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World

In A Remote Fishing Town, Young Pakistanis Question Plan To Build Trade Route

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Now to Pakistan and a $46 billion plan to create a new trade route across that country, linking China to the Middle East. Pakistan's government hopes this will bring prosperity and stability to a region blighted by conflicts. NPR's Philip Reeves says the plan's success may depend on whether young people buy into it.

(CROSSTALK)

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Hundreds of people are sitting in a hall. A young girl in a green burqa stands before them with a microphone and launches into a speech.

GUL BIBI BALOCH: We girls, the poor girls, the students of...

REEVES: Her name's Gul Bibi Baloch. She's 15.

GUL BIBI: Don't we have right to get education like other (unintelligible) students...

REEVES: Gul Bibi wants to know what politicians have been doing with their time. Where's the girls college they promised her town? It's unusual for a teenage girl in Pakistan to speak out. It's very unusual for her to do so before the most powerful person in the land. Pakistan's army chief, General Raheel Sharif, sits a few feet away.

GENERAL RAHEEL SHARIF: (Speaking Urdu).

(APPLAUSE)

REEVES: We're in Gwadar by the Arabian Sea. Gwadar's spent most of history as an impoverished fishing community. There's a plan to spend billions transforming this ramshackle town into a major high-tech maritime harbor, the entry point to a new Silk Road running the length of Pakistan that will give China a much shorter route for moving oil and products to and from the Mid-East.

This conference in Gwadar's only luxury hotel is about that plan. The army chief is here with the head of Pakistani intelligence and other military and political heavyweights. It's an invited audience that includes local school kids and students who are eager to air their grievances before the top brass.

GUL BIBI: I was just convincing my politicians that you say words, but you don't take actions on it. We want actions. We don't want to listen to your words. We want action that you should do something for us.

REEVES: Gul Bibi's upset about the lack of decent schools. People here have plenty of other complaints.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking Urdu).

REEVES: Gwadar has an acute shortage of water, electricity, jobs and health care. It's in Pakistan's poorest province, Balochistan. Economic neglect has fueled a separatist insurgency. Gwadar is pretty peaceful, but parts of this province are not. Zubaida Jalal says that when young people around here lose faith in government, they're drawn towards Baloch separatism.

ZUBAIDA JALAL: A lot of the youth are, you know, mentally and otherwise ideologically very much going towards the insurgency kind of, you know, movements. And the reason is because of the years and years of mistrust and hopes that never, you know - sort of that never came.

REEVES: Jalal's a former Pakistani education minister. She's also Baloch. She's seen how separatists can turn local school kids against the federal government. For instance, by...

JALAL: Not allowing the national anthem to be sung in the school, not allowing the flag - Pakistani flag to be, you know, put up in the mornings in the assembly.

REEVES: Jalal believes the grand plans to transform Gwadar as part of an economic corridor to China must address the needs of young people.

RAHEEL: (Speaking Urdu).

REEVES: When he takes the microphone, General Raheel, Pakistan's army chief, seems to agree.

RAHEEL: I feel that there are concrete steps which need to be taken and taken very soon in this part of Balochistan to satisfy our young generation and to realize this dream.

(APPLAUSE)

REEVES: Realizing the dream of becoming a major harbor on Asia's new Silk Road is not going to be easy in a nation with many corrupt officials and even more young people who are fed up with them. Philip Reeves, NPR News, Gwadar. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.