The precarious status of GB

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IN view of objections raised by all the provinces save one on the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor’s implementation, the federal government has launched a media campaign to highlight and defend the implementation strategy for this mega venture. In order to allay fears, a series of seminars have also been held in various locations. Gilgit-Baltistan, as CPEC’s only point of entry from China, has a special status and thus it was important to have a consultative seminar in GB to ascertain the people’s demands, provide answers as well as identify opportunities for bringing prosperity and development to this important region.

Rather than determine the real issues, the federal and local governments instead chose to announce a long list of CPEC-related projects. This did little to satisfy local demands as, according to official documents, most are already part of the regular annual development plan. This further eroded the government’s credibility and perpetuated misgivings about its intentions.

For local residents there are two major issues of concern: the constitutional status of GB and the need for a fair share in CPEC’s projects. Due to apprehensions born of historical neglect and broken promises, the aim of focusing on these two factors is to ensure the government precludes any negative consequences as a result of CPEC.

The failure to grant constitutional status to Gilgit-Baltistan may complicate CPEC’s legality.

The constitutional status of this region remains vague and fluid as it has been linked to the Kashmir dispute since it was geographically subsumed within Kashmir at the time of Independence. Although GB’s people had acceded to Pakistan after ousting the Dogra regular army, its status has since remained in limbo due to the infamous Karachi Agreement signed by the Kashmiri leadership, which did not represent GB, with the Pakistan government. Despite GB’s unanimous support for accession and integration with Pakistan, the federal government has moved at a snail’s pace towards granting the region self-rule (as envisaged in the UN resolution) through presidential decrees, while ignoring the accession question.

One major development was the Gilgit-Baltistan (Empowerment and Self-Governance) Order, 2009, which established a local elected legislative assembly. The demand for integration with Pakistan and conferral of full constitutional rights, however, continued to be ignored by the federal government on the pretext that the region is a disputed territory and modifying its status is subject to a plebiscite under the UN. GB’s legislative assembly, in its latest resolution dated Aug 17, 2015, addressed this matter by demanding provisional provincial status pending settlement of the Kashmir dispute. Granting full provisional constitutional status will eliminate the legal vacuum and reinforce the legitimacy of its linkage with Pakistan.

This is important because India lays claims to the entire state of Jammu and Kashmir under its constitution. Astonishingly, even in the face of this impending threat, Pakistan has failed to even define the status of GB. This ambiguity needs to be addressed urgently to avoid legal implications if the CPEC development is challenged before any adjudication forum.

This matter cannot be delayed any further and, even if the babus recommend maintaining the status quo, the federal government should take a bold decision based on the local assembly resolution demanding provisional provincial status. This will not only meet the long-standing demands of the region’s people, it will also provide legal anchorage to GB, which is repeatedly being challenged by India and now, more vociferously, due to the CPEC agreement with China.

On the issue of the constitutional status of GB, the federal government set up a committee headed by the prime minister’s adviser on foreign affairs. Such committees are notoriously promulgated to maintain the status quo and, as reaffirmed by local media reports, are likely to only recommend some cosmetic changes to the 2009 governance order. According to the local press, in the latest development, as apprehended in the final meeting of this committee on Oct 24, 2016, it has again opted for the status quo, with minor cosmetic changes — without taking into consideration the risks it poses to the legal integrity of building a road network in GB for CPEC in the absence of a clearly defined status of the region in line with the wishes of the people.

As for GB’s share in CPEC-related projects, there is actually only one special economic zone at Muqpoon Das, Gilgit district on 250 acres of disputed land on the main Karakoram Highway — not three as erroneously claimed by the chief minister of GB. Similarly, his statement about the allocation of Rs86 billion for another route through Neelum Valley over Shandur Pass is not backed up by references to it in any official documents. Despite established hydropower resources of 40,000MW, there is not a single hydropower project for GB under CPEC, and there is no project for upgrading the dry port at Sost. There are only road projects related to upgrading the Karakoram Highway.

The people of GB expected some concrete project proposals that would encompass the entire region, but the promises and statements of government representatives — without reference to any specific and documented projects — means that, yet again, GB will be expected to accept a ribbon development and its resulting roadside services to facilitate transportation to Gwadar.

While the promises of the civilian authority have been a disappointment, a statement by the COAS during his visit to Gilgit on the subject offered a ray of hope, when he indicated that construction of a Gilgit-Skardu road was in the offing, that plans for the development of adjoining areas with China were a part of CPEC and that the Xinjiang provincial government had been tasked to work on this. Since the people of the region have a strong bond with and trust in the army, the words of the COAS were a source of assurance to the people of GB for they believe that the promises of the army chief will translate into action.

The Article First Appeared In DAWN

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