Natural gas was discovered in Zarghun gas field — located 57 kilometres North East of Quetta in Harnai district — in 1998 by a British gas and oil company Premier-Kufpec. The company completed drilling of two wells by 2000 and was ready to provide 22–25 Million Cubic Feet Per Day (MMSCFD) gas from the field. The company was supposed to sell gas to Sui Southern Gas Company Limited (SSGC) but despite a successful exploration, SSGC was not interested in buying it.
In 2003, Premier-Kufpec handed the field over to the Bolan Joint Venture comprising Mari Petroleum Company Limited (MPCL) with 35 per cent shares and operatorship of the field. Spud Energy Private Limited with 40 per cent shares, GHPL with 17.5 per cent and Premier-Kufpec with 7.5 per cent shares are the other partners of the venture. The venture entered into the Zarghun South Gas Sales and Purchase Agreement with SSGC in August 2006. Under the agreement, Bolan venture will supply 22–25 MMSCFD of pipeline quality gas to SSGC.
For brining the gas into system, the SSGC was supposed to lay 64 kilometres long gas pipeline of 12 inches diameter to connect it to Quetta transmission system. Almost eight years down the road SSGC has completed only 50 km line. The gas that was ready to pump into the system in 2000 is still unavailable due to inefficiency of state organisations, security threats and the locals’ resistance to SSGC gas pipeline.
An official of SSGC in Quetta says that people in the area have been trying to use this opportunity to extract maximum amount of money. “Though we have been laying the pipeline along the road which is state land, we are still paying a good amount to the locals. The standard rates in Punjab and Sindh are Rs20–50 per square feet while here people have been demanding Rs800 per square feet from SSGC. It is too much. We have been trying to convince them that the gas would be used for their well being but they do not understand,” he says.
Being the operator, Mari Petroleum Company Limited (MPCL) has been working on the project on ground and has completed its operations on both wells in Zarghun gas field under very tight security. Situated at the junction of Baloch and Pashtun belts in Balochistan, the field is among the most vulnerable to attacks of Baloch insurgent. Over 600 FC men have been deputed on the security of the gas field. The company staff cannot travel without security clearance of the area and heavy contingent of the FC men.
Traveling amid FC vehicles with Improvised Explosive Device (IED), jammers and ready-to-react personnel wearing bullet proof jackets and steal helmets feels like going to a war zone. No stopover can be made while traveling through one of the most beautiful part of the country. One can only see lakes, newly-blossomed wild flowers on hills and mountains, streams, coal mines and local people from the moving vehicles.
Nestled in the mountains, security is even tighter on the gas field. “We have deployed four tiers of security at the field. We cannot rule out rocket attacks. The area of Marri tribes is only a few kilometres away from the site. The place you are sitting at was attacked with rockets in April 2013 while we recovered IEDs from the road only four and half months back. In 2009, labourers from the Zarghun were kidnapped and released after payment of ransom,” says Lieutenant Colonel (retd) Jahangir Ahmed Jaspal, security and corporate social responsibility (CSR) officer of MPCL at Zarghun gas field. He tells TNS that so far 27 FC personnel have been killed in Zarghun area in attacks by miscreants. “Zarghun Field is commercially a marginal field, but the security cost is several hundred times more from MPCL’s different big ventures in Sindh and Punjab province.”
The company has bought bullet proof vehicles, jackets, helmets, jammers, mine detectors and scanners. Heavy weapons have also been deployed on specific check posts on the mountains. “No other company is ready to work on this gas field because of security threats. We have been doing so under national obligation,” says Jaspal. “Once in operation mode, this gas field would change the dynamics of this area. We have already built schools, hospitals, water channels and roads in the area under CSR programme. More than 250 locals have been hired as teachers, drivers and security officials. The highest educated person in the area has done only intermediate, so it becomes tough to hire them on technical jobs,” he says. “Local tribesmen created many problems for us at the earlier stages of the project. But once we started working with them, providing them health, education, water and jobs, they became our biggest supporters.”
Tambail Marri, 24, who belongs to tehsil Maiwand of district Kahlu, and is one of the newly-hired engineers in the field, says that he has been enjoying his stint with the company. “The Baloch area is at our back while most of the operations of the company are being done in the Pashtun area. I think education is the key to progress,” he says.
Zarghun is the only field in Pakistan from where gas will be produced and consumed by the same province. The company has already signed a contract with the government of Balochistan to provide this gas to Quetta city.
“The gas reserves, estimated at 93 billion cubic feet, would be enough to provide 25 MMSCF gas to Quetta city. This is good quality gas with good pressure and would drastically reduce the increasingly low gas pressure Balochistan faces during winters,” Ali Hassan Jamali, in charge of the field, tells TNS. “This is enough gas to produce 2,000 metric ton urea or to produce over 2,000 megawatts electricity.”
Jamali says that local villages situated within five kilometre radius of the field would get free gas. “SSGC has also announced free gas for the villages from where the pipeline would cross.” He says there was no hospital in Zarghun when the company started operation there. “We have constructed two hospitals. There were two non-functional schools. We have not only constructed two schools in the area but have also hired teachers for them as the government is not ready to come forward and take responsibility to run these schools.” Jamali says that around 98 per cent area of Balochistan is unexplored. “Our province is full of natural resources. It would change the fate of the people in the province. Let the cycle of progress begin here as well,” he says.
In late 1950s, Ali Hassan Jamali’s emotional response would have surprised many; but a visit to the area makes his emotions easy to understand. It is like travelling through time machine. People still have no health or education facility. Distance here is not measured in kilometres but hours.
“It takes seven hours to reach Quetta from this village,” Shahbaz Khan, 50, father of four children, tells TNS as he stands at the newly-built health centre by MPCL at his village Dilwani which is situated only 67 kilometres away from Quetta. “There is no doctor in our area. It takes at least Rs8,000 and eight hours to take a patient to a doctor in Quetta. We only take serious patients to the doctors.” He says patients from villages situated on the mountains are carried on the back of the strongest male member of the family to travel several kilometres to reach the road. “This is the road, if you call it a road,” he tells TNS pointing towards a track only fit for jeeps that connects his village to rest of the world.
The stories of women of the area are even more horrible. “I gave birth to eight children, but five of them died of chicken pox, cholera, measles and fever before reaching the age of five,” says Niazmand, 65. Never having gone out of her village, she tells TNS that she had never seen a doctor until a few months back when MPCL held a free medical camp in their area. “It is not because I am healthy and do not need to see a doctor, it is because we do not take ill women to doctors,” she says, adding “MPCL’s doctors visit our village at least once a month and give us free medicines.”
Primary school in the village became operational in March 2012 after MPCL renovated the building. Children at the school can only think of becoming a teacher as there is no role model available to them. “I want to become like Molvi sahib,” Zareef Khan, 9, and a student of grade three tells TNS. He is referring to his teacher Nadar Khan who has done intermediate from Quetta and is the most educated person of the area. He is one of two teachers hired by MPCL to run the school. Nadar Khan also runs his madrassa situated only a few hundred metres away from the school. “First, I teach the children at the school and in the evening they come to my madrassa for religious education,” he tells TNS.
MPCL officials say that under the rules the company is only supposed to build a school and the rest would be done by the government. “As the government has not deputed any teacher at the school, we have no option but to hire Nadar Khan as a teacher because he is the only ‘educated’ person in the whole area,” says Colonel (retd) Farrukh Humayun, MPCL’s Balochistan chapter project/admin officer security and CSR officer. “We have also set up a hostel in Quetta for the children in the area who want to go to Quetta to continue their studies. There is no facility available in the area beyond middle level education. At present, two children have been staying at that hostel,” he says, adding that building of more link roads, water channels and flood bunds along the streams in the area are in pipeline.