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Gilgit-Baltistan at the Crossroad of CPEC: Part- II

By: Zulfiqar Ali Khan 

KKH – The Artery of CPEC

The 2016 report of senate’s special committee on CPEC reads that “KKH with its present width is highly inadequate to take the load of CPEC generated traffic.” The committee has recommended preparing ‘logically and scientifically made estimates of the traffic’ to be generated on CPEC route along with its yearly growth. It also proposed ‘immediate construction of another 2-lane highway’ on the other bank of the river with “bridges at every 10 km distance.” 

Also read: Gilgit-Baltistan at the Crossroad of CPEC: Part I 

Chief Minister of Gilgit-Baltistan Hafiz Hafeez Ur Rehman was of the view that the current KKH can accommodate 4,000-5,000 40-ft long containers. “If you take 4,000 containers daily, one corner of it will be in Gilgit and the other in Hunza,” he said adding that KKH is built only for 40-ft containers.    

“Managing traffic will be a serious challenge keeping in view the increasing flow of domestic tourists and the trade volume,” he admitted.  We have requested the federal government to deploy highway police on KKH and there is also need for service roads and bypasses to facilitate local commuters and tourists as well, he added.  

The road from Dassu area in KPK to Raikot bridge in Diamer has been the worst for a long time.

Currently a truck is merely visible after every kilometer on KKH. The existing route is sufficient for the current volume of trade and as business increases, the road infrastructure will also be improved, he said. “We have been informed that KKH will be expanded to 100 feet,” the Chief Minister said, adding satellite survey was being done to either expand the existing road or construct an alternate route. 

The Kilik (4,827 m) and nearby Mintika (4,709 m) passes together served as the ancient entry route between Hunza and Tashkurgan border regions, before the opening of the Khunjerab Pass in 1970s. The two passes locate near Wakhan Corridor of Northern Afghanistan. — Zulfiqar Ali Khan

“The road from Dassu area in KPK to Raikot bridge in Diamer has been the worst for a long time,” said Shakeel Baig, a local who travelled frequently on this route. This is the CPEC route and we are talking about Gilgit-Baltistan as the center of trade and tourism, he said.

He said the government is spending millions on a tourism summit in Islamabad rather than on the routes that provide the opportunity for it.

However, the Chief Minister said Rs126 billion investment is being made under CPEC, on KKH and other road infrastructure from Islamabad to Khunjerab.  “This investment, after 2020, will reduce the 16-hour Gilgit to Islamabad journey to only 9 hours,” he said.

Since 2002, the federal government has spent millions on repair and maintenance of the Tatta Pani belt of the KKH in Diamer district. This belt is prone to active mud flows and landslides. An alternate route can easily be constructed from the opposite side of the river. — Zulfiqar Ali Khan 

The federal government had allocated Rs1 billion against total estimated cost of Rs8.150 billion under federal PSDP 2018-19 for rehabilitation of the Thakot-Raikot section of KKH including Tatta Pani Bypass. The new government later cancelled this project due to budgetary constraints.  The government has now also excluded this project from the PSDP 2019-20 whereas the ongoing project of the construction of KKH Phase-II Havelian-Thakot will get PKR24,000 million against the Throw-forward cost of PKR30,709.9 million. This allocation includes PKR23,000 million aid from China. 

KKH is often called the eighth wonder of the world as it runs through soaring mountain peaks and raging rivers. The 613km long highway spans from Khunjerab Pass at Pakistan-China border at the north to Thakot bridge in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province in the south. About 778 Pakistanis and 200 Chinese engineers and workers lost their lives during its construction. — Zulfiqar Ali Khan

KKH is overall susceptible to natural calamities and man-made disruptions, as already witnessed from the aforementioned Attabad landslide, which blocked the land access for over 36 months. There were proposals since long to construct the Ghizer-Chitral alternate route and construct tunnels to make the Babusar route all weather.

Pak-China Border Trade came to a standstill as the devastating Attabad landslide submerged 24 kilometers of KKH. Trade was partially maintained through boats and rafts for almost 5 years and 8 months. — Zulfiqar Ali Khan

Gilgit-Shandur-Chitral Chakdara Road

There was a long demand in Giglit-Baltistan and Chitral to upgrade and make this road suitable for all weather conditions.  The Gilgit-Baltistan assembly unanimously passed a resolution in December 2013 demanding the Gilgit-Chitral Road be renamed as ‘Hindukush Highway’ and upgraded.

The Chief Minister of Gilgit-Baltistan said, on request of the CMs of GB and KPK, the Gilgit-Shandur-Chitral Chakdara Road was included in CPEC during the 6th JCC meeting as an alternate route to KKH.  “The 27-billion rupees project was reflected in 2017-18 federal PSDP,” he added.

He said this project was supposed to be presented in Executive Committee of National Economic Council (ECNEC) for final approval but the federal and KPK governments excluded the GB part of the road from the PC-1.     

CM conveyed his reservations to concerned ministers. They have assured that NHA will also complete the survey of Shandur-Gilgit portion, he said.  “I have asked them to not approve the PC-1 until the PC-1 of the Gilgit-Baltistan side is not finalized,” the chief minister said.

The federal government has proposed allocation of PKR500 million for Improvement and Widening of Gilgit-Shandur-Chitral Road under CPEC in PSDP 2019-20 against the total cost of PKR16,755 million. Similarly, PKR1,000 million has been proposed for the ongoing project of Improvement and Widening of Chitral-Booni-Mastuj-Shandur (CPEC) against the total cost of 16,755.5million. This project was approved by the Executive Committee of National Economic Council (ECNEC) in March 2018.  

The senate’s special committee on CPEC has also highlighted rehabilitation of the centuries old route that was connecting the Yarkand area of China to Shigar in Baltistan. The report suggests building the Shounter Pass route in first phase to connect Astore with Muzafarabad.

The federal government had allocated Rs50 million in PSDP 2018-19 for the feasibility study of the construction of Yarqand to Skardu road, but this was later dropped by the new government in Islamabad.

Gilgit-Baltistan as an Information Corridor  

The Pak-China Cross Border Optical Fiber Cable (OFC) is the only way to connect with the outside world through land, all other are through submarine cables. This early-harvest project was inaugurated by Pakistan’s Caretaker Prime Minister Nasirul Mulk on July 13, 2018.  

The Pak-China OFC is jointly operated and maintained by Special Communication Organization of Pakistan and China Telecom. SCO has established a communication center at Khunjerab Pass. — Zulfiqar Ali Khan

According to official documents, the $44 million, 820-kilometre underground OFC links Rawalpindi with the Chinese border at Khunjerab Pass and is also backed up by aerial cable.  

This project besides providing cross-border connectivity, would also give China alternate and shorter access for transit telecom traffic to Europe, Middle East and Africa. 

There would be a revolution in technology if GB is connected through this optic fiber.

Nobody knows if SCO has the plan to connect GB with this OFC, said Dr. Baig, who is also heading the economics department of KIU.   “It is clear that up till now there has been no sign of it,” he said. He said Gilgit-Baltistan should get benefit of it as 466 km of it passes through the province.

Freelancers in Gilgit staged a protest in Gilgit on July 1, 2019 against poor connectivity of internet in Gilgit-Baltistan. — Moin Barcha

The government owned telecom operator SCO monopolize the provision of internet in GB.  The residents are critical of the poor internet speed and the quality of customer care. 

“There would be a revolution in technology if GB is connected through this optic fiber. This will create more opportunities in business, e-commerce, e-health, tourism and in every sphere of life,” Dr. Baig said.    

Source: CPEC Secretariat ( www.cpec.gov.pk) 

The Politics of Economic Zone

One of the key bilateral cooperation areas under CPEC was the Special Economic Zones (SEZs) as a strategy to promote trade, employment and economic growth in Pakistan.

According to the Chief Minister Gilgit-Baltistan the second JCC meeting had decided to establish 9 SEZs in different parts of Pakistan under CPEC. The Gilgit-Baltistan government identified and completed a study on Maqpoon Das special eco-economic zone, which was approved by the sixth JCC, he said.

The federal government has now finalized four SEZs—Rashakai in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Dhabeji in Sindh and M-3 Faisalabad and a hi-tech SEZ in Islamabad —in the first phase. 

The Rashakai SEZ Joint Venture and License Agreement was signed between KPEZMDC and CRBC on April 28, 2019, during Prime Minister Khan’s recent visit to Beijing.  

The provincial government is establishing its own economic zone in Minawar area of Gilgit in partnership with Sundar Industrial Estate, Lahore.

 “Maqpoon Das is currently nothing but a showpiece,” Dr. Saranjam Baig said, who is the Director of Center for Research on CPEC.  Maqpoon Das was not declared economic zone under CPEC. It was declared as an economic zone in 2004 by the federal board of investment, he said.   

 “It is interesting that the local residents and government of Gilgit-Baltistan are in litigation on the land of this project,” he added.    

 Opposition leader Capt. (rtd.) Mohammad Shafi Khan believes that even there is no electricity in the province to establish industries.  “People get only two hours of electricity in 24 hours during winter,” he said.  “There was not a single energy project even though Gilgit-Baltistan has the potential to generate the cheapest energy.”  

According to the planning and development department of the government of Gilgit-Baltistan there is 40,000 MW untapped hydropower potential in GB, of which only 90 MW has been developed. 

Diamer-Bhasha Dam, located 40 km downstream of Chilas, has a gross water storage capacity of 8.1 million acre feet with the power generation capacity of 4,500 MW. The dam will inundate about 32 villages, affecting 30,350 people living in 4,266 households in Diamer district of GB. ­— Zulfiqar Ali Khan

Chief Minister Rehman rejects the allegations that the government has forcefully allotted lands of local community for the economic zone.  “This property belongs to the government according to official documents. If court orders that the property belongs to the people then it will not be a big deal for the government to pay the local community,” he said, adding the villagers were in litigation on grazing rights.

Chief Minister said the provincial government is establishing its own economic zone in Minawar area of Gilgit in partnership with Sundar Industrial Estate, Lahore. “We have completed the feasibility and plotting will be done by June 2019 before opening it for local, national and international investors,” he mentioned. 

Havelian Dry Port: A Major Concern for Gilgit-Baltistan  

This map shows the Railway network and Havelian Dry Port envisioned under CPEC: Source: CPEC Secretariat ( www.cpec.gov.pk)

The Havelian Dry Port project has raised many eyebrows in Gilgit-Baltistan as this project can impact trade and economic activities in the province. The whole border trade and economic activities in Gilgit-Baltistan revolves around the Sost Dry Port.

The official website of the CPEC Secretariat mentions the dry port will be established at Havelian in Haripur district of KPK by utilizing the railway land to meet the demand of containerized future freight traffic in connection with CPEC.

 Dr. Saranjam Baig is of the view that that Haveian dry port will cause major loss to Gilgit-Baltistan.  “GB will then just become a transit corridor as only the trucks will pass from here towards Havelian,” he said.  

Until and unless Gilgit-Baltistan becomes duty free zone, Havelian port can only be a dream, Advocate Hussain said while threatening protests if their concerns were not addressed.  “GB will then get only smokes of the containers,” legislator from Nagar Javed Hussain said. “If they want to establish another port that should also be within GB.”

There will be need of 5 to 6 more dry ports.

Chief Minister Rehman said some people were just trying to create provincial prejudices without understanding the real issue. “Sost dry port has a 100 containers daily handling capacity,” he said.  The traffic is projected to jump to 4,000 containers daily once the CPEC infrastructure is fully functional, he said.

“There will be need of 5 to 6 more dry ports,” he said. CM said there is requirement of another dry port in Gilgit, and it will be constructed during our tenure or maybe in future by private sector.   A businessman expects to take a flight, get their goods cleared and then take the return flight the very next day, Rehman added.  

CM said for almost six months temperature in Sost remains so low that people keep their car engines on during night.

The capacity of Sost dry port is still under-utilized.

“The capacity of Sost dry port is still under-utilized,” Zafar Iqbal, the chairman of the Silk Route Dry Port Trust claimed.   He said the new partner National Logistics Cell (NLC) has the plan to expand and modernize the port to handle large volume of CPEC cargo.   

The federal government has allocated PKR1,800 million in PSDP 2019-20 for the preliminary Design/Drawings for Upgradation/rehabilitation of main line (ML-1) and Establishment of Dry Port near Havelian under CPEC.

NLC Silk Route Dry Port Sost was opened for trade activities on April 1, 2019 after the Khunjerab Pass was opened for trade activities. NLC obtained lease of the port in 2016 for 20 years and will pay 20% of the gross profit to the local stakeholders of Silk Route Dry Port Trust (SRDPT). — Zulfiqar Ali Khan

‘CPEC is a Business to Business (B2B) Model’

Chief Minister of Gilgit-Baltistan blamed the opposition for misleading people by asking what is in CPEC for Gilgit Baltistan without understanding CPEC’s investment mode.       

 “CPEC is a business to business (B2B) model,” Rehman said, adding he was convinced from day one that there will not be any large-scale project in Gilgit-Baltistan because the province does not have the return capacity. 

He said two hydropower projects, 100 MW KIU and 80MW Phandar, were approved under the B2B model in CPEC. Chinese companies offered us Rs13 per unit and if other expenditures were included the tariff will increase to Rs17, which was not affordable for the people of Gilgit-Baltistan, he added.  Currently the tariff rate in Gilgit-Baltistan is between Rs2.5-7.5 whereas Chinese companies were producing and selling over 10,000 MW electricity in other parts of Pakistan on tariff rates ranging from Rs14 to 34 per unit, he explained.

The website of CPEC secretariat mentions both Phandar and KIU hydropower projects as CPEC-Potential Energy Project. These are not even part of the list of the15 projects as CPEC-Energy Priority Projects and 4 CPEC-Energy Actively Promoted Projects.

‘GB Compensated Through Federal PSDP’

CM Rehman said the then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif compensated the province on his request through federal PSDP schemes.  “Till 2014, only 2 billion rupees were allocated for Gilgit-Baltistan in PSDP but currently projects of over 126 billion allocations are either under implementation or in pipeline,” he said.

He said mega projects like Gilgit-Skardu Road, Gilgit-Naltar Expressway, Cancer Hospital, Cardiology Hospital, Baltistan University, KIU Campuses in three districts, two technical colleges, Regional Power Grid, 20MW Hanzal, 27MW Attabad, 26MW Shagarthang, 28MW Ghowari, 25MW Tangir and 4MW Thak were either under implementation or in pipeline.

 ‘CPEC is a Policy Window’

 Dr. Saranjam Baig thinks otherwise. He said CPEC is not the name of ‘projects or investments’ rather ‘it is a new policy window.’ 

“It depends on the policy-makers to use this policy window to minimize risks and maximize benefits,” he said. 

The question frequently asked by policy-makers and public is what is our share in $62bn? “The second important question should be ‘what are the indirect benefits of CPEC?”  he said, adding the indirect benefits, or the trickledown effect is quite enormous for Gilgit-Baltistan.    

 “Both things should go simultaneously. Efforts should be made to get a share in $62bn but equal effort needed to tap and maximize the existing benefits,” he said.  

The newly-constructed building of the Gilgit-Baltistan Legislative Assembly (GBLA) was completed in 12 years at a cost of Rs 911.378 million. — Zulfiqar Ali Khan

CPEC is by far an unguided project in Gilgit-Baltistan.

Dr. Baig criticized the local politicians for not discussing CPEC in provincial assemblies and how they themselves do not know what CPEC is bringing in for us. The understanding of government and other policy makers are also not clear, he added. “The crux is that CPEC is by far an unguided project in GB,” he said, adding nobody knows its benefits and implications.

There were mentions in official documents that Gilgit-Baltistan will sign agreements with Xinjiang, Dr. Baig said. “Our delegations have spent millions of dollars on visits to China but what is the outcome, we do not know yet,” he said. 

The CPEC Cell at P&DD could not even call a meeting in the past three years despite having millions of budgets. He said this budget is being surrendered every year, he added.

Dr. Baig believes the lack of information and awareness created confusion, ambiguity and anger among the youth.   

‘Gilgit-Baltistan is the Ultimate Beneficiary of CPEC’

The Old Silk Route is running parallel to the newly constructed KKH in Hunza and Nagar districts. The geographical ties, tributary and trade relationship and even family relationships between Hunza and the Xinjiang region of China goes back to thousands of years. — Zulfiqar Ali Khan

There is also a general understanding that CPEC will have enormous indirect benefits for the people of Gilgit-Baltistan. The local people, however, blame the provincial and federal governments for lack of policies and infrastructures to channelize these potential benefits.      

The biggest benefit is that CPEC has brought peace and stability in Gilgit-Baltistan.

“Even if the government of Pakistan does not give us a single penny, CPEC will function without any hindrance from our side, said Advocate Amjad Hussain, provincial president of Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP).  “Gilgit-Baltistan is actually the ultimate beneficiary of CPEC. Economic activities in GB exists solely due to KKH,” he said. 

“The biggest benefit is that CPEC has brought peace and stability in Gilgit-Baltistan, which is precondition for development. Over the years the road and communication infrastructures were also improved.  Following these developments, tourism industry has also improved in GB,” Dr. Baig said.

He was of the view that even tourism industry alone is sufficient for the economic development of Gilgit-Baltistan, if tackled properly.  

In the past, delegates and artists from the Tashkurgan Tajik Autonomous County of Xinjiang were participating in Silk Route Festivals in Hunza. The Wakhi ethnic group live on both sides of Pakistan-China border region. — Asghar Khan

Dr. Kreutzmann agrees: “One of the major benefits is with an improved infrastructure, tourism is now like a gold rush phenomenon in Gilgit-Baltistan.”

The province had more than one million tourists last year–that was completely unexpected and that is one indirect benefit of CPEC, he added.

“There were hardly 3,000 rooms available for tourists in the entire province,” Chief Minister Rehman said. Now there are around 16,000 beds available, he said.

He claimed that on average, every year, there are 100 hotels being inaugurated in Gilgit-Baltistan, both small and large-scale.   

To promote adventure tourism in Gilgit Baltistan, over 90 cyclists and 13 teams from Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and other parts of Pakistan participated in the second edition of Tour de Khunjerab-2019 (TDK) Cycle Race from June 27-30, 2019. The event started from Gilgit and finished at Khunjerab Pass. — Tour de Khunjerab

Dr. Baig stressed on the need to also focus on tourism, microenterprises and other indirect benefits otherwise outsiders will exploit these potentials.

Urbanization is rapidly increasing from Chilas to Khunjerab, he said.  “Businesses are shrinking and there is downsizing going on in other parts of Pakistan. In GB, there is mushrooming of microenterprise-malls, hotels, restaurants, guest houses and other concrete structures are being constructed everywhere and outsiders trying to buy lands through proxies,” he said. 

 ‘Youth Need to Learn Tricks of the Trades’  

In the backdrop of increasing unemployment, 710 students received degrees during the 9th convocation of Karakorum International University held on July 3, 2019 in Gilgit.

When closed societies are exposed to the market forces without building their capacities they become vulnerable to the exploitation of market forces.

Aziz Ali Dad views unemployment as a big issue in Gilgit-Baltistan because the youth is educated and there is no industry and private sector in the region.  He stressed on the need to identify the skills gap and scale-up efforts to prepare local youth for the future potentials in CPEC and other mega projects like Diamer-Bhasha dam.   

 “When closed societies are exposed to the market forces without building their capacities they become vulnerable to the exploitation of market forces. Globalization is going to enter Gilgit-Baltistan through CPEC and to get advantage of it we need to have few tricks of the trades,” Dad said.

The chief minister recognized the same issue. “The biggest challenge would be to prepare local human resources to tap the huge potentials and manage the challenges.  Both, the federal and provincial governments, have not yet given the required attention and taken the measures,” he admitted.  If you look at Kashgar and its economic zones, its display centers, their packaging industries and their value addition firms, those do not exist here.

We need to develop variety of skills in hospitality and tourism industry to tap the potential.

Dad highlighted the need to develop skills related to the tourism and hospitality industry.  He said we do not even have cooks.

“Kashgar receives around 2 million tourists annually and if we plan to bring only 50,000 to Gilgit-Baltistan, we only have a 3,600-bedding capacity in GB,” he said. “We need to develop variety of skills in hospitality and tourism industry to tap the potential.”   

Dr. Baig said the province does not have the necessary planning and infrastructure to facilitate the new boom in tourism. He said the Chinese have established five-star hotels and an international airport in a small border town of Tashkurgan. “Hundred-meters from the border in to China, they have built high quality waiting rooms with internet connection and other facilities. Whereas, in our side for those one million potential tourists there is not even a single restroom,” he said.    

Dad also spoke of the huge unexplored potential in mineral deposits in Gilgit-Baltistan besides tourism. In order to develop this industry, we also need to develop the required skills, he said.      

Dr. Baig views the policies made for mineral sector as strict and unfriendly that the local people cannot take part in it. Chinese are very much interested in gems and minerals, he said.

CPEC is a big animal and for taking advantages of this we need to take our efforts to large scale.

 “CPEC is a big animal,” Aziz Ali Dad said, for taking advantages of this we need to take our efforts to large scale.      

Chief Minister Rehman said the provincial government has started an engineering college in order to develop skilled human resources.  In 2010, degree classes in civil engineering started whereas KIU has already started degree programs in mining engineering and tourism. 

He said the government has established and handed over a technical and vocational institute to NLC where relevant technical courses are being offered. He said the government has also established technical education board, designed a syllabus and now going ahead towards establishing institutions to prepare technical hands.

“In the coming 5 to 6 years we have the plan to prepare 20,000 to 25,000 technical hands to tap these opportunities,” Rehman said. “Youth prefer clerical jobs rather than being skillful and earn millions.”

Gilgit-Baltistan in CPEC’s Joint Cooperation Committee

The political leadership were complaining that Gilgit-Baltistan does not have any say in the federal and CPEC related decision-making forums.

Chief Minister Rehman however disagrees with this. “GB is part of the highest CPEC forum, the Joint Cooperation Committee (JCC),” he said, adding both governments have also formed a six-member JCC of the Xinjiang and Gilgit-Baltistan to strengthen cooperation between these two neighboring regions. The chief minister heads Gilgit-Baltistan and Xinjiang is led by its governor.   

He said MoUs will be signed in agriculture, health, educational exchange and infrastructures development. 

The six-member JCC of the Xinjiang and Gilgit-Baltistan to strengthen cooperation between these two neighboring regions.

Rehman said there were frequent visits from Xinjiang and he personally made two visits to Xinjiang.  “I will lead a high-level delegation from GB to Xinjiang to attend a follow up meeting in May 2019,” he said.

He said Xinjiang is helping Gilgit-Baltistan improve its hospitals and schools. “Xinjiang government has established three IT labs in GB schools, provided medical equipment and 100 beds for hospitals and vehicles for local police,” he said, adding 40 engineers received training from China and over 100 students will also get scholarships to study there.

A delegation of traders from Gilgit-Baltistan attended the first communication and cooperation seminar held at Tashkurgan, China to enhance bilateral trade between the neighboring Gilgit-Baltistan region of Pakistan and Xinjiang Region of China. Hunza Chamber of Commerce and Industry also signed MoUs with China Investors Board and Pakistan-China Exhibition Center to facilitate trade activities between Gilgit-Baltistan and Xinjiang regions.— Ahmadullah Baig

According to media reports, the Chinese Ambassador to Pakistan Yao Jing has informed Chief Minister that the Chinese government has recently transferred Rs5 billion development grant for Gilgit-Baltistan under CPEC.  

“Our chief minister has not yet informed the assembly regarding any of such developments. There is neither a parliamentary committee on CPEC nor the members were briefed by anyone. Assembly is completely blind on all these matters,” the nationalist leader Naji said.

 “We are being seen as no man’s land,” he complained, and just to highlight local issues, we are portrayed as traitors.  

 “We were part of every JCC meeting during previous government,” Rehman added. He said there has been only one meeting during the present government and we could not attend the meeting as desired by the federal government.

“PTI has recruited Buzdar and Mehmood Khan, who they do not allow to go outside Peshawar and Lahore,” he remarked sarcastically.

Until GB is out of the constitutional ambit, Hafiz u Rehman does not have the power to sign MoUs with China or any other country.

Advocate Hussain is, however, of the view that: “Until GB is out of the constitutional ambit, Hafiz u Rehman does not have the power to sign MoUs with China or any other country.”  He said article 167 of the Constitution of Pakistan empowers provinces to sign MoUs with foreign countries.

“The day GB comes into constitutional ambit, this region will become Paris and the largest investments will come from China,” Advocate Hussain claimed.  

Implications of CPEC for Gilgit-Baltistan

The local people have their own fears regarding CPEC’s implications on the politics, economy, environment and on the society as a whole.

 “The most important implication is local people may lose control of their assets,” said Hermann Kreutzmann, Professor of Human Geography at Freie Universität Berlin. He said Gilgit-Baltistan was always regarded for down country Pakistan as a poor mountain area in a remote corner of the country. “Now potent investors from down country see there is a gold rush going on here, in tourism, in infrastructure development, and probably mineral exploitation, in all kinds of resources that are available in this area,” he said.  

The pollutions and emissions will affect the environment and will cause our glaciers to melt.

He said Gilgit-Baltistan has difficult starting conditions as compared to other parts of the country. The problem in GB is that ‘the local decision-making power is always in a limbo’, he said, adding the governance order 2018 is not effective now, and if effective, then the Prime Minister could do many things directly to the area.   

Opposition leader Khan shown his concerns regarding the environmental impact of the mega infrastructure development and CPEC traffic.  “It is said that after every 35 seconds, a container will pass through KKH. The pollutions and emissions will affect the environment and will cause our glaciers to melt,” he warned. 

The environmental impact of the proposed mega infrastructure projects on the fragile ecosystem of Gilgit-Baltistan has not yet received the required attention of environmentalists, academia and policy makers. Khunjerab National Park (KNP) is the connecting point of CPEC.  This protected area hosts some of the endangered species like Marcopolo Sheep and snow leopard.

Khunjerab National Park, covering an area of about 2,270 sq km, was established on 29 April 1975. It is Pakistan’s third largest national park and lies adjacent to Tashkurgan Natural Reserve in China. — Zulfiqar Ali Khan

International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), in 2018, warned: “The development of CPEC includes colossal investment in infrastructure; if not planned well, it could have a significant impact on biodiversity and the livelihoods of local communities, particularly in Pakistan’s fragile mountainous region.”  

The opposition leader said local youth are well aware of these implications and when they do not see any direct benefits, this creates anger and frustration.  

 Where there will be blessings, the developments will push us away from our beliefs, culture, traditions and religion, fears Naji. “This is for definite,” he said.

There is need of legislations to safeguard the rights and resources of local indigenous communities

“We cannot stop the route for these reasons, but safeguards are required to minimize its consequences,” he said.  He said there is need to protect the landownership rights of the indigenous communities, so demography could not be changed, and the culture and beliefs remain safe.

Aziz Ali Dad also agreed with Naji. He stressed on the need of legislations to safeguard the rights and resources of local indigenous communities otherwise local communities would become extremely vulnerable.      

The picturesque landscape of Gilgit-Baltistan is fading due to the unplanned installation of power and OFC cables along the KKH. — Zulfiqar Ali Khan

CPEC and Geo-Strategic Dynamics in Gilgit-Baltistan

CPEC and other mega projects like Diamer Bhasha dam have further increased the geo-strategic importance of Gilgit-Baltistan due to the clashing interests of regional and international powers.

“Gilgit-Baltistan is getting more importance and attention and thus our enemies can exploit the local issues and create troubles to sabotage CPEC,” Chief Minister Rehman said.  

He said our enemy India has kept Gilgit-Baltistan its top priority. “India has always been creating unnecessary hype and propaganda, whenever there is any development benefiting the people of this region,” he added   

 It is worth mentioning that India has repeatedly expressed concerns about BRI, claiming that CPEC is passing through the disputed territory of Gilgit-Baltistan.  India also skipped attending both BRFs in Beijing again due to the same reservations.

Similarly, US Defense Secretary James Mattis, in October 2017, told the US Senate’s Armed Services Committee that: “The One Belt, One Road also goes through disputed territory, and I think that in itself shows the vulnerability of trying to establish that sort of a dictate.”

India is irrelevant in Gilgit-Baltistan.

Advocate Hussain warned fears of Gilgit-Baltistan becoming a battlefield of clashing regional and international interests.  “The interfering elements will choose to turn Gilgit-Baltistan into battlefield if you continue keeping it abandoned,” he warned, adding FATA was a battlefield until it was not mainstream. 

“The only solution is to mainstream Gilgit-Baltistan,” he said.    

Chief Minister of Gilgit-Baltistan said the interfering elements will try to exploit the concerns of the local people. “The complicated issue of the constitutional rights in Gilgit-Baltistan provides a ground for the enemies to play. There is a genuine political deprivation in Gilgit-Baltistan. Where there is deprivation, it is not difficult to find facilitators to exploit the situation,” he said.

The nationalist leader Naji does not see any interference currently in Gilgit-Baltistan. “If America has not lost, it will resist and obviously it will favor India and will also work from Afghanistan,” he said. 

There is no one in Gilgit-Baltistan who favors India despite their resentment towards Pakistan’s policies regarding Gilgit-Baltistan, he added.  He said Hamid group was previously blamed for getting Indian support against Pakistan’s interest in Gilgit-Baltistan.   Even if Hamid has surrendered then who else is left in GB to be blamed as Indian agents, he said. 

The Brussels-based self-exiled Chairman of his own faction of the Balawaristan National Front (BNF) Abdul Hamid Khan has returned Pakistan on February 8, 2019. Lacking any on-ground support base in Gilgit-Baltistan, Khan was accused of being on the payroll of RAW. The law enforcement agencies had also arrested over a dozen of BNF activists and supporters in 2016, but most of them were released later.

Advocate Amjad Hussain also believes that India is irrelevant in Gilgit-Baltistan. He said it is not due to the policies of the Pakistani government, but due to people’s patriotism as they liberated the region from Dogras of Kashmir in November 1947 and made unconditional accession to Pakistan.

India is not in a position of strength as it has been struggling for a long to position itself against China.

“Gilgit-Baltistan is not like Baluchistan, where they can try to sabotage CPEC because they can easily get recruits,” Dad said.  Here, he said, when people have reservations, they express it, but they will not take it beyond political level, adding the decision-makers should address the anger of local youth before it gets unmanageable.

He said India has been producing propaganda literature regarding CPEC in relation to GB. “People rather rely on conspiracy theories, there is a dire need for Pakistan to produce CPEC related knowledge in Gilgit-Baltistan so to create our own narrative,” Dad said. 

India has been producing propaganda literature regarding CPEC in relation to GB

The German professor Dr. Kreutzmann thinks India is not in a position of strength as it has been struggling for a long to position itself against China. “India is only in an exchange corridor with Nepal, and there is a small road going through Sikkim into China that is not really the role, a global player would occupy,” he said. 

 “In strategic considerations Pakistan is now quite strongly affiliated with China and Central Asia and India is sidelined. In economic terms I am not sure whether the price is very high that Pakistan has to pay for this kind of constellation,” he said.

CPEC: Between Hope and Despair  

The people of Gilgit-Baltistan have shown an unprecedented allegiance to the state of Pakistan since its independence on November 1, 1947. The 72 years of lingering political status of the region has not yet alienated their wish of integration into the mainstream of the country. The youth have, however, started raising question on this one-sided love affair.    

The people of Gilgit-Baltistan are skeptical about the prospects of CPEC given the mishandling of the KKH compensation, media hype regarding CPEC projects in other provinces and the historical neglect of the region.  

Dr. Ehsan Mehmood Khan believes that the issue of Gilgit-Baltistan ‘merits the attention of Pakistan’s national leadership, intellectual community and media more than ever before’.    

 “CPEC is hope of a future with peace and prosperity in Gilgit-Baltistan,” said Nambardar Sultan Ayub, adding, this will only become a reality when the benefits were equally shared with the local people. 

He believes KKH benefited the people of Gilgit-Baltistan the most.  He also recalls the timely help of the government of China during the Attabad-disaster.

Pointing towards the KKH, he however said: “This is the CPEC route to Gwadar. So, when they failed to timely compensate the affected people then how can peopel expect other benefits. We do not know how long it will take to get the remaining 50% compensation,” he said.

Young Activist Didar Ali thinks that peace, development and stability in Gilgit-Baltistan are in the wider interest of both Pakistan and China. “This can only be ensured by making the local communities a close partner in development,” he said.

Also read: Gilgit-Baltistan at the Crossroad of CPEC: Part I 

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