Monday, 24th April 2017

A rare opportunity for Gilgit-Baltistan

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Like other parts of the country,Gilgit-Baltistan has also been plagued by the ‘CPEC fever’ these days.

While the project is still in its infancy and details surrounding it continue to be sorted out, it seems that the opposition parties feel duty-bound to pass a comment on it on a daily basis, painting a bleak picture for the region with respect to its share in this $46 billion project, which many say is the most ambitious foreign investment scheme ever launched by any government anywhere in the world. Besides other factors, the undefined constitutional status of Gilgit-Baltistan has undoubtedly played a pivotal role in adding fuel to fire. As a gateway to the project, the region will offer more than 400km of its land to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) that will link Gwadar port to China’s northwestern autonomous region of Xinjiang via a vast network of highways and railways. There are no two opinions about giving Gilgit-Baltistan its due share in the project. After all, people of this region have rendered immense sacrifices to become a part of the country. Regrettably, what it has received in exchange for these sacrifices is decades-long deprivation in terms of constitutional rights, thanks to the larger issue of Kashmir.

Now what do we really mean by the term ‘due share’ in the CPEC? If we go by the opposition parties’ definition, this seems to be a total shift of authority from the federal government to Gilgit-Baltistan in matters pertaining to the project. This daydreaming must be done away with. Such a wish list is found in other provinces too, especially in Sindh and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (K-P), where politicians think they are indispensable for the corridor. For political gains, such a stance may be acceptable, but we can safely assume that such wishes are not going to see the light of day. Gilgit-Baltistan’s significance can’t be underestimated. But it is also a reality that this region can’t be made the centre of all economic activity that the project will bring, given that its hilly terrain eats up 98 per cent of its land. The mountainous region is inhabited by about 1.5 million people and therefore can’t offer the kind of investment opportunities that Sindh, Punjab and K-P can.

This is understood by the politicians of Gilgit-Baltistan, but the dictates of political expediency often end up determining their behaviour. In this regard, the PPP is leading the campaign against the government. It desperately needs a platform to make a comeback from after humiliating electoral losses, and is making effective use of the CPEC by playing with popular sentiments. The party ruled Gilgit-Baltistan for five years, but could win only a single seat in the polls held under the supervision of the Pakistan Army seven months ago. The party’s Giglit-Baltistan chapter President Amjad Hussain is now trying to manoeuvre the situation and has been able to uplift the PPP’s graph in the region. The PML-N, which bagged 15 of the 24 seats in the Gilgit-Baltistan Legislative Assembly, appears to be on the back foot, at least for now. This largely emanates from the federal government’s lack of interest in securing the confidence of other parties, providing the opposition with a golden opportunity to manipulate the situation.

A solution to the constitutional issue facing the region is in sight for the first time in nearly seven decades, but that too appears to have been hijacked by the opposition. Referring to news reports appearing in the national media, they claim that China’s concerns over the disputed status of the region is forcing Pakistan to consider accepting Gilgit-Baltistan as its constitutional part. In reality, China has downplayed these reports and clarified its stance through its foreign ministry.

Chief Minister Hafeezur Rahman has repeatedly assured that two economic zones will be set up in the region and that land for one zone has been identified in Gilgit. But this has failed to pacify the opposition as it is insisting that the claim of the chief minister is not reflected anywhere in the project and that the region lacks representation at the CPEC table. Rahman is accused of “compromising the region’s interest”. This grey area is where the federal government and Minister for Planning, Development and Reform Ashan Iqbal need to focus on to remove suspicions. The people must be told which projects under the CPEC will be offered to Gilgit-Baltistan. Will these projects comprise roads, railway networks or fibre optic cables?

The CPEC offers a rare chance to all stakeholders to work for national integrity, which will help eliminate regional biases and sectarian inclinations. This opportunity must not be lost. The federal government and the opposition parties must realise this before it is too late.

Published in The Express Tribune, January 19th, 2016.

Women voters in GB

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Women's rights are always negotiable, at the altar of expediency, and on the pretext of tradition.

In Gilgit-Baltistan, attempts are being made to exclude them from the democratic exercise of electing their representatives to the GB legislative assembly.

A jirga comprising 40 religious scholars and five local elders held in Deral valley on Thursday decided that women registered in that constituency will not be allowed to vote in the elections scheduled for June 8.

The reason given — predictably enough — was that ‘cultural norms’ did not allow women to vote in elections. The candidates of the PML-N, PPP, PTI and JUI-F who were also reportedly present, demonstrated their zealous support for ‘upholding’ antediluvian ideas that further entrench female disempowerment, a dangerous trend in an already chauvinistic social milieu.

This expression of misogyny rears its ugly head at every election cycle. In 2013 as well, such illegal pacts had been made in several parts of the country.

The Election Commission of Pakistan had at the time unequivocally stated it would ensure every possible protection to the women’s vote.

Indeed, it ordered re-polling at two polling stations in Battagram from where it had received complaints that registered female voters in the area had been disenfranchised.

However, the problem refuses to go away. Hidebound traditions, particularly those that control decision-making by the female half of the population, do not disappear quietly and there is no shortage of self-serving politicians whose party manifestos may claim to champion women’s rights, but who demonstrate supine acquiescence in the face of local right-wing pressure groups.

The GB Election Commission has issued a code of conduct for the upcoming elections, the same one that applies to the rest of the country, and which states that any agreements either preventing women from standing as candidates or casting their ballot are prohibited.

The election commission must strictly implement this code, and apply all the sanctions at its disposal against those who conspire to deprive half the population of their right to vote.

Published in Dawn, May 3rd, 2015

Stonemasonry in G-B

Efforts have begun in Gilgit-Baltistan (G-B) to revive the craft of stone-masonry, a trend which has gradually been replaced by the introduction of cemented bricks over the past decades, posing a threat to the environment.

A stakeholders meeting was organised in this regard on Friday under the Pakistan Technical and Vocational Education and Training Reform Support Programme’s initiative, Fund for Innovative Trainings (FIT).

Speaking at the meeting, a senior official of the Rupani Foundation, Jalaluddin, said: “The main reason people abandoned stonemasonry is its cost.” The Rupani Foundation is an organisation which works to create economic opportunities for people living in the mountainous areas of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Tajikistan.

Jalal, however, insisted ways have to be found to make building with stone economical so as to create job opportunities and protect the environment.

Given the harsh weather conditions in winter across the hilly region of G-B, cement, a poor insulator, does not help houses seal the heat in. The cement brick wall is too thin to keep the cold out, leading to an increased reliance on forest wood for heating, which depletes forest reserves.

Elaborating the proposed activities under the FIT programme, Jalal said eight masonry and quarrying training centres will be established in Ghizer, Gilgit, Gupis, Hunza and Yasin valleys to train the youth in masonry.

Another speaker, Sher Ghazi said, “In G-B, 99 out of 100 houses are being built with bricks. This is because stonemasonry costs more and the skill has declined over the years.”

According to Ghazi, stonemasonry is the most appropriate way to respond to seismic activity as well as freezing temperatures in winters.

Experts present at the meeting discussed the ecological and economic benefits of masonry and said modern equipment and trainings could help in the revival of masonry in G-B.

The FIT programme is funded by the European Union, the governments of Netherland and Germany. It is implemented in G-B by the German government-run GIZ in partnership with Rupani Foundation to support labour market-oriented trainings with improvised tools and techniques.

Editorial: Women of Hunza

High in the mountains of northern Pakistan, it seems that men do not serve the traditional, patriarchal role of ‘leading’ women, as in the rest of the country.

A manifestation of this culture can be seen in the development where women are now training to be guides for mountaineers and tourists. The Shimshal Mountaineering School in Hunza, which was set up in 2009, is training its first batch of women to become high altitude guides. This is certainly noteworthy, particularly for a country that is dominated by patriarchy, as most Pakistani women play a subservient role when it comes to household decisions. But the women of Hunza seem to have a brighter and more free-spirited future.

When it comes to women empowerment, Pakistan has its share of problems although the situation seems to be improving with time. However, there are extreme cases at both ends of the spectrum. There is the example of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, as a woman in a position of leadership, but it is contrasted with women who face marginalisation, or even decimation, regularly at the hands of their male counterparts, such as Mukhtaran Mai and all of the young girls traded or murdered through medieval practices, such as vani and honour killings. We have examples of all sorts of extremes, but we need to instead, set the positive examples of women leadership as the norm for society.

The progressive work by the women of Hunza should serve as an inspiration to Pakistani women in other areas. Unfortunately, when it comes to women empowerment and speaking out for women’s justice, it often seems that the international community is more vocal than Pakistanis. Nonetheless, the Hunza guides are a beacon of hope and should be celebrated by everyone in the country. The major concern now is that these courageous women remain protected from the misogyny of those who deem it improper for women to come out of their homes and play a leading role in shaping our society.

Published in The Express Tribune, October 27th, 2014.

Editorial

23/01/2016, 00:43 OUTPOST
Like other parts of the country,Gilgit-Baltistan has also been plagued by the ‘CPEC fever’ these days. While the project is still in its infancy...
03/05/2015, 23:33 OUTPOST
Women's rights are always negotiable, at the altar of expediency, and on the pretext of tradition. In Gilgit-Baltistan, attempts are being made to...
28/10/2014, 23:09 OUTPOST
High in the mountains of northern Pakistan, it seems that men do not serve the traditional, patriarchal role of ‘leading’ women, as in the rest of the...
30/08/2014, 15:00 OUTPOST
Efforts have begun in Gilgit-Baltistan (G-B) to revive the craft of stone-masonry, a trend which has gradually been replaced by the introduction of...