By Zulfiqar Ali Ishaq
In the heart of Gilgit-Baltistan (GB), where the serene landscapes echo tales of struggle and resilience, a battle for wheat subsidies, alongside challenges of electricity shortage, land reforms, and political reforms, is unfolding, revealing the region’s intricate socio-economic challenges.
This region was sold by Britain to Gulab Singh for 7.5 million in 1846. With the State Subject Rule (SSR), Maharaja Hari Singh attempted to unify authority in 1927 amid local opposition. Due to the exclusive land ownership and other benefits, this rule gave natives, of the Kashmir Valley a distinct status. However, following judicial and administrative reforms in 1974, its validity in Gilgit-Baltistan became unclear. Local population have since asked for the restoration of the SSR until a settlement is reached, under UN Resolution 47.
Furthermore, the area, rich in hydropower resources capable of producing up to 40,000 MV, is currently experiencing a severe energy crisis. The majority of the region is severely affected by power outages, with frequent load shedding lasting between 15 and 20 hours. Regarding agricultural production, only 2% of the land is suitable for agriculture due to the unforgiving climate. Subsidies are not just a financial lifeline but a fundamental necessity for survival. With an estimated population of 1.8 million, there is a requirement for almost 2 million sacks of 100kg, necessitating approximately 20 billion in funds. On the other hand, the government is currently allocating only 9 billion. With this budgetary constraint, only 1.2 million sacks of 100 kg wheat can be procured, creating a significant shortfall in meeting the pressing needs of the population. Despite GB potentially receiving at around 15 billion rupees through the National Finance Commission (NFC) award, only a fraction of this is allocated, leaving the region in dire need. The subsidy issue traces back to the early 1970s when Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, recognizing the challenges faced by GB, initiated subsidies. The government is settling on a wheat price of 52 rupees/kg instead of 27/kg. Recent adjustments by the government, citing inflation, logistic charges, and IMF pressure, have stirred unrest among the local population, adding complexity to GB’s position.
Despite being annexed to Pakistan through the Karachi Agreement in 1949, GB remains in a state of ambiguity, lacking the same rights as Kashmiris or those in the rest of Pakistan. GB’s socio-economic disparities are further accentuated by the absence of medical and engineering colleges, a lack of representation in the Senate and National Assembly, along the disproportionate allocation of water and other resource royalties. A stark contrast emerges when comparing the 15 billion rupees given to Jammu and Kashmir for water royalties against the struggles faced by GB.
Protests led by the Awami Action Committee, a coalition of political parties, both in 2013 and the ongoing one underscore the critical role of subsidies in GB’s socio-economic fabric. As of January 25, 2024 people have been in a state of protest for 30 days, but the government has turned a deaf ear. The Awami Action Committee threatens to shut down the strike and organize a long march towards Gilgit if grievances are not addressed. The 2015 committee, led by Sartaj Aziz, recommended de facto integration with Pakistan and special representation in the national assembly until the issue of the region is resolved under the UN resolution, which promised a plebiscite to be held in entire Kashmir, including Gilgit-Baltistan, to determine the wishes of the people. As GB faces an acute wheat shortage due to insufficient subsidies, the government is presented with choices – targeted subsidy, price increment, or reduction in quota. Top of Form
However, a sudden increase in wheat prices, as currently proposed, would exacerbate the already precarious situation. In conclusion, the issues in GB isn’t around financial matters; it’s a supplication for value, representation, and affirmation of the region’s special challenges. The government must lock in in important exchange, address the concerns of the individuals of GB, and discover feasible arrangements that adjust with the region’s historical setting and socio-economic substances. Only then will we be able to navigate Gilgit-Balistan’s brighter and more equitable future.
The contributor is an M.Phil student at National Defence University, Islamabad. Email: Zulfiqarishaq10@gmail.com, Follow him on X: @zulfiqar_ali