Is Gilgit-Baltistan an economic burden on Pakistan…….?

By Comrade Akber Shah
When India stealthily occupied the Siachen glacier in 1984, Pakistan’s then military dictator Gen Ziaul Haq had to tell the nation out of frustration that the country could not afford to waste its budget on a place where even grass does not grow. This has, unfortunately, been the general perception of successive governments about Gilgit-Balitistan for the last over six decades. Even people of the area consider that they have no existence of their own and their economic survival is dependent on Pakistan. Though it is a fact that Gilgit-Baltistan is the most backward area where there is no existence of any industrial unit, but there have been no tangible efforts to end poverty and unemployment and change the destiny of the people.Here we would examine whether there are any possibilities of economic development in the region and if the area is really an economic burden on Pakistan. When we study the reports of researches conducted by the UN and its agencies as well as other NGOs working in the area, an amazing picture comes to the fore.The region is a treasure trove of not only Pakistan but also the whole world. Most of Pakistan’s economy is dependent on the resources of the area in one form or the other. However, the people of the area have been kept ignorant of the facts and figures under a conspiracy for the last over six decades. As a result, today we see our people mourning over their economic backwardness. We have never paused for a moment to ask ourselves what steps the successive governments have taken for the uplift of the people. Was there any substantive development project aimed to change the socio-economic condition of the area. Is it a sign of pride for the people to live on charity and donations despite having abundance of natural resources. Is it not equal to slavery to listen to the accusations of being an economic burden on others for generations.Gilgit-Baltistan has all the prerequisites necessary for moving ahead on path of socio-economic progress and prosperity. God has gifted the area with a clean and crystal clear environment. After the Arctics, it is the largest home to water resources, while in tourism sector, it has also no parallel the world over.There is abundance of woods, green mellows, and great potential of hydro-power generation not only enough for the local use but also for export to earn huge capital. Gilgit-Baltistan is also rich in mineral resources and leads the world as far as some of the resources are concerned. Besides, availability of cheap labour force and geographical characteristics make the area an ideal place for industrial development.Looking at all these facts, it is now to be decided whether Gilgit-Baltistan can be an economic burden on Pakistan or vise versa. Now look at the figures prepared by the UN and its agencies as well as other NGOs. The funds which Pakistan has been allocating to the area so far are not over Rs1.5 billion. However, when the government prepares the annual development plans (ADP) it claims on papers that huge amounts have been set aside for the development of the area.The government earns over Rs32 billion from royalty on the Indus River, indirect taxes, tourists, customs and the Karakoram Highway, etc. If incomes generated from the KKH, Indus River, and customs are stopped, Pakistan’s economy will face serious crunch. Amuch as 60 per cent of Pakistan’s irrigation system depends on the Indus River. The KKH is the only land route connecting the country with China. Trade relations between the two countries solely depend on the highway which is also the main cementing force in their mutual relations. Cheap Chinese products make their way to Pakistani markets through the KKH. If this trade is carried out between the two nations via Islamabad-Beijing air route or through the sea, is it possible to get these products at such a cheap rates. If the Khunjerab customs checkpost is closed for a while what would happen to the income of the department. Customs officials pay bribes and use their connections to get themselves transferred to the Sust border and within a year become millionaires.It is a pity that royalty on the Indus River goes to the government coffers and the benefits of the KKH is never shared with the local traders. Businessmen of Gilgit-Baltistan though possess passports and special passes but they are not in a position to directly trade with China and the facility is also utilized by traders from Punjab and the NWFP. The policies of all the scheduled banks in the area are also not public-friendly. The banks do not give loans to the unemployed youth to start business on small scales. As a result, majority of the populace migrate to urban areas in search of jobs.So far, the government has also failed to alleviate poverty and end unemployment in the area. As a result, people cannot continue education of their children and after pulling them out of schools either send them to cities to earn a living for them or get them recruited in the army.Off and on sectarian clashes allegedly orchestrated by the governments have also caused an economic burden on the people. Whenever army and paramilitary forces are called in to maintain law and order situation in the region, funds allocated for the development of the area are spent on them. Besides, all means of communications are controlled by the government and issues which the state wants to keep under the wrap are never taken up by the media.It is also a fact that there is no organization in the area to deal with accountability of government functionaries.Apart from these problems, development of the area is hindered by lack of necessary steps to promote the agriculture sector which is an important source of income in the area after tourism. There is a wide scope of earning by increasing the production of fruits and vegetables through judicious use of untapped water and other resources. Locals grow potatoes but due to lack of market access they are compelled to move to big cities for sale of their products. But due to lack of proper communication means the traders face hardships in running their businesses. It is ironic that due to lack of resources, people from Punajb and NWFP come to the area, hire land from the locals on nominal rents and grow potatoes. Similar is the situation in other sectors.As far as development of mineral resources is concerned, it is learnt that when some foreign firms after conducting surveys on their own sought permission from the government to start work on exploration, the government rejected their feasibility reports on various pretexts. There were also reports that some retired army officers were trying to take advantage of the resources by opening their own private companies. Despite presence of all resources, the government has done little to explore them for the good of the people. As a result, the area lacks basic facilities.Take the example of education. There is only one university for a population of about two million that too lacks facilities. There were two degree colleges and the building of one of them was being used by the university. Health facilities are also almost non-existent. Though in each district there is a district headquarters hospital, but except the one at Gilgit, the others are not worthy of even calling basic health care centre. These hospitals have neither sufficient number of doctors nor any other facilities. According to figures, there is one doctor for a population of over 6,000. According to the 1998 census, total population of the area was shown as 1.2 million – males 453,251, females 417,128; population growth rate 2.47 per cent ; households 110,785, land under cultivation 52,837 acres; fruits on 12,056 acres; vegetable on 10,638 acres. Education: total schools 1,764, government 1,370; private 347; teachers 3,733; trained 2,264; untrained 1,169; students 168,057; boys 105,113; girls 62,944; literacy rate 33 per cent; males 40 per cent; females 25 per cent.Health: Doctors in government 165; infant mortality rate 70 per 1,000 live births; child immunization 55 per cent; access to drinking water 46 per cent; toilet facility 60 per cent and electricity supply 42 per cent.Population: Gilgit 243,324, Baltistan 214,848, Ganche 88,366, Diamir 203,591, Gizar 210,218. The figures show that the government has manipulated the data on population. Astore is a new district and its official population is shown as 100,000 while unofficially it is 120,000. Similarly, the population of Baltistan has also been reduced.All this shows government’s discrimination against the area. Facts and figures shown in this article are just a fraction of the actual picture and it is the responsibility of the media to explore all such injustices meted out to the area, so that there are efforts to explore the mineral, economic and human resources for the welfare of the region.(Translated by Zar Alam Khan)

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