(This piece is part of a series by journalist and South Asia expert Francesca Marino on the war-torn, poverty-stricken Balochistan region, with a focus on Chinese and Pakistani armies’ ‘developmental’ activities. Here is Part I.)
According to a survey done by the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics (PBS) and widely advertised in 2020 by the local press, the average household income in Balochistan has increased by Rs 6,346, Rs 36,387. The survey, called Household Integrated Economic Survey, compares ‘social and economic indicators’ across the provinces.
According to the same survey, Punjab and Balochistan were the two main provinces where income increased significantly — both in absolute terms and in percentages, while the slowest increase was registered in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK).
The reason behind this stunning result, according to the PBS, can be found in the ‘magical’ China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and other mega-development initiatives related to it.
PBS of course knows nothing about an Italian poet called Trilussa and what he wrote about statistics: ‘if the survey says you eat a chicken every month and you did not have yours, don't worry. Somebody else is eating two.’
Who’s ‘Eating the Baloch’s Chicken’?
Balochistan, despite the PBS survey, has the second highest incidence of multidimensional poverty in Pakistan (after the FATA region) — according to the UNDP, 71 percent of the population in Balochistan live below the poverty line.
The percentage increases to 85 percent if you consider only the rural population, and decreases to 36 percent in cities. Still a very high percentage, however.
So, this means, going back to poet Trilussa, somebody else must be ‘eating Baloch's chicken’. And that 'somebody', when you talk of CPEC, is the usual suspect: the Chinese — and the army and politicians related to them. Gwadar, the jewel in the crown of CPEC, is the perfect example of this.
The Gwadar Club & Ninety Nine Beach Resort is a highly-advertised destination. As per its website, the club “is ideally located on the main Gwadar Coastal Highway with a beachfront opening into the Arabian Sea. It is surrounded by the Gwadar Cantonment from all three sides... The club offers its members exclusive access to business opportunities and bespoke hospitality in Gwadar. It is the hub of the city where business and entertainment meets a luxurious lifestyle... One of the core purposes of Gwadar Club & Ninety Nine Beach Resort is to connect the Pakistani business community with international businesses. It is to foster trade, joint ventures, public private partnerships and strategic partnerships to spur economic activity in Gwadar”.
Who’s on the Gwadar Club Advisory Board?
The club is owned and developed by the AM99 Group, and the same group is leading various mega-projects in Gwadar. The AM99 was founded and is being chaired by Brig Asif Mahmood Minhas: not only an Army man, but also the Advisor and Director, Joint Ventures in the Balochistan Development Authority. The government body that should control the activities in Balochistan and that claims that “not a single piece of land is owned by the government”.
Not directly, maybe. But the Gwadar Club Advisory Board includes (Retd) Major Gen Raza Muhammad, who was the Pakistani Ambassador to Mauritius; Kamran Lashari, DG of Walled City, Lahore; Mrs Rubina Asif, who is the wife of Brig Asif; and the former Law Minister Ahmer Bilal Sufi.
The company is based in Lahore. There is a charity called TABA that’s also based in Lahore — needless to say, TABA has been also been founded by the same Brigadier Asif, and his wife is a board member here too.
TABA was involved in relief work during the 2015 earthquake in Balochistan — when, just to be clear, only organisations approved by the army (and mainly related to JuD and other affiliated) had been given permission to enter the area, while permission was denied to international organisations.
Lahore’s ‘Salwar Kameez Lot’
TABA has been working occasion with the Cluster (Partner Organisations): ‘Akhuwat, Naim un Naseer Welfare Trust, Mile Stone, Falah Foundation, Qarshi Foundation, Zarar Shaheed Trust, NUST Community Services, LUMS Community Services, Rescue Services 1122 Punjab, Al Hijrah’.
Al Hijrah has been under investigation twice in the UK since 2015, over concerns about the charity’s finances. And, talking of finances, the silver membership plan of the Gwadar Club costs 300,000 Pakistani rupees only (gold and platinum membership are only on availability). Not that much indeed, if you consider that, with the 'power card' granted to you by the club, you can have privileged access to the Balochistan Development Authority and to the Gwadar Development Authority.
It’s the same lot — actually, what in Lahore is called ‘the salwar kameez lot’, an amalgam of people linked to the army and to the religious parties entrusting themselves with the propagation and conservation of ‘authentic’ Pakistani culture and values.
Funnily enough, the club's website claims, all in the same page, to have “business ethics — to chalk out a complete, detailed and comprehensive manual of business ethics and code of moral conduct for members” and to “act as a medium between the members and the Gwadar Development Authority”.
A Fairy Tale Existence for Some Baloch – Even As Others Continue to Suffer
Some Baloch are developing the Gwadar Gymkhana club, the membership fees being a minimum of 500,000 Pakistani rupees; the kind of Baloch living in a Barbie world, sorry, a ‘visionary world’. The group is in fact called ‘Visionary Group’, and is owned by the family of a late businessmen, Haji Muhammad Iqbal Baloch.
They are perhaps the only Baloch around who don’t know about the everyday goings-on in their land. Enforced disappearances, ‘kill and dump’, mass graves, nuclear tests, kidnappings.
And while they develop ‘luxury and elite clubs’ along with the Pakistani Army and the Chinese, they claim to have “successfully tried to connect the people of Balochistan with mainstream Pakistan, through cultural integration by introducing 2 March as Baloch Culture Day, a day celebrated with utmost enthusiasm across Pakistan”. Across Pakistan maybe, and for sure by the same Chinese who invented the ‘CPEC biryani’. Not by the majority of Baloch for sure, not by those waiting for their relatives to come home, waiting to bury their missing bodies. Not for those who know only too well ‘who's eating their chickens’.
(Francesca Marino is a journalist and a South Asia expert who has written ‘Apocalypse Pakistan’ with B Natale. Her latest book is ‘Balochistan — Bruised, Battered and Bloodied’. She tweets at @francescam63. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)