It’s a common sight in Balochistan’s Panjgur district: a convoy of mid-sized, distinctive blue pickup trucks winding through the desolate terrain, carrying a deadly cargo of contraband petrol and diesel. They rumble across the Damag Pass, traversing the Tehsil Pharom mountain ranges near the Pakistan-Iran border, to return home with what is the only means of subsistence for entire communities. These blue trucks are known locally as “Zambad” – a reference to their ability to carry oversized loads. They are the unlikely symbols of an entire gray economy – the transport of choice for smugglers exploiting fuel routes between Iran and Pakistan.
Over the years, the fenced Pakistan-Iran border and checkpoints erected by overzealous Frontier Corps (FC) personnel have made it increasingly difficult for Zambad drivers to earn a living. On paper, restrictions on the “import” of Iranian fuel are still firmly in place. However, most ground obstacles have been quietly removed. In substantive interviews, Makran division officials explained that the local administration realized that fuel smuggling was the only way to put bread on the table for a large part of the resident population. in five towns bordering the province.
And so the Zambads were allowed to return to the highways. You will see them spinning, carrying stacks of 60 liter jerry cans filled with highly combustible oil tied willy-nilly with a nylon rope.
A Zambad driver – Nasir Baloch, a father of three – transports smuggled fuel from Damag to Panjgur in Surab, a town that serves as a hub for the distribution of Iranian gasoline to the rest of the province.
Many families are supported by the tacitly authorized increase in fuel smuggling from Iran to Baluchistan
“Unlike in the past, we no longer face many difficulties in oil transportation,” Baloch recently told Dawn by phone. He looked jubilant, even ecstatic. His happiness was due to Pakistani petrol prices soaring to around 250 rupees per liter at the time, while Iranian petrol was still selling at 200 rupees per litre.
“We get paid well these days. The demand for our gasoline has increased considerably,” he explained.
“I have been transporting oil for several years now,” Mr Baloch continued. “When I started, I didn’t own a vehicle. Today, I have mine. This [the work] is more than enough for me to support my family. In fact, I also support my brothers and sisters in Panjgur.
The Zambad he drives was made by the Zamyad company in Tehran. Like all other Zambads. It’s actually a licensed version of the Nissan Junior – but that name never stuck. Since these are bespoke unpaid vehicles – there is, after all, no point in registering a smuggling aid – there has been no official tally of their numbers. It has been estimated that it could run in the thousands. Each costs several hundred thousand rupees.
During a trip to the Makran division, which includes the districts of Panjgur, Kech and Gwadar, it became clear to this correspondent that there is little objection, official or otherwise, to illicit oil flowing freely from Iran.
“We know their [smugglers’] stoves are burning because of this trade. It is impossible to stop the smuggling of oil and diesel from Iran,” a senior Kech official told Dawn. He requested anonymity as he is expected not to comment on the illicit trade taking place under his nose.
“Every day, as far as we know, about 1,500 vehicles bring oil and diesel from Iran to the Makran division. It engages young people in economic activity and has the potential to prevent them from taking up arms in this region already unstable.
Security analysts agree. They argue it’s a much better occupation for young people than the insurgency that has raged for more than two decades in the province.
A necessary evil
Since the United States imposed sanctions on Iran in 2013 to stifle its oil exports, the smuggling of petroleum products has become almost an industry in Balochistan’s small economy.
During a recent visit to Quetta, economist Dr Kaiser Bengali shared his thoughts on the matter. Sitting behind a laptop, he stopped typing when asked what to do about oil smuggled in from Iran.
“That should be allowed,” he began. “And not just oil: a lot of things of relatively better quality come to Balochistan because they come from Iran. Instead of prohibiting or preventing trade in these goods, they should be taxed, especially oil and edible products.
Although Pakistani and Iranian authorities agree – they had finalized a draft free trade agreement (FTA) between the two countries in 2017 – US sanctions have prompted the Pakistani side to put the deal on the back burner.
Mr. Bengali is of the opinion that, despite the sanctions, trade, including oil, is still possible between the two countries and should also be legalized. As for the FTA, he says: “There should be an FTA not only with Iran but also with Afghanistan. The three countries should conclude an FTA in the best interests of the region.
The date when such a trade agreement will be formalized is the least of Nasir Baloch’s concerns. He is currently delighted with his own booming oil trade with Iran. “I wonder why officials ever wanted to restrict it. It supports tens of thousands of people in Balochistan,” he said. He made a final request to higher authorities before hanging up.
“Let’s do this so we can continue to feed our families.”
Posted in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, July 25, 2022