And the always changing game
by Noreen Haider
The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor is being hailed as the game changer in the region and there is a lot of hype being created by the government about the 46 billion dollar Chinese investment in Pakistan which will change the destiny of the country and make it into a strong economic power in Asia. Well, the benefits of the PCEC project for Pakistan are yet to be assessed as it is still in its initial stages but a very important aspect is the impacts of the project for Gilgit-Baltistan through which the proposed corridor will be built.
Gilgit-Baltistan has a chequered history and the region has been suffered from oppression and occupation for centuries. After the 1946 accord the region acceded with Pakistan voluntarily but even after the passing of almost seven decades its status is still ambiguous. This region was previously administered through the ministry of Kashmir Affairs yet neither is it part of the Federation of Pakistan, according to the constitution of Pakistan, nor is it part of the Kashmir and it is also not independent or autonomous. No serious effort has been made to establish any status to this extremely important region. This ambiguous status has been the major reason for the manner in which this whole region had been governed as well as the neglect meted out to it.
Gilgit-Baltistan holds an enormous geo-political as well as strategic importance for Pakistan. It is also home to the Indus River system which is the lifeline of Pakistan in every conceivable way. The very important roads and passes in GB have always been considered as the link between the East and the West and after the partition of Indian subcontinent the strategic importance of the region has increased manifolds. It is unfortunate that no subsequent government in Pakistan has realised the importance of ensuring the status of GB and including it as its territory within the constitutional framework.
For a long time now there is the voice of the people of GB for their rights and it is now not possible for any government to ignore these voices getting stronger. The people of GB demand rights for their land, their region and themselves. It is but fair that they should be made part of the development schemes that are primarily designed and focused for Pakistan and the people of GB are almost always excluded from the planning and execution as well as the benefits of the mega projects. The same is true for the CPEC. The people of GB have been ignored as always and they were not even considered important enough to be included in any consultation on the project.
There are huge implications of the CPEC for GB. It must be realised that the region lies in a very fragile and already vulnerable ecosystem and that the impacts of the climate change are clearly visible in the changing weather patterns as well as erratic rains and monsoon cycles. In the last five years major natural disasters like landslides, mud slides and GLOF (glacier lake outburst flooding) have been observed in several parts of the region including the Siachen Glacier. One of the major reasons for the destabilisation of the fragile ecosystem is the massive anthropogenic activities on the mountains like construction of roads, bridges, skiing resorts, and power generation units which includes blasting and use of heavy earth moving equipment. The movement of any troops on the mountains and use of firearms also severely affects the fragile balance of the environment. It has to be realised that with the development of another mega project, every effort must be taken to reduce the risk of any further disaster. The government has a critical duty to see that the vulnerable communities affected or at risk must be provided relief in time, especially the communities living in the GLOF areas are likely to be at risk from it in the summer months.
The second most important issue in GB is the popular demand for the opening of links through the Skardu-Kargil, Chorbat-Nubra, Gultari-Drass and Astore-Srinagar roads. According to some estimates 300,000 individuals are affected by the closure of these roads. The demand is for opening of these roads to end the cultural and economic isolation of the region. Especially the demand is for the Gilgit-Baltistan-Ladakh border opening where the families have been divided and live across the border. There has been unrest and protest movement in GB on this issue and the protesters had been handled severely by the state. There is room to resolve matters through dialogue and peaceful negotiations.
The third issue which is again of considerable importance in GB is the overall economic development in the region. For decades administrative problems and poor planning have resulted in underdeveloped economy. The region has a huge potential in mines and minerals, forestry, gemstones, energy, fruit farming, tourism, livestock, human resource development etc. The focus must be given to better infrastructure, energy, skilled labour and investment through private sector. Fruit-processing zones should be established in Gilgit-Baltistan and all efforts must be made to ensure that the fruit farmers are given full support by the government in every possible way to ensure that they receive maximum return for their produce and that their vulnerabilities are reduced and they are protected against loss.
Then there is of course the issue of maintaining peace and harmony amongst the various ethno-linguistic communities belonging to various religious sects living in the region.
These issues, of course, present some of the major challenges to the new government in the region and it is important to make all future strategies and plans keeping in mind the needs and demands of the people of GB. Everything must be envisioned according to the aspirations of the people as well as keeping into consideration that it should be beneficial to the land and people of the region. It is high time to bring a paradigm shift and stop looking at GB as just a resource to benefit Pakistan. The dividends must be shared with the people of the region so that their centuries old deprivation and isolation must end. The region has huge potential and it should be given its due share in the development.
The government of Pakistan must also appoint a very able man as a governor who is aware of the situation on ground and is cognizant of the issues in GB. As a front runner for the governorship retired Brigadier Masud Khan would be a very appropriate choice indeed and I truly believe that he would be able to deliver on all the above issues. Masud Khan belongs to a very respectable family in Gilgit and his father Professor Usman Ali is a much revered and respected literary figure in GB. He has been instrumental in resolving many conflicts all over GB and is respected in all religious sects there.
The second important consideration is that Masud Khan is well connected with all the stakeholders in the region and his office can act as a bridge to resolve conflict and clash of interest in case of any dispute. As the son of the soil he is also very much desirous to bring prosperity to his land and people but he would also play a vital role in keeping a strict watch on the strategic interests of Pakistan in the region. His unique position there makes him an excellent choice for the Governor of GB.
It is up to the Prime Minister to make the right choice for Gilgit-Baltistan so that the long standing woes of the region are addressed.