Thursday
July 25, 2024

Voices of Discontent: Gilgit-Baltistan’s Fight for Economic Justice

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By: Lt Col JS Sodhi (Retd), Editor, GSDN

Jammu & Kashmir: source Internet

In January and February 2024, Gilgit-Baltistan (GB) witnessed a wave of mass protests, sit-ins, and strikes as residents demanded the restoration of the wheat subsidy previously granted to the region. The unrest was fueled by the Pakistani federal government’s unilateral decisions, which had long been a source of discontent. This wave of protests mirrored the events of 2022, where similar grievances were aired. Despite these fervent demands and the protests leading up to the budget unveiling, the federal government remained reluctant to provide the necessary funds for GB. Ultimately, the region’s inhabitants continue to face the same challenges, with their demands largely unmet.

In the fiscal year 2024-25, the budget allocation for Gilgit-Baltistan starkly underscores significant disparities when compared to other regions in Pakistan. Despite its strategic importance and unique challenges, Gilgit-Baltistan received noticeably lower funding across various sectors. With a population of approximately 1.25 million spread over 72,496 square kilometers, the region’s federal budget allocation includes a Federal Grant-in-aid of PKR 68,000 million, a wheat subsidy of PKR 15,872 million, and a repayment of principal and interest totaling PKR 165 million. Additionally, there is an allocation of PKR 74,500 million under the Public Sector Development Programme (PSDP), which also includes funds for PoJK. These figures highlight the ongoing inequities in resource distribution that hinder the region’s development potential.

The National Finance Commission (NFC) award is crucial for the financial allocation and development of Pakistan’s regions. However, GB faces significant challenges due to its exclusion from the NFC framework. Without provincial status, GB is not eligible for a direct share of the NFC award, resulting in predetermined, top-down budgetary allocations. This approach undermines local legislation and hampers targeted development efforts. As a result, GB struggles with various development issues, including infrastructure, education, healthcare, and economic growth. The lack of a direct NFC share exacerbates these problems, making it difficult to meet local needs effectively. Addressing the NFC issue is essential for unlocking GB’s development potential and ensuring a fair distribution of resources, which would greatly enhance the region’s economic and social landscape. Former Chief Minister of GB, Hafiz Hafeez-Ur-Rehman, has emphasized the need for participation in the NFC, stating in strong words that GB deserves its share, not charity. 

The Gilgit-Baltistan Finance Act 2022, through the “Gilgit-Baltistan Revenue Authority Bill 2022,” has imposed new taxes on 135 items, significantly impacting the local population. Unlike other regions of Pakistan, the people of GB lack representation in the national legislature, making these new taxes particularly contentious. The taxes have led to a 15-20% increase in the cost of living, affecting essential items like food, fuel, and healthcare, thereby exacerbating the economic challenges faced by the region’s residents. Local businesses predict a potential 25% drop in sales and profitability due to reduced consumer spending as prices rise. This tax imposition is seen as unfair by the residents, given GB’s disputed status and its lack of political voice at the federal level. Furthermore, GB’s infrastructure and investment levels are already lower than other parts of Pakistan, making it harder for the region to absorb these new fiscal pressures. The additional financial burden limits the capacity of individuals and businesses to invest in local development projects, further stalling progress in key areas such as infrastructure, education, and healthcare​.

The Special Investment Facilitation Cell (SIFC) initiative in GB has sparked significant controversy and protests. While the government claims that this project aims to revitalize tourism by renovating 44 dilapidated government guest houses, critics argue that it serves as a strategy for resource acquisition rather than genuine development. Local residents and leaders strongly oppose the SIFC move, asserting that it undermines regional autonomy and disregards the rights and wishes of the local population. The leasing agreements have been labeled as illegal and unconstitutional, emphasizing the need for transparent consultation with local stakeholders. Moreover, concerns have arisen about potential land grabbing and environmental degradation. Forests and public lands are being leased for hotel construction, raising fears that GB’s natural resources are being sold off, endangering both the environment and the livelihoods of the local population. Leader of the Opposition in the GB Assembly, Muhammad Kazim Maisam, has demanded accountability from the government regarding the plunder of resources in GB. The role of the military in economic projects like the SIFC remains controversial, with doubts persisting about the extent and durability of military influence in civilian economic activities.

Development and protest often go hand in hand in GB. The region’s socio-political landscape is shaped by the interplay between government initiatives and public dissent. A prime example is the 2023–2024 Gilgit-Baltistan protests, sparked by a dramatic increase in wheat prices. Local residents, political parties, and civil society organizations expressed their dissatisfaction through demonstrations, sit-ins, and marches across various towns. This clash between economic stability through price adjustments and public discontent highlights the ongoing tension in GB. Awami Action Committee presented a comprehensive 15-point demand list, which included not only the restoration of the wheat subsidy but also the suspension of the Finance Act 2022, the withdrawal of various taxes, and ensuring GB’s share in the National Finance Commission (NFC) award. Additionally, they demanded land ownership rights for locals, the cancellation of mineral exploration leases granted to outsiders, and the allocation of 80 percent of the Diamer Basha Dam’s royalty to GB residents. The list also called for a reliable electricity supply, the end of 22-hour power outages, the establishment of medical and engineering colleges, and the restoration of traditional routes in GB.

The grassroots uprising in GB signifies a broader struggle for autonomy and dignity. As protests continue, the government faces a critical juncture to address economic, service, and human rights concerns. Balancing development initiatives with social justice and local empowerment remains a significant challenge. Economic crises and rising unemployment further fuel protests, with demands for basic necessities like wheat flour, pulses, and power supply. The struggle for economic stability and livelihoods often leads to public dissent and demonstrations. Resource allocation and accountability are also contentious issues. Decisions such as leasing tourism sites or adjusting wheat prices significantly impact people’s lives. When perceived as unfair or detrimental, these decisions trigger protests, highlighting the tension between development goals and public welfare. The dynamic between development policies, public needs, and dissent shapes GB’s socio-political landscape. Policymakers and activists must navigate the delicate balance between progress and citizens’ rights and aspirations.

In conclusion, the socio-political landscape of GB is marked by a persistent struggle for autonomy and equitable resource distribution. The mass protests for the restoration of the wheat subsidy, underscore the region’s ongoing discontent with federal policies. The disparities in budget allocation for GB in the fiscal year 2024-25, compared to other regions, highlight the challenges faced by this strategically important yet underfunded area. The exclusion from the NFC framework exacerbates these issues, hindering targeted development efforts and effective local governance. The imposition of new taxes through the Gilgit-Baltistan Finance Act 2022 has further strained the local economy, increased the cost of living and impacted business profitability. Controversial initiatives like the SIFC have sparked significant opposition, with residents and leaders decrying what they see as resource exploitation under the guise of development. The dynamic between development policies and public needs continues to shape GB’s socio-political environment, with ongoing protests reflecting the broader struggle for dignity and fair treatment.

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