The Karakuram Highway has been used by Pakistani and Chinese traders as a route for importing and exporting merchandise for more than three decades. The amount of imports on the Pakistani side has been more than exports, for obvious reasons. The exact volume of trade since the opening of KKH is not available publicly. However, according to government estimates, almost 1 billion rupees is collected as Taxes in Sost, every year.
Many argue that the people of Gilgit-Baltistan have not been able to benefit from the opportunities created by the opening of KKH. They argue, for instance, that the number of failed business ventures initiated by the people is much more than the number of success stories.Many traders, importers and exporters, are heavily under debts, trapped in the vicious cycle of getting credit from one bank and paying off another. And while this cycle is in motion, and the trade has been at its lowest due to Attabad disaster, there are now talks of turning the region into an “Economic Corridor”, to boost trade and economic cooperation between the two states and the Central Asian Republics.
The prime minister during his visit to Gilgit-Baltistan today also highlighted the significance of the Economic Corridor, terming it to be more beneficial for the region’s population, compared to other parts of Pakistan. He said that the people of Gilgit-Baltistan will be able to transport their local products, especially fruits, to China through the economic corridor.
What the Prime Minister said is quite contrary to the realities, however. For the past several years, the import of fruits from China has increased significantly, destroying the local produce’s sale potential. Nowhere else is this trend more visible than Gilgit city and Sost, where the sale of Chinese fruits in the markets has increased more than the sale of local fruits.
A large quantity of local produce is being wasted annually, or bought at very cheap price, causing severe economic losses for the farmers.
Also, the fruits of Gilgit-Baltistan are still being harvested according to the traditional methods, while China is capitalizing on modern food technology to boost the quality and quantity of its fruits and other agricultural products.
In the current scenario, it can safely be said that the products of Gilgit-Baltistan are no match for that of China. Hence, talking of exporting local fruits and revolutionizing the economy of the Gilgit-Baltistan region is superficial at best and misleading at worst.
What the Prime Minister and other policy makers and leaders need to understand is that Gilgit-Baltistan will not turn into an oasis of opportunity just because a wider, and noisier, road will pass through it.
In order to increase marketability of the fruits and other agricultural produce of Gilgit-Baltistan, the government will have to move beyond the development of road infrastructural. Making capital available for existing and new entrepreneurs is the first step. There is a also a need to invest in increasing the variety, quality and quantity of fruits produced in Gilgit-Baltistan. The farmers will have to be trained to produce for the market. Investment also needs to be made in product and brand development, for which the local farmers are not yet ready. Last, but not the least, the government and other relevant organizations also need to support the farmers and traders in connecting with the larger markets. Without taking these vital steps, it is impossible for the local farmers in Gilgit-Baltistan to be able to compete with the highly advanced products of the global trading giant, i.e. China!