Balochistan’s Alsace-Lorraine

By Malik Siraj Akbar

In a government-sponsored ceremony held in Quetta on December 6, the Luni and Marri tribes joined together under a peace agreement intended to ensure mining in the largest coalfield of Asia, Chamalong, in Balochistan’s Loralai district. Up until this point, mining has been unsuccessful because of a war between the Baloch and Pashtun tribes for control of the fields.

The recent agreement was signed by Sardar Ismatullah Luni, chief of the Pashtun Luni tribe, and Mir Hazar Khan Bijarani, a Baloch guerrilla-commander, who has turned pro-government and heads the Bijarani clan of the Marri tribe. The bigwigs of the Balochistan government are thrilled about the agreement, which has ended a longstanding tribal dispute between the warring tribes. Under the agreement, the government of Balochistan has control over the high reservoirs of coal with the consent of the Luni and Marri tribes.

“It is no surprise that the government is thrilled with the agreement: Chamalong not only offers excellent-quality coal but is also very close to the surface and hence easier to mine,” says an expert. “The promising economic prospects of mining here have not been lost to the government and if nothing has happened so far, it is mainly due to the Marri-Luni enmity.”

Terming the agreement “a milestone for our coming generations”, Balochistan Chief Minister Jam Yousaf said that it would create 40,000 jobs and would prove crucial for the overall development of the province.

Chamalong, named so because of the Chamalong Mountain range, is located in Duki tehsil of Loralai District, bordered by district Barkhan in the east and district Kohlu in the south. Coal was first discovered here in 1973. The Lunis applied for two Prospecting Licences in 1974 and 1976 and the Marris applied for six in 1975 and 1980. Two Prospecting Licenses were granted to Lunis in 1976 and 1980.

The Chamalong Coal reserves witnessed the first phase of exploration in 1980 when Sardar Mohammad Tahir Khan Luni started excavation after acquiring an NOC in the name of Zamindar and Rafique Coal Companies. This was soon followed by conflict within the Luni tribe which led to the suspension of exploration in 1983. The project soon turned into an intra-tribe conflict between the Luni and Marri tribes. In the 1970s, 50 people from both sides were killed, after which the government suspended the project. In the following years, despite frequent efforts by various governments, no breakthrough could be achieved.

Then in October 1997, the Lunis and Marris moved an application to the Secretary Industries for appointment of arbitrators to decide the case amicably. A committee was formed on November 25, 1997, which comprised Mir Taj Mohammad Marri, Sardar Tahir Khan Luni and Anwar Hussain Hashmi. The arbitrators presented their recommendations in August 1998. After pending appeals by both the Lunis and Marris, the government of Balochistan, keeping in view the deteriorating law and order situation, imposed a ban on mining activities on 26 June 2002.

However, in March 2003, the minister for mines issued instructions that the ban be lifted. A summary was submitted to the chief minister of Balochistan and was promptly approved. But soon after mining began again, two incidents took place on April 1 and 7 in which 8 and 7 persons died respectively.

Since then, mining has remained suspended. Presently, the Marris and Lunis have seven Prospecting Licenses/Mining Leases each. Eight applications from the Marri side have been cancelled/rejected on the report of the District Coordination Officer (DCO), Loralai, because NOCs had not been “processed according to law”.

“Both tribes made it impossible for each other or a third party to get any work done. They planted landmines in the area to prevent any kind of development activity,” says a government source. Raziq Bugti, the spokesperson for the Balochistan government, told TFT that work on cleaning up landmines began soon after the recent truce.

President Musharraf has also expressed jubilation over the peace agreement saying it will help put “Balochistan on the map of the world as one of the biggest centres of coal mining”.

Indeed, experts say the Chamalong coal reserves have the capacity to produce 6000-30,000 tonnes of coal on a daily basis. If made operational, the project has tremendous prospects for the development and prosperity not only of locals and those in Balochistan but for the entire country.

However, Baloch nationalist leaders and scholars express their reservations about the ‘development’ that is to follow. Like several other projects, this agreement too will pave the way for further usurpation of Baloch resources by the federal government, says one pessimist. “The will of the Baloch masses was not included in the agreement. It was just a single pro-establishment Baloch family that extended support to the government,” says a nationalist.

Sorat Khan Marri, former Director Pubic Relations (DPR) of the Balochistan government, adds that the agreement will make it easy for the government to create a Baloch-Pashtun conflict in the province in order to encourage its policy of divide and rule. “The government has changed its strategy this time. By calling it the Marri-Luni agreement, the government has conceded the Pashtun ownership of Chamalong,” says Sorat Khan. “If there is any kind of resistance from the Baloch side tomorrow, the government will have no problem launching a military operation in the area by recruiting ‘rented’ Marri youths and creating a civil war among the Marris,” he adds.

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