Gilgit-Baltistan’s Development Challenges and the Way Forward

By Mir Afzal

Like other mountainous regions, earning a livelihood in Gilgit-Baltistan is comparatively more challenging. These challenges are compounded by the region’s notoriously long and harsh winter season, when locals face scores of hardships as their movement becomes restricted; flights are often suspended and road journey becomes hazardous, or impossible due to heavy snowfall.

Due to freezing weather, water flow also decreases in the river, thereby decreasing electricity production. Demand remains high, creating a power crisis. As a result, several hours of load shedding makes people’s lives miserable, while businesess and government departments are unable to perform at their optimum capacity.

Additionally, Khunjerab Pass remains closed for five months in winter – from November to April – which badly affects the local economy, due to closue of business with China. Food insecurity is also a problem the locals face as winter starts in the region as the freezing winter barren agricultural land. Inevitably, people either have to buy expensive vegetables, paying through the nose, imported from other provinces or reduce the size of their consumption basket. In effect, economic and social activities come to a standstill as the winter enters the region.

Although the summer season is kind to the people in the north, fading many problems like electricity and food insecurity issues and reviving the local economy with tourist influx towards the region, the sword of Damocles hangs over their heads!! Floods trigger devastation by damaging roads, disturbing transportation, communication and trade, and creating panic. A recent example is a flood that hit Hasanabad, Hunza, due to the outburst of a lake in Shisper Glacier.

Some structural impediments to the local economy are low demographic density discouraging market forces, constitutional limbo hindering international investors, insufficient fiscal space not making any significant impact, among others.

Several measures are needed to increase the efficiency and capacity of the region’s economy. Firstly, the government must ensure uninterrupted provision of electricity to households and businesses. Although, Gilgit Baltistan is the water bank for Pakistan, due to the large area of glaciers and snow deposits in its mountains, it facing acute power shortage.

Currently, 119 hydropower stations are operating in the region with a total installed capacity of only 148.69 MW, while the current required demand is at least 400 MW. According to PWD, GB has 40,000 MW of untapped hydropower potential. Many energy projects under China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) got approval to supply power to the national grid, including 100 MW, 80 MW, 20 MW and 16 MW in Phander, KIU campus, Hunza, and Naltar, respectively, but the pace of progress is snail-slow. Availability of affordable energy will put the local economy on a new track leading to prosperity and development.

Secondly, road connectivity is another factor that can increase the pace of development in the region. The area is needed to be connected with neighboring provinces in different ways. Relying on only Karakoram Highway (KKH) is not enough. The region is highly prone to natural disasters. If one road is blocked, alternate routes should be available for trade, commerce and public transport. The GB government successfully brought the Gilgit-Shandur road under the umbrella of CPEC. This will provide an additional route connecting the region to Chitral and then Peshawar. The idea of connecting Astor with Kashmir should be translated into reality. Moreover, intra and inter-district roads must be metaled for better connectivity as this will help cut transportation costs, decrease accident rate and increase the pace of economic growth.

Thirdly, the educated youth need to be capitalized by exploiting their potential. The literacy rate is encouraging in the region and the only need is to train the educated youth in various skills. Karakoram International University and University of Baltistan are the only two universities producing employable graduates in IT and management sciences. These universities should train young men and women by providing scholarships in the fields relevant to the development of the region – mining, hospitality, business, livestock, horticulture, fisheries, and entrepreneurship. Female students should be given special preferential treatment. The graduates in these fields must be provided apprenticeship training and guaranteed employment in the public or private sector. Engineering and medical universities should be established to cut dependence on universities of other provinces. Recently, IT parks have been established in a few areas and that outreach needs to be extended to all districts.

Fourthly, the rich natural resources of GB have not yet been fully utilized for public welfare. This region has the largest reserves of glaciers outside the polar region and water resources. Also, the region has huge deposits of minerals including metallic, non-metallic, energy minerals, precious stones and different rocks of industrial use. A reasonably equitable arrangement in the sharing of royalties and taxes is required to transfer substantial financial resources to the GB government so that the resources could be utilized for socio-economic development.

Fifthly, GB has huge potential for tourism and is known for its mesmerizing beauty, rich history and diversified culture. Over the past few years, the local tourist flow has significantly risen, and this uptick can be attributed to the improved road and infrastructure along the KKH. The flooding of pictures and videos on social media through campaigns by youth has also given impetus to this upsurge. Tourism in this region could be a game-changer, and above all, for the country’s overall economy struggling with many elephants in the room such as current account deficit, unemployment and poverty. But for that, tourism growth requires sustainable planning, policy and practice, and conservation of tourism assets.

GB can attain inclusive and sustainable development, addressing vulnerabilities by focusing on its comparative advantages, investing and developing its human resources, promoting eco-tourism, diversifying agriculture and connecting the local economy with the national and international market of goods and services. Through strategic and proactive interventions, the structural issues to the local economy can be tackled. This would be possible when all the stakeholders such as the federal, provincial and local governments, civil society, the private sector, academics and professionals, work together to bring prosperity to Gilgit-Baltistan.

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