Pakistan Reader# 137, 9 October 2020
Dams are sensitive projects in Pakistan. The proposed Kalabagh dam is a prime example, causing decades-long conflict between Sindh, Punjab and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. An apparent effort to revive both the Kalabagh dam and the long-delayed Akhori dam in Punjab saw activities disrupted in the Pakistan parliament last month. With Gilgit-Baltistan however, the Pakistan government can sidestep all of these problems.Vishnu Prasad
Assistance from China is finally making the Diamer-Bhasha dam, a long-standing dream for Pakistan, look like a realistic prospect. However, the development is bad news for the people of Gilgit-Baltistan, who have virtually no say in a project that will affect them the most.
Building the dam: What is different now?
In simple words - China and the CPEC.
In July 2020, when Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan took to the stage at a function held to inaugurate the construction of the Diamer-Bhasha dam, the more sceptical of observers could have been forgiven for dismissing it as yet another false dawn. After all, this was a project that had been announced and inaugurated multiple times until the 1970s. Successive governments were unable to find the necessary funds to fulfil the plans.
However, this time was different because Pakistan is not going at it alone. In their corner was China with all its financial and technological might. The Pakistan government, in May 2020, had struck up a deal with China for nearly USD 2.75 billion, that would see the latter's state-run power firm China Power hold 70 per cent stake in the project. (Mian Abrar, "Diamer-Bhasha dam’s construction set to commence after 40 years of delay," Pakistan Today, 19 May 2020) After nearly half a century of frustration for successive Pakistani governments, the mega-dam on the Indus, finally looks like a realistic prospect.
However, not everyone listening to Khan in the town of Chilas in Gilgit-Baltistan that day would have been applauding his words. While most of the headlines that greeted news of the Pakistan-China partnership over the dam dealt with neighbour India's concerns over it being built in the disputed Gilgit-Baltistan region, few addressed the concerns of the local populace over a project that was virtually being forced upon them.
For GB, it would be all the sacrifice and little benefits
The Diamer-Bhasha dam takes its name from two different regions that mean different things to Pakistan. Bhasha is a village in the Kohistan district of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and is the minor partner. Diamer, in Gilgit-Baltistan, is where the dam will affect people the most.
Estimates by the Pakistani government talk of more than 35,000 people being displaced, almost all of them from Gilgit-Baltistan ("Diamer-Bhasha: Dam the odds," Dawn, 03 March 2012). The plan is to relocate them to three newly-constructed sites nearby. However, this has already run into rough weather with opposition from current residents holding up land acquisition in two of these sites — Thak Das and Sagachal Das (Khalid Hasnain, "Diamer-Basha Dam: Over 14,000 acre land transferred to Wapda," Dawn, 02 April 2020). There are allegations that people who have already given up their land are yet to get compensated. An organization called the Diamer-Bhasha Affectees Action Committee frequently stages protests against this delay in awarding compensation (Israr Ahmed, "Diamer Bhasha Dam affectees protest for rights," The Nation, 30 January 2019).
It is doubtful whether the people of Gilgit-Baltistan will see any of the benefits that the dam will bring. The issue of royalty has been contested between Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Gilgit-Baltistan for long. While the latter will host the reservoir, the power-generation itself will be in Bhasha, lending credence to Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa's claim. Few in Gilgit-Baltistan appear to have benefited from the jobs created so far. Recently, protesters, staging a march in front of the Water and Power Development Authority (WAPDA) office in Gilgit, alleged that less than one per cent of such jobs had gone to local residents ("Youth protest against WAPDA alleging injustice in Diamer-Bhasha Dam project vacancies," Pamir Times, 09 September 2020).
There is that sense of a loss of control over the Indus, a river that flows through Gilgit-Baltistan before it enters Pakistan. Constructing such a huge project over the Indus will have serious ecological ramifications for the people of Gilgit-Baltistan. Experts say that building such a big reservoir will lead to increased evaporation and worsen the already harsh climate of the region and that the increased seismic activity there adds to the risk of a catastrophe. There are concerns that the dam will affect water quality on the Indus. Yet, with so many factors to consider, the people of Gilgit-Baltistan have had virtually no say in the execution of the project, or indeed in whether they wanted such a dam on their land.
Lack of representation from GB
Gilgit-Baltistan does not enjoy provincial status within Pakistan. It is this that perhaps makes it an ideal candidate for such a big dam. Dams are sensitive projects in Pakistan. The proposed Kalabagh dam is a prime example, causing decades-long conflict between Sindh, Punjab and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. An apparent effort to revive both the Kalabagh dam and the long-delayed Akhori dam in Punjab saw activities disrupted in the Pakistan parliament last month.
With Gilgit-Baltistan however, the Pakistan government can sidestep all of these problems. That it is not a province means it has no representation in the Pakistan assembly. When it comes to affairs in the region, it is the central government that will have the final say.
For Islamabad, this means the freedom to go ahead with controversial projects without having to address dissenting voices. Voices that the people of Gilgit-Baltistan would surely have raised if they had that luxury.
About the author
Vishnu Prasad is enrolled with the NIAS Certificate Course on Contemporary Pakistan. He is also pursuing an MA in International Studies from Christ University, Bengaluru and was formerly a reporter with the New Indian Express. He is interested in exploring ethnic and cultural aspects of Pakistan's society.