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August 22, 2017

CPEC in Gilgit-Baltistan


August 22, 2017

Passu is a beautiful village about 150 kilometres on the Karakorum Highway from the town of Gilgit. It is at the mouth of the 57 kilometre-long world’s fifth longest glacier, Batura. This beautiful village is surrounded by peaks that look like cones and are called Passu Cones or Passu Cathedral.

Passu is famous all over the world because of the features described above. But at the beginning of this month, Passu attracted attention for another reason. A good number of intellectuals and researchers from Gilgit-Baltistan gathered in the village for two days to analyse the impacts of CPEC on the ecology, sociology, cultural diversity, economy and political status of the region which is rightly described by linguist O’Leary “as a mountainous area where the Hindu Kush, the Himalayas and the Karakorams form a knot” and “a land of geographic and ethnic diversity, one of the most multilingual places on the face of the earth.”

The Aga Khan Rural Support Program had organised a formal gathering of researchers and public intellectuals of the region to discuss whether Gilgit-Baltistan is ready to exploit and sustain, or repackage, the forthcoming changes on its culture, economy, politics, ethnic and religious diversity etc in the wake of CPEC which starts in Pakistan from this region.

The underlying concept of starting an informed discourse around major projects and the socio-economic changes they can result in was envisaged in one of the core speeches as “the basic purpose of arranging the conference stems from the basic philosophy of [the] AKRSP, which takes into consideration the views from the periphery and bring voices from the margins onto the centre stage of the development discourse”. It further states that after the opening of the Karakorum Highway the region is witnessing a major development in the shape of CPEC, which has been called a game-changer for Pakistan. The socio-economic realities of the region have witnessed major changes in terms of education, quality of life and the economy.

Conspiracy theories aside, the much trumpeted CPEC is still shrouded in mystery. It seems the ‘centre stage’ in Pakistan deliberately keeps this economic corridor away from public discourse.

The idea behind holding the conference in a village like Passu, a periphery in Gilgit-Baltistan, was to bring voices from the margins onto the centre stage of the development discourse. Whether Gilgit-Baltistan, a periphery in Pakistan, has ever been heard while conceiving CPEC was evident from the key presentation which stated that the greater chunk of the CPEC budget is going to be spent on energy projects and the infrastructure of roads and railways. The remaining budget is for fibre optic work and the Gwadar Port.

There is no mention of any project for Gilgit-Baltistan apart from the road. Through media reports in June this year, we also found out that the corridor has also focused agriculture in Pakistan in addition to industrial zones in mainland Pakistan. The reports also said that the corridor’s master plan document has only been shared with one province – Punjab. This makes things further murky.

Another presentation in the Passu conference revealed that there is only a single paragraph on Gilgit-Baltistan in the CPEC documents; the paragraph vaguely states that the region of Gilgit-Baltistan ‘will be developed’.

Gilgit-Baltistan, though overwhelmingly rural, has undergone many socio-cultural changes because of its distinct natural and cultural landscapes, and owing to some rigorous but sustained interventions by humanitarian organisations.

It is unique in the way that one sees modernisation manifest itself visibly here despite the region being all the way up in cliffs in the extreme north – away from cities, the centres of modernisation. The urge for higher education is on the rise here.

Education has produced a great bulk of unemployed youth who cannot go along the path their traditional society delineates for them. These youth find themselves disgruntled with their meagre sources of livelihood, lesser means of expression and lack of opportunities of employment in the region. Many of the youth of Gilgit-Baltistan are thus scattered all over Pakistan in search of better education and jobs. They can hardly be retained back at home now.

The present state of cultural and religious pluralism is spectacular. However, undercurrents should not be ignored.

Gilgit-Baltistan is not merely a territory of high mountains and glaciers. It is also host to indigenous and unique languages and cultures like the Indo-Aryan languages Shina, Khowar, Dumaki and Gujarati; Indo-Iranian Wakhi; Sino-Tibetan Balti; and the unique Burushashki language. The area is also the custodian of thousands of rock carvings, inscriptions and petroglyphs.

It is a pity that a region so significant is altogether off the radar of the likely benefits of CPEC. Whether Pakistan just treats the region as a ‘route’ of CPEC or really wants to expand the promised bounties to this region is still a question worth questioning.

Both the players of CPEC need to think of ways in which the educated youth, existing social capital and diaspora of Gilgit-Baltistan can be utilised; and what safeguards can be applied to protect and promote this unique cultural and natural repository. And internal dialogue – such as the one held in Passu – should be continued.

The writer heads an independent organisation dealing with education and development in Swat.

Email: [email protected]


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