Moving toward peace along Pakistan's western border?

Daily News Egypt
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ISLAMABAD: Pakistani Chief of Army Staff General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani told the media last week that US drone strikes will not be allowed in the province of Balochistan, where the United States is reportedly turning to fight the militant group, Quetta Shura, which allegedly provides much of the leadership of the Pakistani Taliban.

An attack on the capital of Balochistan could further exacerbate the ongoing separatist conflict in the region.

Pakistan has launched operations in Balochistan at various times throughout its 62 years history, most recently when former President Pervez Musharraf was in power and then again during this new democratic government s tenure, and conflict between the military and Baloch separatists continue.

In an effort to change course, Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani recently announced a proposed Balochistan package that would give the Baloch, for the first time in the history of Pakistan, more control over their natural resources, which provide the country with much of its wealth. With efforts like these underway, US drone attacks on the provincial capital could be detrimental to peacemaking efforts.

Pakistan’s over-centralized political system has resulted in constant political and economic conflicts between the country’s center and its provinces. The conflict in Balochistan illustrates this point. Residents complain that they are fiscally deprived and their rights as citizens are not recognized, while calling for a new social contract with increased provincial autonomy. These complaints fuel liberation movements within the region and could result in division from Pakistan if not addressed properly.

To prevent this from happening, the Pakistani government is taking small steps toward giving resource-rich and strategically important Balochistan a greater share of fiscal benefits and stronger political representation in the central government.

Balochistan s subsoil provides a substantial portion of Pakistan’s energy and mineral resources, accounting for 36 percent of its total gas production. Resources also include large quantities of coal, gold, copper, silver, platinum, aluminum and, above all, uranium-crucial for developing nuclear energy. It is also a potential transit zone for a pipeline transporting natural gas from Iran and Turkmenistan to India.

The province’s coast is particularly important for the region s economy. It provides Pakistan with an exclusive economic zone spread over approximately 111,600 square miles, giving Balochistan considerable economic importance. Located close to the Strait of Hormuz, at the entrance to the Persian Gulf, the city of Gwadar in Balochistan is expected to provide a port, warehouses and industrial facilities to more than 20 Asian and Middle Eastern countries.

Balochistan is the largest of Pakistan s four provinces in terms of area, but is home to only an estimated 6 percent of its population. And despite having the richest mineral and natural resources in the country, the province has the lowest literacy, health and infrastructure indices.

This impoverishment stems from the National Finance Commission (NFC) awards, which are funded by taxes and distributed among provinces for development by the central government. Resource distribution is based on a province’s population, a system that dates back to the breakup of Pakistan in 1971 and has been controversial since it began. Many claim that the central government has imposed this system on underdeveloped provinces and ignored their basic needs.

For the past 40 years, the parity principle has been the only criterion for the distribution of resources. Punjab, the most densely populated province, has insisted since the inception of the award that population size should be the sole basis for distribution. Sindh, Balochistan and the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) demand that geographical size and underdevelopment must be given due weight for resource distribution – ideas that are being considered for the first time in decades.

The fiscal decentralization envisaged under the NFC Award, which is presently being debated, has been a sore point for the Baloch people. The government in Islamabad needs to show that it understands the concept of a central government for the whole, meaning a fair and just distribution of the government s budget to all its citizens and regions, in order to sustain Pakistan s nascent democracy.

To restore the people’s trust in democracy, the government in Islamabad must continue to pay more attention to the appalling social and economic problems of its marginalized provinces, like Balochistan. Revenue sharing among the provinces under a newly designed NFC award is critical.

With a more democratic government now in place, independent from the military, the decisions made about Balochistan will be critically important. People in this resource-rich and strategically placed province, which borders Iran and Afghanistan, are anxiously hoping and waiting to see whether the actions taken by the present regime will assuage the decades-old conflict.

Saba Jamalis a filmmaker and a socio-political analyst. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews),

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