Gilgit-Baltistan is well known for a fascinating landscape. Tourism and water resources are generally known as main strengths of regional economy. In recent years, the regional economy has witnessed an upward trend due to resurgent tourism sector and increased investment in infrastructure development. However, in the long run, it is the quality of human capital of the region which promises remarkable potential of transforming regional economic landscape. But for effective human capital utilisation, it is important to understand the strengths of human resource and associated economic opportunities. Such a knowledge should ultimately lay down the contours of future regional development policy.
Generally, small groups in any population display a capacity of collective action but in Gilgit-Baltistan large swathes of population have demonstrated this capability in pursuit of community-based area development initiatives. This remarkable organising capability and community mobilisation experience in pursuit of development goals make people of Gilgit-Baltistan well suited for participatory development programmes. For instance, the successful conservation of endangered wildlife species in Gilgit-Baltistan with active participation of community has become a stunning success story. According to the Northern Areas Wildlife Preservation Act 1975, hunting is not allowed in protected areas. But the protected areas constitute only a fraction of the total wildlife habitat. The remaining ones are community-managed areas. The local communities have joined hands with the regional wildlife protection department in regulating the trophy hunting by not allowing any poaching in the community managed areas. In return, the major share of trophy hunting license fee is spent on development schemes identified by the community.
Despite harsh terrain and physical barriers, generally people place a high premium on education of both boys and girls. I once happened to visit a small village in upper Hunza. The village elders told with pride that every resident of their village was literate. More than a hundred among them possessed master degrees and at least a dozen boys and girls were studying in universities of Australia, UK and USA after winning merit based scholarships. This is a dominant feature of the entire region. But still, there persist some intra-regional disparities particularly in gender context which need to be gradually eliminated.
Recent Multiple Indicators Cluster Survey (MICS) 2016-17 has measured Gender Parity Index (GPI) value for primary school education as 0.86, which becomes 0.75 for secondary school education. This means if 100 boys attend primary school then proportional number of girls attending primary school would be 86. But now even in the areas which lag in education related indicators, there is a growing realisation of importance of education across the gender divide.
The most remarkable feature of this region is the presence of a highly egalitarian society both in social and economic dimensions. Unfortunately, income and consumption based GINI coefficient data is not available for Gilgit-Baltistan but relatively little variations in land ownership pattern and predominance of public sector employment suggest absence of extreme income gaps. The social dimension of this egalitarian outlook is even more pronounced. Probably this is one of the major reasons which make collective action and community participation in local development initiatives easier than in other parts of Pakistan.
Presently agriculture, public sector services and tourism constitute the mainstay of regional economy. Among natural resources, hydroelectric potential of the region is a key economic strength. Recently government has taken an initiative to transform the agriculture sector in collaboration with International Fund for Agriculture Development (IFAD). Tourism has a great potential to boost regional economy but it requires significant private investment to develop hospitality and entertainment services. Mega hydroelectric projects like Diamer-Bhasha and Bunji dams promise huge employment opportunities and permanent solution of regional energy requirements. An early extension of national power grid can transform economic landscape quite quickly. But it is the quality of regional human capital which promises an economic transformation.
A relatively small size of regional population — approximately 1.5 million — suggests that the regional economic development policy should envision a knowledge based economy in future vis-à-vis any labour-intensive growth strategy. The effective cultivable area of Gilgit-Baltistan is 2 per cent of the total area, which means approximately 1400 square kilometres land area is available for agriculture and other economic activities. In terms of available labour and hydroelectric potential, Gilgit-Baltistan presents a scenario of comparative advantage over Luxembourg, a small European country. With no advantage in terms of land, population size and natural resource unlike Gilgit-Baltistan, how Luxembourg became the second wealthiest country in the world with a GDP per capita of US $101,400 in 2016? The simple answer is human capital development aimed at providing top notch services to entire European Union. Information and Communication Technology (ICT), banking and financial services, clean energy technology and biomedical research have made Luxembourg an economy of US $58 billion size. The financial sector services make 36 percent of the GDP. The total contribution of services in economy is 87.4 percent.
The Luxembourg model of services based economy allow a sound reason to believe that in an era of technology led opportunities, Gilgit-Baltistan can emerge as an economic powerhouse providing high end ICT and financial services to the country as well as the entire region in era of CPEC. This simply requires focusing human capital development in relevant disciplines now. The resilient people of Gilgit-Baltistan are poised to bring stars from the yonder skies for their country.
The writer is a development policy analyst
Originally published at Daily Times