According to Baluch activists, protests in Sistan and Baluchistan in southeast Iran are still ongoing, and there are reports of internet outages in various cities.
The protests began on February 22 after videos surfaced depicting members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps firing on Baluch fuel smugglers, which once again brought the issue of poverty, unemployment and discrimination in the province to the fore.
People have turned to fuel smuggling out of desperation due to a lack of jobs. The province has been one of Iran’s poorest for a long time.
Even in the official narratives of Iranian government-affiliated media, Sistan and Baluchistan province is associated with deprivation and poverty. The widespread misery in this province, which has a population of almost 3 million, is so obvious that it hardly needs to be reflected in statistical reports and data. But the data itself provides more evidence of what we are talking about.
The Statistical Center of Iran’s ranking of different provinces’ share in the national GDP shows Sistan and Baluchistan’s share from 2000 to 2017 was insignificant at best, fluctuating from 0.9 to 1.4 percent. In terms of GDP per capita, Sistan and Baluchistan was at the very bottom of the list.
Income Not Equal to Expenditure
The results are similar for household expenditure and income. According to the Statistical Center, in 2019 the average income of urban and rural households in Sistan and Baluchistan was the lowest among Iranian urban and rural households. Urban households in the province had an average income of 34,338,400 tomans (US$1,350 at the current conversion rate), which, of course, did not meet their annual expenses. The average income of urban households in Iran was 36,535,700 tomans (US$1,435).
It was the same for rural households in the province, which had an average annual income of 12,810,400 tomans (US$500) in 2019, while their costs on average were 14,643,000 tomans (US$575).
At the end of March 2020 the average 12-month inflation rate announced by the Statistical Center for the whole of Iran was 34.8 percent, while the average inflation rate of Sistan and Baluchistan in the same period reached 37.1 percent. This means that the lowest-income urban and rural households were located in an area that experienced an inflation rate even higher than the eye-watering national average.
No Work, No Hope
Labor market indicators can also provide a picture of living conditions and welfare in a community. The unemployment rate in Sistan and Baluchistan in 2019 was 13.1 percent, not the worst among Iran’s provinces, but higher than the national average of 10.7 percent that was announced at the end of the year.
The province's economic participation rate – the proportion of the working-age population in the formal labor market – reached 37.5 percent in 2019, which was the second-lowest among Iran’s provinces after Markazi. The average economic participation rate in the whole country in 2019 was 44.1 percent.
In the same year the overall employment rate in Sistan and Baluchistan was 32.6 percent, the lowest of all Iranian provinces. The national average employment ratio, which indicates that percentage of the working-age population has any kind of job, was 39.4 percent at that time.
The latest available report of the Statistical Center on this topic is for autumn 2020. In this report, the unemployment rate in Sistan and Baluchistan province had decreased slightly to 8.9 percent: a single-digit figure and still lower than the national average unemployment rate (9.4 percent). Although this looks better than the situation in 2019, other indicators clearly show this cannot be attributed to an improvement of the overall employment situation.
The economic participation rate in the province was 32.9 percent during the autumn, which was the lowest among Iran’s provinces. And the national average economic participation rate last autumn was 41.4 percent. The employment rate in Sistan and Baluchistan province was 29.9 percent in autumn 2020, the lowest of all 31 provinces, while the national average employment rate was 37.5 percent.
These perennially low figures in Sistan and Baluchistan are directly related to the lack of job opportunities in the province. In addition, the traditional structure of the province and the cultural barriers to the presence of women in the labor market effectively deprive a large part of the working-age population from entering the job market, formal or otherwise.
The province also has the youngest population in Iran. According to the 2016 census, the average age in Sistan and Baluchistan was 21, while the average age of the Iranian population in that census was 30.
Blocked From Opportunity
The “misery index” is an overall economic indicator that tries to establish how well an individual is managing economically by combining the seasonally-adjusted unemployment rate with the average inflation rate. The average “misery index” in 2019 was 44.5 for the whole of Iran, but this index reached 50.2 points for Sistan and Baluchistan.
The results of the 2016 census showed that illiteracy in Sistan and Baluchistan then stood at 18.7 percent for men and 29.1 percent for women, which washigher than other provinces in Iran. The urbanization rate in Sistan and Baluchistan in the census was 48.5 percent, the lowest rate out of all Iranian provinces, meaning more than half the population were then living in underdeveloped areas. The average rate of urbanization in Iran was more than 77 percent.
Due to poverty, a significant number of children have dropped out of primary and secondary school. Some work to support their families and girls sometimes enter into forced marriages. If boys cannot find a way to continue their education, they may turn to peddling and similar jobs, or choose to buy and sell fuel and move it across the border as a way to earn a living.
A Historical Problem
This clear, unified picture of poverty and deprivation is a historical fact in Sistan and Baluchistan. Successive governments have not been able to change it. But why, then, is Sistan and Baluchistan not developing at the same rate as other parts of the country?
Amir Sameni, the head of the Development Department of Iran’s Planning and Budget Organization, recently tried to answer this question in the form of an article in the Donaya-e Eghtesad newspaper.
"The Sistan-Baluchistan issue cannot be resolved in the absence of comprehensiveness, institutional unity, and popular participation," he wrote. Stressing that there was a “misunderstanding” of the province’s real development capacity, he wrote that its particular position in international trade, commerce and transit links as an area bordering both Afghanistan and Pakistan had gone ignored, while regional competitors had won business there instead.
"The province,” he concluded “lacks the capacity for an effective presence of its elites at the highest levels and in the decision-making strata of the government."
In the current political structure of Iran, the people of Sistan and Baluchistan have no-one effective to lobby on their behalf for infrastructure and investment. One reason for this power vacuum is the Islamic Republic’s institutionalized religious and ethnic discrimination against minorities such as the Baluchis and Sistani Persians.
In conclusion, Sameni wrote that the geographical remoteness of the area and the severance of ties between the center and the periphery in Iran were among the reasons for the underdevelopment of Sistan and Baluchistan. He insisted on the importance of facilitating economic interactions with border residents.
Now, military and security forces have fatally opened fire on border fuel carriers in the town of Saravan. In addition to not helping to heal the old wounds of poverty and historic deprivation, they have now created a new wound.