Realities at Gwadar

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The first Gwadar hype happened in 2006-07 when the government of President Pervez Musharraf announced its commitment to build Gwadar as a model port city of Pakistan. When I first visited Gwadar in early 2008, it was a fishermen’s village blended with banners of many housing schemes and a vibrant newly-inaugurated PC Hotel filled to capacity with businesspeople looking for a kill in real estate in particular. The second Gwadar hype took place in 2014-15 when the government decided to terminate the Operation and Management agreement of a Singaporean Company and awarded it Chinese with a much greater scope of work under the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). With this change, the public expected dramatic developments at Gwadar considering Chinese reputation of being fast track executors of projects.

My visit to Gwadar this month did not demonstrate any spectacular change as perceived by many. It is still much of a fishermen’s village with some developments taking place in housing and road networks. The port is largely dormant and has the same infrastructure that the Singaporean company had left behind. The PC Hotel has only two of its four floors open where its thin occupancy is largely limited to Chinese clients. Mercifully, there were no real estate agents or their banners in the city.

The first Gwadar euphoria of 2006-07 evaporated with the end of General Pervez Musharraf’s regime. What followed was a sharp collapse of real estate prices and investor’s interest, the once vibrant PC hotel came to the brink of closure, the traffic at the Gwadar port, managed by a Singaporean company, was limited to a few ships a month. All signs indicated that Gwadar will stay in a state of hibernation for years to come.

The advent of China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) advanced forth a new perspective of Gwadar. After around five years of hibernation it bounced back, making a promise of prosperity for Gwadar and the region and at the other end a source of concern for some who view CPEC as a threat to their perceived supremacy in the region.

But this time the Gwadar hype appears to be for real, in spite of a slow start. The port city is preparing itself for an impressive kick-start. Presently, there are around 200 Chinese on ground and their number is expected to soar to 1000 persons by mid-2017 once their accommodations at the port are ready for occupancy.

The government of China has signed a long-term agreement with the government of Pakistan for a defined scope of work which is to build, manage and operate the Gwadar port, a container terminal and an industrial zone. All are linked together on a piece of land allocated to them. The three shall be exclusively accessible via a direct motorway linked to the Gwadar highway, most probably at the zero point, thereby bypassing the city of Gwadar. The security of this enclave is being jointly managed by the armed services personnel of China and Pakistan.

The general perception that the Chinese will turn around the city of Gwadar into a state of art vibrant city is far from truth. The responsibility of the city development lies with a largely complacent Gwadar Development Authority (GDA). The development of the Gwadar city primarily depends on the pull-through it can manage to extract from the port and allied infrastructure being developed by the Chinese. There are already some signs of development of the city in anticipation to the same. New housing schemes in the shape of modern villas and restaurants (somewhat comparable to the good ones located in developed urban cities of Pakistan) are coming up.

The high point of emerging Gwadar is the ample employment and business opportunities it offers; notably to the residents of the Gwadar and the towns around it. The residents have begun to recognise and believe in it after years of mistrust and apprehensions. It is a reality, that, as a first priority the jobs are being offered to the local residents both in public and private sectors. Motivated by this trend the talented youth, who traditionally move to Karachi for education and jobs, are reported to be returning to serve at the place of their birth.

One needs to however recognise the fact that the true character of Gwadar is that of a fishing hub where they have their own harbour, boat building and repairing yard, conventional cold storage facilities and are self sufficient in all respects. For a vast majority of its residents this is a way of life since centuries. With the commercialisation and urbanisation of this city the traditions and livelihood of this vast majority are under threat. There are reports that their harbour, which falls under the area allocated to the Chinese, may be dislocated to some unfavourable location. The true character and heritage of Gwadar needs to be protected and preserved to avoid social unrest.

While China is exclusively concentrating on the development and operation of the port and allied infrastructure and transportation of goods from Gwadar to China, Pakistan must carry out the development of Gwadar as a planned city. In the absence of a well-structured city master plan, the tendency of the residents is to go for haphazard construction which often leads to mushroom growth of slums. And once this practice starts there is no stop.

Furthermore, to achieve committed development of the city of Gwadar the government is required to take all stakeholders on board, specially the business community. The governments of both Pakistan and of China need to address their concerns on merit to bring on board this large business community in the larger interest of the CPEC.

(The writer is former President Oversees Chamber of Commerce and Industry)
Copyright Business Recorder, 2017