Testing times

Mir Mohammad Ali Talpur

IT is said that ‘common sense’ is not as common as it ought to be. Had it been so the world would not have suffered the way it has. Even today a world that has seen so much death and destruction has not yet learned to live in peace.

The global arms industry and war machines continue with arms proliferation and war mongering, refusing to use that ‘uncommon sense’ because for them wars are highly profitable.

A recent news report said: “The Swiss government reauthorised arms exports to Pakistan, saying it saw ‘positive’ political developments in the country.” So this is how the civilised Swiss decide to reward positive developments by bringing more death and destruction to the region. Sweden too, soon after the devastating October 2005 earthquake, felt no compunction in accepting a multi-billion-dollar order for its SAAB 2000 AEWC aircraft.

The arms industry has a stranglehold on the world economy and it finds justifications for selling weapons as long as there are countries willing to pay. Accepting realities and changing priorities is not a profitable exercise for them. Little wonder then that total global military spending in 2004 stood at $1,000bn according to the Stockholm Peace Research Institute.

Regular testing of weapons systems, to maximise their killing and maiming capacity, is a major concern for the recipient country. That is if they are not used live as in Fata, Waziristan and parts of Balochistan.

A few examples will highlight the intensity of the problem. In July 2006, a headline in this paper read: ‘PAF swoops on Hingol National Park’. The accompanying report revealed, “The government is all set to slice land off … Hingol National Park, the country’s largest, as the Pakistan Air Force and another defence-related organisation eye the prized real estate near the estuary whose value is likely to increase phenomenally once the Gwadar port starts functioning. Sources in the Balochistan revenue department told Dawn that while the PAF has asked for around 80,000 acres, including 23,000 acres in the national park, [Suparco’s] demand is for eight mauzas.”

A clarifying statement issued by the PAF’s public relations director said: “Pakistan Air Force has put up a proposal to the Government of Balochistan for acquisition of a piece of land to establish [sic] weapons trial range for JF-17 project. About 30 per cent the area, proposed by the PAF, falls in the limits of the National Park.”

A little info about the JF-17 will be helpful. It is a lightweight, all-weather and multi-role Mach 1.6 aircraft. It is capable of carrying short-range, beyond-visual-range, anti-ship and anti-radiation missiles, as well as runway penetration bombs and cluster bombs.

So when this plane is put through its paces and its weapons tested comprehensively it is clearly going to be curtains for the flora and fauna in Hingol National Park, most of which have thrived undisturbed since the time of creation because of the isolation and remoteness of the area. Earlier the PAF had managed to acquire land for weapons testing in the Maslakh wildlife sanctuary in Pishin district, and consequently eliminated the protected chinkara and urial. Ironically Maslakh means slaughterhouse in Persian.

Hingol National Park is a veritable treasure trove of biodiversity as well as historical and cultural landmarks. Situated on the Makran coast some 190 kilometres west of Karachi and covering Lasbela, Awaran and Gwadar districts in Balochistan, the 619,043 hectares park is the largest in the region.

The park offers spectacular historical and archaeological features including the Hinglaj/Nani Mandir pilgrimage site, a place marking the passage of Alexander the Great, the graves of Mohammad bin Qasim’s soldiers and mountain formations such as Princes of Hope and the Chandragup mud volcano. Then there are superb estuaries, beaches, coastal dunes and plains, salt flats, sand and clay mountains, riverine areas, mud volcanoes and mud vents, and inland sand dunes.

Several species of international and national value are found in Hingol, such as the green and olive ridley turtles, dalmatian and spot-billed pelicans, sociable lapwings, eastern imperial and Pallas’s fish eagles, white-backed vultures, the marsh crocodile, spiny-tail lizard, Sindh ibex, Afghan urial, chinkara gazelle, leopard, caracal, hyena, honey badger, Afghan hedgehog, the pangolin and plumbeous dolphins. The fate of Hingol Park’s diverse and stunning wildlife will be no different from that of the unfortunate residents of the Maslakh sanctuary.

Sindh too suffers. A recent news item said that 73,000 acres of fertile agricultural land in Saleh Pat, Sukkur, has been allotted to the army to set up a firing range. This land was initially meant for distribution among landless peasants. If distributed it could have created employment opportunities and provided sustenance to some 4,000 families. Already the country’s largest field-firing ranges are at Khipro.

The people adversely affected by weapons testing are waiting to see if there will be a shift in the policy of the new government and some truly disastrous actions like the misuse of Hingol Park and Saleh Pat for testing grounds are reversed.

This exploitation of areas inhabited by minority nationalities is an international phenomenon. The Soviet Union used Kazakhstan while the US opted for Bikini Atoll in the Pacific and the Nevada desert as their nuclear testing grounds because these areas were far away from the chosen ones and only the children of lesser gods suffered.

The situation in Balochistan is disturbing and disconcerting because the establishment has not only been militarising the province indiscriminately, it has also established nuclear testing sites and missile testing ranges there without even bothering about the consent of the people. Any conflict with an enemy would entail a nuclear or conventional response against them and endanger the already sketchy existence of the people living at ground-zero.

The people of Balochistan wait with trepidation for the day when India may once again decide to test nuclear devices because reciprocation is the avowed policy in Pakistan. The people of Balochistan resented and opposed the use of their land for nuclear testing in May 1998 and oppose it now.

That particular episode’s trail of destruction began with the irreversible nuclear contamination of Baghalchur in Dera Ghazi Khan, where thousands still suffer ill effects, and ended in terrifying blasts which robbed a mountain of its life and colour in Chaghi with permanent nuclear contamination affecting all forms of life there.

Claims about the safety of such tests are made regularly but are contrary to the reality. When France was carrying out nuclear tests at Maruroa Atoll and claiming they were entirely safe, the people of the South Seas suggested they should then be carried out near Paris. The people of Balochistan may ask that if these tests are really as safe as it is claimed then why not use Islamabad as a testing ground for a change.

This article was first published on 13 May, 2008

The writer has an association with the Baloch rights movement going back to the early 1970s. He tweets at mmatalpur and can be contacted at mmatalpur@gmail.com

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