ALTHOUGH the Gilgit-Baltistan region is endowed with vast natural resources, the area remains trapped in abject poverty. If these resources were properly harnessed, not only would the area break free of its vicious cycle of poverty, it would also lead to unprecedented national economic development.
Despite this, the inept Planning Division has done nothing to tap into these natural resources and has failed to even come up with a viable plan for such, thereby denying residents of the area and fellow Pakistanis the opportunity to truly prosper.
The misery of the people of GB is compounded by the apathy of the Ministry of Kashmir Affairs and Gilgit-Baltistan, which has also failed to capitalise on these natural assets. Although the ministry’s key role is to facilitate the local population in realising self-rule — in line with UN resolutions — it has failed completely in this regard. The federal government, so busy in trying to control the area, has neglected regional development.
It is time to enter into a new governance arrangement; empowering Gilgit-Baltistan residents.
In the Gilgit-Baltistan Empowerment and Self-Governance Order of 2009, the federal government has mendaciously retained control of GB’s natural resources by controlling electricity and bulk water storage, tourism, forests, and minerals and mineral wealth through a council with powers equivalent to that of an upper house of the legislative assembly.
The council has been structured in such a manner that it is dominated by nominees of the federal government who do not truly represent the people of GB. Further, it is chaired by the prime minister, who is too busy to hold regular meetings, thereby making it practically non-functional. Inattention to the potential of hydropower projects is a glaring example of criminal negligence in hydropower development, which is so vital for an energy-starved Pakistan.
The area has identified hydropower project sites that can produce 40,000 megawatts of clean and cheap electricity; this will not only meet the requirements of the country but can also be exported to earn foreign exchange. Half-hearted attempts to address regional economic development and the devolution of governance to GB have amounted to a sad narrative of inefficiency, neglect and apathy on the part of the Pakistani government.
This state of affairs is attributable to an absence of a power policy, regional grid and lack of mechanisms for power purchasing. In the absence of the aforementioned, no investment can be made in this sector — even through public sector projects and/or private investments for the establishment of independent power projects. The federation even missed the opportunity of earning carbon credits, offered by the UN, for producing clean energy by neglecting to set up hydropower projects. Many countries took full advantage of this incentive and were able to generate ample funding for their projects.
A desultory attempt to address the issue was made by the former PPP government, which set up the Islamabad-based Gilgit-Baltistan Power Development Board and appointed a managing director for three years. It drafted a captive power policy, which was consigned to the records of the Ministry of Kashmir Affairs and Gilgit-Baltistan.
An examination of major identified projects shows that construction of just three run-of-the-river projects on the Indus can significantly address the power needs of Pakistan. The projects at Bunji 7,100MW, Thungus 2,500MW and Yalbo 2,500MW — each within a distance of about 100km — can transform the economy of the country, while also entailing no dislocation and resettlement of the local population.
The construction of just these projects, along with a regional grid connected to the national grid, would meet more than half of the energy needs of Pakistan — providing clean and economical electricity for the country. These projects would also bring extraordinary benefits to the local area in the shape of employment and income from water usage charges for the local government, thereby alleviating widespread poverty in the area. Furthermore, the projects will help in the forestation of the catchment area for Tarbela Dam and also mitigate the misery of Pakistanis by regulating water flows in high-risk flood environments and situations. The provision of clean energy to the people of GB for domestic usage would improve the quality of the lives of millions.
The council, which is fundamentally a non-representative body and unresponsive to local needs, should be abolished; all subjects entrusted to them should be reverted to the local assembly. Since the council has refused to accept the area as a province — even provisionally — despite the resolutions of the local assembly, it is time to enter into a new governance arrangement through a binding agreement with this region. This would allow the locally elected government to manage its own affairs without the overbearing presence of the centre. All the natural resources of the area, in all fairness, must rest with the local government under its chief minister. Aggregating this area in with the Kashmir problem should not be an impediment to its economic development and constitutional status as part of the country.
Locally elected assembly members must demand the transfer of these subjects to the assembly. The local leadership should rise above partisan loyalties and work collectively by engaging best professionals internationally and seeking investors for these energy projects. The major beneficiary of these energy projects will, in any case, be the federal government — with attendant prosperity for GB.
The time to make a move on this issue is now, for educated young GB residents are keenly aware of their political disempowerment and lack of development in their area. This awareness is paralleled by a sense of simmering resentment at the political and economic injustices inflicted upon them; this means that the younger generation is now close to losing their patience and waiting for an amicable state-led solution for these pressing issues. It goes without saying that the fallout of such a scenario would be less than pleasant, for both the region and the country, in the long run.
The writer, a former IGP Sindh, belongs to Gilgit-Baltistan.
Published in Dawn, July 11th, 2016