No solution in sight: Transporters’ strike leaves thousands stranded in Gilgit-Baltistan and Rawalpindi

Special Report

Islamabad: The governments of KPK and Gilgit-Baltistan have failed to resolve the weeklong strike by transporters that have affected thousands of people belonging to the remote and mountainous Gilgit-Baltistan region. Since the beginning of this month, public transport vehicles have not been allowed to enter or leave Gilgit-Baltistan by members of different transport unions blocking the Karakuram Highway in Kohistan district of KPK.

The transporters are angry because they are losing business to smaller private vehicles, rent-a-car service providers and other non-traditional tour operators who have become functional in the Gilgit-Baltsitan region since the establishment of convoy-system on the KKH.

The convoy system, under which public transport vehicles – buses, coasters, mini-buses and vans, are bound by law to travel in groups under police protection, was put in place after targeted attacks on passenger vehicles left dozens of people dead in Kohistan, near Chilas and in the Lulusar area of KPK.

The convoys of vehicles, escorted by two police mobiles, are usually very slow in movement, and tiresome. The journey of 18-20 hours finishes in double of the time, due to repeated stoppages, checking by law enforcement agencies, as well as slower speed of the larger vehicles. Due to this, passengers have over the year started using smaller vehicles operated by private businessmen, to commute between Rawalpindi/Islamabad and Gilgit/Skardu. These smaller, luxurious vehicles, not only reduces the time spent on the road, they are  also more comfortable.

The bus owners and other transporters feel threatened due to this trend and want the convoy system abolished. They think that by doing away with the convoy system, they will be able to travel faster and, thus, attract more passengers. The transporters, and passengers, also find faults with the security of the convoy system, calling it inadequate and symbolic. They think that the two police vehicles, each carrying not more than three police officials, are neither equipped nor prepared to thwart any terrorist attack, when it happens.

While the concerns about inadequacy of the security mechanism are valid, it is hard to say if the KKH has become very safe for the commuters and transporters.

Before taking any decision, the authorities need to think about the fact that the hard earned apparent harmony and peace in Gilgit-Baltistan region is perilous, at best. Any inadvertent incident on the KKH can have severe ramifications for peace and harmony in the Gilgit-Baltistan region.

The long strike has infuriated passengers within Gilgit-Baltistan, as well outside the region. There have been some reports of attacks on private vehicles that tried to pass through the KKH. As a result, around 20 of the transporters and protesters have reportedly been detained by the police. These are signs of the frustration of the transporters and the passengers. The blockade has also affected life in the Gilgit-Baltistan region. Supplies of essential items are running out and there are reports of shortage of petroleum products in the region. This will lead to increase in prices and the poor people will be the worst sufferers. Already, the low-income people are suffering because they are ones relying on the public transport.

The governments should listen to the transporters’ grievances with compassion, and try to create a win-win situation, without endangering the security of the passengers. The federal government and the provincial governments can pool resources to create a more robust security mechanism, capable of tackling and thwarting terrorist attacks.

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