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Fixing Gwadar’s governance structure

Islamabad may be under a political storm, but things look quite serene down south in Gwadar. The progress in Gwadar, as this column informed earlier this week is satisfactory by most accounts (read “Gwadar: look at feel,” published October 11, 2017). The question is how far and how long will the pace of development of Gwadar City as a successful special economic zone (SEZ) continue in a manner that is self-sustaining in the long run.

Some of the key ingredients to Gwadar’s satisfactory report card so far are as follows.

The army has managed to ensure security in the last few years creating an enabling environment for commercial activities and residential life. It’s another thing the military establishment now needs to think of a modern way of providing security because umpteen check posts with manned gunmen, troop patrols, and guarded delegation-visits to even schools and hospitals cannot continue forever, if the city is to thrive.

Both the establishment here at home (thanks to CPEC’s conception in a ‘strategic’ womb) and China itself seems keen on kick-starting Gwadar. For instance, while it is true that the Ministry of Planning was given to Ahsan Iqbal because Sartaj Aziz is neither a Senator nor an MNA, sources in Islamabad and Gwadar maintain that the Chinese demanded that Ahsan Iqbal keeps the portfolio because they did not want to slow down things by changing horses mid stream.

Chinese interest can be also gauged by the fact that Mr. Zhang, the boss of COPHC (Gwadar’s current port operator) is mostly found at the site in Gwadar – often for a stretch of consecutive eight weeks – instead of comfortably sipping tea at his Karachi head office. This is quite unlike the boss of SPA, Gwadar’s previous port operator. Similar traditions are being set by their local counterparts. Unlike most of their predecessors, the chairmen and DGs of Gwadar Port Authority and of Gwadar Development Authority are also physically present in Gwadar working in a hands-on fashion rather than acting like ‘babus’ and giving orders from Karachi.

There is little doubt that these measures have provided the necessary impetus to kick-start Gwadar. It is, however, equally true that Gwadar needs a modern urban governance framework that can facilitate and sustain the city’s growth towards its imagined future.

Models for a modern city, the kind of vision Chinese and Pakistani officials are trying to imagine, already exist around the world. Critical to their success is a strong city governing body headed by a mayor. That civic body must have the power to raise its own finances (taxes, munis bonds, etc.), administrate the port and related business, oversee urban commerce and economy, urban design, transport and other services. Some cities have their own local-level commercial courts to fast-track decisions. In fact, in some Chinese cities that have SEZs, the mayor’s office even has foreign affairs department under its wing.

Yet in Gwadar, the situation is very much unlike what the Chinese are accustomed to. For instance, if the Chinese invite Gwadar’s city and port officials (and also bear their travel and logistics expenses), these officials are supposed to obtain a NOC from the respective ministries. Imagine a section officer in Quetta or Islamabad deciding whether a high-level city of port official in Gwadar should or shouldn’t attend a conference in China or anyplace else. On paper, those section officers also get to sign-off on the cost of development in Gwadar, when, in fact, they have little knowledge of the ground realities of the city.

If Gwadar’s city and port officials cannot take such trivial steps on their own, then how can they manage the development of Gwadar in the grander scheme of affairs? Clearly, there is a case for a strong mayor in Gwadar.

However, there are two limitations. At the one end, Balochistan’s Local Government Act has given limited powers to mayors in general, and at the other end, it has only allowed mayors for provincial capital or (subject to notification by provincial government) only for those cities that have a population of more than half million. Gwadar’s population is less than that. These legal limitations need to be removed; the Balochistan government needs to make amendments to its Local Government Act and accordingly create a strong mayor office in Gwadar.

Can Balochistan government do that? The answer is yes. Post 18th Amendment, provinces are empowered to make such laws. Will Balochistan government do that? The answer to that depends on whether Gwadar’s new master plan, which is currently being designed by the Chinese, will include city governance framework. We are told that it will, but one can’t be too sure at this point. Of course, much will also depend on whether the establishment sees value in having a strong mayor in Gwadar and whether Quetta is willing to let go some if its power.

A well-functioning piece of machinery requires similar-shaped cogs running at compatible speeds; if the shape and speed of those cogs are off tune, the machinery breaks down every so often. Likewise, if Gwadar is to be on the road to Shenzhen, then its cog of urban governance has to be made compatible with one that can manage China’s speed and design. Otherwise, expect loud cranks.

BR Research. Fixing Gwadar’s governance structure. Business Recorder, October 13, 2017.

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