The importance of Gilgit-Baltistan (GB) was established initially with the construction of the Karakoram Highway, which increased after Pakistan and China inked the project of socio-economic significance the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) in 2015 however, the benefits of CPEC for the people of GB are yet to be seen. For a long, the people of the GB have had a strong yearning for recognition of the fact they joined Pakistan voluntarily after winning a war of independence.
They explicitly demand the inclusion of GB as a province in Pakistan. Despite the deep love and loyalty that they have for Pakistan the consequent denial of this wish of theirs, leaves them feeling alienated.
GB’s Status as a province is considered crucial not only for the people of GB who demand the preservation of their fundamental rights and identity but also for the CPEC’s legal standing. Its history, legal, and political framework demand that the position of GB is elevated to that of a province. At the moment a provisional provincial status might not fully answer all of the local’s demands for rights comparable to those of other provinces, but it will nonetheless be the first tangible step toward resolving the lingering problem of constitutional ambiguity of GB’s status as a state entity. However, in the backdrop of the diverse viewpoints, and some opposition from Azad Kashmir, the grant of full constitutional status as a province is seen as politically and legally challenging.
When we look into how CPEC is impacting GB, we are dismayed a bit. Amid land acquisition issues, energy crises in GB, economic problems of the people, and delays in the establishment of Special Economic Zones there is still certain ambiguity on how GB fits into the whole equation of the socio-economic dividend of this project. Many other areas falling under this equation are not sure of how they will be getting an economic boast if any from this mega project. The apprehensions attached to the hopes are aggravating the grievances continually that are being exploited by sub-nationalist elements of GB.
With developmental projects, land has not only become more valuable but also an issue of vital interest. The masses are protesting that their lands are being utilized by the government without appropriate compensation. These factors are also pushing the people towards endorsement of the sub-nationalist narrative, which is woven around the themes that GB is not being given its due share in CPEC, and other such development projects and the abundant natural resources of GB will not be utilized for its population.
One cannot fully negate the argument that roads also bring disease. Well, the twentieth-century developments might not bring diseases with these as was the case of the ancient Silk Road, which brought the Black Death to Asia and Europe however, the native populous feared that the migrations from other parts of the country might change religious and ethnic demography of GB in coming years.
The increasing urge for an interconnected world and enhanced connectivity thus get complex with the need for controllable boundaries.
Since its inception expectations from the CPEC have been high, but the impact thus far has been below expectations. A general understanding of the Pakistani citizens toward CPEC projects demonstrates a positive response from local Pakistani citizens, they generally see it as a mega project which will bring economic activity to Pakistan but over the past couple of years’ interaction with students hailing from GB, especially at university level are rather upsetting.
The process of narrative building and shaping public opinion is a thorough process that depends upon a constant and well-informed discourse for a certain period. It seems like this discourse has successfully been utilized by the sub-nationalist elements of the region which is shaping the opinion of the younger lot. They see it as a project where the cost of security, peace, and cultural damages surpasses the benefit of infrastructure development and the area’s living standard and overall improvements. They believe that there is no direct benefit to GB from CPEC, mainly because significant projects have not started yet, however, the groundwork and heavy transportation movement have already started to affect the region’s environment.
There is a need to engage the local population, especially the youth to not only strengthen the public’s perception but to also encourage their participation in the process of development.
Now the tricky part is not only to highlight the benefits of CPEC but to clear the doubts and fears along the way by adopting a policy of national cohesion. To make it more efficacious, public perceptions matter, especially when it comes to matters of national interest like CPEC. Gilgit-Baltistan is more than just the mountains, rivers, and beautiful landscape. It holds the key to future development in Pakistan, it is a gateway to CPEC and it is a strategically important component of the country, therefore the government must act prudently, and take concrete measures that include locals in the process of decision-making as well as control and address the discrepancies and fill the gaps to avoid any form of exploitation of this strategically important region.
Further to manage perceptions and neutralize the negative influence of propagandists, the use of social media can act as a great help. With the development, inclusion, and greater national cohesion, the CPEC can help allay the apprehensions of the locals. Mitigating the sense of deprivation should be a priority. The trickle-down of the CPEC dividends down to the lowest level will make them stakeholders in the project, thereby engendering their support for the project of mutual benefit. This in turn is likely to help integrate alienated people and counter the sub-nationalist forces.
Author is a Phd Scholar and visiting faculty at Quaid-i-Azam University. She can be reached on twitter @Nousheen_Ashraf