A stray dog snoozes under a red boat lying next to a rickety teashop at Sur Bandars quay. It is Friday, and the harbour front is very quiet compared to the one at Gwadar, some 20 km away, where a Chinese deep sea port is under construction, promising to transform the sleepy town into a global trading hub.
At Sur Bandar’s quay the fisherfolk gather and chat over endless cups of a strong, sweet concoction they call “doodh-patti”, or just watch the world go by. I ask some if they have heard of the much-touted China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), but all shake their heads.
CPEC is a 3,000-km corridor from Kashgar in western China to Gwadar in Pakistan on the Arabian sea. It slices through the Himalayas, disputed territories, plains and deserts to reach the ancient fishing port Gwadar. Huge Chinese-funded infrastructure projects, including road and railway networks as well as power plants, are being built along the way. Originally valued at $46 billion, the corridor is estimated at $62 billion today.
The port under construction at Gwadar is owned by the Gwadar Port Authority (GPA) and operated by China Overseas Port Holding Company (COPHC), which will run it for 40 years. For China, Gwadar is strategically perched close to the Strait of Hormuz, through which an estimated 40 per cent of the world’s oil passes.
In Sur Bandar, though, the port development has brought only fear and uncertainty. Rumours are rife that it will bring an influx of fisherfolk displaced from Gwadar.
Saeed Mohammad, president of an association of Sur Bandar’s fisherfolk, says he has heard that it will happen but does not know when. “But there is not enough space for their boats to berth here, it’s not even enough for us,” he exclaims.
There are about 7,000 fisherfolk with 1,000 or so boats in Sur Bandar, he says, while the number in Gwadar is easily three times more.
The GPA is constructing a jetty at Sur Bandar, which the residents suspect is to eventually accommodate the fisherfolk from Gwadar. The fisherfolk in Gwadar have also heard that they will be displaced to Sur. “We have been told several times by security agencies that we should leave the port and fish at Sur,” says Dad Karim.
“We will not leave. This is the spot where we can fish all the year round; at Sur, there are three months — June, July and August — when fisherfolk cannot go to the sea due to high waves.”
Gwadar, he explained, is naturally protected by a hammerhead-shaped peninsula, which forms two almost perfect semi-circular bays on either side.
“It will take us two hours by boat to reach Sur; because our homes are here,” says Naseem Gajar, a fisherman with dark glasses fashionably perched on his head.
Not that the situation in Gwadar is much better, although they have heard many promises over the last dozen years.
On his visit last month, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had said 1,100 km of roads will be built within the city, bringing with it “progress and prosperity”.
But at the moment the town — situated in one of Pakistan’s poorest provinces, Balochistan — doesn’t have even basic services. A local journalist, Behram Baloch, says healthcare is rudimentary, and for women it is almost non-existent. For childbirth complications women have to be taken all the way to Turbat or even Karachi, nearly 500 km away.
Elsewhere in Pakistan, not a day passes without someone from the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N) making a reference to CPEC or how it will bring prosperity to the length and breadth of Pakistan, and in particular to Gwadar. Yet the voices of the indigenous fisherfolk of Gwadar — who make up 80 per cent of the district’s 185,000 inhabitants — have been snuffed out.
“In my own country, my own town and on my very own land, I am being welcomed as an outsider by someone who is actually the outsider,” says 65-year-old Dad Karim. Speaking about a recent meeting he had with the Chinese delegation working inside the Gwadar port, he says, “They smiled warmly, shook our hands and asked us how they can help us since we were their guests! How would you feel, tell me?”
The Chinese company says the fisherfolk’s livelihoods will not be affected and that once the factories are set up there will be no dearth of work. “They will all be absorbed in activities related to their own occupation be it fish processing, or value-addition,” says Dadullah Yousaf, a local working with the COPHC as Deputy Manager.
But the fisherfolk do not feel reassured. With more and more skilled workers making their way to Gwadar, locals with fewer skills and no education are likely to be left behind. The fear among local people is palpable. “We do not know anything other than fishing”, is a refrain you hear wherever you go.
But even if locals acquire skills, they will find it difficult to earn as much as they do now. In a week, the fisherfolk can make from Rs 20,000 ($188) to Rs 50,000 ($471). The wages of an unskilled worker at the port are not more than Rs 20,000 a month, and those of skilled labour, somewhere between Rs 28,000 ($264) to Rs 50,000 a month. In effect, their earnings may drop to a quarter of what they make now, or even less.
The heavy security around the port has made the fisherfolk more insecure. The military has trained a 30,000 strong security force to protect infrastructure and Chinese workers. “We are looked upon with suspicion and are asked to carry our national identity cards, a copy of our fishing licence and even a photo of our vessel as if we are terrorists,” snorts local resident Ilahi Bux.
Bux was badly beaten with by a metal rod last month after his boat crossed an imaginary line and found itself inside what the security people terms the “red zone”, a two-km long water channel next to the port. On days when a dignitary visits Gwadar, an increasingly common occurrence, the fisherfolk are banned from going to the sea. “The day we don’t go out to the sea, there is nothing to eat at home,” Bux laments.
Some analysts suspect China is more interested in Gwadar as a potential naval base than a trading route through the Arabian Sea. Pakistani officials disagree. “It stands to reason that there is a naval interest in Gwadar, but there is a strong economic interest too,” said Kaiser Bengali, former head of the Chief Minister’s Policy Reform Unit of the provincial government of Balochistan.
At any given time, the port can berth two or three large ships with capacity of 50,000 DWT (dead weight tonnage). By 2045, the port will be able to berth 150 ships and cargo up to 400 million tonnes, and will have multiple logistics services, a huge storage facility and a nine-square kilometre industrial free trade zone (GPFZ). Phase 1 of the GPFZ will be ready by early 2018.
The town of Gwadar is no longer sleepy, but it isn’t fully awake either. The Fish Harbour boulevard is lined with real estate offices. Developers and investors remain optimistic about the future and land prices have sky-rocketed here. But many locals say that they sold their land cheaply in the early 2000s. In this new wave, it is “outsiders” who are now selling property at very high rates.
In fact, other than the local fisherfolk, it seems everybody else is benefiting.
(In arrangement with thethirdpole.net. Zofeen T. Ebrahim is Pakistan editor of thethirdpole.net. Views expressed are those of thethirdpole.net. Feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org)