Footprints: northern areas’ dilemma

PASSU: Sitting on a small hill along the Karakoram Highway (KKH) in Passu, Hunza, the Glacier Breeze café is famous for its delicious apricot cake. The only thing that beats it is the fantastic view of Passu the café offers: a small piece of Batura glacier that shines in the sun on the one side and the blue waters of the Hunza River that flow quietly on the other.

The serenity of the place, café owner Ali Ahmed fears, is not going to last very long. The cargo traffic on the narrow KKH is set to pick up upon the completion of the 3,200km trade route connecting Kashgar in China’s landlocked western Xinjiang region to Gwadar port in Pakistan’s Balochistan under the $57bn China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) initiative.

“I am glad that my restaurant business will boom once trade along the KKH gains momentum and Chinese tourists start using it to visit Pakistan. But this place and the rest of the Hunza valley may suffer tremendously owing to massive cargo traffic movement on the highway,” sighs the soft-spoken Ahmed, who traces his family’s migration from Tajikistan via China to settle in the Gojal region several generations ago.

The corridor will give China shorter access to markets in the Middle East, Europe and Africa through a network of road-, rail- and pipeline-connections under the One Belt One Road plan. The project is also expected to help Pakistan boost its economy through massive Chinese investment in energy, industrial and communication infrastructure. But on the other hand, there are fears in Gilgit-Baltistan that the entire region that connects Pakistan and China will gain nothing out of the initiative.

“I don’t know how the CPEC is going to benefit the common people in the region,” Ahmed wonders. “I’m not sure if the facility of the one-year special permit/pass that allows Gilgit-Baltistan residents visa-free travel to travel and work in Xinjiang will continue once the region opens up for trade. If it is terminated, that will be huge for the local people who regularly go there to work and bring back goods.”

Many others share his concerns, contending that the CPEC project has little to offer to the people of Gilgit-Baltistan. “What is in this ‘corridor’ initiative for the people of the region?” asks Azhar Hussain, a trader Dawn met in the border town of Sost. “Small, local businessmen like us will be chucked out of the competition once the large Chinese and Pakistani companies and traders take full control of the surface trade with China and the customs facility is shifted from Sost to Havelian as planned under the initiative. We will have to first go to Havelian for customs and for getting our shipments released. How is that justified?”

There are some who share Ali Ahmed’s optimism that the CPEC will boost tourism in the region, which is considered a tourist paradise with its snow-capped peaks — including K2 and Nanga Parbat — beautiful lakes, scenic valleys and the world’s most dangerous roads.

In the last few years, the area has seen a gush of domestic tourists coming from almost every nook of the country after the remodelling of the KKH from Raikot to Khunjerab Pass. Major hotel chains are planning to expand their footprint in the region, with Serena Hotels already having bought a piece of land in Gilmut for its second hotel in the Hunza valley, and the Hashwani Group said to have acquired a place for its first hotel in Karimabad to take advantage of the growing tourism in the region and in anticipation of influx of the Chinese for trade and pleasure.

Another area of opportunity for the local people after the region opens up for trade is the export of fresh and dried fruit. Miladul Salman, company manager of Karakoram Natural Resources (Pvt) Ltd, exports cherries, apricots and apples to the Middle East. “The only way we can benefit from CPEC is if we can export fresh fruit like cherries, which are very popular in China, to Xinjiang via the road network. At present, our people take a carton or two as a ‘gift’ when they travel to Xinjiang for work or business. Apart from that I don’t see anything coming out of CPEC for the local economy.”

More tourism and the sale of fruit to China are not enough to satisfy the local people. “What does CPEC mean for the region and its residents? No one has ever cared to discuss our role in this project. Nor has anyone told us if and how it is going to help us. All we know is that it is going to impact hugely on our environment and our businesses,” argues Ehsan Ali, a lawyer from Gilgit, who claims that people are yet to be compensated for the acquisition of their houses, shops and land by the government for widening the KKH from Attabad Lake to Sost.

“I understand it is a very significant project for both Pakistan and China but what about us? Are we good only for repairing truck tyres and waiting on tourists? Or do we deserve to be engaged as a stakeholder?” Ali asks. “It is because of us that Pakistan is China’s neighbour and friend; we connect the two countries, and yet we are being kept in the dark. Anyone who raises his voice for the rights of Gilgit-Baltistan and its share in the CPEC initiative is picked on and subjected to torture. Why?”

Published in Dawn, August 25th, 2017