Federalism and CPEC By Foqia Sadiq Khan


The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is again in the news. There are reports that work is picking up on it.

There are lots of general nature news reports on CPEC. Yet, very few of them have focused on how CPEC is having an impact on federalism and inter-provincial harmony in Pakistan. We review Boni and Adeney’s 2020 well-researched paper for ‘Asian Survey’ for this purpose in this article.

The authors find that CPEC is playing the role of a “centripetal force” in the federal structure of Pakistan and the immense potential of big CPEC external investment is not being fully utilized to address inter-provincial disparities. Their review of “early harvest” projects in energy/natural resources, transport/infrastructure and Gwadar show that in the first phase, majority of projects in Sindh and Punjab are getting completed and Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa are trailing behind.

The 18th amendment and the 9th NFC Award had to a large extent addressed the grievances of the smaller provinces, however the conceptualization and implementation of CPEC is stoking tensions in the federal structure of Pakistan.

In the first phase of CPEC, Punjab had 29 percent of projects and Sindh had 41 percent. Most of the ‘early harvest projects were in energy generation with a budget of $34 billion out of the total original CPEC commitment of $46 billion. Not a single energy project was initiated in Gilgit-Baltistan.

Even in transport/infrastructure, the original thrust of CPEC was to give preference to Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa to shorten the Gwadar to the Karakoram Highway route. However, as the implementation started it became apparent that the focus was on the eastern route in the already well-developed road networks rather than the western route.

The then ruling party, the PML-N, prioritized infrastructure projects in the heartland of Punjab as it saw CPEC as a ticket to reelection. This was done at the cost of the western route through Balochistan and KP. The Planning Ministry’s ‘Long Term Plan for China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (2017-2030)’ reflects this bias in the first phase infrastructure projects.

So much so that the leader of the Balochistan Awami Party claimed in December 2018 that the western route was “no longer part of the CPEC”. The delay in the implementation of infrastructure projects in Balochistan and KP has increased inter-provincial tensions.

Half of the transport/infrastructure projects in Punjab and Sindh have been completed. Half of such projects in Gilgit-Baltistan (including expansion of the Karakoram Highway) are near completion. While all the projects in Balochistan and 60 percent of projects in KP have been estimated to be completed after 2022. Again we see disparity between Punjab and Sindh on the one hand, and Balochistan and KP on the other.

As far as the energy projects are concerned, Sindh has benefited from them and Balochistan has benefited the least. Forty percent of energy projects have been completed in Punjab and another 60 percent will come to fruition by 2020-21. Ninety percent of Sindh’s energy projects will be completed by 2021. Both the number of projects and the rates of completion of energy projects are much higher in Sindh and Punjab compared to Balochistan, KP, Azad Kashmir, or GB.

The authors quote Sanaullah Baloch to have remarked, “The large number of power projects under the CPEC in Punjab will have an immense impact on elevating the socio-economic conditions of targeted areas and population, more importantly central and northern Punjab. No such project has been initiated in Balochistan.” This is in the context of local communities in Balochistan, GB, and KP which have vented their concerns about CPEC projects leading to employment opportunities in areas where they are located and their regions being neglected.

As far as Gwadar is concerned, CPEC is making a contribution there but there are very limited projects in Balochistan outside of Gwadar. So much so that the cabinet in Balochistan in December 2018 termed CPEC spending in the province so far as “a joke”.

It might also be worthwhile to note that projects meant for the welfare of local populations (even of just Gwadar if not the whole of Balochistan) have only started in December 2019. They consist of Pakistan-China Friendship Hospital and a vocational/technical institute in Gwadar. Such vocational training is much needed for the local population to help make them eligible for jobs.

The PML-N in its tenure centralized control over CPEC, particularly ex-PM Abbasi — and this trend continues in the PTI government as well. Also, lately the control of CPEC has been largely given to non-civilian institutions that may alienate the smaller provinces, as they are not well represented in those institutions.

The Council of Common Interest (CCI) despite its pivotal role in the post-18th amendment phase has hardly discussed CPEC in its 22 meetings since 2010. The minutes of CCI meetings between 2010 and May 2017 reveal that CPEC in totality was not explicitly discussed, although a few CPEC projects such as Thar Coal and Gwadar Port Authority were discussed a few times. The CCI is the central forum to have discussed CPEC to promote inter-provincial harmony but it was largely not utilized.

An overall centre-periphery image appears from this above-discussed paper on the conceptualization and implementation of CPEC. It seems Punjab and Sindh form the centre where the bulk of projects are located or have been completed/near completion in the first phase. Balochistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and other regions form the periphery that are not getting their due share of this huge investment.

If federalism, inter-provincial harmony and the rights of those living in the smaller provinces have to be protected, then the future phases of CPEC must be more equitably distributed.

The writer is an Islamabad-based