As Pakistan commemorates the 75th Independence Day, it is important to reflect upon the achievements, failures, developments and issues in Gilgit-Baltistan from different perspectives and see how, as a nation, we have reached this adversity.
The region, administered by Pakistan, is home to the three largest mountain ranges and massif of snow-clad lofty peaks, scenic pastures, valleys, the highest plateau, longest glaciers, gushing pristine streams and rivers.
Administratively the region consists of three divisions – Gilgit, Baltistan and Diamer – with each division consisting of five districts except Diamer which has four Districts. Gilgit Division consists of Hunza, Nagar, Gilgit, Ghizer, and Ishkoman-Yasin districts; Baltistan Division consists of Skardu, Rondu, Ghanche, Khaplu and Shiger districts while Diamer Division consists of Diamer, Darel, Tangir and Astore districts.
The sparsely populated region has gained global significance because of its geographical position, ecological diversity and rich natural resources. Because of these very reasons, it had remained a battleground for the ‘Great Game’ played between Czarist Russia and British Empire in the 1850s and now between China and US-led imperialist powers.
Sadly, despite having such an important position, the two million inhabitants of Gilgit-Baltistan are deprived of their fundamental democratic and human rights. Even after 75 years of its independence, the region’s undefined constitutional status is still in limbo due to the Kashmir dispute. The region is being ruled in a colonial fashion through bureaucracy with strings pulled by the rulers in Islamabad.
Energy and communication are considered to be the engines of development but in G-B these two are the most neglected sectors. In the 21st century, no society can imagine progress and access to information and knowledge without an efficient telecom and communication system, yet the people are still yearning for a smooth and uninterrupted supply of power. The whole region experiences 12 to 20 hours of a power outage. Without power, civic and commercial activities come to a standstill.
The region is ideal for eco-friendly hydropower plants but has been kept in dark because of ill-planning and bureaucratic snags. According to experts, if the untapped water resources are harnessed the region could generate 60,000MW power which could meet the 450MW local needs and add the surplus power to the national grid. Currently, all power stations generate only 200MW electricity. The power department authorities spend millions on thermal power rather than making any long-term plan to overcome the energy crisis as the thermal generators are major sources of corruption and pollution.
The frustrating ICT system
Telecommunication is another basic need of today’s highly digitalised world. The people of G-B are still deprived of this facility. The fast and speedy internet is now a basic requirement for every individual to connect to the world, create an online business, and attract more tourism to the region. Unfortunately, the organisation that is responsible for the provision of this facility has created a monopoly in the telecom sector in the region and woefully failed to ensure speedy internet access to the students, general public and business ventures in the region.
The regional government claimed to have had an agreement with other telecom companies for providing better internet service to bring market competitors into the has not yet seen the light of the day.
The people have no other option but to rely on the outdated internet service being provided by S.Com and bear their stubbornness and unwillingness to provide better communication service to the people.
The state which controls the resources of the region has failed to provide quality food, education, and healthcare delivery systems to the people forcing them to migrate to metropolitan centres in search of jobs and better life.
Despite being rich in natural resources there is not a single industrial unit in the region to provide employment to the people. The resources are being grabbed by non-local influential crony capitalists and powerful organisations. The region has been left at the mercy of international non-governmental organisations that are least concerned about the development and wellbeing of the people.
Environmental degradation is another major challenge for the authorities and the people of G-B. The unprecedented floods, avalanches and landslides triggered by the glacier melting and lake outbursts disrupting communication and destroying infrastructures and settlements have now become a permanent feature. There could be many factors behind this phenomenon but the recent surge in domestic tourism is one of the major factors that has become a matter of serious concern for the people.
Domestic tourists mostly coming to the region in their private vehicles cause carbon emissions, and violate the social norms and traditions of the region thus creating social problems more than income due to their irresponsible and uncivilized attitude. Throwing garbage everywhere is another huge emerging problem for the local tour operators and the local residents. Garbage bags, plastic shoppers, disposable drinking glasses, and pampers are eye sore.
If you don’t respect nature, they won’t be the same as you once visit the site. The responsibility for controlling such practices lies squarely on the authorities and civic agencies whose prime duty is to keep an eye on tourists educate and regulate them develop eco-friendly tourism plans and provide a clean environment.
The Gilgit-Baltistan government has in order to bring investment to the region and promote tourism allowed non-locals to build big hotels and offer huge loans without any regulation. People have started building concrete jungles without any sewerage and waste disposal plans exacerbating the environmental degradation.
Massive traffic entering the region, and buying of non-custom paid vehicles are increasing pollution in Gilgit Baltistan. This is also the failure of the state in putting in place a mechanism to regulate tourism and introduce eco-friendly tourism.
Health & food security
The health sector of Gilgit-Baltistan is also in shambles and the hospitals and basic health units are sources of spreading disease rather than curing the people. The babus in the health department are more concerned about their SUVs than providing CT scan machines and other vital equipment and life-saving drugs to the people.
The majority of people rush toward private hospitals and metropolitan cities for better health facilities. Health and food are the basic rights of the people. There is no check on the quality of medicine and food in the region. All spurious drugs and unhygienic food items have flooded the markets posing serious threats to the health of GB people. The regional government has failed to ensure food security and drug regulation policy.
In nutshell, one can come to the conclusion that Pakistan’s state organs and ruling elite as well as their local cronies and facilitators during the last 75 years have abysmally failed to ensure providing the basic necessities of life, access to better communication, health, education facilities and quality food and security to life to the people of the most important region they have been controlling since 1947. There seems no hope in sight and the rulers are least bothered in addressing these burgeoning issues in Gilgit-Baltistan keeping it under subjugation and marginalised totally dependent on Islamabad and other provinces.
The governments in Islamabad and Gilgit have huge responsibilities to address the grievances and concerns of the people and offer solutions to the burgeoning problems, lest it is too late.
Ziauddin Ali Shah is a journalist hailing from Gilgit-Baltistan. He has remained associated with national and international media outlets.