Tuesday, May 5, 2015

How the "Corridor of Opportunity" turned into the "Corridor of Controversy"

The CPEC is a golden opportunity for the Federal Government to reduce the mistrust of the center found among Pashtuns, Balochs and Sindhis, writes Sulaiman Mandanr

May 04, 2015 

Sulaiman Mandanr

Back in 2013 when, for the first time, the parliament was told that Pakistan and China had plans to sign a deal for improving trade relations between the two countries and bringing the Karachi and Gwadar ports into further use, it had created the hope that Pakistan's economic conditions would improve. The Chinese President’s visit to the country last month changed that hope into reality; Chinese investment in Pakistan has, without a doubt, presented Pakistan as an investment opportunity to the world, which is otherwise known for its terrorist networks. While Pakistan is still busy tackling terrorism, this is a lifeline for its economy. 

China being the major export and import partner of Pakistan, both the countries have a lot to win from the proposed plan: the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. Signed between National Development Reform Commission of China and Planning Commission of Pakistan, the CPEC’s main objective was to focus on connecting the western region of China with Pakistan and the rest of the world through Pakistani ports. Its focus is on developing the “research framework” for establishing communication links including roads, railways, fiber optic cable, oil and gas pipelines linking Gwadar with western China. The plan is indeed an opportunity for improvement for both the countries, especially for Pakistan’s war- and terrorism-hit economy. The sectors identified for development were road, rail, energy and industries.

Now, where did things go wrong? Why did this corridor of opportunity turn into a controversy? Let me tell you what happened. While the main objective of the CPEC was to connect the western region of China with Pakistan’s port of Gwadar, the main objective of Pakistan’s Federal Government seems to be something else. Trying to turn the waters muddy, the Minister for Planning and Development, Ahsan Iqbal continues to deny any change in route; in the same breath, he also says that an interim arrangement is being planned by using existing infrastructure for “short term” as to make the corridor and port functional. In his recent tweet he says “ Gawadar, Turbat, Panjgur, Besima, Kalat, Mastung, Quetta, Qila Saifullah, Zhob, DI Khan, Bannu, Kohat, Peshawar route included in CPEC” while Planning Commission Pakistan tweets a map of CPEC route calling it the corridor of opportunity that passes through Lahore. A few weeks earlier the NHA published the invitation for pre-qualification for Lahore-Abdul Hakeem Section which is 235 kilometers long. The notice reads “the motorway forms part of trade corridor linking ports of Karachi and Gwadar with China and Central Asian states.” And the estimated cost for the project is set at 1.30 billion dollars for the 230 km section. Whereas, the total funds allocated to roads in the CPEC is 5.9 billion dollars. 

The summary of the Transport Sector Report by Ministry of Transport China reads that “The spatial scope of the Plan is the reversed-Y-shaped belt consisting of 6 major connection points, i.e. Kashgar, Islamabad, Lahore, Sukkur, Karachi and Gwadar based on regional transport characteristics as agreed by China and Pakistan.” Pakistan’s Ministry of Communications comments on the documents and agrees with above, adding that “Gwadar via Khuzdar may be added as one of the major connection points for actualization of reversed-Y-shaped corridor/ belt”. It further adds that “the planned period of the Plan is 2014-2030, with the Short-term of 2014-2020 (with priorities projects before 2018), medium and long term of 2021-2030 as well as long-term prospect after 2030”. The priority projects include Thakot-Mansehra, Mansehra-Havelian, Havelian-Harpur, Harpur-Islamabad (connecting to M1) and Multan-Sukkur whereas Faisalabad-Multan and Lahore-Multan(Khanewal) is part of the short term plan. Contrary to what Ahsan Iqbal claims in his tweet, it is important to note that nowhere in this plan up to 2030 includes the cities of Peshawar, Kohat, Bannu, DI Khan, Zhob, Qila Saifullah, Quetta, Mastung or Kalat. When confronted by nationalist parties, Ahsan Iqbal calls them paid US Agents, an "insult" commonly practiced in Pakistan for discrediting one's opponent’s views.

Speaking in the Parliament, Ahsan Iqbal was showing maps from New York Times, and Wall Street Journal as a proof that no change had taken place in the route. One can’t quite understand why the Minister wasn’t using official documents from the Planning Commission to prove that the route remains unaltered.

The NHA Chairman, while briefing the Senate Standing Committee on Communications, couldn’t clarify the reason behind the inclusion of the interim/short term plan. However, some experts explain that the already available infrastructure, security and population is the reason behind the interim arrangement.

While public pressure mounts asking for transparency on the project, major opposition political parties including PPP, ANP, PTI, MQM, QWP and JUI-F are also raising their concerns. Known for its support in the Pashtun populated provinces of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Baluchistan, who are the most affected by the change in route, the Awami National Party has taken a leading role on the issue. It convened an All Parties Conference in February and plans to hold another one in Baluchistan this month. Asfandyar Wali Khan vows to reject any change in the route and warns that it will turn into another Kalabagh Dam for Pakistan. A large public gathering was held in Quetta under ANP last week rejecting any change in the route.

With such pressure building in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Baluchistan, where Baloch nationalists are actively fighting against Pakistan’s Army, the manner in which the Federal Government is dealing with this issue will only make matters worse. Pashtuns, Balochs and Sindhis are already struggling for their rights in Pakistan and hold a non-favorable opinion of the PML-N, generally viewing it as a Punjab-based party looking after the interests of Punjabis alone. It is crucial for the federal government to address this trust deficit. The CPEC was a golden opportunity, but it has unfortunately turned into a controversy now - but it still might not be too late.

When the government claims that no changes have been made in the route, all they have to do is make the documents public. A little transparency will do - the people need a reason to trust the Federal Government.


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