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Economic prospects of Gilgit-Baltistan

 Ishrat Husain

This article is part of a series to raise general awareness about the economic conditions and potential of the provinces and territories that do not have the same advantages as the other advanced parts of the country. The first article on Balochistan’s development was published a few months ago. This one is focused on Gilgit-Baltistan (GB). 

Gilgit-Baltistan (GB), situated in the northern part of the country and circumscribed by four of the world’s highest mountain ranges, is indeed charming for its natural beauty. The convergence of three of the world’s highest mountain ranges – Himalayas, Hindu Kush and Karakoram (K2) – takes place in GB. Most of the highest peaks lie in the Karakoram mountain range in this province/area.

Ninety per cent of the area of GB is mountainous, four per cent is forest and 4.2 per cent cultivated waste; cropped area is about 1.2 per cent of the total area. This cropped area sustains about two million sparse population, spread thinly over a vast terrain in the ten districts from the Chinese border in the north to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in the south. Population density is as low as 24 per kilometre square, and distance and isolation are the prominent features here.

The harsh long winter virtually shuts down all economic activities in the area, accelerating migration to the rest of Pakistan. At the same time, GB holds the lifeline of Pakistan as its glaciers contribute 70 per cent of water of River Indus and its forests protect the watershed of the river. Glacier melt is one of the grave risks threatening the existing pattern of food production, energy generation and water usage in Pakistan. The recent torrential rains – with all their speed , intensity and ferocity and dispersal within a short period of time not only in GB, KP but also Sindh and Balochistan (from the Sulaiman range of mountains) – have not been witnessed before. The loss of thousands of lives, displacement of almost 33 million people, and vast crop and livestock destruction has not only brought great grief to the people of Pakistan but also testified to the growing menace of risks arising from global warming.

Climate change risks are very much in action and have to be tackled effectively. Two major public policy interventions have made a major difference to the lives of ordinary citizens in GB: the construction of the Karakoram Highway (KKH) and the rural support programmes (RSPs). In the absence of economic opportunities, the fragmentation of the population had taken place not only through wide geographical dispersion but also due to ethnic and sectarian divisions. The three main sectarian communities – Sunnis, Shias and Ismailis – did not trust each other, and collaboration among them was quite erratic, sporadic and infrequent.

The mountain valleys of GB that were inaccessible to vehicular traffic have been opened up after the construction of the Karakoram Highway (KKH) which has made a tremendous impact by integrating the local economy with the larger national market. The KKH has exposed the region to modern ideas, lifestyles, techniques of production and improved connectivity to other parts of the country. It was indeed an extraordinary feat of human ingenuity and endeavour to build 630kms of all-weather roads in a most difficult terrain infested with heavy landslides and faced with the logistic nightmare to move equipment and heavy machinery to the sites and to provide shelter and food to the thousands of workers from different cultures.

Khunjerab Pass, the terminal point of the highway, is the highest paved international border crossing in the world and the highest point on the KKH. Finally, after loss of many human lives the KKH was able to connect the province with the rest of the country as well as China. Once it was seen that each of the ethnic and religious groups benefitted from the opening up and the development programmes the tension did subside but has not been fully eliminated.

The incidence of poverty has declined and is limited to certain districts, nomads and non-indigenous population but there are still many hiccups and constraints to the full blooming of this integration. For example, air links to Skardu and Gilgit have been established and private aviation companies allowed charter flights but airport facilities have yet to be upgraded. The KKH has not only allowed access to trekkers, hikers, climbers from all corners of the world but also attracted tourists from other parts of Pakistan. The present CPEC project to rebuild Thakot to Raikot part of the KKH would further reduce the time taken and also help in the construction of two large Diamer-Basha and Dasu Dams which fall within the span of 279 kms of the reconstructed road. The four-lane Hazara Motorway from Hasanabdal to Thakot has already resulted in time saving as well as safer driving.

Conservation of cultural heritage and forts such as the 700-year-old Baltit Fort in Hunza Valley, 900-year-old Altit Fort, restoration of the Shigar Fort and Khaplu Palace have further added to the attraction of GB.

One of the early interventions aimed at boosting socio-economic development in GB was taken up by the Aga Khan Rural Support Program (AKRSP) as early as 1982. At that time this remote, isolated mountainous and rugged region was inhabited by a population mostly living below the poverty line. Development elsewhere in the country was bypassing the people in GB. Small land holdings in a harsh ecosystem with very little exposure to modern techniques of production, almost no access to inputs and limited marketing opportunities resulted in the people of the area facing challenges in eking out livelihoods for themselves and their families.

As the area where the population was vast while the size of the population small and the terrain highly demanding, the costs of laying basic infrastructure and connectivity such as roads, highways, bridges etc exceeded the benefits to the communities. As larger markets of adjoining KP and Punjab were not accessible, the rural farm communities were faced with surplus produce that ended up being wasted.

Educational, health services, agriculture, and local infrastructure such as irrigation channels were the main area of focus of the AKRSP and their success in reducing poverty and raising incomes was acknowledged widely by national and international agencies such as the World Bank based on sound data collection and analysis.

The positive experience of the AKRSP motivated the government to set up a GB Rural Support Program (GBRSP) on similar lines to supplement the efforts of the AKRSP. Six thousand community organizations (COs) have been established under the AKRSP and GBRSP throughout the country. These are quite active in mobilizing local resources through savings and carrying out activities that are responsive to the needs of the local communities.

Small farmers are given micro loans for agriculture inputs to increase the yields and small entrepreneurs to sustain and expand their businesses. Local Support Organizations (LSOs) provide technical support to community organizations. Compared to the top-down government sponsored projects, those undertaken by the local community organizations are cost effective and are also well maintained by the COs.

To be continued..


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