Wednesday September 22, 2021

Challenges in AJK

September 14, 2021

The year 2021 has been a significant one in terms of politics for Azad Jammu and Kashmir due to the general elections and the consequent political transition. The PTI has emerged as the single largest party by securing 32 seats in recent AJK Assembly Elections 2021.

Campaigns by the leadership of different parties for the AJK Elections were confined merely to issuing fiery statements against each other rather than presenting a plan to deal with the vast issues faced by the subjects of the state. The newly elected government now has to face a host of problems that need to be addressed on an emergency basis.

The biggest challenge the new government will have to face is unemployment that has spiked up to 14 percent. This percentage is higher than elsewhere in Pakistan. A majority of the population is young, with few opportunities available for earning a livelihood inside AJK. The government is right now the biggest employer in AJK, spending almost 70 percent of its budget on just its expenses. The incoming government needs to address the issue of unemployment sincerely by creating job opportunities and working on the capacity building of the youth.

AJK is going through a systematic collapse of state institutions because of bad governance and corruption. Political leaders have encouraged corruption at various levels by undermining the accountability process. There is no doubt that the corruption has hampered AJK from attaining significant development and has led to social ailments like unemployment, poverty and crime. The newly elected government should launch an offensive anti-corruption drive and make the Ehtesab Bureau of AJK an efficient anti-graft body.

AJK is prone to deadly floods, landslides and environmental degradation due to climate change. Current and future projections made by the concerned departments give evidence of the rapid climate changes happening in the area. The average maximum temperature has risen, causing extreme weather events such as flash floods, cloud bursts and delay in normal rains. Climate change has adversely impacted glaciers and biodiversity in the region. Urbanisation has also led to deforestation at a huge level due to inadequacy of planning and building control departments. There is a need to establish dedicated centers to monitor the impacts of the changing climate and to develop and implement new policies to save the ecosystem of the region.

AJK is endowed with tremendous natural beauty; as well as archaeological and religious sites which make it attractive to local and international tourists. This vast tourism potential has remained untapped for a long time. Social media activists and tourism travel companies attracted a massive influx of tourists despite the non-availability of a proper infrastructure. AJK’s first ever Tourism Policy was launched in 2019, envisaging a broader version of sustainable tourism but the real challenge for the next government is to implement it in a true spirit. By encouraging public-private partnerships, branding of tourist destinations and development of infrastructure, the government can be successful in utilizing the true potential of the region and promoting sustainable tourism in AJK. Tourism s is a major contributor to employment opportunities particularly for women, youth and indigenous people and can lead to the reduction of poverty in this region also.

The people of AJK suffer from power outages lasting up to 8-10 hours a day despite the fact that the region is producing more than 2300 MWs of electricity through hydro projects. Unscheduled load shedding is adversely affecting people even when the demand is very low. Development of the new hydel power projects and management of the electricity crisis will be inevitable for the newly elected government.

An elected local government system is essential for fiscal decentralisation and political transformation. It promotes the democratic process at the grassroots level and ensures service delivery to the general public. Unfortunately, local government has remained dysfunctional in AJK since 1996. This has given birth to a new set of informal structures that have enhanced social divisions and a feeling of deprivation among the general public. There was significant development in AJK during the era of 1979-1994 when local bodies were functional. The failure to implement the local bodies system has weakened the democratic structure, slowing down the induction of new and young leaders in the political system. Almost all previous governments in the last 25 years have made commitments in their election manifestos regarding this but none has ever taken any concrete steps to implement this system. The new government should immediately hold party-based local government elections as they had promised in their 2021 election manifesto.

Another issue that is of prime concern for the people of AJK is the poor internet service there. The 3G/4G spectrum auction was held in 2014 in Pakistan but the plan of action for auction of spectrums in AJK has been delayed again and again. Poor connectivity in the region has caused inconvenience to around 4.39 million mobile subscribers, especially to students during Covid-19 pandemic. It is now the responsibility of the newly elected government to ensure the provision of high speed internet service in the region because social connectivity in the modern era is like any other essential utility service.

The writer is a freelance contributor.