I had last visited Gwadar in 1998. That was before the much heralded China Pakistan Economic Corridor or CPEC. Gwadar was considered strategically important even then but Government had till then taken no practical steps to benefit from it. Government of Pakistan had purchased Gwadar from the Sultanate of Oman on September 8, 1958 for 5.5 billion rupees, when Feroz Khan Noon was the prime minister. As a concession the Sultan of Oman was allowed to recruit local Baloch for his gendarme. The recruitment continues to date.
A lot has happened in the past ten years. A deep sea port has come up and Gwadar is now linked to Karachi through a two way coastal highway. Road journey of approximately 650 kilometres can take from 6 to 7 hours. There are two flights daily from Karachi. The flight time of the turbo prop ATR is 1 hour twenty minutes. Early morning flights can be delayed or cancelled due to fog. There was intense fog in the morning of 20th of February, while I was there. It cleared off at around 10 am. A five star Pearl Continental Hotel sits atop a hillock overlooking the port. A free industrial zone is coming up next to the port. The first phase of Gwadar port was inaugurated by Gen Musharraf in 2007. In June 2016 began construction on the $2 billion Gwadar Special Economic Zone, which is being modelled on the lines of the Special Economic Zones of China.
An expo was held a few weeks ago to highlight the investment potential in Gwadar. The mega event was attended on the Government’s side by the prime minister and other high officials. The PC is fully booked to cover such events. There are plans to lay a railway line to link the port with Karachi and Quetta to move cargo either way. Gwadar being a deep sea port is the gateway to CPEC. With 57 billion dollar in Chinese investment CPEC is being touted as a game changer for Pakistan and a flagship project for the Chinese Belt Road Initiative (BRI) to connect Europe with Asia. It has two components i.e. infrastructure development and energy production to overcome the yawning power deficit. The credit for beginning the work on the port with Chinese help and the coastal highway goes to General Musharaf. After he was no longer in power the operations of the port were given to Singapore Port Authority who didn’t live up to the expectations. Now Gwadar is part of the CPEC that goes upto the Chinese province of Xingjian through the Khunjarab Pass on the Karakoram Highway. Thus reducing the 12900 kilometre sea journey to just 2000 km overland and cutting the two weeks of sea travel time to two. It is going to benefit Pakistan by creating Special Economic Zones (SEZ) along the routes and millions of jobs. The eastern route runs along M 8 (Gwadar-Turbat-Ratodero-Sukhur-DG Khan). The port is fully equipped to handle containerised cargo handling but full shipping activity is still a few years away.
Until recently Gwadar was a small fishing village. The local economy is still dependent on fishing. A fish auction hall on the old jetty does thriving business. The fishermen build and operate wooden launches, which do not match international shipping standards. The signs of development are a host of low priced hotels and guesthouses and roadside cafes that do business till late into the night. The new two way corniche is a nice place for a stroll. A few kilometres away on the Koh-i-Batil picnickers watch the sun go down in beautiful rust colours in the Arabian Sea from the sunset point. A little short of the town is a bubbling sinkhole that turns into a geyser in summers. This little known place is known as Samandar ki Aankh or Eye of the Sea. The other driver of economy is smuggling. Launches are used to ferry illicit cargoes of liquor from Gulf countries and local smugglers bring in cheap diesel from Iran overland. To allow the locals to survive, the Government turns a blind eye to low level diesel smuggling at the individual level but cracks down on liquor and narcotics trade. The bazar are lined with shops selling Iranian fuel. The standard rates are about twenty rupees less than the Pakistani price. Absence of filters can leave sediments in the fuel tanks and block the carburettors. A lot of investment is being made by non-local Pakistanis in buying and selling land. The government sponsored Sangar housing society is a favourite land deal destination. In the market one finds a lot of offices doing business in real estate. Although lots of new development is visible as the city sprawls northwards, development activity is sluggish because of an extreme paucity of water. Natural gas connections are also rare and most of the cooking is done on LPG. Many locals have benefited from this boom in real estate and have moved on to Karachi with their moneybags.
The security situation is stable but that is because of a very heavy presence of the military. Besides the Coast Guards and Frontier Corps Balochistan, a full-fledged infantry brigade that is part of the CPEC Security Division is now based in Gwadar. Pakistan navy ships guard the entry to the port and the Maritime Security Agency patrol the coastal waters to prevent smuggling from the Sea. The local Makranis are considered to be peaceful and the cadres of Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) and Balochistan Resistance Army (BRA) are said to have been driven out. They’ve gone inland into the mountains and their activity is now mainly in Turbat, Mand and Kech. These armed secessionists are said to be no more than a few hundreds and most of the time, they try to cause panic by posting ‘fake’ news of terrorist activities on their websites and Facebook pages.
The Army has taken over the operations of the local civil hospital. There is also a Chinese hospital in the vicinity of the port, where Chinese labour force can also be seen but mostly they are confined to the port dues to security reasons.
There is an acute shortage of water in Gwadar and the dams in the vicinity of the city are drying up due to shortage of rains. Water is sometimes purchased from Iran. Summers can be hot and power outages frequent. A few years a cyclone had struck the city.
Chah Bahar the Iranian port is about 90 kilometres away. The Iranian government has recently leased the first phase of the port known as Shahid Bhesti on a 15 month lease for 85 million dollars to the Indians. Indians have used Chah Bahar as the launching pad for fifth columnists like Kulbhushan Jhadev. This nefarious activity notwithstanding, Iran will benefit if the two ports are connected through rail and road.
Gwadar can become the modern day El Dorado, if its true potential is allowed to flourish. This will require courage, patience and vision.