The Gilgit-Baltistan government presented on Wednesday its first ever budget totalling an outlay of Rs 12.984 billion. Non-development expenses have been estimated at Rs 6.4 billion that constitute almost 50 per cent of the overall expenditure and is certainly on a higher side than allocations made for development projects.
Finance minister Mohammad Ali Akhtar told the 33-member Gilgit-Baltistan Legislative Assembly that Rs 1.227 billion would be required to increase the salary of government employees by 50 per cent and medical allowance of employees up to BPS 15 by 100 per cent and higher pay scales by 15 per cent. He announced a 50 per cent raise for police personnel and revision of their pay scales to bring them at par with other provinces. Priority has been given to education with more than 25 per cent of the total outlay for the social uplift of about one million of population that consists of many diverse linguistic, ethnic, and religious groups.
An amount of Rs 1.878 billion has been earmarked to subsidise wheat although this facility has been withdrawn in other parts of the country. The maiden GB budget envisages a block allocation of Rs 700 million for the implementation of the Gilgit-Baltistan Empowerment and Self-Governance Order, 2009, that granted this region the status of the fifth province of Pakistan to enjoy political, administrative and financial rights with the help of a governor, chief minister and a judicature in addition to a legislative assembly to enact laws on 61 subjects.
The finance minister said six new departments, headed by secretaries, had been set up for the purpose. Of them a department will improve the prisons system and another deal with natural disasters. The budget sets a revenue target of Rs 355.124 million and earmarks Rs 3.127 billion for one new and nine ongoing projects under the Public Sector Development Programme besides an allocation of Rs 1.234 billion for a Special Development Package. The finance minister said 80 per cent of the allocation would be spent on projects in hand and 20 per cent on new plans. Work on 258 of 611 ongoing projects would be completed during the year. Rs 1.14 billion is the allocation for the completion of 14 projects in the power sector and Rs 952.2 million for the improvement of transport and communications networks.
Another amount of Rs 387.7 million has been earmarked for infrastructure development, education, health, tourism, fisheries, agriculture and forests. Gilgit-Baltistan is a highly strategic region as it not only borders with China, Afghanistan (through Wakhan corridor) and Indian held Kashmir, but also as the custodian of Pakistan’s social and economic lifeline – the mighty Indus.
The de-facto province has a vast potential to develop as an economic and commercial hub for Pakistan because of the ancient “Silk Rout” to trade with China through the Karakorum Highway, two mega multipurpose projects of Bhasha-Diamir Dam and Bunji Dam in Astore, agreed with China in September 2009, to generate 7,000MW of electricity. Besides, it can serve as a great attraction for mountaineering, trekking, adventure climbing and gliding.
The region is home to some of the world’s highest mountain ranges in the Karakorum and the western Himalayas. The Pamir mountains are to the north, and the Hindu Kush lies to the west. Amongst the highest mountains are Mount Godwin-Austen (K2)) and Nanga Parbat, one of the most feared mountains in the world. The region also has 50 peaks rising to more than 7,000 metres above the sea level. Gilgit and Skardu are already the two main centres for expeditions to these mountains and they can be further developed to invite climbers and tourists to witness some of the most exotically beautiful natural scenery and flora and fauna of abounding aesthetic value. Similarly, three of the world’s longest glaciers are found in the region, including the Biafo glacier and the Batura glacier. There are, in addition, several high-altitude lakes in the region — Sheosar in Deosai Plains and Rama in Astore region, Satpara, Phorog and Katzura lakes in Skardu region, Zharba in Shigar, Bara in Ghanchi, Byrsa in Gultarei, (all in Baltistan), Boritha Lake in upper Hunza, Rush Lake near Nagar and Krombhar in Krombhar Pass in Gilgit. The Deosari Plains, covering an area of about 5,000 square kilometres, are yet another natural wonder located above the tree line and constituting the second-highest plateau in the world at 4,115 metres after Tibet. Located in the midst of Astore, Skardu and Ladakh, this was declared as a national park in 1993.
One more spectacular attraction is around 30,000 boulders of rock carvings and inscription all along the Karakorum Highway between Chilas and Shatial. The carvings were left by various invaders, traders, and pilgrims who passed along this ancient trade route way back between 5000 and 1000 BC. These carvings now fear inundation by the Bhasha Dam water reservoir. GB government can save this treasure by establishing an open museum of these rare artifacts around Chilas as the department of archaeology has proposed.
Gilgit-Baltistan government has set a right direction in its first budget. Yet it has a long way to go to develop the entire region as the tourist paradise that needs a much improved network of roads and other infrastructure and facilities. The sooner these facilities are upgraded the better as this will entail for the region and the country huge windfall of money and global goodwill. The Frontier Post’s Editorial