PAKISTAN is on the road to achieving an economic transformation through its partnership with the People’s Republic of China, which has pledged $46 billion towards various projects aimed at catalysing infrastructural development in Pakistan.
China has done this to find an outlet for getting its products to the Middle East and onward to the rest of the world through a land route culminating at the Gwadar Port, which is already being managed by a Chinese company. The government of Pakistan has agreed to raise an army division to protect the economic corridor and the Chinese nationals engaged in these projects.
China already has access to alternate land routes through the Eurasian Land Bridge, also called the New Silk Road, and the Trans-Siberian Railway called the Northern East-West Corridor. Iran, too, is linked through railway to this communication network. However, the proposed route provides an economical road link, which allows time to be saved in the transportation of goods by providing a direct shorter road thereby ensuring significant economic advantage.
This connection is also important for China as it has embarked on an ambitious programme of development in its western region that has so far been outside the ambit of impressive developments and economic progress seen in other parts of the country. A direct short connection for transporting the products of this region to the world market will guarantee the viability of industrialisation in the region that will not only bring prosperity to the area but will also address the critical nagging security issues spilling over into Sinkiang province from neighbouring countries including Pakistan.
For GB, it is absolutely vital that the benefits of CPEC are experienced uniformly.
Trade will also be a stabilising factor for the entire region. The route link in the northern part of Pakistan runs through Gilgit-Baltistan (GB), which is a disputed region with an ambivalent constitutional status. Even an earlier border settlement with China had to be done through a provisional international treaty.
The people of GB fear that the fruit of this massive development economic corridor will be nothing beyond ribbon development on the existing Karakoram Highway (KKH), which will be the arterial transportation road. The only economic zone proposed for the entire area of GB on the route is again on the KKH. Such myopic planning effectively excludes the areas located away from the KKH.
This economic corridor was envisioned as having a vast nationwide spread that would benefit all the people of Pakistan through inclusive planning. Unfortunately, the entire development programme has become focused on the eastern route with massive investments in hurriedly planned power and road projects, effectively depriving the other regions at the expense of the western route despite the protest of the two smaller provinces and the GB region.
For GB, it is absolutely vital that benefits are experienced uniformly. It is alarming that the on-ground position effectively excludes the entire Baltistan division, district of Astore and many areas of Gilgit division situated away from the KKH.
This rather unjust treatment by the federation of this strategically positioned area at the head of the corridor can give rise to misgivings that will generate serious protests compromising the viability of this project. It would be in the interest of this project to examine the possibilities of building road linkages for the entire region and to spread out the projects in every area to allay the concerns of the population. This should also be the blueprint for uniform development of all the provinces.
A close study of the map of this region presents numerous alternative routes that will reduce the distance and will also address the endemic security issues on a major part of the KKH that passes through a turbulent area plagued by perpetual security challenges. A survey by a group of informed residents of the area has produced an alternate route that will not only reduce the distance between Gilgit to Islamabad by 55 kilometres but also provide a passage through a peaceful region.
The proposed route takes off from KKH at Thalichi and through Astore district goes to Rattu. From there, the route progresses over the Shuhter Pass and connects to the road linking Muzaffarabad and winds down to Islamabad. There is another bypass from Jaglot to Skardu and from a point short of Skardu a non-metalled road exists up to the meeting point at Rattu.
These linkages have the advantage of providing a safe way and alternate route in case of blockage of KKH due to landslides, as with a change in weather, the area through which the KKH traverses has in the recent past experienced prolonged disruption of the traffic due to frequent landslides. This ensures uninterrupted flow of the traffic from China to Gwadar with the advantage of more secure passage in case of any disturbance en route.
It would be in the interest of the people of GB and the country to consider these possibilities seriously and integrate these proposals in CPEC projects on a priority basis. The success of CPEC depends on the goodwill of the people of the regions through which this corridor passes and also certainty of the traffic flow without any disruption. These alternate routes can address both issues.
These will also make CPEC all inclusive by integrating the excluded areas of Gilgit-Baltistan in the development process and provide an alternate safe and shorter passage. They will have the added advantage of providing access to Azad Jammu & Kashmir in the economic opportunities presented by the economic corridor.
The policymakers must understand that investment in hurriedly planned coal, oil and gas power projects in Sindh and Punjab will not guarantee the success of CPEC; it will depend on a secure passage through a peaceful route with a satisfied population living around it. If the corridor generates controversies, feelings of deprivation and neglect, we will only be stoking the fire of existing turmoil in the country that will surely cause the collapse of this spectacular opportunity to make Pakistan prosperous in all its regions.
The writer, a former IGP Sindh, belongs to Gilgit-Baltistan.
Published in Dawn, May 12th, 2016