Mountains and valleys evoke beautiful images in the mind of big city dwellers, of peace and quiet, lightness of being, and the absence of the madding crowd. We presume the life of the people who live inside the fascinating landscape to be as blissful. Once you are there, it does not take much to realise that the people living at the edge — where the land merges into mighty mountain ranges — face immense hardship.
Mountain people depend on subsistence agriculture, wage labour, circulatory labour migration, tourism and mountaineering services for survival. Opportunities for government employment are limited. Most households survive on a combination of livelihoods. The people of Shigar and Ghanche districts, whom I met during a trip to Skardu, talked of many challenges. These included the absence of livelihood opportunities except tourism, scarcity of water, poor road networks, inadequate social infrastructure, climate change and frequent landslides.
The ongoing Covid-19 pandemic impacted the two districts severely in 2020. Tourism came to a halt. Hotels and guest houses in the districts shut down. Due to the countrywide lockdown, circulatory labour migration was not possible. In Shigar and Ghanche, men migrate to Karachi during the winter months for wage labour, leaving women and children behind with just one male family member. The biggest blow was the cancellation of all mountaineering and trekking expeditions, Ali Hassan Shigari, a Balti guide and driver told me.
The area contains four peaks higher than 8,000 metres — K-2, Gasherbrum-I, Broad Peak and Gasherbrum-II — and several above 7,000m peaks. In the pre-Covid period, 25 to 30 international expedition teams, comprising eight to 10 members used to come. About 10 expeditions headed for K-2 and the others went to summit Gasherbrum-I and other peaks. Each team employed 250 local men as porters, helpers, cooks, loaders, assistants, etc. In addition, numerous local and foreign trekking parties came to hike in remote valleys and for glacier trails on the Karakoram range. Expeditions bought food stuff and other essentials from local markets. This has been an important source of livelihood for local people, Hassan said.
The pandemic has extracted a heavy price from the people of Skardu.
During lockdown last year, only a few hotels paid half of the meagre salaries to workers employed as cleaners, waiters, cooks, gardeners and porters. Entry level salary in the hotel industry, I was told, is Rs8,000 to Rs10,000 — much lower than the minimum wages in the four provinces. Despite putting in 10 or more years of service, most of the workers remain on contract without access to any benefits. Due to its semi-autonomous, partially self-governing and uncertain constitutional status, many laws of the country, including labour protection policies and laws, are not extended to Gilgit-Baltistan.
Shahid, who holds a Master’s in economics from the Karakoram International University, runs a small dry fruit shop, which he calls a dhaba. He chose economics for he wanted to go into business. But the Master’s degree taught him little about running a business. Institutes do not offer entrepreneurship training. The patch of land owned by his family does not produce much, he told me. Though almost every household owns a piece of land, ranging from two kanals (around 0.25 acres) to 10 kanals or more, the terrain is difficult. Often the land is not contiguous but scattered in different places. The main source of water is the glacial melt in summer. The monsoon season is generally dry. Wheat, barley and maize are major crops and only one crop a year is cultivated. “We don’t have technology to increase the yield,” he said. There are few water storage facilities. Also, lack of modern heating system to keep dwellings warm in the harsh winters has led to dependence on wood for domestic fuel purposes. A single household uses 80 to 100 maund (about 3,000 kg to 3,700 kg) of wood, I was told by a local.
Children’s education is highly valued, Farah, the lone female employee in a hotel, told me. Parents would sell their land to provide for higher education to their children. Her daughter is studying at the University of Poonch, Rawalkot, for a BS in agriculture. Women’s employment in sectors other than education and health is frowned upon in Skardu. Farah worked for nine years as a teacher in a temporary post at a government school. She was not given a permanent position for she could not pay Rs300,000 as bribe. She left teaching and joined the hotel industry with the approval of her husband. Several people confirmed the culture of extortion money for government service positions in the area.
Compared to men, particularly young men, who own a mobile phone and, many, a shining motorbike, women in Baltistan have a tough life. All along the valley, I saw groups of women squatting on the riverbanks or near streams and nullahs, washing heavy beddings, blankets, rugs, and warm clothes. In summer, women toil twice as hard to survive the winter. Mammoth washing sessions are combined with wood collecting, fruit drying, farming and daily home chores.
The bright aspect is the literacy rate in the region which is one of the highest in the country and gender parity is rising. According to the ASER Report 2019, 92 per cent of all children aged from six to 16 years are enrolled in schools. Also, 70.8pc of households in rural districts have mobile phones, and 22pc have computers/laptops.
Experts recommend water storage facilities for irrigation, introduction of other crops, and yak and trout farming. The region has abundant fruit produce — apricot, almond, apple, cherries and mulberries. However, modern fruit drying technologies and pre-treatment methods based on quality preservation are not available. There is a need to encourage micro enterprises in fruit drying and processing. The recent five-year development package announced by the federal government needs to prioritise road connectivity, health infrastructure, hydel and solar power generation, and skills training.