Local protests and lack of Chinese interest derails CPEC projects in Gwadar
Against the managed portrayal of China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) making rapid progress to develop infrastructure across length and breadth of Pakistan, the on-ground progress continues to remain disappointing. Several crucial projects under the $60 billion CPEC umbrella have either missed their completion deadlines or are facing considerable delays.
Pakistan’s southern coastal city of Gwadar and its port were once billed as the future hub of global trade under CPEC. Pakistan used to claim that as country’s third deep sea port, Gwadar port would handle the increasing trade demand which the existing Karachi and Qasim ports would not be able to cater to. However, the port city project has turned into a model of failed execution for governments, authorities and companies involved from both China and Pakistan. Completion of various projects planned on and near the port is proving to be a major challenge for the implementing agencies from both sides.
Infrastructure projects reported to be running behind schedule include Gwadar Port Phase II expansion, New Gwadar International Airport, construction of breakwaters, Pak-China Friendship Hospital, the 300MW coal based power plant and fresh water treatment, supply & distribution project. Till date, only four major CPEC projects are reported to have been completed here. These include East Bay Expressway, Smart Port City Master Plan, construction of Free Zone Phase-1 and the Pak-China Technical and Vocational Institute which was built from a $10 million Chinese grant.
Disappointed by the hollow promises of getting better infrastructure, job opportunities and civic amenities in their area, the locals in Gwadar are often seen protesting over denial of basic services. Majority of the local residents are poor fishermen and in many cases, the over-stretched construction activities have added to their problems. They struggle to have access to vital necessities including decent health and education. Even the administration of Gwadar Development Authority hospital is experiencing difficulty in retaining employees because of non-availability of water for them. Moreover, the port area does not have its own power generation and it needs to import its electricity from neighboring Iran. The situation cannot be expected to ease soon as the proposed coal based power plant is held up due to coordination problems. The provincial government had objections
regarding the coal power plant which delayed its clearance. Though the groundbreaking of the plant took place in 2019, the execution has been quite sluggish.
Government delegations keep on visiting Gwadar to sell the local people hopes for a better future. In Nov 2021, Pak Senate’s Standing Committee on Planning and Development expressed concern over the slow pace of projects in the port city. The committee had visited Gwadar for an on-site meeting on CPEC projects and observed that progress on infrastructure and basic facilities was not enough to lure local and international investors. During an earlier visit in July 2021, the then Pak Prime Minister, Imran Khan had expressed similar concerns on the common issues of supply of water, electricity and gas, and connectivity with other areas.
The new Pak government under Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif is apparently making efforts to rejuvenate the working on these projects. Shahbaz has asked the Minister for Planning Ahsan Iqbal to hold comprehensive talks with Chinese investors and prepare a clear roadmap for the resolution of all issues. The Gwadar Eastbay Expressway was inaugurated by him on June 3, 2022. The expressway is considered a critical part for Gwadar’s accessibility as it will link the port to the Makran coastal highway. Nonetheless, the locals complain that the expressway has affected their settlements by blocking their access to the sea on the East Bay side. This is likely to accentuate the already grave concerns of poor fishermen in Gwadar who are staring at a loss of their livelihood to the Chinese interests. Much of the fishing area has become off limits for the local fishermen after being classified as a high-security zone. On its part, the Pak government just wants to contain their protests with promises of compensations.
Lack of coordination and slow pace of projects is not ailing the CPEC projects at Gwadar alone. A risk-averse approach adopted by China during the last few years has manifested in the form of institutional lethargy concerning most parts of the mega project. Further, shrewd Chinese approach towards additional funding has affected the projects falling under CPEC Phase-II including the socio-economic ones. This has forced Pakistan into a reality check on its dreams of expanding local infrastructure through Chinese investment. For a country which construed CPEC as the panacea for all its ills, the setback is huge.