GIVEN that Gilgit-Baltistan is strategically located at the entry point of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) route, it has assumed enormous strategic importance. Hence, any misstep in the governance of GB can have serious ramifications for the project.
Given the high literacy rates in the region, its people are keenly aware of and sensitive to their hereditary rights to GB’s resources. Their experiences have also made them wary; the Karakoram Highway, rather than bringing them the promised benefits, resulted in the transformation of Gilgit city to such an extent that it endangered the tranquillity of the entire area.
Against this backdrop, it was expected that the authorities would have a greater awareness of the locals’ sensitivities and prioritise their concerns. But in the very first case of acquisition — of a small piece of land for the special economic zone at Maqpun Das in Gilgit — a serious controversy has already been generated. It is observed that the government has been trying to take over the land in question without due compensation for the community, which has rights to this common land. Indeed, the decision is being taken on the basis of an archaic law introduced by the occupying Dogra ruler of yesteryears. The government of GB is acquiring land, without any compensation, by classifying it as state land.
Paradoxically, in the adjacent district of Diamer, compensation for acquired land for public-sector projects has been paid. In order to understand the discrepant and contradictory policy decisions in different parts of GB with respect to land acquisition, it is important to examine the historical background of land settlement in GB, and the introduction of a variety of conflicting laws and regulations over the years.
The Gilgit-Baltistan people’s rights to their land must be recognised for CPEC to succeed.
Before formal government structures were instituted in GB, the land belonged to the people of a particular village, and they had the right of individual ownership and collective rights on areas contiguous to a particular village. The region was historically divided into principalities, and each unit laid claim to various areas of well-defined boundary lines. The violation of these established boundaries resulted in armed clashes. Under the Dogra ruler, a unified, formal and government structured land settlement was introduced depending on the level of Dogra control over a particular area. Land settlement was carried out in Baltistan, Astore and major parts of Gilgit, while excluding the present-day Ghizer and Chilas districts.
According to the Dogra system, the land was divided into three categories for the purpose of revenue collection. While individual ownership was recognised for cultivated areas, the rest of the land under common use of the people was owned by the state. While the old rajas were exempted from land revenue, the burden of payment of land revenue was borne by the landowner with smallholdings.
Upon the accession of GB to Pakistan, it was expected that land settlement of the entire region would be carried out and new, uniform revenue laws would be introduced that would protect individual as well as community rights. Sadly, this did not transpire, and the ownership of the land and usage became regulated through various invalid rules and orders determined by political expediency at any given time.
Even the extension of the Punjab Land Revenue Act, 1967 was of no value because no settlement was established under this law. In order to govern, ownership rights on barren lands brought under cultivation were introduced in 1978. However, these instructions did not address the settlement of the land issues comprehensively, and today GB continues to be administered without a proper, uniform land revenue law.
Hence, due to sheer incompetence, there are fragmented land records in different areas that present a confusing picture on the ground. Amidst this confusion, the administration makes decisions selectively based on laws, rules, traditions, practices or riwaj. In the absence of any proper legislation uniformly applicable to the entire region, the administration is confronted with new challenges in the shape of a legal void, causing preventable controversies that can have serious implications for the implementation of CPEC.
This void has given rise to several serious issues that require immediate attention:
a) The absence of a uniform system has produced a variety of processes being followed for compensating residents in different areas, which is implemented at the whim of the civil administration. This uneven compensation policy is toxic for a society already plagued by sectarian and ethnic discord.
b) Acquisition of land without payment of compensation based on questionable technicalities of the laws has resulted in agitation. Heavy-handed dealing in the wake of the discord is only making matters worse.
c) The acquisition of land without compensation has already given rise to litigation. In a recent report, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan has also raised this violation of community rights.
d) Combined with the pending issue of constitutional rights to the people, these issues are only exacerbating existing discontent.
Due to these factors, a wider agitation is in the making. The GB government, faced with this implication, has wisely formed a land reform commission. There is an urgent need to carefully draft the terms of reference for this commission to examine the entire issue in line with the established norms of protecting the rights of the people of GB, who expected to be governed on par with Pakistan’s provinces in the wake of their self-emancipation and liberation from their repressive Dogra rulers in 1947. The new legislation must recognise the community’s rights to common lands and provide for appropriate compensation of the land — more so when it is acquired for an economic project like CPEC.
Forming the commission is definitely a positive development, but it must address the core issue of the people of GB’s rights with political vision rather than adopt a bureaucratic approach. Land compensation, especially for a project of the magnitude of CPEC, is a very small price to pay for maintaining peace in this important region.
The writer, a former IGP Sindh, belongs to Gilgit-Baltistan.
Published in Dawn, April 15th, 2017