Protesters, many of whom rely on fishing for income, demanded an end to illegal trawling that depletes their catches. They also sought relaxed border trade with Iran, fewer security checkpoints, and improved access to necessities like clean water, healthcare, and electricity … writes Jalis Akhtar Nasiri
A video clip circulating online from Gwadar, Pakistan, depicts a young boy in red throwing a stone at security forces, who retaliated by hurling stones back. Another disturbing video captures security personnel passively watching as someone, said to be a fisherman’s child, is beaten and dragged on the ground. These incidents follow the lifting of an internet blackout in Gwadar, where protests demanding better living conditions and rights for locals had been going on for over 50 days. The Haq Do Tehreek movement, led by Maulana Hidayat ur Rehman, had blocked key access points like the Gwadar East Bay Expressway, highlighting deep discontent with the lack of benefits reaching Gwadar despite its status as a central hub in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).
Protesters, many of whom rely on fishing for income, demanded an end to illegal trawling that depletes their catches. They also sought relaxed border trade with Iran, fewer security checkpoints, and improved access to necessities like clean water, healthcare, and electricity.
Peaceful protests against the CPEC project in Gwadar spiralled into tragedy on December 27th, as violence erupted at the protest site, leading to the death of a police officer. This incident ignited a stringent government response, with authorities cracking down on the demonstrations, and arresting a large number of protestors. Internet access was suspended, and strict restrictions were implemented under Section 144, effectively putting the region under lockdown. Over 260,000 residents are confined to their homes while protesting for their rights, which they believe are being undermined by the CPEC’s construction.
They continue to face backlash for expressing their opposition to the CPEC development plan. They feel the plan disregards their local concerns and needs, and that they are being restricted in their homeland. This isn’t the first time the people of Balochistan have voiced their disapproval of the project, which stretches from Gwadar Port to Xinjiang Province in China. They argue that the development policies favour outsiders and fail to address their core issues. Essentially, they feel left out of a project that is happening in their backyard.
Gwadar, a remote and forgotten corner of Pakistan till about a decade ago, gained significance when China decided to develop the Gwadar Port as part of the ambitious CPEC project. While this brought hopes of economic prosperity, the local population’s concerns were sidelined. Their traditional fishing livelihoods were threatened by illegal trawling, and despite assurances, basic issues like lack of jobs, water, and electricity remain unaddressed.
Gwadar, not too long ago just another sleepy fishing town in Pakistan, has undergone rapid development in recent decades. However, this boom has bypassed many locals, leaving them feeling excluded and resentful. Residents complain of constant surveillance, restricted fishing rights, and a lack of basic amenities like healthcare and clean water.
Adding insult to injury, illegal trawling by foreign and domestic vessels depletes fish stocks, further squeezing the livelihoods of local fishermen. Even licensed Chinese trawlers, equipped with superior technology, outcompete their smaller Pakistani counterparts.
This simmering discontent has boiled over in the past two years, erupting into widespread protests. Locals feel unheard and unseen by the government, which touts Gwadar’s development while ignoring the plight of its citizens. They demand a fairer share of the benefits and a say in shaping the future of their city. While hundreds of locals are currently employed in the Gwadar port and free zone projects, concerns linger about their long-term well-being. China Overseas Ports Holding Company (COPHC) Pakistan Chairperson Zhang Baozhong highlighted the immediate employment numbers, but critics warn of potential large-scale disempowerment. They fear that local communities will be marginalized in their land, becoming mere subjects of development rather than active participants.
This concern is amplified by the ongoing Baloch insurgency, which views state-backed projects with suspicion. Past attacks on Chinese personnel and the recent deaths of Baloch children caught in the crossfire raise further security concerns and underscore the need for a more inclusive and sensitive approach to development in the region.
In response to recent attacks on government symbols, security forces, infrastructure projects, and foreign workers in Gwadar, Pakistani authorities have ramped up security measures in the region. This includes plans for a controversial fence separating Gwadar from the rest of Balochistan, initially proposed by former chief minister Jam Kamal Khan. This proposal, seen as both an attempt to isolate the area and an admission of struggles to control the wider situation in Balochistan, further fueled local tensions. Additionally, numerous checkpoints monitoring the movement of Gwadar residents have been established. These measures, implemented under the guise of development projects, have sparked protests from the local population who feel subjected to excessive surveillance and control.
The Balochistan government seems determined to dismiss the Gwadar protests as merely destructive and “anti-development” rather than engaging with the underlying issues. Home Minister Langau’s accusation of property damage further serves this narrative. This approach reflects a broader unwillingness by the Pakistani state to acknowledge its own problematic policies and engage in genuine dialogue with its citizens. By imposing restrictions like Section 144, the government conveniently shifts the blame to the protestors, painting them as the problem instead of addressing the root causes of their discontent.
Gwadar, a city at the heart of the much-touted CPEC project, presents a stark contrast to the Pakistani government’s rosy picture of development. While leaders like Imran Khan and Shehbaz Sharif have hailed CPEC as a “game changer” for the nation, boasting its potential to uplift people from poverty, the reality on the ground narrates a different story. Gwadar residents remain deeply marginalized, excluded from decision-making processes and experiencing little to no improvement in their lives. The grand claims of development ring hollow as locals grapple with issues like water scarcity, lack of basic amenities, and unemployment. Instead of empowering them, the state’s dependence on foreign projects fuels feelings of alienation and disenchantment, leaving the people questioning the true beneficiaries of this so-called development. This crisis in Gwadar exposes the hollowness of grand narratives and underscores the urgent need for inclusive development that prioritizes the well-being of local communities.
The Haq Do Tehreek (HDT), or “Give Rights (to Gwadar)” Movement, emerged under the leadership of Maulana Hidayat-ur-Rehman as a critical response to government development policies. In 2022, the HDT issued a warning to the authorities, stating that the local population’s concerns needed to be addressed, or they would resort to blocking the area. However, the government dismissed these warnings. Instead, in a show of force, they deployed a staggering 5,500 additional police personnel to Gwadar on December 1st, 2022, supposedly to “maintain law and order.” This heavy-handed tactic further strained the relationship between the government and the people of Gwadar, laying the groundwork for future tensions.
Initially peaceful sit-in protests took a tragic turn on December 27th when violence erupted, resulting in the death of a police officer at the protest site. This incident triggered a harsh government crackdown. Numerous protestors were arrested, internet access was shut down, and restrictive measures under Section 144 were imposed. The situation remains tense, with neither side willing to compromise. While the state holds the power to dismiss the demands of the local population, the protestors have everything to lose, including their livelihoods, prospects, and even their sense of belonging to their land. This volatile standoff creates a deeply concerning situation with an uncertain outcome.
In essence, the turmoil in Gwadar reflects deep-rooted discontent amidst economic aspirations. The protests against the CPEC expose a disjunction between national development rhetoric and the harsh realities faced by locals. The government’s response, marked by arrests and restrictions, risks widening the gap between state and citizens. The crisis underscores the imperative for an inclusive development approach that prioritizes local well-being over external interests. Security concerns, highlighted by the Baloch insurgency, warrant a nuanced resolution. Bridging the gap between state and citizen requires acknowledging grievances, fostering genuine dialogue and prioritizing community well-being for sustainable progress in the region.
(Dr. Jalis Akhtar Nasiri is a distinguished scholar and journalist who contributes articles on significant humanitarian issues)