by Junaid Kamal
GILGIT BALTISTAN — about two million people scattered over a territory of 72,496 square kilometres — presents a rich mix of different cultures, languages, plants, animals and habitats. It is a landscape dominated by high peaks, rivers, lakes, glaciers, wild plateaus, and narrow valleys linked by networks of passes.
Gilgit Baltistan (formerly Northern Areas) has a unique role to play in the sustainable development of Pakistan. Although spans a relatively small geographical area, GB serves as a vital catchment for the Indus River, upon which a majority of Pakistan’s irrigated agriculture and hydroelectricity depends.
Containing some of the world’s largest freshwater resources on which the irrigated agriculture of Punjab and Sindh depends, the estimated hydroelectric potential in Gilgit Baltistan goes beyond Pakistan’s current needs.
People of Gilgit Baltistan finally got their identification and political rights in the present government of Pakistan People’s Party through Empowerment and Self-Governance Order 2009.
The Order still needs a constitutional cover-up to make it an act of Parliament. Renaming the Northern Areas as Gilgit Baltistan is perhaps the most significant part of the deal as this change in nomenclature will help people regain their lost identity and go a long way in resurrecting the tourism industry in an area otherwise devastated by the Taliban.
Ongoing mega projects like the Diamer dam and Satpara dam further necessitates that Gilgit -Baltistan be brought into the mainstream and that its people be given a voice in national decision-making so that the region’s public representatives can also take part in inter-provincial deliberations to safeguard socio-economic interests. Gilgit Baltistan offers abundant water resources for energy which if tapped judiciously can produce electricity not only for the area but also for the rest of the country.
The people of Gilgit Baltistan are naturally peace-loving, patriotic and courageous. A disaster on Jan 4 in the Attaabad village of Hunza has got the attention of the entire world, when a landsliding buried the village of Attaabad in which 20 people lost their lives and countless got the tag-name IDPs.
Those who were killed in the tragedy, and those still missing, could have been saved had the state shown more interest than it did. However, measures have been taken by the government later on to rescue the people and make arrangements for the survival of the IDPs.
The most important task for the government is to maintain peace and harmony in the region. Until the war on terror began, Gilgit Baltistan was a major destination for foreign tourists, thus contributing to the national economy. This potential resource must be explored through concrete plans that include investment, establishing well-equipped tourist centres and mountaineering training institutes.