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Has Pakistan given China a carte blanche to plunder Gilgit-Baltistan?

The earlier plans to make Gilgit-Baltistan a province is not likely to be met, as it not only requires more finances, but it will also give more power to the regional government, who will have a say in decisions regarding the use of its resources by Pakistan or China 

June 16, 2022 / 01:34 PM IST
Pakistan is likely to be more malleable to China’s demands for increased access to the PoK region. (Representative image)

Pakistan is likely to be more malleable to China’s demands for increased access to the PoK region. (Representative image)

As Pakistan’s economy reels from crisis to crisis, the first overt protests have begun, that too in its part of Kashmir, illegally occupied since 1947. There is a form of extremely limited government in the two areas of Gilgit-Baltistan and ‘Azad Kashmir’, and it is from within these that officials are pushing back against severe budget cuts, which will render already shaky administrations virtually dysfunctional.

For decades now the people of Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir have been treated as second class citizens by Islamabad, but matters appear to have come to a head. In addition to the cut in funds, now the Chinese are taking away their lands and resources, of course with Islamabad’s connivance. The new set of occupiers have been sanctioned by the old!

Cut Down To Size

On June 12, the ‘Chief Minister’ of Gilgit-Baltistan, Khalid Khurshid Khan, accused Islamabad of halving the development budget for the region from PKR 47 billion to PKR 23 billion to deliberately “push the region backwards”.

Despite providing power to the rest of the country, Gilgit-Baltistan has just two hours of power available, because the region is not part of Pakistan’s national grid. In addition to this, it suffers food shortages, and has no control over its hydropower or other resources.

Close

Not far, ‘Prime Minister’ of ‘Azad Kashmir’ Sardar Tanveer Ilyas and his Cabinet decided against tabling the budget for the same reason, protesting that such cuts made governance untenable. Ilyas also pointed to the sensitivity of his region as “the base camp of [Kashmir’s] liberation but also strategically important in view of India’s aggression at the Line of Control” making the case that Islamabad could not afford to be parsimonious in the light of these facts.

Both Khan and Ilyas belong to political families, and are members of Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI). While Khan came to power allegedly after the elections were rigged, Ilyas toppled the previous government. Well that’s ‘tradition’, and those close to the power centre in Islamabad get the top job in these two regions. The legal question is how Pakistani mainland political parties dominate elections in an area that is not part of its constitutionally-mandated territory!

The Disappearing Constitution

Meanwhile, the truth is that both the leaders, the ‘Chief Minister’ of Gilgit-Baltistan and the ‘Prime Minister’ of ‘Azad Kashmir’ have even fewer powers than a Chief Minister in India. In ‘Azad Kashmir’, everything of consequence — from newspapers to the appointment of judges, the election commissioner, the auditor general, and the like — are under the remit of a council headed by the Prime Minister of Pakistan. The legislative assembly has some power to levy taxes, but tax authorities are appointed from among Pakistan’s Federal Bureau of Revenue.

In 2018, the then outgoing Nawaz Sharif government and the local government quietly introduced the 13th Amendment to the ‘interim constitution’, which at one stroke made the constitution a permanent document, moved some 52 subjects from the council to the assembly, and for the first time, brought in fundamental rights that are part of the Pakistani constitution. It quietly cut the lopsided power equation with Islamabad. But it was not to be.

The Imran Khan government not just reversed the whole process, but went on to take away any residuary powers, so much so that today the ‘Prime Minister’ of ‘Azad Kashmir’ is a rubber stamp. Of the constitution, interim or otherwise, there is no sign. More or less the same thing happened in Gilgit-Baltistan.

Islamabad passed the Gilgit-Baltistan Order 2018, which effectively reversed some marginal freedoms granted by earlier governments, by removing an entire tier of government, and remanding the powers to the Chief Minister. This created bipartisan protests against what was called an ‘Emperor’s Ordinance’. The appellate court of Gilgit-Baltistan quashed the order, even issuing contempt of court noticed to former Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, and the concerned federal minister for violation of law.

The Pakistan Supreme Court stepped in, overturned this decision, and restored the order. Justice Saqir Nisar seemed to have forgotten that the map of Pakistan did not legally include the area. Thereafter, the Imran Khan government flirted with the idea of giving Gilgit-Baltistan a full provincial status, this under pressure from China, for whom the region is not simply an entry point for the China Pakistan Economic Corridor, but a source of mineral and agricultural wealth that it can exploit easily if its dubious legal status is cleared.

China’s Hand In The Till?

Recently, protests were reported in Hunza, an area of vast mineral wealth in Gilgit-Baltistan, against the leasing out of its lands to the Chinese, as locals resorted to stoning convoys of the Pakistan army. Hunza is a treasure trove for not just rubies and emeralds, but also coal, and rare earths like Niobium and Neodymium, vital light rare earth elements crucial in products such as motors and turbines and electric vehicles.

In recent years, resentment over arbitrary land use has grown. Protests erupted recently against the Frontier Works Organization over the construction of the Gilgit Skardu road, where at least two ministers were manhandled. The CPEC projects like the Maqpundas EEZ in Gilgit, also came up against a barrier of land ownership as authorities tried to bulldoze the acquisition of land, without paying compensation to the locals. Now it seems that the land grab is likely to be extended to include mineral wealth, apart from the promised focus on agriculture, which is the key to the CPEC Master Plan.

Meanwhile, Islamabad is struggling to align its budget — particularly the defence budget — with a $6.4 billion debt that the International Monetary Fund takes a dim view of. Therefore, its financial ability to provide for its own provinces is likely to be hit. In such a scenario, it is likely to be more malleable to China’s demands for increased access to the ungoverned (and under governed) PoK region.

The earlier plans to make Gilgit-Baltistan a province is not likely to be met, as it not only requires more finances, but it will also give more power to the regional government, who will have a say in decisions regarding the use of its resources by Pakistan or China.

As things go downhill from here, the people of PoK are only going to be worse off, as Islamabad’s neglect and resource abuse will continue. Meanwhile, Srinagar will soon go to the polls. The difference could not be starker.

 
Tara Kartha is Distinguished Fellow, Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi. Views are personal.
first published: Jun 16, 2022 01:34 pm
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