A small fishing town, Gwadar has become synonymous with the aspirational city that the government of Pakistan hopes to build. The area, which is being billed as the-next-Dubai-only-better, was bought by Pakistan from the Sultan of Muscat and Oman in 1958. Here’s the story from Time that same year.
Today, it’s home to a strategically located deep sea warm water port that has the potential to become central to trade and energy politics in the Middle East as well as Central and South Asia. The port however is one part of a master plan to entirely re-develop Gwadar City into a tourist and trade zone complete with boating clubs, a sports complex, a flying club, and a free trade zone for industry. Gwadar as it exists recedes into the shadows of the dreams of its planners.
Progress. For Gwadar’s dreamers, development is as inevitable as the onward march of history. It’s happening, indeed, has already happened. The sports complex is empty, the technical institute is empty, the port runs only occasionally because the government is subsidizing it, but for its planners, the idea of Gwadar redeems the massive influx of capital and questionable failure. An idea at the back of it; not a sentimental pretence but an idea; and an unselfish belief in the idea — something you can set up, and bow down before, and offer a sacrifice to.
I quote Conrad because that’s what looped endlessly in my mind as I saw the grand plan, the rubble, the maps, the voluble genial men of ideas.
But what about the local fishermen?
They have dreams of their own, and they do not include a sports complex or commercial high rises. They have been seamen and fishermen their entire lives, but working at the port requires certificates that are difficult to acquire. Many of them are largely uneducated and lack the technical skills that will be needed to run a port. While the GDA (Gwadar Development Authority) is building a technical institute which may approximately take 300 people, it’s yet to be functional. The GDA has also built a fish harbour (in the video below where the fisherman is cleaning his catch). It’s straight across from the port. While I’m no planner, I do wonder what will happen if the port does actually become functional in the way that the government forsees: won’t hundreds of ships docking, trading, bringing cargo, dirty the waters? oil spills? change the ecology of the area? Won’t the free trade industrial zone do the same? Won’t the tourism?
Gwadar-the-idea caters to the elite habit, not just the economic class. Being elite, after all, isn’t simply about money; it’s also a habit. Leisure activities and interests are all influenced by that mode of being, and that is to what the master plan caters. What, after all, will a fisherman, who has been out at sea for most of the day, want with a boating club or water sports? Both economically and culturally, they will be locked out of their own land. ‘Development’, ‘progress’, ‘modernization’ is a savage phenomenon. A series of violent ruptures rather than a process. Force and resistance. In May 2004, three Chinese engineers working on the port were killed by a bomb. In 2006, the inauguration of the first phase of the port by Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao couldn’t go ahead due to security concerns. When Prime Minister Gilani did come this December, the locals reportedly observed a shutter-down strike.
Never mind the locals. If you build it, they will come.
Except that they haven’t. The port, which was leased to the PSA (Port of Singapore Authority), the third largest port running company, has failed to attract ships. It blames the Pakistani government for not having built the network of roads and railways it promised in its contract with the PSA. The government says the PSA could still have attracted ships to dock there on their way elsewhere. In order to make the port operational, the government has redirected some of its own ships to dock there rather than in Karachi. And to make that feasible, it subsidized trucks to travel to Gwadar from Karachi to pick up the cargo and take it wherever it needs to go. All that cost about 2bn rupees last year.
Perhaps that’s why the government is so tetchy about foreign journalists coming to the area. Everybody I spoke with told me that I should be sure that the intelligence agencies knew exactly where I was and what I was doing. It wasn’t a question I’d asked. They simply volunteered the information as part of the interview.
But, back to PM Gilani for a moment, who did come. He showed up in Gwadar with his cabinet, about 200 government officials, and a media entourage on Dec 30th to hold a cabinet meeting on a Navy ship docked in the Gwadar port. The 2-day affair cost the federal government 5 million rupees, easily making it the most expensive cabinet meeting in the country’s history.
The objective for the meeting was to sign the new NFC (National Finance Commission) Award which uses an improved formula to decide on budget distribution for the the four provinces. Balochistan has long held that the single-factor, population formula discriminates against the province without looking at other indicators such as poverty.
So, to recap: in order to sign off on a slightly fairer NFC Award to give some more money to the poorest province, the federal government spent 5 million rupees on itself.
And, oh yeah, the meeting took place 10 days after Gilani’s own government had introduced austerity measures.
I’m shocked I tell you. Just shocked.