It is a real test for Gilgit-Baltistan Legislative Assembly to address the longstanding issues of over two million people living in the far-flung areas
By Jahangir Khan
The people of Gilgit-Baltistan finally got their identification and political rights through the Empowerment and Self-Governance Order-2009 introduced by the present PPP government. The Order still needs constitutional cover-up to make it an Act of Parliament. The significant and welcoming part of the Empowerment and Self-Governance Order was renaming the area from Northern Areas to Gilgit-Baltistan - actually retrieval of its historic name. This development has indeed given the people of this strategically important area identification and helped remove confusion over the region's name.
As expected, the PPP won elections under the new package and the formation of executive is underway. In the first phase, Syed Mehdi Shah has been appointed as Chief Minister of Gilgit-Baltistan Legislative Assembly (GBLA) while Wazir Baig and Jamil Ahmad have been appointed as Speaker and Deputy Speaker respectively. In the next phase, provincial ministers and advisors will be appointed. And consultation is underway on appointment of 15-member Gilgit-Baltistan Council and local governor. Not sure how this uniquely intertwined political setup will function vis-a-vis a strong bureaucracy established in the region. Historically, the political representatives invariably were found blaming bureaucracy for all the hurdles and pushing the area towards backwardness.
Now it is a real test for new setup with enhanced political, administrative and financial powers with a mandate to address the longstanding issues of approximately over two million people living in the far-flung areas. These problems include lack of basic facilities including education, health, electricity and limited employment opportunities coupled with natural hardships including extreme weather, life in high altitude with no road access and limited harvesting season etc.
In the light of numerous problems and overwhelming expectations from the new set-up, it is imperative for the GB legislators to set their priorities from the outset and align the resources accordingly. The most important and urgent task in hand is maintaining peace and harmony in the region - a spine for developmental process and better and sincere coordination between the elected representatives and the strong bureaucracy. Without doubt, the people of this region are naturally peace-loving, patriotic and have always remained loyal and valiant particularly at the times of battles which Pakistan fought against its traditional rival -India. These unwavering factors connected and united these people for centuries against all odds of life. This asset needs to be harnessed by giving more weight to the public voice and resolving their issues pending for the last over six decades.
Without exception every successive government has installed a strong bureaucracy in Gilgit Baltistan by entrusting them with excessive financial and administrative powers. Resultantly, the so called political system was never allowed to take deep roots. It was a long struggle by the people of GB for their political rights. The credit goes to the present PPP government for granting a province-like status to GB thus giving the local people their basic political right after 62 years of independence.
Now there will be a real test for elected representatives as how they will smoothly manage the transition of powers from bureaucracy to political setup. As they rightly say 'powers are taken not given', the elected representatives should pursue a planned and careful approach for smooth transition of power followed by delivering through good governance. Of course, the new government will have many challenges mainly ever increasing unemployment among the youth, poverty, lack of basic healthcare, educational and infrastructural related facilities. Unfortunately, the available financial resources are misappropriated by concerned quarters. For example, Annual Development Plan (ADP) for Gilgit-Baltistan has never been designed in line with the needs of the area rather this key planning document is traditionally done by local Planning and Development Department without having understanding of ground realities and common issues.
Thus, every year a major chunk of ADP is spent without achieving the targets. For instance, the highest consumer of ADP is power sector with 27.2 percent share in 2009-10 followed by Transport and Communications with 26.7 percent, but unfortunately these allocations have never borne fruit to the people of Gilgit-Baltistan. One can easily witness power shortage in big cities like Gilgit, Skardu, Chilas and Ghizar where people don't have electricity even for domestic use. GB offers abundant water resources for energy which, if tapped judiciously, can produce electricity not only for the area but for rest of the country. Similar underperformance is witnessed in transport and communications sectors. There are many villages still cut off from main cities due to the harsh terrain and lack of accessible roads.
People want substantial improvement in these services which exhaust about 54 percent of their resources. There could be many reasons for this underperformance, but apparently the predominant practice of corruption and nepotism in the respective departments are major factors. The legislators need to immediately review the ADP allocations and take stern action against those responsible for misuse of public funds. This will help re-appropriate the resources and set milestones for future planning. The figures of ADP 2009-10 show that very little resources are allocated in potential income generating sectors including Tourism (2 percent), Agriculture (1 percent), Minerals & industries (0.5 percent), Fisheries (0.4 percent) and Forestry (0.7 percent). Unless and until priorities are based on ground realities, the development projects will never bring relief to the people of area.
These non-traditional but resourceful sectors should receive attention of the legislators who are now entrusted with making laws on these subjects too. If explored and harnessed, these natural resources will not only strengthen the economy of GB, but also contribute to the GDP as a whole. Take the example of tourism opportunities, until the war on terror began Gilgit-Baltistan was a major destination for foreign tourists, especially for mountaineers, thus generating indigenous resources as well as contributing to national economy.
This potential resource must be explored through concrete plans that include investment, establishing well-equipped tourist resource centres, mountaineering training institutes, procuring tourist-specific transport facilities, expanding and revamping Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation (PTDC) and ensuring security of the tourists visiting the area. And more importantly there is a need to ask the federal government for expansion of Gilgit and Skardu airports for all weather flights which, at the moment, is one of the major problems confronted by both tourists and the people of GB. Countries like Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia and Hong Kong have strengthened their economies by promoting tourism.
Last but not the least; human resource development should draw attention of the local government in all legislations and development projects. Research has proved that until and unless skillful human resources are available, no social and economic changes can be achieved. It is expected that the new government will give priority to education, particularly skills development, thus enabling thousands of unemployed youth to earn their livelihood and at the same time contribute to local economy. Karakuram International University (KIU) Gilgit can be used as a platform for human resource development, particularly in non-traditional fields such as tourism, mountaineering, minerals, herbal medicine, water resource management, environment etc.
Due to lack of support on the part of local government, the only public sector KIU is still grappling with teething issues and there is lot to be done to make it an international standard university as envisaged in its charter. If capitalised on wisely, KIU would not only provide skillful human capital for Gilgit- Baltistan, but also can serve as a platform for international researchers especially in the field of mountaineering, culture, environment etc.
Amid manifold challenges at hand, the new setup has to prove its worth, paving the way for full-fledged provincial autonomy or a setup similar to AJK. This could only be achieved through good governance, including transparency, accountability, rule of law, meritocracy and participatory approach. One can hardly find these features in Pakistan's political culture, but time has approached to work hard for our survival and put the nation on road to progress.