A recent attack on a key natural gas installation in the impoverished southern province of Balochistan, home to Pakistan's main oil and gas resources, left much of the country without natural gas for days. The attack, carried out by local tribesman in mid-January, has thrown the spotlight on an undeveloped corner of Pakistan that activists say has been largely neglected by Islamabad.
"The delivery system of basic social services like health, education, water and sanitation needs to be strengthened and easily accessible to common people," Abd-ur-Razzaq Kemal, head of the Pakistan Institute of Development Economics (PIDE), told IRIN from the Pakistani capital, Islamabad.
HIGH PROFILE ATTACK
Bugti tribesmen, encouraged by their chief Sardar Akbar Bugti and the nationalist Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA), attacked Pakistan's largest gas producing plant at Sui after local police accused an army captain of raping a female doctor working there. Sui is in the heart of the Bugti tribal area - a land of dry, barren mountains and desert.
At the end of a five-day battle, in which the tribesmen stormed the gas company compound, eight people, including three soldiers, were killed and 35 people wounded. The army rushed thousands of troops and paramilitary forces to Sui. The rebels were heavily armed, well-trained and organised and used sophisticated satellite telephones. They fired 430 rockets and 60 mortar rounds at the Sui plant, Interior Minister Aftab Ahmed Sherpao said.
Balochistan is the largest but least developed of Pakistan's four provinces, covering about 44 percent of the country's total land area. Over 75 percent of the population is rural, with agriculture the mainstay of the region's economy. The Asian Development Bank (ADB) has recently approved a total of some US $27 million in loans to help boost job prospects in Balochistan and the neighbouring North West Frontier Province (NWFP) through improving technical education and vocational training (TEVT) systems.
Balochi nationalists demanding greater political rights, autonomy and control over their natural resources have led four insurgencies - in 1948, 1958-59, 1962-63 and 1973-77 - that were brutally suppressed by the army.
"Balochistan and the NWFP face dual problems of high illiteracy and high poverty incidences. With low participation in general education, the average literacy rate of the population aged 10 years and above is only 36 percent in Balochistan and 38 percent for the NWFP," said an ADB press statement in December 2004.
The TEVT system in the two provinces, however, suffers from many structural and operational problems, leading to poor education quality, unequal access, limited resources, low efficiency and weak links to the labour market, the ADB statement said.
The economic and social backwardness of the society, political observers maintain, in conjunction with a deeply entrenched sense of tribalism, has led to an escalation of tensions in the province.
Although tribal groups have been protesting against the government for some time, it is only recently that the situation has deteriorated, with an increase in attacks on government installations and functionaries across the province in an attempt to have their demands for greater economic and political rights heard.
EXPOITATION ON NATURAL RESOURCES
Some development experts maintain that the policies of successive governments have increased the grievances of Balochis. "Over the years, the income from natural resources in the province has not been properly distributed and the common Balochi people have not benefited from it," Ghulam Mustafa Talpur, a developmental economist at the international developmental NGO, Actionaid Pakistan, told IRIN.
"Balochistan is a mineral-rich province, however, the Baloch people are not benefitting from this partly due to neglect of the government and partly due to their own chiefs," the head of PIDE, Kemal, said.
In recent years, the government has started a number of large scale development projects in Balochistan, which were partly designed to generate local employment. The most prestigious of these is the Gawadar deep-sea port, some 470 km west of the country's main port city of Karachi. The $248 million Chinese-built dock is expected to be opened in February.
Other projects include the 675 km coastal highway linking Gawadar with Karachi, and the construction of Mirani dam and Kacchi canal to develop water resources in drought-hit areas of the province. But some Balochis maintain that skilled people from other provinces are in line for the jobs in these projects and ultimately foreign influence would be threatening the indigenous culture of the region.
Economists like Kemal accept there are real issues to be addressed in the province. "Technical institutes should be opened there and Balochis should be trained for future needs. It requires more attention on the part of the government at the moment," he added.
The government has recently set up a parliamentary committee to look into the problems of Balochistan. The committee has submitted its recommendations after consulting all stakeholders. "Some of the grievances are genuine, such as the gas royalties for example, which should be increased as the tarrifs are decades old, so it needs comprehensive revision," Syed Dilawar Abbass, a parliamentarian and committee member, told IRIN from Islamabad.
But there is also a growing body of opinion that suggests the province needs to move with the times and shake off the dominance of unelected traditional leaders. "The government should make efforts to break the social and tribal set up through laws and encourage the growth of civil society. The power of the civil community is so weak in Pakistan, it has never been allowed to operate openly particularly in such areas, ultimately such negligence promotes tribalism and feudalism," Talpur added.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions
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