simply labelling it a tool of neighbouring hostile countries closes the door on any possibility of resolution of the conflict. Whether those countries are actually involved or not remains a matter of conjecture if not propaganda in the face of lack of clinching evidence. But even if for the sake of argument this is accepted as a fact, putting out the fire in one’s own house could deprive anyone of attempting to fish in troubled waters. Development could, if sincerely implemented, reduce the alienation of the people, especially the youth who are the main recruiting ground for the insurgents. It could also produce a climate in which the insurgents would have to reconsider their rejection of all but armed struggle. But for that to happen, not only must the latest announced package be implemented and be seen to be producing results, it must also be extended to all the Baloch areas and the rest of the province. The situation underscores the need for opening the door a crack to a negotiated political solution for what is in essence a political problem to be distinguished from terrorism.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2020