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The Baloch perspective

Pakistan’s mounting energy crisis and the growing demand for energy security in the region have magnified Balochistan’s economic and strategic importance. As a result, in each and every significant agreement signed between Beijing, Islamabad and Tehran, Balochistan is the centre of attention.

Though the Pakistani and Iranian establishment have disregarded and downplayed Balochistan’s location, strategic importance and countless economic advantages, the France-sized area is a geopolitical reality – a compact region with unique geo-strategic features that accounts for 44 percent of Pakistan’s area and some 16 percent of Iran’s landmass.

In addition, the Baloch as a whole face a distinctive situation both in Iran and Pakistan. Despite the immeasurable riches of their homeland, they are politically marginalised, economically exploited and live in appalling social conditions. Moreover, the Baloch have a very tense political relationship with both Islamabad and Tehran.

Ignoring the political realities in Balochistan, particularly in eastern Balochistan, Pakistan and Iran recently signed a multibillion dollar gas pipeline project in Chabahar, Iran’s Baloch-port city, to import 750 million cubic feet (bcf) of gas per day through the 1,900 km-long Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline.

Balochistan is the only land route for the proposed $7.5 billion pipeline. A major part – some 1,200km – of the 1,881 km-long conduit, which will connect Iran’s Pars gas field to Pakistan’s main distribution system in Nawabshah, will pass through conflict-ridden Baloch territory in Iran and Pakistan.

Pakistan and Iran signed the agreement and an operational accord in Istanbul on March 17, 2010. However, it is not clear, since all pacts are confidential, how these new agreements are different from the ones inked during President Asif Ali Zardari’s visit to Tehran in May 2009, following which officials from the newly-formed Inter State Gas System (ISGS) quietly signed the controversial gas sale-purchase agreement in Istanbul.

Energy security in the region needs a holistic approach. The politico-economic cum security aspects need to be worked out carefully. While grand inaugurations may be used as a political stunt, the translation of such mega dreams into reality needs wise and gentle policies.

Among the major challenges are the seemingly endless political conflict in Balochistan, along with US concerns over Iran, high pricing and the threat posed by sectarian groups. Without addressing these crucial issues, the multibillion dollar pipeline project is bound to backfire.

Islamabad has, as usual, committed a significant political blunder by overlooking the importance of Baloch consent over the proposed gas pipeline project. The project was signed at a time when Balochistan lacks a genuine and representative government. The region is suffering from chronic human rights abuses and major tension between the Baloch people and the Islamabad-backed non-Baloch security apparatus.

Baloch opposition to such a transnational pipeline was voiced as far back as in 2005. The slain Baloch nationalist Akbar Khan Bugti had said then that “only the goodwill of the Baloch people can allow the proposed gas pipeline from Iran and Central Asia to India to pass through their soil”.

Soon after the grand inauguration of the pipeline project in Chabahar, all the Baloch political groups, as well as the Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ), the hardline Sunni group, took out processions in Balochistan’s Nushki district threatening to sabotage the proposed pipeline project at all costs. This despite the fact that many believe that the ASWJ has strong Pakistani establishment support in Balochistan to counter the growing nationalists and moderate political fabric of Baloch society.

Previously, in June 2006, members of the treasury and the opposition benches in the Balochistan Assembly exhibited unprecedented unity and passed a resolution seeking royalty for the province in the proposed multi-billion dollar IPI gas pipeline project. Further, the assembly also demanded Balochistan’s representation in the IPI talks, free gas for adjacent populations, a 100 percent job share and a major share in any royalty paid by India.

The proposed gas pipeline project does not envisage any economic or social benefits for Balochistan’s under-privileged population. The pipeline will be constructed by the Iranian company that can use high-tech equipment and Iranian labour. The security will be provided by federal forces such as the Frontier Corps, a paramilitary force devoid of a Baloch presence , and all the available jobs – including technical ones – will go to qualified and technically-sound people from other provinces, since they have the opportunities and the resources to attain high-quality education.

Furthermore, there is no constitutional or legal guarantee that royalty in any form, including security, jobs or gas, will be given to the people of Balochistan.

The Baloch people have had disappointing experiences of Islamabad’s policies and promises. Despite providing fuel to the national economy for years, the province has less than 10 percent of the country’s gas consumers – as opposed to 69 percent in the Punjab, which produces only 4.7 percent of the gas.

The controversial price accord also makes the project less feasible. According to the price accord, Pakistan will purchase Iranian gas at various prices; the lack of a fixed rate extends great leverage and benefit to Iran in terms of procuring a high price for the gas it exports.

The imported gas price from Iran is likely to be far more costly than the gas extracted from Balochistan and Sindh by the central government. However, the price of Iranian gas is currently estimated at 78 percent of the international oil price. Pakistan Petroleum Limited currently pays only 63 cents per MMBtu for Balochistan’s high heating-value gas. Yet, those 63 cents go to the central government’s kitty and Balochistan receives only 12.5 percent royalty against the gas produced. More importantly, Balochistan produces $1.4bn worth of gas annually but receives only $116m in royalties.

Pakistan’s over-centralised political system has resulted in constant political and economic conflicts between the centre and the provinces. Though the Baloch are not stakeholders in Pakistan’s internal and external affairs, including policy- making, Islamabad cannot deny the fact that Balochistan represents 44 percent of the country’s landmass and shares strategically significant coasts and border areas with the energy-rich Middle East through Iran.

Until there is a positive breakthrough in the Balochistan conflict, the ambitious IP gas pipeline venture will simply remain a pipedream.

The writer is a former senator from Balochistan. Website: www.sanabaloch.com


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Faiz Baluch