Gilgit-Baltistan (GB), formerly known as the Northern Areas, which is an integral part of the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir but currently under Pakistani occupation, has come into prominence with the announcement of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). CPEC, a part of China’s broader One-Belt-One-Road (OBOR) initiative, is widely hailed in Pakistan as a game changer that is destined to bring considerable economic benefits. But amidst the debate in Pakistan focused on the economics and politics of CPEC, the aspirations of the people of GB are being ignored. Any voice raised against CPEC is muffled by the media. Nobody in Pakistan is clear as to where GB stands in the larger narrative on CPEC.
When it comes to development, GB remains the most neglected region under Pakistani control. There has not been any serious effort by successive governments to mainstream the region either through connectivity or political and social reforms. Due to its geographical location, GB shares a border with Pakistan’s all-weather friend China. Given the porous nature of the border, the people of the region claim that they have had more in common with the Chinese historically and culturally. China is credited with increasing the geostrategic value of the region by developing the Karakoram highway (KKH), which was started in the 1950s and completed in 1978. The highway is reported to have been used by China to transport weapons and missiles to Pakistan, albeit covertly without the knowledge of the locals.1
Although China has been able to make inroads into the region through its previous development projects, CPEC, touted as China’s largest investment project in Pakistan so far, has given rise to doubts and discontent among the locals for want of a clear roadmap and policy by the government of Pakistan. Estimates and forecasts show that the region itself is likely to gain very little from CPEC despite a projected total investment of about USD 50 billion. There has been talk of Punjab province cornering a major portion of the planned investment. That has led to other provinces demanding greater openness about the project as well as a greater share for themselves of the expected investments so that all-round development can be ensured. Many economists and analysts have argued that Pakistan does not have the absorptive capacity for the huge infrastructural development envisioned and may unwittingly walk into a huge debt trap. They caution that the Chinese are not particularly charitable, with the interest rates charged for loans pegged very high. Hence, the benefits that could accrue to Pakistan through investment in power production in particular could be offset by the burden on the exchequer by way of rising debt.
The ongoing Pakistani debate over the benefits and costs notwithstanding, there is very little debate about the economic aspirations of, and the costs likely to be suffered by, the people of GB. There are reports in the media that land is being forcibly acquired and without paying compensation by the local administration on directions from Islamabad for the purpose of establishing a Special Economic Zone in Maqpon Das Village in tehsil Denyuore, Gilgit. Such arbitrary actions under the banner of development is adding to the misery and discontent of the locals.
Gilgit Baltistan has been under the control of Pakistan since April 1949, when the leadership of the so-called Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK) was forced to sign away this territory to Pakistan. However, the region does not have any place in the constitutional framework of Pakistan and has been kept under the tight control of the central government. Even the grant of national representative governance in 2009 has not altered the ground reality in any significant manner. It appears that China has lately been advising Pakistan to explore the possibility of absorbing the region as a province so that the ‘disputed’ tag is removed and CPEC can go ahead without diplomatic complications vis-à-vis India. Such a step by Pakistan is, however, likely to adversely impact the India-Pakistan equation and escalate tensions and consequently have a detrimental effect on CPEC itself.
Pakistan’s contemplation of the idea of designating GB as its fifth province has already drawn flak from separatists in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir who otherwise welcome every move by Pakistan pertaining to Kashmir. A few months back, Yassin Malik wrote an open letter to Pakistan criticising the move and advised Pakistan not to take such a decision because it could have a detrimental effect on the larger Kashmir issue.
Interestingly, the people of GB tend to compare their region with Ladakh, which, according to them, enjoys democratic rights and has seen much better socio-political and economic development. They also demand hill councils for GB, modeled after the hill council of Ladakh. On many occasions during protests against the Pakistani state, they walk to the LoC and evince a desire to cross over to Ladakh for the purpose of leading a better life.
It needs to be underlined here that the people of GB have been demonstrating against the step-motherly treatment meted out to their region by Pakistan for decades. Some demand greater rights and representation within Pakistan, while others demand outright independence. Despite Pakistani claims to the contrary, the government’s record of investment in the local economy remains poor and patchy. Unemployment rates are soaring, leading to an exodus of youth from the region to different areas of Pakistan as well as to the Persian Gulf and other regions.
Although GB is the entry point for CPEC, initially there was hardly any attention given to this region. This is illustrated by the fact that at one point the Pakistan government actually considered shifting the dry port at Sost to a suitable area in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, but desisted only because of popular pressure. Given the historical neglect of the region as well as land grabbing and other exploitative measures, the people of the region are sceptical about the prospects of economic improvement from CPEC.
It has to be noted that GB hardly finds a mention in statements related to CPEC. Despite the narrative of development, locals had earlier viewed the coming of KKH with apprehension, which later came true when the route began to be used for drug trafficking and gun running. The fact of the matter is that the people of GB have no say on CPEC projects. Nor are the rights of the locals protected as evident from forced land procurement for the corridor project. Minus the upgradation of the KKH, CPEC will only lead to a sprinkling of development, with much of the benefits going to the interiors of Pakistan (especially Punjab and Sindh).
The lack of representation in Pakistan’s parliament and government structures for the people of GB is a grim reminder of the region’s neglect by the government of Pakistan. Given an already upset population and the presence of anti-establishment factions, the unequal distribution of the benefits of CPEC is likely to ignite protests and cause a setback to the initiative as well to the Pakistan establishment.
Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.