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Opinion

September 14, 2018

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Land for the community

“Our lands are being rendered barren, our rivers are being poisoned, our food is being stolen, and our resources are being usurped – all for some bucks by those... sneaking in to grab our means of livelihood. Being peace-loving citizens, we strived to protect our lands and communal resources through legal and peaceful means and we still hope that our voices will be heard. All we want to is to communicate our concerns to [the] higher authorities as well as... to come forward to help us.”

These words were uttered by a passionate community activist who represented the feelings of 650 households of a village in the Shinaki region of Hunza.

Serenity and hospitality define this remote region of Pakistan, but it is being disrupted by some unwarranted extractive commercialism being inflicted upon these laborious and peace-loving people. The natural resource-rich village is being turned into a battlefield by the administration, which is forcibly stopping the local people from protesting the illegal occupation of natural resource reserves.

The story is that the people of the village have been protesting against attempts to illegally control an already-leased mine. According to these locals, demarcation maps approved in the lease agreement were tampered with to include the adjacent land beyond the originally-approved exploration sites. A series of applications were submitted to the relevant government department and other civil administration officials by the local community, with the request that they look into the matter of this illegal occupation in violation of clause 7.6 of the National Mineral Policy Pakistan, 2013. The people of the village say that they believed in every assurance in good faith but no action was taken and the matter is still pending, causing enormous economic loss to the local community.

The community had established a cooperative society in 1989, which was granted a renewable 20-year lease for mining in an area of 650 acres by the government of Gilgit-Baltistan in 1991. This cooperative society engaged a private contractor to for extraction and mining with the proviso that a certain percentage of the proceeds would be invested in the development of the villagers. With the support of the local community, the cooperative society constructed 4.5 kilometres of access road to the mining site through a community contribution of millions of rupees. In 2014, the mining licence was renewed for 10 years but work on extraction was suspended due to office-bearers and village elders being arrested and forced to relinquish mining rights.

This is only one story out of the many others across Gilgit-Baltistan where the illegal occupation of natural reserves and communal lands has triggered conflict. At present, about 50 types of different minerals are extracted from the region. These include gold, copper, lead and coal besides precious stones topaz, marble and granite. Gemstones worth about Rs900 million value are extracted annually from Gilgit-Baltistan and more measures are being adopted to explore other precious minerals. This is as per the reports of the tourism and minerals departments. The area’s natural resources, if exploited properly, cannot only fulfil the requirements of the region but would also bring handsome foreign exchange to the country through exports.

There is much talk of there being a ‘Naya Pakistan’, with the government of the PTI making promises to bring about drastic changes in the traditional mode of governance in the country. Key among the promises is empowerment of common citizens through institutional reforms and downward accountability of people at the top brass of government. The new prime minister has announced reducing the discretionary powers of ministers by relocating more powers to local government as allocation of funds for local development. If these promised are fulfilled, there will certainly be a major breakthrough in improving the dismal state of human development and institutional accountability – hence, strengthening democracy.

There are certainly more important dimensions that the PTI reform agenda has to address than populism driven by an urban bias. The reforms must go beyond mainland Pakistan to include those peripheral but strategically important regions of the country. Since Gilgit-Baltistan is one of the most important strategic areas in the wake of the CPEC project, the prime minister was admonished over social media for not mentioning of this region in his first speech to nation. Some would say it made sense as the prime minister was addressing his electorates, and Gilgit-Baltistan was not under his political purview. But there is certainly a difference between a constituency politician and a statesman; and shouldn’t one expect more from Imran Khan to stay true to his promises?

What are the key issues that the prime minister and his government need to focus on to extend its reform agenda to Gilgit-Baltistan? One of the most urgent policy reforms that the people of Gilgit-Baltistan would like from the prime minister is to restore the state-subject rule – that is, by granting people ownership of their common assets. The prime minister can constitute a taskforce of experts to look into the illegal occupation of community lands and social assets. There are more than a 100 cases across Gilgit-Baltistan where people have been deprived of their common economic resources through dubious mining contracts on political grounds from the federal government. The government should immediately review and amend the Gilgit-Baltistan Empowerment Order 2018 to give more powers to the local assembly. There have already been widespread protests against the enforcement of GB Order 2018 for it reduces Gilgit-Baltistan to a protectorate of the federal government.

In particular after the 18th Amendment of the constitution, the provinces enjoy autonomy in determining their own economic and political development agenda. However, in the case of Gilgit-Baltistan all powers to approve, amend, promulgate and abrogate the laws have been granted to the prime minister, while the local representatives of the legislative assembly – including the chief minister – have only ceremonial political status. There must be an empowered local assembly with the mandate and capacity to help implement the reforms agenda, including the restoration of hopes of the people for a secured future. The case of this village in Gilgit-Baltistan is eye-opening and it would be great symbolism if this issue is addressed as the first practical demonstration of the political will to implement reforms that take us towards a welfare state.

The writer is a freelance columnist based in Islamabad.

Email: [email protected]

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