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30 May 2024, Gateway House

Trouble in Pakistan’s periphery

Pakistan’s peripheral regions have long been treated as colonies to benefit the Punjabi core. This neglect is facing a vigorous pushback, in the form of peaceful protests and violent resistance. The economic crisis has exacerbated tensions in Baluchistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Gilgit-Baltistan, which remain poor despite abundant natural resources.

Senior Fellow, Energy, Investment and Connectivity

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Pakistan’s ongoing economic crisis has laid bare the colonial relationship the Punjabi center has with the peripheral regions – Baluchistan, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) and Gilgit-Baltistan. These regions are rich in natural resources but remain undeveloped as their resources are used to feed the military’s home province of Punjab. This inequitable relationship is increasingly coming under stress, as Pakistan’s economic crisis means whatever little benefits these regions received from the centre, are now being cut back.

Gilgit-Baltistan, part of the greater Pakistan occupied Kashmir (POK)  and to the north of the so-called Azad Kashmir, has been in the news since early 2024 for widespread protests against electricity shortages and high price of wheat. Multiple news[1] reports[2] from within Pakistan indicate that the region faces up to 22 hours of load-shedding. This is surprising, as Gilgit-Baltistan hosts two large dams which generate sufficient hydropower – the 1,000-megawatt Mangla Dam and the 969 MW Neelum-Jhelum Dam.

The same is true for the neighbouring province of KPK, home to Pakistan’s largest dam, the 3,478 MW Tarbela dam along with a number of smaller projects. However, KPK also faces long hours of loadshedding[3]. Hydroelectricity accounted for 28.6% of all electricity generated in Pakistan in 2023-24, but the regions where it is produced get little or none of that power. Under the on-going China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), seven additional dams are to be built in KPK, Gilgit Baltistan and POK. It is doubtful that the regions hosting these projects will gain jobs, electricity supply, and other benefits from them.

Table 1. China-funded hydropower projects in POK and KPK.

Project Province Capacity Project Status
Neelum-Jhelum Hydropower Project POK 969 MW Completed
Kohala Hydropower Project POK 1124 MW In Planning
Diamer Bhasha Dam POK 4500 MW In Planning
Phandar Hydropower Station POK In Planning
Gilgit KIU Hydropower POK 100 MW In Planning
Azad Pattan Hydropower Project POK 700 MW In Planning
Suki Kinari Hydropower Project KPK 884 MW Under construction

A similar pattern is repeated in Baluchistan, Pakistan’s largest province by area at 347, 190 km² and the smallest by population with 12.34 million. Baluchistan is home to Pakistan’s largest gas field, Sui, which has been in production since the fifties. The latest price of natural gas from the Sui field is set at $3.27/mmbtu, less than half the global gas price. Baluchistan’s gas reserves are provided at subsidized prices, mostly to Punjab; there is little development at home. More than 75% of Baluchistan’s gas reserves have been depleted in this manner.

The same pattern is followed in the Reko Diq project, a large copper reserve in Baluchistan that’s being developed by Barrick Gold, a Canadian company (50% owner)[4] in which the Baluch have little ownership. Strategically located Baluchistan is host to many of the CPEC projects, including the Gwadar Port, Gwadar Airport, two thermal power plants and other assorted  operations, none of which have delivered significant benefits to the local communities. Instead, locals have lost access to the Gwadar port, earlier used actively by the fishing community.

The inequitable sharing of resources with the Islamabad is now being actively questioned. Baluchistan has seen protests by the Haq do Tehreek[6], a movement dedicated to fighting for the rights of the Baluch people, including a share the natural resources of the region.

Not all resistance is peaceful. In Baluchistan and KPK, there is increasingly violent opposition to ‘development projects’ that threaten to take away local resources with no compensation or return, including projects funded by China as a part of the CPEC. The Baluch Liberation Army (BLA) and Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) are increasingly targeting projects that take over local resources. The BLA is additionally fighting to free Baluchistan from Pakistan. In visuals from some of the protests in GB, demonstrators displayed a desire to join India.

Pakistan has historically ignored and not provided development to these regions. The ongoing economic crisis means it is unable to quell or buy off local dissent any longer.

Addressing this issue meaningfully necessitates the Punjabi-dominated military to give up its control over the country’s budget and resources, and free up funds for other regions. Short of a major change in the country’s governance, the anger at inequitable resource-sharing can morph into secessionist tendencies, similar to what Pakistan last witnessed in 1971.

Amit Bhandari is Senior Fellow for Energy, Investment and Connectivity, Gateway House. 

Aditya Shinde is Research Assistant, Gateway House.

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[1]  Jamil Nagri. “G-B Faces Communication Crisis Amid Power Woes.” Dawn, March 24, 2024.

[2] “G-B Faces Communication Crisis Amid Power Woes.” The Express Tribune, May 22, 2024.

[3] Usama Iqbal. “G-B Faces Communication Crisis Amid Power Woes.” The Express Tribune, May 22, 2024.

[4]  “Reko Diq Project.” Barrick Gold Corporation, accessed May 28, 2024.

[5] Haqdotehreek. “Haqdo Tehreek.” Haqdotehreek, accessed May 28, 2024.

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