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Federal Govt Should Invest More In The Development Of Gilgit-Baltistan Region

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The budget cuts for development are worrying for a region that needs massive investment in local industries, hydropower and welfare programs. The federal government must pay attention to what the people of Gilgit Baltistan and their elected representatives want.

From Besham upto Gilgit, the sinuous Indus and the winding Karakorum Highway seem continuously cuddling each other between the gigantic mountains. This peregrination still presents a great opportunity for the fabulists and intrepid adventurers. If esotericist Rudolf Steiner ever knew about  the region, he would include a trip to the Gilgit-Baltistan as essential part of his Anthroposophy’s course.

The so-called province is spread over 72,971 km area and is home to about 1.4 million people. Apart from other natural marvels, the nature decorated Gilgit Baltistan is attributed with the epaulettes of five eight thousanders high peaks and more than fifty peaks above 7000 meters. The region is an integral part of the climatic zone which is called the ‘Water Tower’ of South Asia. Its environmental services, particularly water resource, is a lifeline for the food security of South Asia, especially India and Pakistan.

Ironically, instead of a blessing, this immense geo-physical importance of the region has been turned into a political nightmare for the people by regional as well as domestic power politics.

The people of Gilgit Baltistan are the victims of India-Pakistan’s dispute over Jammu and Kashmir (J&K). Foremost is the folly of making Gilgit Baltistan an extension of the disputed area of (J&K) to get an edge in the potential plebiscite in the disputed territory.

Gilgit Baltistan was declared a prototype province on August 29, 2009 through ‘the Gigilt Baltistan Empowerment and Self-Governance Order,’ passed by the Pakistani cabinet and later signed by Asif Ali Zardari, the then President of Pakistan creating a facsimile of a province without constitutional status.  One does not know for how long will the people of Gilgit Baltistan have to wait to be elevated from the status of existence to the status of citizenship.

Perhaps, because of this question, the Karakorum International University of GB does not have the Department of Political Science. Currently, the popular demand of the people of GB is ‘give us the status of observer representation in the parliament, if cannot give us actual representation’.

Instead of the ‘Command and Control’ political approach, if the region had been pushed to be part of the disputed area which became an obstacle in giving full-fledged constitutional status to the region, what was the hindrance for Islamabad to come up with politically inclusive, economic and administrative measures? A Persian proverb, ‘there are many excuses for bad behavior’ best illustrates the situation.

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In 2015, the then federal government of PML-N had increased the Annual Development Budget of Gilgit Baltistan from Rs 7 to 17 billion,including Rs 15 billion for administrative costs,taking the total budget outlay to Rs 32 billion. The province with a hard terrain, and neglect for six decades, needs special development initiatives, particularly in road communication, hydropower, tourism, livestock, small and cottage industry.

Sadly, the PTI led federal government made a further cut on its already meagre development budget reducing it to Rs 13 billion.

This maltreatment of a strategically important region nullifies the skewed notion of conventional security defined by the czars of the security establishment.

The total budget outlay of GB was Rs 32 billion till 2018 , but how much does the federal government spends only on the Siachen front, we don’t know.

Blessed with natural endowments, particularly water resources, this economically backward region is deficient in wheat production, due to its topography lacking agricultural land mass, rendering it dependent on subsidised wheat by the federal government. The PTI headed federal government also made a cut of 65,000 bags of wheat from its annual approved quota.

Since the very beginning, the attitude of the mainland rulers toward the peripheries reflects the colonial mindset but the PTI government topped it with fatuity and facetiousness. Prime Minister Imran Khan held 50 minutes long meeting with the cabinet of GB during his visit on November 1, 2019. The cabinet raised and discussed a number of issues with the PM, particularly, PSDP related development  projects as well as cut in allocation for subsidised wheat. So far no minutes of the meeting have been shared with the chief minister’s secretariat, egregiously establishing the present government’s absence of commitment towards Gilgit Baltistan. “We were flummoxed when we came to know that no minutes of the meeting even existed,” a source privy to the meeting said it on condition of anonymity.

When the agile chief minister was briefing the prime minister on the strategically and economically important Gilgit via Ghizer, Shandur, Chitral to Chakdara Road, (a component of the CEPEC),  the PM cut him short with a question on the number of religious sects living in that region. This road will provide an alternate access road to GB as well as tourists that can turn district Ghizer into a new tourists’ hub. The Gilgit to Naltar road is part of the PSDP, presently estimated to cost Rs 2 billion and 80 crores. But the federal government only released Rs 30 crores.

The callous attitude of Islamabad is also exhibited by the federally appointed bureaucracy. Instead of inclusion, they revert to the colonial method of curtailing civil liberties, particularly freedom of expression through oppression and pasting labels of sedition and anti-state. Baba Jan’s example is one among many who had been imprisoned for 80 years for just heading a protest demonstration demanding due compensation for those affected by the Attabad Lake.

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The political prisoners’ issue particularly, the case of Baba Jan, has created much resentment especially in the youth.  Before the eruption of this quiescent volcano the state, particularly the security establishment, should release the political prisoners, or face the prospect of another PTM in GB.

In comparison with other provinces, within its limited political power and resources, the performance of the  elected government of GB seems better. The lack of pomp and show by the ministers calibrates this point – Ministers in GB move around without security detail and protocols, which is a strange spectacle for someone from the mainland.

The region has great potential inhydropower but due to lack of energy the province cannot realise its full development and economic potential. The bill of firewood tops the list of domestic expenses. Except for the price of firewood, the situation remains the same as it was in 2012 when I was carrying out field research on climate change and livelihood in the region. In 2012, 40 kg of firewood cost Rs 500 to 600 and presently it is priced at Rs 1000 to 1200 in Ghizer District. While the subsidised rate of 100 kg wheat is Rs 1200. Thus, a major chunk of earning has gone through the chimney. The alternate cheap and clean energy can reduce poverty but can also protect forest and improve environment in the strategic climatic zones.

Despite immense potential, GB is currently deficient in livestock, dairy products and poultry. The province buys only chicken and eggs amounting to Rs 4 billion annually from down country. Again, investing a few billions in these sectors as well as in fruit farming and off-season vegetables will not only make the region self-sufficient but will also create job opportunities and economic activities.    

Instead of governing the region through the de-facto power of civil-military bureaucracy, the federal government should ensure more political empowerment and seriously acknowledge the views and plans of the elected government there. Furthermore, it should support the province financially through grants for special economic and development  initiatives as well as improve the fundamental and human rights situation.

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