Pakistan Reader# 141, 3 November 2020
During the recent period, there has been a debate within Pakistan to grant provincial status to Gilgit-Baltistan. This decision stands contrary to Islamabad's position for the last seven decades ago. What changed, and why now?Farzia Yashmeen Chaliha
There is a debate today within Pakistan to provide a provincial status to Gilgit-Baltistan. This decision stands contrary to its seven decades position; both the civilian and the military governments of Pakistan directly controlled the governance of this region.
People of Gilgit Baltistan and their political rights were in a state of limbo. They neither belonged to an independent region nor did they have administrative and constitutional recognition as citizens, and felt being exploited and discriminated against even in comparison with the "Azad Kashmir" region. A section of the population in Gilgit-Baltistan wanted to be merged into Pakistan as a separate fifth province and opposed integration with Kashmir. However, successive governments of Pakistan rejected their plea for a provincial status and integration into the larger Pakistani State because it would jeopardize its demands for the whole Kashmir issue to be resolved according to the UN Resolutions.
However, in 2009 it was granted limited autonomy via, the Self-Governance Order signed by former President of Pakistan Asif Ali Zardari. Yet, the question of complete provincial status remained dubious even after the Gilgit-Baltistan Reform Order 2018. After seven decades the Government of Imran Khan declares to grant provincial status to Gilgit-Baltistan. Thereby, the question arises as to what Pakistan wants to do with Gilgit-Baltistan? The answer to the above question is yet again contested. Nevertheless, some of the factors are discussed below:
1. Domestic political gains
The announcement of 'three-phased anti-government movement,' beginning October 2020 and lasting till January 2021 by the triple alliance of the opposition parties or the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) with the aim to oust Imran Khan from his Prime Ministerial position, is acting as a push factor for the incumbent government towards consolidating its rule for the upcoming elections. If this alliance proves to usher its influence over the upcoming elections, it will put significant pressure on Imran Khan and his party (PTI).
Towards this above, Imran Khan would want to appease the citizens of Gilgit-Baltistan through granting provincial status in order to serve a quick win over this region which would also act as a catalyst in buying the goodwill with the Pakistan army helping him consolidate his rule over Pakistan.
2. Economic gains through the Natural Resources of Gilgit-Baltistan
Gilgit-Baltistan is rich in natural beauty and resources, and have been gaining attention as a tourist spot worldwide. Ironically, being the only remaining 'colony' in the world, Pakistan had been tapping much of its natural resources for its own provincial economic gains.
The Gilgit-Baltistan region earns much of its revenue from tourism and minerals. Being a naturally resourceful region, over 90 per cent of its population is engaged in agriculture. Along with it, there is an estimated 6, 40,000 hectares of forest area but unfortunately, around 2, 95,000 hectares of the forest cover had fallen to the callous cutting of trees and illegal smuggling. According to Mubashir Ayub, Assistant Director Gilgit-Baltistan Tourism Department, in 2017 he estimated that around 1.72 million tourists visited Gilgit-Baltistan. (Pamir Times, 29 November 2017).
After the 9/11 attacks although the tourism industry went down for a while yet after its revival, the industry bought revenue worth PKR 300 million to the local economy and it had potential to generate local business worth PKR one billion, which would in a way again add to the treasury of Pakistan if it gains provincial status in Pakistan.
The region has "minerals worth billions of dollars. Around Rs. 500 million values of gemstones are extracted annually from Gilgit-Baltistan and efforts are underway to explore other precious minerals." (Dr. Dhruvjyoti Bhattacharya, "Exploitation of Water and Mineral Resources of Gilgit-Baltistan," Indian Council of World Affairs, 16 September 2019).
The same essay also says that "It has been confirmed that nearly all valleys in Gilgit-Baltistan have reserves of gold and base metals, but the lack of investment and oversight has meant that the region or its people has not benefited." Although Gen. Pervez Musharraf issued mining licenses to 20 multinational companies yet because of the local powerful mafias, the mining industry had not flourished much. ("Real Threat to Mineral Industry in Gilgit-Baltistan," Gilgit-Baltistan Times, 20 July 2011).
Further, Pakistan had allowed China to exploit its mineral wealth. 35 tonnes of certain mineral deposits from uranium-rich Karkalti village of Ghizer district in Yasin Valley were smuggled to China. The local had, however, resisted the entry of foreign companies. Therefore, if Gilgit-Baltistan becomes a province of the Government of Pakistan, it would be able to explore the mineral and natural resources with more authorizations and expand its mining industry within the world market.
The next major natural resource for Pakistan in Gilgit-Baltistan is the Bhasha Dam. Keeping in perspective the fact that the Indus River flows through Gilgit-Baltistan, Pakistan intends to build five mega-dams with the help of China, in hydrographically rich areas like Skardu and Bhasha. The dams would eventually be used to inundate millions of acres of populated fertile lands to provide cheap electricity and water to the rest of Pakistan. Unfortunately, the plans for the construction of the Bhasha Dam had fallen victim to too many issues within the region. Firstly, due to a discord between Thore Valley of Daimer District in Gilgit-Baltistan and Kohistan region of Khyber- Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province the construction of the dam had been kept at hold. Building on this, the World Bank had also been showing reluctance to fund for the construction of the Bhasha dam, since it falls under the 'disputed area' category between India and Pakistan. The Bank, therefore, insisted on a 'No Objection Certificate' (NOC) from India. ("Uncertainty Prevails: Lenders seek guarantees Before Funding Bhasha Dam," The Express Tribune, 4 July 2013).
Besides the World Bank, even the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and the US, despite raising hopes have so far decided not to fund the project either directly or indirectly. ("Bhasha Dam delayed till 2037," Pakistan Defense, 12 July 2014). Under such conditions, Pakistan had turned to its 'all-weather friend' China, to make Bhasha dam a part of the CPEC project. Thus, from the above two factors, it becomes quite clear that Pakistan wants to tap almost all the resources of the Gilgit-Baltistan region to fuel its own provinces, especially after the failure of the Kalabagh Dam, which leads to acute shortage of electricity in the Punjab province of Pakistan.
Finally, Gilgit-Baltistan can generate Revenue for repayment of debts through Taxation. After the formation of the Gilgit-Baltistan legislative assemblies, over the years the Government of Pakistan had been taking heavy and direct and indirect taxes from the citizens of Gilgit-Baltistan. However, the region had neither been provided with any share in the National Finance Commission of Pakistan nor rendered any Constitutional status or granted fundamental rights. The first direct taxation policy on the region was introduced by the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) in 2012. ("Unfair Tax Imposition in G-B," The Express Tribune, 2 January 2018.)
Later on even Pakistan Muslim League –Nawaz (PML-N) levied more taxes on the people of Gilgit-Baltistan to drive maximum benefits out of the investments already made and likely to be made after the completion of the CPEC project. Such illegal imposition of taxation, even though the federal government earns Rs. 40 billion annually from Gilgit-Baltistan resources and in return gets only Rs. 26 billion which was tantamount to 'murder of traders.' Therefore, although there were huge protests against the imposition of illegal taxation in Gilgit-Baltistan if Gilgit-Baltistan becomes a part of the Pakistani establishment, then there are probabilities that Pakistan would want to impose more reformed taxation policies over Gilgit- Baltistan in order to keep pace with regard to the repayment of its own financial debts to IMF and World Bank.
3. Geo-strategic gains
First is the Karakoram Highway. The importance of the Karakoram Highway was realized after Pakistan ceded 5180 sq.km of Shaksgam Valley to China in 1963 without consulting the locals of Gilgit-Baltistan. The significance of the Karakoram Highway lies in the fact that it connects China with Pakistan via. Gilgit- Baltistan. Strategically this acts as a great asset towards Pakistan's ongoing and future trade and communication relations with China and beyond as well as Pakistan also uses the highway for bringing military equipment from China. China and Pakistan are also planning to link the KKH to the Southern Gwadar port of Balochistan through the Chinese aided construction of Gwadar-Dalbandin Railways extending upto Rawalpindi.
Second, Gilgit-Baltistan as a Gateway for Pakistan to Central Asia. The CPEC is part of the Chinese Silk Road Initiative more widely known as 'Belt and Road Initiative (BRI),' connecting Kashgar in Xinjiang with Gwadar port in Pakistan via. Gilgit-Baltistan. Thus the region provides both Pakistan-China with a strategic edge both in economic and security realms. Along with the investments generated regarding the construction of the KKH, China had also constructed five tunnels which were the part of the 24 km portion of the KKH in the Hunza Valley of Gilgit-Baltistan. ("PM Nawaz inaugurates Pak-China Friendship Tunnels over Attabad Lake," Dawn, 19 October 2020).
Ironically, despite accomplishing so many economic projects in Gilgit-Baltistan, Pakistan so far had deliberately kept Gilgit-Baltistan out of all the developments. The leadership of Gilgit-Baltistan has never been consulted on political developments related to CPEC. In contrast to that, China is aware of the significance of the Gilgit-Baltistan and its resource base towards the advancement of the CPEC project and its linkages with Pakistan, especially regarding the sea-line communications. The region would also provide China leverage to become a de facto member of the Kashmir dispute. China knows that India has reservations on Chinese investment in the region.
In a pre-emptive strategy to thwart any discontent emerging from the region, China granted five billion Pakistani rupees to develop infrastructure in Gilgit-Baltistan prioritizing education, health and road connectivity. Following from the above, one could observe that both Pakistan and China had realized that any kind of political settlement or economic development in Gilgit-Baltistan without the consent of the local people would get into controversy soon with the existing resentment over the constitutional crisis. Thus, the launch of major investment drive under the CPEC would help Pakistan use Gilgit- Baltistan as a gateway to Central Asia.
About the author
Dr Farzia Yashmeen Chaliha is enrolled with the NIAS Certificate Course on Contemporary Pakistan. Currently, she is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science, Jagannath Barooah College, Dibrugarh University, Assam. She was earlier a Research Associate in Centre for Northeast Studies and Policy Research (CNSPR), Guwahati, Assam. Her areas of interest include South Asia focussing on Pakistan's military and Human Security.