Last week the Makran region of Balochistan once again made news when four drivers of oil transportation vehicles died near the Iranian border due to thirst and starvation. One of them was Fazal Baloch, a resident of Turbat who transported oil from the border for a meager salary of Rs18,000 per month with some additional bonus. He left his home on March 30 to earn money for Eid shopping for his family. Due to the border closure, he could not return alive but his body reached his hometown 17 days later. As of now, hundreds of vehicles are stranded near the Iranian border and the drivers are in dire need of help.
Due to the lack of jobs in Balochistan, people living in border districts rely on trade along with Iran for their livelihoods. People use Iranian pick-up trucks called Zamyad to transport oil from Iran to Pakistan and make a living in the process. This trade is informal and does not take place through official channels. It is a source of livelihood for thousands of people across Balochistan.
According to the people involved in this trade, there are 17 cross points used for oil transport in the Makran division, eight in Kech, five Gwadar, and four in Panjgur. Over the last few months, the government launched a crackdown on this trade. Most of the border points where this oil was traded were sealed and it has become very difficult for the drivers to transport oil for a living.
There are 17 cross points used for oil transport in Makran division, eight in Kech, five Gwadar, and four in Panjgur
Previously 2,000 vehicles were allowed from cross points which have now been reduced to 400. This has resulted in long queues of Zamyads on the border. These vehicles cannot enter Iran because the government does not let them and they cannot come back due to the blockage of roads caused by hundreds of Zamyads. The government has even closed down hotels and repair shops on the route of these Zamyads, which has worsened the difficulties of the drivers.
The cause of their suffering is a new policy of the PTI government to crack down on informal oil trade in the name of border control. The government is fencing the Pakistan-Iran border and it is also taking steps to prevent all kinds of informal goods from passing through. This policy of the government has created an uncertain situation overnight where the livelihoods of thousands of people are no longer secure.
This policy and the deaths of the drivers have triggered protests in the Makran region. Last week, the Border Trade Union held a protest in Gwadar against this sudden policy shift by the government. President of this union, Mohammad Aslam, said that trade with Iran was the main source of livelihood for most people in Makran. The protestors warned that if the government did not change its policy by April 23, they would block all national highways in Makran in protest.
This critical situation warrants urgent action by the government. There are three steps that the government must take to resolve the problem. First, the government needs to immediately provide relief to the stranded drivers. Lives are at risk due to the unavailability of food and water in harsh weather. Government must make arrangements to provide food and water to save the stranded drivers. Efforts should also be made to facilitate their return to their hometowns on an urgent basis so that they can spend Eid with their families.
Second, the government should allow this informal trade in the short term to facilitate the people dependent on it. In the long run, this informal trade or smuggling cannot continue. However, it would also be unfair to curb it abruptly without allowing people time to transition to other sources of livelihood. The government can gradually end this informal trade while assisting people in finding alternative sources of livelihood. This trade must not be stopped till people secure stable sources of livelihoods in the form of agriculture, small businesses, and private jobs.
Third, the government must make border trade with Iran easy and less formal. The government should give up its long list of requirements that obstruct legal trade. It must facilitate border trade by making the legal procedure easy to follow. The goods from Iran will continue to feed the people of the border region and help the economy of the country as a whole. The population residing in the border areas of Balochistan can only be truly prosperous if the trade is allowed with Iran.
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