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Living on the Margins in Iran: Chabahar and the Province of Sistan and Baluchistan

March 2, 2020
Ali Ranjipour
10 min read
Living on the Margins in Iran: Chabahar and the Province of Sistan and Baluchistan

What is it like to live on the margins of a metropolis in Iran today? Those who do are confronted with some of the most serious crises facing the country today, with social, economic, political and security repercussions. Various groups and organizations have reported on and collected data about the predicaments of margin-dwelling in Iran but, despite the significance of the subject, the reliable statistics needed for in-depth political, social and economic analyses either do not exist or have not been made public.

This is the sixth in a series of reports on living on the margins in Iran. Here we look in depth at margin-dwelling in Sistan and Baluchistan, the most underdeveloped and the poorest province in Iran, with special focus on Chabahar, Iran’s only oceanic port. 

IranWire will aim to use available statistics and data, as incomprehensive as some of it might be, to arrive at an accurate picture of the phenomenon of living on the margins in Iran and the crises emerging from it.


A Very Different Story

The story of margin-dwelling in Sistan and Baluchistan, the second largest and the poorest province in Iran, is different from all other regions of the country. Whereas in most other regions it is the powerful pull of the cities that draws in both capital and migrants, in the Iranian southeast it is the push of full-scale economic, environmental and security decay that is the culprit for margin-dwelling.

Most of the margin-dwellers in Iran have migrated to cities in the hope of finding jobs and a better life, but in Sistan and Baluchistan they only want to survive, even if they are trapped in a marginal life with no hope of ever leaving it behind.

With a population of around 2.8 million, close to 3.5 percent of Iranians live in Sistan and Baluchistan but, according to the latest figures from Iran’s Statistical Center, the share of this province in the Iranian economy is less than 1.4 percent.

The province has always been an economic orphan, both before and after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. This is clear just from comparing its share of industry and construction with other Iranian provinces. More than one-third of the Iranian economy is based on industry and construction, but the share of this sector in Sistan and Baluchistan’s economy is not even 13 percent, much lower than even its three neighboring provinces, which are each swamped by their own intractable social and economic crises. The share of industry and construction in the economy of neighboring Kerman is 37 percent, 45 percent in Hormozgan and 21 percent in South Khorasan.

Better Prospects — Perhaps

However, on paper at least, prospects in Sistan and Baluchistan are promising. In the midst of political and economic rivalries between India and its two adversaries, Pakistan and China, the strategic location of Chabahar, Iran’s only oceanic port on the Gulf of Oman, can provide an opportunity to change the fortunes of the province. The Chinese have invested $62 billion to expand and renovate Gwadar, a Pakistani port city 170 kilometers east of Chabahar, and India has a strategic interest in building an alternative.

“Chabahar is turning up to be a success story in the India-Iran relationship,” a Times of India article published in February 2018 reported. “In an attempt to circumvent the banking problems caused by western sanctions on Iran, India will, for the first time, allow in rupees in Iran...The Chabahar port will cut transports costs/time for Indian goods by a third. The port is likely to ramp up trade among India, Afghanistan and Iran in the wake of Pakistan denying transit access to New Delhi for trade with the two countries.”

In this year’s Iranian budget, a total of 490 billion tomans, around $117 million, has been earmarked for the region of Makran, to which the port Chabahar belongs. A good portion of this money goes to reinforcing the Iranian navy but even if it is assumed that the Indians will invest $500 million and we add the $117 million to that amount, the total will be insignificant compared to what the Chinese are investing in Pakistan’s Gwadar port.

Nevertheless, even if this amount is used for sustainable development it can do a lot for the impoverished province of Sistan and Baluchistan. However, geopolitics have a big role to play and could jeopardize this opportunity for growth. If the deep-seated rivalries between India and Pakistan or between India and China boil over to Chabahar, the situation will become much worse.


Sistan and Baluchistan (Source: Google Maps)

Negative Urbanization

Unlike other provinces of Iran, in Sistan and Baluchistan, not only do less than half of the population live in cities but census figures show that between 2011 and 2016 the urban population actually fell, defying the national trend.

In Sistan and Baluchistan, the average number of people in a household is eight, higher than the national average. Also, the rate of the population increase in the province is 1.8, around 0.6 percent higher than the national average, but the 2016 census showed that the total population of the province actually fell by 30,000 due to emigration.

According to the 2016 census, of a total population of 2.775 million, 1.373 million in Sistan and Baluchistan live in urban areas. In other words, the rural population is around 55,000 more than the urban population, making the province an exception among all other Iranian provinces. Official statistics show that the urban population reached its peak of 49.6 percent in 2006 and started to drop after that year.

What is more, the rural population grew faster than the urban population. The rate of population increase in provincial cities was 1.6 percent, lower than the 1.97 percent national average, while the rate of increase for the rural areas of Sistan and Baluchistan was 2.7 percent, way higher than the average for Iran, which is a negative 0.68 percent.

It would be naïve to assume that the fall in urban population in the province is due to the booming economy of the villages. More than anything else, the causes for this decline are the high birthrate in rural areas and the inability of the cities to attract the rural population. In other words, the villagers have nothing to gain by going to the cities and nothing to lose by staying where they are.

Gutted Cities

In total, Sistan and Baluchistan has 37 cities and towns across 19 counties. The population of Zahedan, its capital, is close to 590,000, but after that only the three cities of Zabol, Iranshahr and Chabahar have populations that exceed 100,000. The 2016 census shows that, except for Chabahar, more people have migrated out of Zabol, Zahedan and Iranshahr than into them. Among all Iranian cities that have to deal with the problem of margin-dwelling, this is an exception, but not because of a balanced development in both urban and rural areas. In fact, it is the result of what we can call “equal injustice” because deprivation has plagued indiscriminately both the towns and the villages.

And this is only the story of the province’s biggest and most thriving cities. The smaller and less thriving towns have other, even more alarming stories.


Margin-Dwelling within Margin-Dwelling

Like many places in Iran, no accurate statistics about margin-dwelling in Sistan and Baluchistan are available. But from the figures that do exist, it can be concluded that around 50 percent of the province’s urban population live in decayed urban areas and shantytowns.

According to Masoud Maleki, Director General of the province’s Bureau of Roads and Urban Development, in early 2017 more than 43 percent of Sistan and Baluchistan’s urban population lived in “unofficial” dwellings. In other words, close to 600,000 live in dwellings that either had no deeds and were constructed without permits or were so unsafe that the authorities refused to recognize them as fit for habitation.

A year later, Maleki announced that 41 percent of the province’s urban population were margin-dwellers. He said that 59 square kilometers within the five cities of Zahedan, Zabol, Iranshahr, Chabahar and Konarak had been identified as margin-dwelling areas and that there are 26.19 square kilometers of decayed urban areas within 11 cities of the Sistan and Baluchistan province. Altogether, he said, the province is home to 77 margin-dwelling neighborhoods.

A December 2017 report from the province’s Bureau of Roads and Urban Development puts the number of margin-dwellers in Zahedan at more than 300,000, meaning that more than 50 percent of the population of this city of 590,000 live on the margins.

The Special Case of Chabahar

More peculiar than the situation of Zahedan is that of Chabahar, where, according to the city’s mayor, Yunes Ghaddani, 56,000 people, or half of the population, are margin-dwellers who live in an area totaling 12 square kilometers. This population density and the speed in which margin-dwelling in Chabahar has increased, he said, is unprecedented — not only in Iran but also in the world.

Statistics show that in the last 60 years, the population of Chabahar has increased 60 times, from 1,800 in 1956 to 106,000 in 2016. By contrast, during the same period, the total population of the province grew only 6.5 times and its urban population 36 times. This clearly shows that population developments in Chabahar follow a different logic than that of other parts of Sistan and Baluchistan, including in the cities of Zahedan, Zabol and Iranshahr, and it is important to look to external factors to explain this difference.

Undoubtedly, the inflow of capital into the Chabahar Free Trade Zone has played a major role. Rare in modern Iran, Sistan and Baluchistan has been lucky enough to benefit from investment, and now many people from other urban and rural areas of the province have rushed to Chabahar in an effort to improve their lives even by a small amount, even if it means living on the margins and inside decayed urban areas.

Unlike every other city in Sistan and Baluchistan, migration into the city outpaces migration out of it. And, again, the geopolitical position of Chabahar can work in two opposing ways. It is hoped that its unique position will provide an opportunity for southeastern Iran to move toward sustainable development and away from abject poverty, but the fear persists that things can go badly, as it did in the port city of Bandar Abbas and in the Hormozgan province.

The ambitious development plan for Bandar Abbas was supposed to do good for the port and Hormozgan but it ended up tearing apart the social fabric of the city and deepened the crisis in other deprived areas of the province.

Some signs of racketeering and graft are already visible in Chabahar. “Land grabbers pay poor individuals to squat on parcels of lands that they covet,” says Mohammad Mousavi, Chabahar’s Friday Prayers Leader. “Several such margin-dwellers have been identified and dealt with but the swindlers go on with what they are doing and reappear in another part of the city.”


Read the full Living on the Margins in Iran series:

Living on the Margins in Iran: An Introduction

Living on the Margins in Iran: Razavi Khorasan

Living on the Margins in Iran: Mashhad and the Cities of Razavi Khorasan

Living on the Margins in Iran: East Azerbaijan

Living on the Margins in Iran: Bandar Abbas and Hormozgan Province

Living on the Margins in Iran: Chabahar and the Province of Sistan and Baluchistan

Living on the Margins in Iran: The Rise and Fall of Khuzestan


Sources in Persian:

حساب‌های منطقه‌ای ۹۴-۱۳۹۰, Statistical Center of Iran, March 19, 2018

راه توسعه چابهار از دهلی می‌گذرد؟, BBC Persian, February 21, 2018

توسعه منطقه مکران, Iran Budget, 2018

توسعه سواحل مکران, Iran Budget, 2018

هندی‌ها توسعه بندر چابهار را از هفته آینده آغاز می‌کنند, Hamshahri, June 21, 2018

مقایسه و ساختار جمعیت طی سالهای 1395-1335, Planning and Budget Organization, Summer 2017

مهاجران وارد شده طی ٥ سال گذشته به تفکیک شهرستان محل اقامت قبلی و فعلی (ماتریس مهاجرت): ١٣٩٥, Statistical Center of Iran, May 20, 2018

43 درصد جمعیت شهری سیستان و بلوچستان در بافت‌ های فرسوده سکونت دارند, Ministry of Roads and Urban Development, March 1, 2017

بیش از۴۴۱ هزار نفر در سیستان و بلوچستان حاشیه نشین هستند, Young Journalists’ Club, January 15, 2018

حل معضل حاشیه نشینی در زاهدان نیازمند برنامه ریزی و مدیریت صحیح, Ministry of Roads and Urban Development, December 9, 2017

چابهار 56 هزار حاشیه نشین دارد, Iranian Students’ News Agency (ISNA), July 10, 2018

طرح توسعه ناحیه ای، رشد شهری و آسیب شناسی اجتماعی, Sarzamin Geological Quarterly [PDF], Winter 2005

روایت متفاوت امام جمعه چابهار از دلایل حاشیه نشینی در این شهر, Iranian Students’ News Agency (ISNA), June 15, 2017




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