The socio-economic and territorial development of Gilgit-Baltistan (G-B) is of tremendous strategic importance to Pakistan for a host of reasons. The area borders with China and the Wakhan Corridor of Afghanistan, as well as with the India-occupied areas of Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh (IOK). With the coming on stream of CPEC, the area will be of increasing commercial importance to both China and Pakistan. Keeping peace and safe borders will be critical. In addition, the Indus, our major river, and many of the glaciers that feed it, are located there. These are already threatened by global climate change and it is essential that we do not exacerbate these impacts by local actions. Lastly, given the current situation in IOK, how we deal with G-B (and with Azad Jammu and Kashmir) will be under scrutiny in Pakistan and overseas. We must get this right and show the world that we can manage the development of a small but strategically located area with skill and effectiveness. Key aspects that will need to be fine-tuned include the relationship of G-B with the federal government and other provinces, and how much power and autonomy is given to the G-B government and local bodies.
In the paragraphs below, we will highlight the main areas related to tourism, agriculture and governance where we think better policies are needed.
G-B is a spectacularly beautiful area of Pakistan, but is economically poor and environmentally fragile. The opening of the Karakoram Highway (KKH) in 1978 dramatically improved access to the area which previously could only be reached by air or seasonal jeep roads. One of the results of the opening of the KKH has been rapidly growing tourism (reportedly 2 million visitors last year). However, this explosion in tourism poses major challenges. Most tourists tend to stay in relatively cheap accommodation; spend little on food, often bringing supplies with them; and undertake few recreational activities, preferring to drive around in cars and jeeps. What little money is brought into G-B does not match the costs related to the wear and tear on the infrastructure such as roads, and essential services such as sewage, solid waste collection and other municipal services. G-B may thus be losing rather than benefiting from such low-cost tourism.
It is important that the government take steps to upgrade tourism to bring in more revenues to the local population. This will require, inter alia, more investments in quality hotels and restaurants; better organised sports and other activities for tourists, particularly in the winter which tends to be a dead period; more experiential tourism where visitors can visit and stay in local houses, eat local foods and participate in local activities such as fruit harvesting, as is done in France during the grape harvest; and entrance fees for the four national parks in the area. It is also critical that strong steps are taken to ensure that tourism is environmentally friendly. In particular, strict regulations and guidelines backed up with penalties and fines are needed to control environmental degradation. Hotels and eating places should be licensed only after they have installed adequate sewage and waste disposal facilities; solid waste collection and recycling needs to be improved; and the import of plastic bags must be banned as has been done in countries such as Kenya, which are heavily dependent on tourism.
While tourism is big and growing, its impact is mainly on those living near the roads or major tourist sites. As a result most of the population in the area remains highly dependent on agriculture and livestock. The opening of the KKH helped move the area out of pure subsistence farming and currently several fruit and vegetable crops are sent to other parts of Pakistan, while major staples such as wheat, oil and sugar are imported. However, poor product quality, rudimentary packing and storage, and high transport costs mean that local farmers get very minimal returns. As a result they continue to grow wheat, buckwheat and maize for domestic consumption, and fodder for their animals. Further rapid improvements in the transport infrastructure currently underway will provide greater opportunities for farmers to produce more cash crops and livestock products for export particularly to the big cities such as Islamabad, Lahore and Rawalpindi, where consumers are prepared to pay premium prices for out-of-season, organic products and low gluten cereals that can be produced in G-B. While this process will be largely market-driven, government actions are needed for developing and promoting appropriate crops and livestock products; encouraging production clusters in areas where conditions are particularly suitable; establishing branding, quality control and certification system, preferably in collaboration with the international quality control firms already operating in Pakistan; and facilitating engagement with large supermarkets, as well as with contractors and middlemen who specialise in supplying to the large urban markets around the country.
Good governance and empowered community organisations are an essential part of development. In G-B, community organisations tend to be strong and perform well. This is due to the relatively egalitarian land holding systems, the absence of large landlords and feudals, the generally liberal and inclusive social structure which also allows a strong role of women, and years of work by organisations such as the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme. However, the technical and administrative skills in the governmental system are still rudimentary. G-B is a relatively new province and is still struggling to establish strong, well-rooted and effective public systems. Enhancing the government’s capacity is a slow and complex process everywhere which is driven not only by investments in manpower and facilities, but is also dependent on the political structure and the vision and capacity of key leaders. G-B has the opportunity to turn its weakness (namely, its still nascent public system) into strength. It can do this by introducing more ICT-intensive systems, avoiding the creation of large overstaffed bureaucracies, bringing community organisations and the private sector into the management of public systems, and creating a more consultative system for policy making and implementation.
Much needs to be done and much can be done to put G-B on a strong and sustainable development trajectory. Government and development partners should not lose this opportunity.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 7th, 2019.