The people of Gilgit-Baltistan have held protest demonstrations against prolonged power outages, wheat shortages, imposition of taxes and land grab
any people in Gilgit-Baltistan recently joined protest demonstrations against prolonged power outages, wheat shortages, imposition of taxes and land grab. Outdoor activity amid temperatures dropping to minus 11 degree Celsius for almost 11 days is not trivial. The mainstream national media scarcely provided fair coverage. However, videos and pictures circulating on social media indicated that the people of Gilgit-Baltistan have had enough of the economic and politicalneglect and poor governance they have endured for the past decade.
Gilgit-Baltistan has long been plagued by unresolved issues. Despite the efforts of local governments and the Ministry of Kashmir Affairs and Gilgit-Baltistan, which holds significant financial and administrative authority, the region has seen very little improvement. The recent unrest and dissatisfaction can be blamed on both the local and federal governments.
Gilgit-Baltistan is Pakistan’s “water bank”. It has a catchment area of 72,496 squarekilometres, including about 27 percent of the world’s largest glaciers outside of the polar regions. The worst power outages in the region last for up to 20 hours a day. The current electric power demand in Gilgit-Baltistan is no more than 280 MW. In comparison, the hydropower potential on the main tributaries and Indus River is 40,000 MW. Only 186 MW is being generated currently, following 50 percent reduction in water inflow this winter. Gilgit-Baltistan is not connected to the national electricity grid and does not have a local grid. Most of the power generation projects provide electricity to adjacent areas alone.
The wheat situation is mystifying. Wheat and wheat flour disappeared suddenly from the market. Now a 15 kg bag flour costs Rs2,300. The local administration blames the federal government for the discontent. It says there has been a drastic reduction in the subsidy available on flour. The PTI-led Gilgit-Baltistan government says significant budget cuts have been made by the federal government. This, it says, has forced it to raise money through taxes on products and services. In order to increase economic self-reliance, the Gilgit-Baltistan Legislative Assembly passed the Revenue Authority Bill in August 2022.
The hotel and trade associations have strongly opposed the introduction of taxes. They point out that Gilgit-Baltistan has historically been exempt from the taxes. The only source of income for the government is the annual grant provided by the federal government for administrative and development projects.
Local leaders say Gilgit-Baltistan has limited means of earning and few employment opportunities. Additionally, the border with China has been mostly closed recently on account of Covid-19. Of the nearly 5,000 students graduating annually, only around 500 find suitable employment.
As a result of the strained relationship between Gilgit and Islamabad, the Centre has significantly reduced funding for the GB government.
Some people fear that the imposition of taxes will aggravate poverty and deprivation. Theycomplain that despite being the gateway to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, no significant industries have been established in the area.
The alleged land grabissue has sparked widespread outrage. The State Subject Rule, introduced by the then maharaja of Jammu and Kashmir in 1927 to reserve property ownership and employment rights for the local population, prohibited outsiders from purchasing land or settling permanently in Gilgit-Baltistan until the 1970s. The law was formally revoked in the early 1970s, resulting in a significant influx of population in the region. Some political parties are now calling for the reinstatement of the State Subject Rule.
For decades, common pastures and barren lands were considered government land. However, some of theland has now been occupied and sold without government approval. Local courts have received many complaints of illegal transfers of land. To address this issue, the previous government, led by the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, as well as the current Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf government, have formed committees. However, some people fear that the government is moving towards gaining control of all such land through the proposed land reforms. Most GB residents say that lands located in the villages should belong to the villagers and that state authorities should not claim their ownership. There is a popular demand that the government should refrain from seizing pastures and agricultural land.
Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf, Majlis Wahdat-i-Muslimeen and Islami Tehreek Pakistan, partners in the ruling coalition, are behaving in a contradictory manner. Some of their leaders are participating in the protest demonstrations and expressing solidarity with the outraged citizens and blaming the federal government for poor governance.
Chief Minister Khalid Khurshid, a PTI leader, spends most of his time in Islamabad. In his absence, the people struggle to find solutions to their problems as many ministers and senior officers are seldom in their offices. The chief minister has been unable to establish a functional relationship with the federal government. The strained relationship between Gilgit and Islamabad has resulted in significantly reduced funding for the GB government. This is hindering some development initiatives and can precipitate a financial crisis.
The recent demonstrations are seen mostly as a result of poor governance and driven by local activists. However, Indian media has been trying to present these as “anti-Pakistan” demonstrations. The national media’s lack of coverage of events that take place outside of major metropolitan areas is thus providing an opportunity to outsiders to manipulate the situation to suit their own agendas.
The federal government should demonstrate empathy towards the people of Gilgit-Baltistan and eliminate any unnecessary barriers imposed by federal bureaucrats. Local government elections should be held and private investors should be encouraged to invest in power production and tourism development.
The writer is a freelance contributor. He tweets @ErshadMahmud and can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org