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Footprints: Kabul cars in Quetta

AS Mohammad Sadiq gets out of his Corolla on Double Road, Quetta, he is anxious to have a word with Mohammad Nazar, an auto-mechanic. “I’ve been coming here for the past three days and you still haven’t been able to give me an injector for my car,” exclaims Sadiq, as he walks into the workshop.

“Yes, I’ve got one, but it’s worth is Rs4,000,” replies the mechanic. Surprised, Sadiq asks: “In the recent past, I got four injectors for only Rs2,000. How did they suddenly become so expensive?”

“Did I close the Pak-Afghan border at Chaman?” replies the mechanic sarcastically. “For over three weeks, nothing moved across.”

In mid-February, the Pakistan-Afghanistan border crossing was sealed following orders by the Pakistan government. But the closure had little impact on smuggled vehicles that continue to roam the valleys of Balochistan. In fact, there are almost eight showrooms of Kabuli vehicles right at the city’s threshold.

No shortage of smuggled cars

On the bridge from Sariab Road to Double Road, hundreds of Kabuli vehicles of different models can be seen. Noor Ullah, who lives in the vicinity, tells Dawn: “At midnight, when the whole city sleeps, the Kabuli vehicles reach here. The vehicles include Toyota Corolla Fielders, Primeos, Prados, Pajeros, Mercedes, Indus Corollas and Vitz.”

The industry has successfully permeated the internet too. There are dozens of pages on Facebook that share pictures of new models of Kabuli vehicles.

After frequent requests, a moustachioed Pakhtun dealer of Kabuli cars, Azam Khan [name changed to protect the source], agrees to talk. Sitting at the same Double Road garage, he says: “There are two key routes through which Kabuli vehicles come, the Chaman and Torkham border crossings.”

Sipping his green tea, Khan says, “From the Chaman border to all parts of the country, they sell these vehicles. If someone lives in Khuzdar and wants to buy a Kabuli car, he only needs to look at the car’s photographs on WhatsApp and reach an agreement with the seller. After that, for only Rs20,000 extra, he gets the car delivered to his home.”

Though most Kabuli vehicles are brought to Balochistan via the Chaman border, the Chaghai and Nushki districts also share a porous border with Afghanistan, which forms another route. Girdi Jungle, for instance, is a camp of Afghan refugees located some 50 kilometres from Chaghai’s headquarters Dalbandin. The camp serves as another hotspot for Kabuli vehicles. Driving a new Primeo in the dusty town of Dalbandin, Adil Ali, a happy customer, says, “Thanks to Kabuli cars, I have got my Primeo for half a million, when its cost elsewhere in the country is more than one million.”

Siddiq Baloch, author of Balochistan: Its Politics & Economics, tells Dawn: “The smuggling of Kabuli vehicles is being regularised. A case in point is the Federal Board of Revenue amnesty scheme for non-duty paid vehicles. That was actually an amnesty scheme for smugglers of Kabuli vehicles, implemented at the cost of the public exchequer.”

In the past, according to assistant director Mehmood Sultan Afridi of the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA), officials of the Frontier Corps, FIA, and Customs would seize smuggled vehicles coming through Afghanistan. Due to mismanagement, he concedes, now only the Customs department can act upon illegal vehicles.

The Pak-Afghan border has in recent times seen a number of trenches dug out here. “Subsequently, the smuggling of foreign vehicles has decreased remarkably,” says Afridi, citing unemployment and low rates of income as additional factors fuelling this industry.

There are also claims of government officials and ministers using smuggled vehicles in Quetta in particular and Balochistan in general, but Afridi says that this is not true. In reply to a question about stolen cars in the province, he says that “In Balochistan’s tribal belts, there are reports of stolen vehicles being sold and used. If a car gets stolen in Quetta it is taken to either Chaghai or Nushki. If a car is stolen in Karachi it is taken to either Chaman or Turbat.” However, he adds that cases of thefts have also decreased greatly.

Balochistan Customs Officer Saeed Ahmed Jadoon has reportedly conducted raids in various parts of the city against smuggled vehicles. Unofficially, it is believed that there are over 50,000 Kabuli vehicles in Quetta. These vehicles, by nature of being smuggled, cost the economy a great deal.

Cars for crime

It is also said that mostly stolen and Kabuli vehicles are used in criminal and terrorist acts.

“Yes, they are,” asserts Abdul Razzaque Cheema, the Capital City Police Officer (CCPO). “We have seized thousands of Kabuli and stolen cars, and our police stations are packed with them. This is why I say that all vehicles in the Quetta city are to be registered once by the Excise and Taxation Department, and that registration should never be changed. The one whose name the vehicle is registered under should drive that car.”

If a vehicle is stolen in Quetta, he says, it is driven to another district and given a different number plate. “As for stolen vehicles, it is a specialised, professional and organised job. After the theft, the criminals forge the car documents too. However, we are doing our best to put an end to this business,” he explains.

Junaid Mehmood, the DC Preventive at Customs, explains the steps being taken to combat the problem of stolen vehicles. “Since our collector at Customs has taken charge, the law enforcement agencies have been injected with a renewed motivation,” he says. “We have constituted a committee to seize these cars and put them on auction. That has proven to be a good source of revenue. From 2015 to 2016, we seized 1,213 vehicles, valued at roughly Rs1,028.9 million. We have already conducted raids on some showrooms for Kabuli vehicles.”

With consistent efforts by the law enforcement agencies, there may be a day when the economy of Balochistan can legitimately benefit from a thriving industry.

Published in Dawn, March 26th, 2017

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