Politics in Gilgit-Baltistan

Published: May 25, 2010
The writer is a development sociologist and postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University (nosheen.ali@tribune.com.pk)

The writer is a development sociologist and postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University ([email protected])

I t has merely been nine months since the federally-controlled Northern Areas were transformed into the more province-like Gilgit-Baltistan, with triumphalist claims about how the Pakistani state had finally empowered this marginalised region. Yet the regions people are already realising that a more democratic set-up does not translate into better policy-making and substantive recognition of their rights.

This disillusionment has emerged in the aftermath of an ongoing natural disaster, which started when a massive landslide on the Hunza river in early January caused the formation of an artificial lake. Over the last four months, the overflowing lake has destroyed hundreds of acres of agricultural, residential, and commercial land in the upper Hunza area of Gojal, while also blocking the Karakoram Highway and submerging two bridges. The only road link between Pakistan and China is now disrupted. Over 20,000 people have already had to move to IDP camps, and 50,000 more could also be affected as the lake continues to swell.

Many in Gilgit-Baltistan argue that the damage could have been reduced if the government had taken the disaster seriously much earlier, and released water from the lake. People have strong grievances against the National Disaster Management Authority, the Frontier Works Organization, and the Gilgit-Baltistan government for their lack of political will, technical incompetence, and overall posture of normalcy throughout the past four months. The situation in Gilgit-Baltistan also raises larger questions about the politics of disaster relief in Pakistan. When the 2005 earthquake hit Azad Kashmir, there was an overwhelming public response accompanied by sustained relief efforts. Part of the reason for this response was the sheer magnitude of the tragedy, but part of it was also because Kashmir has been constructed as the bedrock of nationalist ideology in Pakistan, and hence, intimately appeals to our national sentiment. When a devastating cyclone hit Balochistan in June 2007, the relief efforts by the Pakistani government were dismal and the humanitarian Pakistani spirit was also conspicuously missing. As the situation in Gilgit-Baltistan becomes worse, it remains to be seen whether the region will also meet the fate of Balochistan in terms of political negligence.

It is also important to note that in the case of the 2007 cyclone and flash floods in Balochistan, a key factor that aggravated the damage was the ill-planned Mirani dam. In the ongoing Gilgit-Baltistan disaster, a warning issued by the flood forecasting division has similarly pointed out that the massive landslide can potentially be traced to an earthquake that resulted from blasting done by KKH constructors. This needs serious attention, as development visions in Gilgit-Baltistan have increasingly promoted the widening of the KKH as well as the creation of dams without a thorough assessment of the social and ecological impact of such mega-projects. In the wake of the Hunza disaster, the very need of these mega-projects needs to debated and reconsidered, particularly given the fragile terrain of the region. As a nation that is increasingly affected by natural disasters, we also need to re-evaluate our political and economic priorities. We need to ask why our civilian authorities remain so woefully under-equipped to deal with disasters, and why an already over-stretched military is the key decision-making and implementing authority in the context of a disaster. Most importantly, we need to ask why our resources are overwhelmingly spent on developing missiles, instead of facilitating disaster preparedness and humanitarian relief.

The immediate need, of course, is to provide care and compensation to those who have been affected by the tremendous loss of homes and livelihoods. People are extremely angry about the political disregard that has caused the loss of their land, which is the source of their history, identity, and life. These grievances add to an already existing sense of alienation that stems from the denial of constitutionally guaranteed fundamental rights to the region, under the garb of the Kashmir issue.

In the short-term, the least we can do is to whole-heartedly support local relief efforts. Among other sources, donations can be made to the Gojal Emergency Relief Fund, Account Number 851405, The First Micro Finance Bank, Sost Gojal, Branch Code 0208.

Published in the Express Tribune, May 25th, 2010.

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Reader Comments (14)

  • Basil Nabi Malik
    May 25, 2010 - 4:42PM

    Nice article Nosheen.Recommend

  • M. Ismail Khan
    May 25, 2010 - 6:24PM

    Good piece Nosheen.

    It took over 4 months for PPP, with two-third majority, to form a government. It may take years to get a government actually functioning… The province-like reform is high on symbolism and low on substance. Being too new, let’s give em some benefit of doubts though.
    In any way, it was the federal government’s take; as NHA, FWO, NDMA etc are federal arms. Why Chinese, right there working on KKH expansion, were not involved big way and upfront is something that boggles my mind…but then situation reflect the overall state of affairs…Recommend

  • Ameer Ali
    May 26, 2010 - 2:35PM

    Nice analysis by Nosheen.

    Immediately After the atta abad disaster I met Mr. Mehdi Shah in Islamabad and I was astonished to hear from him that this is not a big disaster and I remember on that evening he went to Lahore to Basant Festival, even he had not visit the disaster site. Now due to high media coverage he is putting the blame on others e.g. Assembly members Mr Wazir Baig and Mr. Mutabiat Shah. Any way we had to see this situation and still we can control the damages in terms of emotional and trust in Federal Government and in Local Authorities.

    NDMA is doing nothing but to wait for big damage to come and will call for foreign donor agencies for formation of attaabad donor conference.

    we really appreciate Nosheen efforts to high light the northern areas issues.

    Ameer Ali
    Passu, GojalRecommend

  • May 26, 2010 - 4:37PM

    MS. Nohseen has done magnificent work. I think the Government of Pakistan(PPP) is still seeking international aid to give relief to the affected people of Hunza. We are also missing our former leader General Pervez Musharaf, he was a strong leader and pure Pakistani. We would not face such difficulties if Mr. Musharaf would be the president of Pakistan.Recommend

  • hajat ullah baig
    May 26, 2010 - 5:12PM

    Thank u much for taking interest in deprived area of GBL. issue of submerging in water. we are taking wages of misconduct about the electing our leader to getting money for vote. this is our punishment to vote for them because we are not sincere to choose our leader on the best of honesty. this is only the lesson to be learnt from our experience.
    i am deeply inspired by our analytical approach
    God bless u Recommend

  • May 26, 2010 - 10:20PM

    The work of Nosheen Ali is undoubtedly wonderful as she pleads the case of people of the area but side by side impartial investigation to ascertain where the fault actually lies should be carried out at least to maintain standard operating procedure for writing in press.
    The empowerment and Self-Governance Order 2009, no matter, a presidential order, but guarantees internal autonomy provided the representatives of public could understand how to deal with affairs and whats their role.
    It is never too late, the people should elect people who could keep abreast with modern age instead of chieftains,and prefer to vote on sectarian and ethnic lines.
    Why dont they send their daughters to schools so as to educate the entire area.
    There may be arguments but it will be advisable to see for oneself using fifth senses to visualize reality.
    One can find those infrastructure in the far flung areas of Gilgit-Baltistan which are not existed in the represented part of country.
    More or less, all those provincial affairs the shah Baz Sharif of Punjab or Qaim Ali Shah of Sind deal with, are delegated to the Cheif Minister of region.
    The federal government despite its many wrong policies in other matters have done a remarkable work by giving them what they cherished for decades.
    The sole responsibility for the whatsoever outcome of the Hunza lake is the government of GB not Islamabad.
    Gilgit Recommend

  • Sadia
    May 27, 2010 - 7:46AM

    A very sensible and well-written piece about the crisis affecting a relatively obscure area of Pakistan. As a gori I had the opportunity to visit the place 3 years ago and was completely stupefied by the beauty of the mountains and the hospitality of the people. It is really sad that Hussaini bridge has almost completely disappeared and it is my personal opinion that Aga Khan Foundation has enough reserves that they are in a position to administer relief to the victims of this tragedy…more so when one sees the apathy of the functionaries in Islamabad. I stayed one night at the Marco Polo Inn in Gulmit and have very fond memories of Raja Hussain Kahn, the proprietor. He was building an extension of his tourist lodging when I visited Gulmit and I got a nice taste of yak masala when I stayed there. I hope Insha’Allah we shall see some relief. I agree with the author that the pani should have been siphoned off before the glaciers start melting and exacerbate the sitation for the residents, whether they be in Gojal or further downstream…..Recommend

  • Sadia
    May 27, 2010 - 8:05AM

    One correction to my last contribution, the gentleman’s name is Raja Hussain Khan, not Kahn. That was a typo. As well, I think that Islamabad should not have claimed they had subcontracted the engineering work to a Chinese firm (as was reported in the media for a week or two after the landslide) when they had no such plans. This must have just further antagonized the people of Gujal…and they ought to be angry when you see Dave’s landslide blog, as he says the spillway is inadequate to contain the flow. http://daveslandslideblog.blogspot.com/
    My two cents. Khudah hafiz.
    Houston, TXRecommend

  • rehmat raheem
    May 27, 2010 - 10:16AM

    dear nosheen,

    i would like to thanks you, that you have mentioned the major problem of hunza gojal and particularly,the effected people of attabad messive land sliding in 4th,january,2010.its understood and we need to emphassize through columns,articals and through geniun report to share the devostating land sliding and distructive lake artificial lake,which distroyed the form atta abad to passu with four month and our government is still in deep sleep that what promptly they shouild have to take action.

    the only way to reallize and encourage the people of gilgit baltistan and particularly hunza distric,is to help and to teach how they will face the problem in futur in different sectoer,like education,health,economy amd agroculture.

    once again i thank and hope you will keep in touch with hunza people and share your viwes.


    rehamt raheem sheraziRecommend

  • May 27, 2010 - 12:16PM

    Thank you Nosheen for raising the issues of post Attabad Disaster which has affected thousands of people across the beautiful valley of Hunza. You are right many of us since the beginning of blockage were emphasizing on siphoning off water from the lake before sinking of the Shishkat, Ayeenabad and Gulmit, which could have been possible, provided the government was willing to do so. Given the lake of seriousness to resolve the issue although there were experts’ reports which had indicated very clearly the dangers of the lake, if immediate action were not taken at the earlier stages, people in Hunza and Gilgit-Baltistan are very frustrated with the government of Pakistan.
    Your excellent articulation of the issues that are linked with other similar issues in other neglected parts of Pakistan does provide the weaknesses of political system in Pakistan that is stumbles the foundation of the state.Recommend

  • Nosheen Ali
    May 27, 2010 - 12:27PM

    Thank you all for your helpful comments. Reportedly, the Chinese were using better equipment to blast and expand the KKH, which could have been used to deal with the disaster instead. Instead of letting the FWO manage it at their low, ill-equipped pace, it really needs to be asked why Chinese help was not sought as a matter of priority. Let’s hope that continued protests in the region and media coverage helps to bring more attention and seriousness to the plight of Gojal. Recommend

  • Fozia
    May 29, 2010 - 12:16AM

    rightly put up nosh api!
    i hope its read and understoodRecommend

  • May 29, 2010 - 8:56PM

    The people of Hunza have my best wishes for emerging well from this event, which is culminating as I write, with initial drainage already starting. I have the deepest empathy for the local population. As a geologist and glaciologist, I am interested in glaciated areas of the Earth, including the Karakoram. I have taken a special interest following the story of this landslide damming event, which now is beginning the culmination phase with initiation of surface flow across the dam. I, for instance, working with my assistant Greg Leonard, have made the computation of lake volume (400-500 million cubic meters), which is now known to the NDMA; and I am the one who ordered the acquisition of the NASA (ASTER) satellite images, which were the basis for my volume calculation. I read with interest the analysis by Ms. Nosheen Ali. Most are matters that are for Pakistanis and Hunza residents to take up, and are not appropriate for me as an American to voice an opinion. I am aware of the criticisms of the Pakistan agency actions, and I will just leave that as simple awareness, since it is not my place to comment. However, as a geologist, there is one point I should bring up, not in defense of NDMA or anybody, just as a fact. It is raised as a possibility that blasting to widen the KKH could have contributed to or initiated conditions that caused the landslide; I have read this idea before, so I think it will be a recurrent theme. This cannot be ruled out, but the evidence does not point that way. I presume that you refer to the widening that started in 2008. The fact is, my colleagues, John Shroder and Michael Bishop, wrote a peer-reviewed paper in 1998 where they documented one very recent landslide and evidence for an even earlier one, all at this exact spot. Furthermore, the mountain slope conditions and other conditions here and about 200 other places in the upper Indus are extremely ripe for landslides. You could say that blasting to widen a highway may have precipitated conditions that caused the landslide; it is possible. But the fundamental conditions were already there, and will on the human time scale remain there at this site and many others in the region. With or without highway widenings, this region will have a succession of similar events this century, just as there have been in the previous two centuries, and before that. The bigger, longer term issue here, beyond this terrible present situation, is the increasing development and population in the region, and their location in some of the most dangerous places. I don’t know what the solution would be; it is not my place to create a solution. But it is clear that there is a long-term, severe problem, and it cannot be attributed to one or more engineering acts, such as widening of a highway. Recommend

  • Ghulam Mustafa
    Jun 2, 2010 - 9:55PM

    Well, it is sad to learn about the possible disaster lurking in our backyard. By being in the area so many times I know the problems of local people to some extent BUT one thing always bothers me is that Why the intelligentsia always brings every debate to missiles and nuclear.
    These are way different things. It clearly seems as if there is a hidden agenda to serve when these writers write about problems faced by people as if by not spending on nuclear or missile programs would have prevented 2005 earthquake or formation of this lake.
    For God sake, stop criticizing in such manner and don’t serve your masters at the cost of our existence/defence.
    Now as far dealing with lake is concerned, this is an engineering problem and no one in the Military advised Civil Government to not to seek expert advice. They (politicians) run the govt, they control the budget and they call the shots (apologies if ‘they’ is offensive to anybody). The Government must be held responsible for not doing what should have been done and must be credited for doing whatever they could in areas called ‘roof of the world’.
    It would not surprise me if the writer holds any grudge against our defence programs or the military.Recommend

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