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Changeover in Gilgit-Baltistan

Changeover in Gilgit-Baltistan

Sajjad Ahmed

THE government in Gilgit-Baltistan is completing its five-year term tomorrow. The Gilgit-Baltistan Empowerment and Self-governance Order 2009 provided a limited chance to the locals to govern their region for the first time. Following the first elections held after this presidential order, the PPP won most of the seats and became the single largest party in the legislative assembly.
However, the outgoing PPP administration was accused of nepotism and widespread corruption. Considering that this was the first shot at self-governance given to the region’s citizens by Islamabad, elected candidates mostly failed to deliver. The government did indeed face several challenges since its formation. Dependence on the centre for resources and funds, and the meddling of the federal bureaucracy in administrative matters, remained key issues.
Soon after coming to power, the landslide of Attabad in Hunza-Nagar district in January 2010 appeared a formidable challenge for the administration. Several villages and a considerable part of the Karakoram Highway were submerged due to the formation of a vast lake resulting from the landslide. Several hundred families were displaced. This internal displacement put enormous pressure on the already scarce available resources of those areas where this population was settled.
The newly formed government remained hapless and looked towards the centre for heavy machinery and funds to resolve the crisis. The lukewarm and delayed response of the PPP-led administration in Islamabad worsened the situation. The affected population braved a harsh winter and blamed the government for its inefficiency and incompetence in providing aid and not clearing the debris in a timely fashion.
This crisis was followed by the devastating floods in the summer of 2010. A number of people lost their lives and hundreds were deprived of their livelihoods while the army had to be called in by the government to rescue the injured and stranded victims.

GB’s major issues remain governance and corruption.

In the subsequent three years, gory violence, particularly targeting Shia passengers on the Karakoram Highway and Babusar Pass, and the killing of foreign climbers at the Nanga Parbat base camp, sent shockwaves across the region. The massacre of passengers after the checking of their identity documents traumatised the population. The otherwise peaceful region seemed at the verge of sectarian violence. However, prompt government efforts to maintain law and order and intervention of the religious fraternity helped control the situation.
Periodic protests in Hunza-Nagar by the IDPs kept posing a challenge to the government. The situation turned violent in August 2011 when the police tried to disperse protesters and clear the road for Chief Minister Mehdi Shah’s motorcade. Police opened fire at the demonstrators, causing some fatalities, which sparked violent protests.
The government registered cases against the protesters and arrested several locals and activists, including Baba Jan. Later, all arrested people were released except Baba Jan and two more activists, who were recently convicted of terrorism charges. The convictions have themselves elicited a strong response from locals.
The lacklustre performance of the GB government was reflected in the fact that the PPP lost two seats in by-elections in Skardu and Ghanche districts in 2013. Both seats were won by the PML-N. Throughout its tenure, several allegedly illegal appointments were made in a number of government departments, particularly education. The issue was highlighted when the new chief secretary assumed office in 2013. Responding to numerous applications against corruption in the education department, he ordered an inquiry in early 2014.
Surprisingly, the chief minister’s office issued a letter to the GB chief secretary to halt the inquiry. More­over, the letter asked him to take permission for the inquiry from the cabinet. Reports re­­­vealed that several appointments in the education department were made against standard protocols.
The poor show of the PPP in an area considered its stronghold is expected to create a dent in its vote bank. The current wheat flour crisis has also contributed to affecting the party’s popularity. The Awami Action Committee — an alliance of 22 political and religious parties — successfully mobilised the masses against the government’s decision to end the wheat subsidy. Their demand was met as a result of demonstrations in all districts.
GB’s major issues remain governance, development and corruption. The next government will definitely have to address these key problems. Local nationalist parties are always vocal in raising issues, but their chances of electoral success appear slim due to their ideological divisions. Mainstream national parties, on the other hand, work according to their respective central party policy.
The first chance at self-governance in this underdeveloped region was not utilised aptly. The forthcoming elections will be another opportunity for locals to elect leaders whom they think are capable of providing viable solutions. A failure by the politicians the second time round will keep the region underdeveloped, and the population will continue to suffer.
The writer is a senior research fellow at the University of Karachi.
Published in Dawn December 9th , 2014