EVEN after its independence from the Dogra rulers of Kashmir, Gilgit-Baltistan continues to struggle for its basic rights. GB’s complicated political landscape is the outcome of various factors, including its connection with the Kashmir issue, which has left the region in constitutional limbo.
Its ambiguous status and treatment by the Pakistani state have barred GB’s political development. The bureaucracy’s dominance, with powerful chief secretaries and others in key decision-making positions, has prevailed since the early years. Pakistan, in 1947, sent a junior state official to Gilgit as the political agent. Armed with absolute power over institutions and departments, the political agent was in charge of the entire region.
From 1947 to Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s landmark reforms introduced in the 1970s, the region has been ruled by the centre. In fact, Bhutto’s reforms strengthened the role of the bureaucracy, and till today, despite the 2009 self-governance order, which aimed to transfer legislative powers to locally elected representatives, the pattern continues. The bureaucracy remains an all-powerful institution, with a greater say in GB’s administrative matters. Decisions are often made without proper consultation with local representatives, which has impeded the region’s development and progress.
There was some hope after the 2009 order that the powers would be transferred from the centre to the local assembly. However, it did not happen. Secretaries have supremacy in most matters. The vacuum created by the absence of local bodies has also been filled by the bureaucracy. Their officers are often seen performing the tasks of municipal departments (painting bridges, installing lights, beautifying roads, etc). Sometimes, their actions have led to tensions. One incident, in which an assistant commissioner of Gojal ordered a restaurant to be sealed, was filmed. Clips of the bureaucrat’s apparent rudeness and threatening tone after an exchange with the restaurant owner went viral. Due to local protests, the chief secretary ordered the restaurant to be unsealed.
Decisions are often made without the input of local representatives.
In recent years, additional districts with small populations have been created in GB, partly, it seems, to facilitate the bureaucracy. Appointing more assistant and deputy commissioners, and district administration staff and paying their salaries, perks and allowances increases the burden on the region’s already meagre budget. Basic facilities in most of the districts remain absent.
As a parallel and stronger administration is run by the bureaucracy from the centre, its involvement in the critical issue of land reforms in GB by organising a two-day conference was not a surprise. Although the chief secretary announced the recommendations would be made public, the absence of local representatives from the deliberations has raised many an eyebrow. Lawyer Ehsan Ali, former president of GB’s Supreme Appellate Court Bar Association, termed it a weakness of the cabinet for not exercising its power. He said that the matter should have been discussed in the assembly. The secretaries, he pointed out, are “mostly from other parts of Pakistan and unaware of the historical and local customs of land distribution among individuals as well as villages”.
The showcasing of GB as a region of peace, beauty and serenity by successive Pakistani governments contrasts starkly with the reality of people’s actual living conditions. The locals face a multitude of challenges that are hindering their ability to live fulfilling lives. There is not a single gynaecologist in district Ghanche despite frequent protests. Women in emergency cases have lost their lives when being transported from Ghanche to Skardu. Recent pictures of people carrying a sick woman on a stretcher from Darkut in snowy conditions to a nearby village in district Ghizer for emergency treatment have shocked many.
Widespread poverty, unemployment, inadequate access to basic services, such as healthcare, education and clean water are major challenges. Poor infrastructure, lack of proper roads, electricity shortage and bad internet connectivity hinder economic growth. Power outages for several hours at a stretch impact businesses and push the population to rely on forest wood for cooking and heating purposes.
The people of GB deserve better. There is an urgent need to recognise that and to make sincere efforts towards addressing the challenges they face. The centre should work towards empowering local representatives and institutions, providing greater autonomy in local affairs and making decision-making processes more inclusive. A nuanced approach to addressing the long-standing subject of political representation and integration is the need of the hour.
The writer is a fellow of the Centre for Business and Economic Research and faculty at IBA, Karachi.
Published in Dawn, February 25th, 2023