The CEO of Tethyan Copper Company (TCC) manages to wear local attire (shalwar kameez) for a meeting with the then chief minister of Balochistan. An hour prior to the meeting, I go and meet the secretary mines who is busy in other matters.
As he sees me: “Oh yes, we do have a meeting in one hour, let me call the section officer concerned to give me a briefing.”
A project of national importance is going to be discussed and the secretary wants to have a briefing of just a few minutes from his section officer before he goes for the meeting for a multi-billion-dollar project that could change the fate of the country and the province.
As the TCC team walks in, greeted by the then chief minister and seated, the meeting starts with the chief minister in his humorous style, saying: “We are going to do the project ourselves.”
At first, I thought that he was just joking but when he repeated the sentence three times, I could realise that it was the end of his humour. It seemed that all including the secretary finance and the secretary mines were taken by surprise. I, being the only person in that room who had physically monitored the execution of a similar project (Saindak copper and gold project), replied: “Sir, there is no way that you can do the project yourself and I can tell you why?” But he was not ready to listen.
Another meeting followed with a very senior officer of the government of Balochistan. During this half-hour meeting, we had no eye contact understood that perhaps this upright and honest man had to toe the line of his boss and did not want to say what he had to.
TCC, Saindak project and NFC award were discussed and my apprehensions expressed during this meeting unfortunately proved to be true as nowhere could be seen the kind of development against the amount of funds spent from the NFC award. Where has all that money gone?
The desire of the then provincial government to operate a copper project could have been a dream fulfilled by taking over the already operating Saindak project but this somehow never happened. The same running contract was simply extended rather than being negotiated for much better terms that could have become an additional source of revenue for the province.
This is where the previous government miserably faltered, on one hand, adamant on working on the Reko Diq project and on the other hand let the Saindak project slip away. Money for jobs further added to the agonies of the masses in Balochistan.
The delay due to indecisiveness by the government made the TCC to shift its stance from specific performance to damages claim. The country can face dire consequences and it can be devastating in case the decisions in international courts go against the government. The claim against damages could amount to billions of dollars and at this stage, the country is in no position to meet such a liability.
Although elaborated by the present CM on the floor of the house several times, there seems to be a very strong restraining factor that is not allowing the government of Balochistan to initiate fresh negotiations and an out-of-court settlement with TCC that could prevent an impending “calamity”.
While there is still time before the proceedings in international courts kick off in January 2014, the province should be allowed to take a decision unilaterally on merit before it is too late.
Deprivation in Balochistan is the main impeding factor and this project has the capacity to eliminate this deficiency.
It would be a wishful thinking for the present government to fix responsibility for merely extending the Saindak contract rather than it being negotiated for much better terms for the province or for the Saindak project being run by the provincial government instead?
At present, 1,250 Pakistanis with a supervisory staff of only 200 Chinese are running the Saindak project. Surprisingly, there have been no serious counter-checks or monitoring of the blister copper that is being exported.
In spite of the passage of 18th Amendment, it is yet to be seen that this amendment is implemented in letter and spirit in Balochistan in particular. However, if the Council of Common Interests (CCI) was religiously followed, it could transform into an effective mechanism to regulate centre-province relations, upholding the constitution, but the CCI is also being taken too casually.
The use of force combined with the centre’s denial of an absolute political and administrative autonomy and authority to the Balochistan government is further fuelling the grievances of the Baloch, thereby incapacitating the present chief minister in addressing their grievances and bringing them back to the political mainstream.
Although the chief minister has the acumen, the will and the desire to change the fate of Balochistan and its people, but this can only be possible provided entire trust is reposed in him by the centre and he is fully empowered to make this dream come true.
The writer is the former project director and deputy managing director of Saindak Copper Gold Project, Chagai district, Balochistan
Published in The Express Tribune, November 18th, 2013.