CPEC: Differing Views In Gilgit Baltistan – OpEd
By Deedar Karim
The Karakorum Highway (KKH), widely regarded as the eighth wonder of the world, has provided a source of solace and connectedness to the mountainous regions it traverses. Its impact is seen in the meaningful life it has enabled its people to lead.
Similarly, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is a much-discussed topic among the inhabitants of Gilgit Baltistan (GB). From schoolchildren to elderly citizens, CPEC is evidently the talk of the town. Upon delving deeper into the public’s understanding of CPEC, I noticed that the views concerning its potential outcomes varied significantly.
Prior to exploring the diverse perspectives on CPEC in GB, it is essential to consider the potential benefits that the project may bring to the region.
CPEC: A Blessing in Disguise for the people of GB
The CPEC is a key component of the ambitious One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative, launched by China in 2013 with the intention of augmenting connectivity, trade, communication and cooperation between Eurasian countries. Notably, CPEC is China’s most significant foreign investment initiative to date. Moreover, for my surprise, with an investment figure three times greater than the total Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) that Pakistan has received since 2002.
I started by interview from Mr. Imran Ali, the Managing Editor of The Karakorum Magazine, he expressed his belief that the CPEC would serve as a transformational force, providing new opportunities for commercial enterprises in the region, renowned for its export-oriented production of fruits such as cherries, apricots and apples.
Rightly so, the area has the potential to enter the Chinese market with an annual production of up to 20,000 tonnes of apples and 4,000 tonnes of cherries. The fruit is now shipped by air via Dubai. However, it would be quicker and cheaper to ship the fruit to China via Xinjiang. As cherries are more popular in China, fruit sales to that country would be more profitable.
Mr. Imran, further, asserted that the investment in the transportation infrastructure, including the repair of the KKH and the construction of new roads, would provide an invaluable benefit of the CPEC to GB. This would enable the region to be connected to the rest of the nation, thus enhancing the prospects of economic growth.
Subsequent to a stroke of luck, I was privileged to have a discussion with Dr Faqeer Mohammad, the Director of China Study Centre at Karakorum International University Gilgit. During our conversation, Dr Faqeer stated that the CPEC would be a boon for the energy and technology infrastructure of GB. Additionally, the federal government has declared the formation of a 250-acre economic zone in the region which will be transforming the GB into an industrial hub. Dr Faqeer elucidated that the Federal Government will be funding the establishment of a regional power grid in Gilgit. The first phase of the project will link three districts of GB while the remainder will be incorporated in the second phase. Additionally, the Diamer-Bhasha dam and China-Pakistan Optical Cable projects are currently underway. Upon conclusion of the Optical Fiber project, reduced rates for 3G and 4G technology will be available for the entire region.
Subsequently, my curiosity led me to find Mr. Zameer Abbas. Mr. Zameer Abbass, a civil servant and intellectual figure renowned for his ‘Book Hour’ program, took some invaluable time out for an interview. While discussing the economic benefits, he stated: “The special economic zones are likely to significantly increase business activity in the region. On one hand, it will enhance the quality of life for the population by creating trading opportunities. Undoubtedly, CPEC is more comprehensive and versatile than the border trade that has been conducted thus far, which is regulated by governments but predominantly driven by private businesses and citizens.”
During the interview, I inquired about the social implications of China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) on Gilgit-Baltistan (GB). In response, Mr. Zameer asserted that GB has experienced a continuous and consistent development in terms of access to a steady supply of goods and other social ties with Xinjiang. He further argued that these centuries old cultural, ethnic, linguistic, and religious ties have resulted in an increase of familial relations as a result of trade.
Alt-Voices on CPEC
Contrary to the benefits of CPEC, its negative impacts are reverberating throughout GB. To explore this further, I had a conversation with Mr. Safiullah Baig, a Chevening Alumni and environmentalist. According to Mr. Safiullah, “CPEC is primarily a political or strategic project for the elites of Pakistan, and not one designed to improve the lives of the people residing in the peripheries of the country. Furthermore, he believes CPEC is not a significant threat to the ecology of GB; rather, it is the influx of market liberalism, mass tourism and heavy traffic since the mid-1990s that is having a damaging effect on the region”.
Mr. Safiullah extended his answer by assuming that the western-led liberal economic model has been identified as a potential obstacle to the success of the CPEC. The increasing prevalence of freelancing opportunities, tourism, and the privatization of public sectors in GB appear to demonstrate the strength of western influence in the region, which could potentially serve as an impediment to the success of the CPEC in the long run.
Mr. Safiullah Baig’s words serve to emphasize the precarious state of the environment in GB. The area is facing a rapid rate of environmental degradation due to climate change, the overuse of natural resources, and unsustainable development practices. The region is especially vulnerable to floods, glacial lake outburst floods (GLOFs), and monsoon rains. A prime example of such a disaster is the Shishper Hunza GLOF, one of the most catastrophic floods GB has ever witnessed. Additionally, the detrimental effects of the 2010 and 2022 monsoon rain floods in GB are well documented.
Adding insult to injury, the mountainous terrain of GB has resulted in a heightened risk of natural disasters such as avalanches and landslides. Moreover, an increase in extreme weather events has further exacerbated the degradation of the environment. In addition, the water crisis in the region has been aggravated by over-extraction of water resources and the growing demands of a burgeoning population. Consequently, a decrease in agricultural productivity has led to poverty and food insecurity in the area.
After engaging in conversation with Mr. Safiullah, I had the opportunity to converse with Mr. Kashif Hussain, who is a Research Fellow at the Stimson Center. Mr. Kashif began his discourse by expressing that, “CPEC is a blessing in disguise for the mountainous people of the GB, who always lack the basic needs of life for centuries”. Later, over a question on the potential impacts of CPEC on the socio-cultural dynamics of the GB, Mr Kashif responded that “through CPEC, new trends would be introduced in the GB. These trends, resultantly, would help us break the shackles of retrogression, orthodox thinking and narrow-mindedness. In addition, the religious extremist mindset, which is a potential threat to China, would be reduced among the people of GB once the people-to-people contacts start increasing through CPEC”. Whereas, addressing a question on environmental hazards of CPEC in GB, Mr Kashif said, “The benefits of CPEC could overcome the environmental cost because once people become economically stable, then they would get the awareness about the importance of environment, green trends would follow the awareness and lastly through mitigation and adaptation, the environmental hazards could be overcome”.
In my final interview, Mr. Asif Sakhi, a former candidate of GBA6 and an active member of the Awami Workers Party (AWP), presented his thoughtful considerations and apprehensions with regards to the CPEC. He highlighted the importance of determining the fate of GB, arguing that the people of the region should be given constitutional recognition in mainstream Pakistan in order to benefit from the CPEC. He asserted that without the legal protection of laws, it would be impossible to anticipate any substantial advantages from the project.
View of common people of GB
Being a resident of the GB, it is reasonable to suggest that the majority of the general populace are satisfied with the CPEC due to a number of primary factors. The population of GB have been given a first-hand experience of the industrious nature of the Chinese workers and engineers, having witnessed the construction of the KKH in the 1970s and its renovation in the second decade of the 21st century.
During this period, the ‘zoomers’, or Generation Z, of GB have been able to observe the remarkable working style of the Chinese personnel, leading to the current trust in their construction for its strength, durability and longevity, shared by all generations from Generation X to the present. Therefore, In terms of confidence in the construction sector, it is evident that the populace of GB have an unparalleled level of trust in Chinese engineers and laborers. This is an undisputed fact that is apparent to any honest observer.
A shopkeeper, Rehman Hussain, whose shop is at the edge of KKH at Gulmat Nagar market, narrated that “during the renovation of KKH, I have seen the Chinese working day in and day out, irrespective of the harsh weather conditions.
The second factor that needs to be taken into consideration is the influx of jobs that are created when Chinese companies commence construction projects in GB. It is noteworthy that during the renovation of the Karakoram Highway, a large number of local people were employed alongside Chinese workers and engineers. Those who were well-versed in the Chinese language were able to work as translators, while the majority of the illiterate population found employment in the driving sector or as daily wage labourers.
Third factor is people of GB are strongly impacted by the Chinese workers and engineers’ commitment to strong work ethics, minimal corruption, nationalistic pride and unity while working abroad, and their dedication to meeting deadlines.
When conversing with a truck driver who has been involved in the renovations of the KKH alongside Chinese workers, he commented that the Chinese “abhor criminal activity and are not willing to tolerate much. And, they are uncompromising when it comes to corruption and are generous with rewards to those who abide by their regulations”.
Based on the views mentioned above of the people of GB, the government of Pakistan has to address the decades-long demand for constitutional rights and political representation in the mainstream political chessboard. Moreover, it is evident that there is an urgent requirement of an engineering university in the region to provide the youth with the required technical skills to compete with the global demands. Not only are the people of the region capable of providing manual labor to their Chinese counterparts in the construction of the CPEC, but they are able to compete as engineers, thereby shouldering the burden of the CPEC construction.
GB, perhaps, is facing a multitude of environmental hazards, which necessitates the implementation of awareness campaigns across a variety of institutional settings including family, educational and religious contexts. Through the dissemination of information pertaining to environmental protection, mitigation and adaptation, it is envisaged that the general public will become increasingly conscious of the issues at hand, consequently leading to a shift in behavior that is more conducive to preserving a healthy natural environment.
The increasing influx of tourism has had a considerable impact on the environment and the indigenous food production capacity of GB. He gave an example of Hunza, where the construction of hotels and restaurants on arable lands has led to the population becoming dependent on the federal government for its food security. Once the CPEC passes through Hunza, more arable land will be submerged into the new projects; therefore, it is viable to suggest that the CPEC routes should pass through barren lands instead of cropping fields.
It is evident like a bright sunny day that the elites of Pakistan in general and GB in particular are west oriented. As such, it is not easy for China to construct a multi-billion project through the coffers of the western-oriented elite. To this end, China could use language to establish its presence among the upcoming generations of GB. Moreover, student exchange programs between China and GB are of paramount importance in achieving this goal.
Deedar Karim is currently working as Research Associate at South Asian Times (SAT)