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March 23, 2018

Development challenges in Gilgit-Baltistan


March 23, 2018

There are untold stories about the plight of 1.3 million people of Gilgit-Baltistan (GB), who live in a fragile environment at the mercy of nature. Beauty, peace, tranquillity and serenity are the terms associated with this far-flung region of Pakistan. GB is loosely defined as a centrally-administered, partially-empowered and economically-dependent part of Pakistan. With all its natural endowments of gemstones, and mineral and water resources, the area is one of the best tourist destinations of the world.

According to a conservative estimate, GB has the potential to generate annual revenue of $1 billion from its natural resources and tourism, and fetch the annual revenue of $10 billion through renewable energy. On this basis, GB is not only self-sufficient but also has the potential to become the biggest revenue generator in the country.

With all its potential of prosperity, GB is marred by a rent-seeking, corrupt and inept political system that runs through an inflated bureaucracy and a disempowered local legislative assembly. The Empowerment and Self-Governance Order 2009 defines the legislative, administrative and legal functions of governance in GB – including the principle of separation of powers among the local parliament, judiciary and bureaucracy. Although the 2009 order gives authority of legislation to the local assembly on key subjects of economic, political, cultural and legal affairs, it does not define the processes which could determine the relationship with the federation vis-à-vis financial planning.

There is no formula of resource allocation and distribution based on the planning and recommendations of the local legislative assembly. Having no provincial status within the constitutional framework, GB is not eligible for the National Finance Commission (NFC) award. Since budgetary allocations are predetermined and top down, they neutralise the impact of local legislation. This top-down approach of political control has reduced the capacity, power, will and commitment of the GB government to devise a developmental roadmap for the region. Hence, there is a serious disconnect between the GB government and the federal government on important matters regarding regional development.

For instance, with the devolution of powers to provinces under the 18th Amendment, GB stands nowhere in the national development policy. Since the region is not governed under the constitution, there are no empowering benefits of the 18th Amendment for it. More importantly, after the devolution of powers to provinces, the federal government does not seem to have any inclusive political strategy of integrating GB into this devolved mode of political governance. The GB government and various ministries of the federal government have their own interpretations of role and responsibilities after the 18th Amendment. There is no resource allocation formula as well as development planning other than the transfer of funds to GB as a liability of the federal government.

On the other hand, the 2009 order provides an elaborate formula of functional distribution of administrative powers between federal and local bureaucracy. It allows posting of 25 percent, 50 percent, 60 percent and 70 percent of federal officers of Basic Pay Scale (BPS) 17, 18, 19 and 20 respectively in GB’s administrative setup. Key positions like home secretary, secretary planning, and development and secretary finance are assigned to federal officers. This is an overly centralised power structure and more disempowering than the governance structure of AJK. In AJK, only the chief secretary, inspector general of police and accountant general of IGPR are appointed from the federal government. This cumbersome and centrally-controlled bureaucratic structure is the main impediment to the timely execution of public services.

The current political and administrative setup lacks the institutional arrangement of accountability, transparency and inclusivity on important matters of public interest – ranging from financial planning to merit-based hiring of staff on development projects.

There have been political appointments on key positions of foreign-funded development projects. For example, the IFAD-funded Economic Transformative Initiative (ETI) granted to the GB government is a five-year integrated economic development programme of worth $120 million. The ETI shows how political appointments result into inefficiency and corruption, and collusion for evading monitoring and accountability. This project could bring about transformative changes by establishing effective agricultural value chains and land development programmes to help local farmers improve their productive capacity.

The project has suffered due to the incompetence of management, bureaucratic interference, lack of coordination between the project management team and the planning and development department of the GB government. There were 10 highly-qualified development professionals who applied for the position of project coordinator and none were selected. The tests and interviews conducted for the position of project coordinator were farcical and had no technical content in line with the job description.

Delays and irregularities in the implementation of the project show inadequate professional credentials of project management. The ETI is being implemented through the Planning and Development Division in collaboration with the project coordinator under the supervision of the chief secretary of Gilgit-Baltistan. This is the largest foreign-funded development programme in the region with the potential to provide entrepreneurial opportunities and improve the standard of living. Nonetheless, the project has not been able to meet its development targets. Fraught with delays in implementation, the project does not have a strong quality assurance and monitoring function to ensure transparency of fund allocation and its subsequent utilisation.

The untapped development potential of this region is an opportunity for investors in tourism industry, energy, minerals and border trade. There are a number of young emerging entrepreneurs who need an enabling business environment and business incubation support. While talented men and women look for support, the GB government is busy doling out millions of rupees to build political clout through the traditional class of traders and contractors. Construction and development contracts are being granted to favourites in violation of public procurement rules.

GB has the potential of generating 70,000 megawatts of renewable energy from its hydrological resources, but most of its districts are plunged in darkness. The most important touristic destinations, including Hunza and Skardu, lack basic infrastructure to accommodate tourists. There is more than 16 hours of loadshedding on a daily basis in Hunza alone with unannounced power outages adding salt to injury.

Last year, one million tourists visited the region despite the fact that there was no incentive or facilitation from the GB government. Local hoteliers and guest house owners used high power diesel and petrol generators to make up for the lack of electricity. This was quite damaging to the natural environment and exposed local residents to respiratory diseases. Most of the tourists visited the Khunjerab Pass which was turned into a garbage site in the absence of a solid waste disposal system in place.

Most of the communication infrastructure, including the recently-upgraded Karakorum Highway (KKH), is deteriorating at a fast pace. Passing through an ecologically fragile and mountainous region, the KKH needs regular maintenance to ensure smooth transportation and commutation. The contracting organisation responsible for the maintenance of the KKH does not seem to have any interest in its work. If one travels through the KKH, he/she will witness the story of inefficient maintenance and lack of monitoring and accountability of contracting organisation on the part of the National Highway Authority (NHA).

In the context of mounting development challenges, the sensible policy option for the federal government is the integration of GB in the national development programme under the constitutional framework. This will, hopefully, bring about improved accountability, efficiency and political empowerment.

The writer is a freelance columnist based in Islamabad.

Email: [email protected]

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