Muhammad Bilal Abdul Ghani
Gilgit-Baltistan, formerly known as Northern Areas, is most neglected region of Pakistan. The people of this region have fighting for their identity since their independence, but also crawling for basic necessities. They have been ignored in their own land. The roots of democracy in Pakistan general and GB in particular are getting stronger with each passing election. The third GB Legislative Assembly has been elected and apart from its role in decision making is very important for continuation of democracy in the region.
Before Partition, GB was part of the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir. At the time of independence the people of these territories revolted against the Dogra Maharaja and decided to join Pakistan. Since 1947, no comprehensive plan has been made by the federal government to bring out the people from vicious cycle of poverty. The region has gained more importance with the start of the Diamer Bhasha Dam and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor
GB’s constitutional development remained pitiable. Every government failed to give it provincial status.
On 28 April 1949, the Karachi Agreement was signed through which administrative and legal control of the northern areas were officially handed over to the federal government. It was managed by the Frontier Regulations. Northern Areas and Azad Kashmir thus became two different entities. In 1969 the National Assembly Advisory Council was made, but local authorities not given decision making powers. Because of protests by local authorities Zulfikar Ali Bhutto abolished FTR and introduced Northern Areas Council Legal Framework Order. It introduced some administrative and judicial reforms but did not empower the people of GB. During 1988-1990, Benazir Bhutto for the first time appointed Qurban Ali as PM’ advisor for northern areas. Thus for the first time the Northern Areas were represented in the National Assembly. In 1994 the PPP government introduced a Northern Areas Legal Framework Order with all executive powers transferred to the federal Kashmir Affairs and Northern Areas minister. He also was chief executive of the Northern Areas Legislative Council. His authority was absolute and no legislation could be passed without his prior approval. In 1999, the Supreme Court ordered fundamental freedoms be extended to the Northern Areas. During the Musharraf era, the government delegated further administrative and financial powers to the National Assembly Legislative Council. In 2007 the NALC was upgraded to highest assembly, with the Kashmir Affairs minister its ex-officio chairman. In 2009 the PPP-led government romulgated the GB Empowerment Of Self-Governance Order. It changed the name of region to Gilgit Baltistan and created new offices of Governor and Chief Minister. GB was also entitled to have its own public service commission, election commission and Auditor General.
It is imperative for our political elite to change its mindset and bring the area into the national mainstream. The PTI government has announced provincial status. It will be the first step in the right direction
It also established an Upper House comprising 15 members with the Prime Minister chairing it ex-officio. The elected legislative assembly functioned only in name as all decisions are effectively taken by the federal government.
In 2016 a comprehensive proposal was made that GB be represented in the Senate like other four province of Pakistan, as an interim federating unit.
The constitutional status of GB remained in limbo since 1947. Its people fought for freedom from Dogra rule but now are fighting to get their identity in Pakistan and the world. Despite resolving the issue, its fate is attached with resolution of the Kashmir issue. More unfortunate is the that unelected GB council has more power than its elected assembly.
The result will be more depressing than from the follies in Baluchistan and erstwhile FATA. We have to learn lessons from the past and strong democratic solutions are needed to address local concerns. This area has become more important as it is gateway of THE CPEC. The region is rich in tourism and natural resources. With little management billions of dollars can be added to the frail national economy.
The status of women empowerment in GB causes concern. According to the EC there are 745,361 voters, of which 46 percent are women. For the 2020 elections the gender gap reached nine percent. Of the total 327 candidates, only four were women, all in the same constituency. Parties are reluctant to give tickets to women. The PML(N) campaign was run by Mian Nawaz Sharif’s daughter, but it did not give a single ticket to a female candidate.
According to research by Karakoram University, GB is one of the country’s most poverty-ridden areas. Average monthly household income is only Rs 1225. According to the Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey (MICS) report of 2016-2017, the multidimensional poverty index of GB is 0.179. It includes the proportion of the population who are multidimensionally poor, which is 34.8 percent, the intensity of poverty being 51.1 percent.
The condition of the education system is very alarming. For a population of 1.49 million, only a handful f schools, college and higher education institutions are available. GB’s higher education commission is almost non-functional. The literacy rate is only 45 percent. Girls’ schools are being burnt. 79 percent of children are out of school, the most in Pakistan. Research grants and world ranking universities are unavailable for the youth. According to the MICS report, the schooling years in GB are 15.5 and the school attendance remained only 23.2 percent.
Gilgit Baltistan has only one percent share in the federal services of Pakistan. This has unleashed resentment.
GB has mountainous ranges. The major three ranges, the Himalayas, Karakorams and Hindu Kush are present here. Infrastructure is almost unavailable. Trade routes are not designed despite borders with China, Afghanistan and Kashmir. Karakorum highway is the only way available. Access to markets from farms is very difficult. The tax being collected from GB’s trade is not being invested on its development. Tourism is in shambles due to lack of infrastructure. The area is home to the world’s most beautiful valleys but income from them is negligible due to lack of infrastructure and development.
Quality healthcare delivery is the bedrock of development. Un-fortunately, in Pakistan generally, and GB particularly, healthcare has been long neglected with the common man bearing the brunt. There are critical healthcare challenges, with paucity of trained human resource and deficit of regulated infrastructure and service delivery predominant dilemmas. For 1.49 million people in ten districts, there are only five DHQ and 27 civil hospitals, two rural health centres and two basic healthcare units. Another grave issue is that the doctor-to-population ratio is alarming at 1:4100. According to the MICS report, 23.4 percent of children suffer malnutrition and the child mortality rate is 38/100,000 births.
According to the MICS report, the living standard has six parameters: availability of electricity , sanitation, drinking water , floor , cooking fuel and assets. The reports says only 2.1 percent have electricity, 14.2 percent proper sanitation system and 24.5 percent proper drinking water. This paints a picture of an extremely poor society.
GB is the gateway of the flagship project of one of the most ambitious modern geo-economic development initiatives. Geographically, GB is nestled between the border region that bridges South Asia, South East Asia and Central Asia. GB is the fulcrum of this land bridge between East and West. The road from Kashgar to Gawadar passes through GB and is considered the Eighth Wonder of the world. A special economic zone of Maqpondass is being setup in GB. This area is rich in precious stones and fruits. The proposed SEZ would be 35 km from the nearest airport, 200 km from the nearest dry port (Sust), and four km from the CPEC route on the Gilgit-Skardu road.
The sense of alienation among the people is continuously growing. Islamabad must come up with workable solutions to address grievances of the people. Some suggestions are as under:
- GB must be declared Pakistan’s fifth province, which will not harm our stand on Kashmir.
- A 10-year development plan must be designed for the region’s economy.
- A special quota must be given from the federal tax pool in upcoming national finance commission award in addition to their due share.
- All other four provinces must slash their NFC share to support this.
- The HEC must start scholarship programmes for GB students
- It must resolve the technical issues of GB universities to give relief to their students.
- The federal government must increase GB’s job quota.
- Electricity, water and gas issues must be addressed at highest level.
- Special implementation committees for the development plan.
- Advanced agricultural techniques must be implemented to increase yield.
- The elected members of GB must be empowered for decision making instead of the unelected GB council.
- The government must accelerate its efforts to bring back the angry leaders of the region instead of further antagonizing them.
- Judicial reforms must be carried out for land issues, and other disputed matters.
- Smuggling and un-official trade must be stopped.
- More projects like Diamer Bhasha dam must be started
It is imperative for our political elite to change its mindset and bring the area into the national mainstream. The PTI government has announced provincial status. It will be the first step in the right direction.