The political temperature is rising in Gilgit-Baltistan region of Pakistan. Calls for mass agitation are being made by certain political groups while efforts are underway to mobilize the populace.
This fresh wave of political fury, which could get heated in the days ahead, was triggered by the Gilgit-Baltistan government’s decision of introducing “targeted subsidy” on Wheat price in the region.
Gilgit-Baltistan is a disputed territory administered by Pakistan, and connected with the broader Kashmir issue, where sense of political disempowerment has been a thorny issue. Till now, the federal government in Islamabad was providing Wheat to the people of Gilgit-Baltistan on highly subsidized rates. However, faced with a financial crunch at the national level, Islamabad has been trying to withdraw the subsidy. Regional governments, seated in Gilgit, also consider the blanket subsidy to be an issue which leaves less money for development work, as every year around 10bn rupees are allocated to provide Wheat on subsidized rates in the region.
A few days back, cabinet member of the GB regional government, announced that from now on only people earning below a certain income threshold will be able to receive Wheat at subsidized prices.
GB government has in a press statement said that a 40kg bag of Wheat grain costs the government around 4,900 rupees, while imported Wheat costs around 6200 rupees per 40kg bag. The public in Gilgit-Baltistan, however, gets a 40kg bag of Wheat grain for almost 1100 rupees. Due to the increasing cost of wheat, the government is thus unable to buy enough Wheat to meet the demand, says the Information Department’s communique.
According to a notification, issued after the announcement, Government officials above Basic Pay Scale 17 will not receive subsidized wheat, among other relatively well-off segments of society. Officials having constitutional positions will also not receive subsidized wheat.
Subsidized quotas allocated for government departments, ‘dignitaries’, and ‘special institutions’ have also been withdrawn and they will have to buy Wheat at market prices, per the following notification.
The GB government believes that these measures will reduce the demand for subsidized wheat in Gilgit-Baltsitan and enable it to use the 9bn rupees provided by Islamabad annually to buy and supply enough Wheat to the ‘deserving segments’ of the society.
The decision has, however, been met with stiff resistance from the Awami Action Committee, a coalition of numerous civil society organizations and political parties. They have announced mass agitation if the decision is not reversed. Opposition parties’ political leaders have also rejected the decision.
Opposers say that Gilgit-Baltistan is a disputed territory with meager per capita landholding. The government and other state institutions are acquiring land at mass scales which further reduces the land available for cultivation in the future.
Moreover, most of the region’s land area is not suitable for cultivation. Due to lack of industries and other opportunities, the majority of the population is poor and needs affirmative action to be able to feed their families.
A segment of the opposers also believe that Pakistan is duty bound to provide Wheat to the region on subsidized rates because Gilgit-Baltistan does not have any constitutional rights and the regional government does not have any real legislative powers. Many quote political and constitutional disempowerment as a reason for the region receiving subsidy on Wheat prices.
In the past, Awami Action committee had mobilzied tens of thousands of people across Gilgit-Baltistan against the withdrawal of subsidy on wheat. Thousands of protesters had, for several days, gone on a strike, forcing the federal government to reconsider the decision.
Awami Action Committee and other political and civil society organizations have again said that they will mobilize the masses to resist the decision.
Whethere this fresh wave of resentment results in another wave of agitation remains to be seen.