Friday December 09, 2022

GB: the resource curse?

June 12, 2022

When we set out from Gilgit for Sost, the last town in Pakistan on the fabled Karakoram Highway – KKH – at about eight in the morning, we saw sights that raised our spirits. And I am not talking about the grand, awe-inspiring scenery, though the very thought of being in that magical place was in itself overwhelming.

As we drove through one mountain village after another, we saw little children, mainly girls, walking to school. They were there, in twos and threes, wearing clean uniforms and colourful backpacks in that remote environment. Only a few were accompanied by any female or male elders.

I was particularly struck by the sight of one little girl, perhaps eight years old, crossing a small concrete bridge all alone. There was no one else around. Overall, at that time, the only human presence was that of these children. We passed a school by the river, with the rocky hills as the backdrop, standing alone, so to say. In the morning assembly, the girls on one side easily outnumbered the boys.

This was a manifestation of what came up in our discussions with various groups in Gilgit-Baltistan during a hectic, five-day visit. One silver lining in a rather bleak scenario is the rate of literacy and women’s empowerment in most areas of a region that is not at all easy to comprehend.

First, I need to explain why I was in GB, concluding the visit on Thursday. I was a member of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan’s GB fact-finding mission. I had joined Salima Hashmi and Muzaffar Hussain, council members of HRCP, and Israruddin, regional coordinator HRCP. Nadeem Abbas was our rapporteur.

This was naturally an extensive exercise and a detailed report will be published in time. By way of sharing some initial observations, we held a press conference at the Gilgit Press Club on Wednesday and HRCP Chairperson Hina Jilani issued a press release that noted, among other things, that the human rights situation in the region had deteriorated.

She said that the groups the mission consulted were of the view that GB should, at the very least, be granted provisional provincial status or, as a last option, granted a governance system similar to that of Azad Jammu and Kashmir.

It would be hard to highlight, even in bullet points, the complexity of GB’s strategic position and its relevance to Pakistan’s social, economic and political development. Besides, my personal impressions have no bearing on the HRCP’s structured findings. I am tempted to cursorily dwell on my current GB experience because it was so gripping and emotionally intense at different levels.

Almost a week in GB during the budget time and accelerating political commotion in Pakistan may be considered an idyllic escape. There is no better holiday destination. But it was GB’s human landscape that one had intended to explore – and that has its patches of darkness and distress.

I began with what I see as a silver lining because I was a part of a previous HRCP fact-finding mission in 2013. So many things have not changed, such as GB’s frantic search for a constitutional status and for a genuine control over its bountiful resources. But I was also looking for what has changed or is changing.

One, surely, is the increasing visibility of educated young women. The other, I feel, is greater political awareness, fostered mainly by social media. In 2013, leftist firebrand Baba Jan was in prison, serving an incredibly long (71 years) on charges of terrorism and of inciting people against the state. A demand for his release was included in the HRCP report.

He was released in November 2020 after a decade of imprisonment and I was glad to find him in high spirits in our two meetings this week. There are young people here and there who passionately express radical views. At the same time, some social activists argue that GB’s people are inherently peaceful and things would have been different if they were aggressive and volatile.

One is compelled to look at GB through the lens of sectarianism. In stark contrast with Pakistan, it is a region with a pronounced Shia majority. Another change is that sectarian peace has held for some years but the mindsets remain strong. Incidentally, the sectarian divide overlaps social development. You look at the liberation of women in, say, Hunza and Skardu but it is just the opposite in Diamer. Where else will you find such a stark disparity?

GB also stands out for its mineral wealth. But the locals are not able to benefit from this great potential. Does the concept of resource curse – the people who own great natural resources often remaining poor and oppressed – work here? Similarly, the dramatic surge in domestic tourism is creating problems for the locals, with investors coming from the ‘down country’.

Ah, it is not possible for me to tell the GB story in any detail. An entire chapter needs to be devoted to increasing number of suicides by young women. Jumping into the river, a ferocious torrent, is the standard mode of committing suicide. Activists believe that many of these suicides are honour killings – and the police are now directed to look closely at every reported incident of suicide.

All this and I haven’t touched upon the issue of climate change and environmental degradation. It was only one month ago when unusual heat melted ice on Shisper Glacier, creating a lake which flooded and the Hassanabad bridge in Hunza Valley along the KKH was washed away. It was major news, the world taking note of it.

There is, thus, no dearth of challenges that seem intractable. Listening to the grievances of the people of GB, I could readily identify with their pain because the rest of us are not really in a much better position, with the constitutional safeguards we supposedly enjoy. “We need a new social contract”, said one activist. We do too, I thought.

The writer is a senior journalist. He can be reached at: ghazi_salahuddin@hotmail .com