Gilgit-Baltistan has historically remained at the peripheries of the power centres of Central Asia and South Asia. This relative isolation enabled local communities to develop indigenous social, state and economic structures that allowed small principalities to remain autonomous in decision-making.
Despite its political marginality and geographic inaccessibility, GB managed to develop trade routes with Central Asia and South Asia. This helped the region to develop trans-mountainous trade links with the famed Silk Route that stretched through various roads crisscrossing Central Asia, Asia Minor, South Asia and Europe. Although the trade volumes on the route of GB were minuscule as compared to other major trade centres, the region was part of an extensive network of roads that formed the Silk Route.
The trans-mountain trade routes in “the Hindukush, Karakoram-Himalayan arc” were disrupted in the second half of the 19th century when the Russian and the British empires penetrated Inner and High Asia, respectively. Despite the changes in borders and trade routes in the Great Game, Gilgit remained a main conduit for the British to maintain communication and routes to Central Asia.
In addition to its strategic location, the British realised Gilgit’s potential in becoming a major and trade and commercial central in High Asia. It prompted the British to find alternative routes to the existing ones. Chad Haines, in his book ‘Nation, Territory, and Globalization in Pakistan’, states that in the 1920s “the British envisioned a third route, along the Indus River through Kohistan. By the time of independence, the Indus Valley road remained a mere idea.” The plan to build this route was shelved because of financial constraints.
With the Russian and Chinese revolutions and the partition of India, GB was disconnected from historical trade routes and once again plunged into isolation. This ended with the opening of the Karakoram Highway (KKH) in the 1970s. Unlike previous trade arteries, the KKH was a highway that facilitated the flow of people and goods between GB with Mainland Pakistan and Western China.
When the KKH was opened, the region lacked basic infrastructure and was reeling under extreme poverty. In other words, GB entered the modern age but trade and commerce was conducted negligible human, financial and intellectual capital. Anecdotal stories reveal that the major concern of the local populace about KKH had more to do with morality than economics.
Now, CPEC is hailed by the government of Pakistan as a game-changer, not only for the country but also for GB. As compared withwhat it was in the 1970s, GB is now in better position in terms of literacy, its youth population and increased connectivity through road and modern communication network. CPEC is not a game-changer because it follows the same rules of the old Great Game. Instead, it is going to drastically change the economic, social and cultural outlook of local communities.
Therefore, it is important to be fully prepared to embrace these changes. The intended changes of CPEC will bring a set of challenges and opportunities for the local communities. It will open more avenues for income generation for the populace and, at the same time, alter the sociopolitical fabric of a society that is entrenched in local norms and values. In order to tap the potential gains of CPEC, a combined approach is needed. Input from academics, development practitioners and the local communities is of core importance. However, analysts believe that a dialogue process among these stakeholders is missing.
GB is the gateway for CPEC in Pakistan as it provides an entry point to China. Geographically and politically, it is situated on the fringes of the economic and power centres of both China and Pakistan. With this marginal position, the region is going to face an economic onslaught from one of the ‘giant economies’ of the world.
CPEC is a road and energy investment initiative of China that is worth $57 billion and it falls under the broader web of the One Belt One Road plan. It is the expansion of China’s version of capitalism. The project signifies increased connectivity, investment opportunities, collaboration among different industries and also fuels cultural exchange. It seeks to enhance economic growth in GB and beyond.
In this context, rather than relying on old reactive methods of decision-making, it is important to focus on developing a proactive strategy based on informed research. Owing to the lack of credible information sources in GB on CPEC, the vacuum has been filled up with conspiracy theories. To stop this trend from further escalating, initiatives need to be taken to fill the information, knowledge and coordination gaps among multiple stakeholders in the region.
There are several challenges faced by GB vis-à-vis CPEC. Among them is the fact that language has become a major barrier in communication. Overcoming this barrier will help us understand the economic and political system of China. The other challenge may arise from an ideological clash that could result because the new generation is trained in Western social and political thought and is completely ignorant about the Chinese political philosophy and system.
Another challenge involves the threat to the cultural and linguistic diversity of GB from China’s expected economic and cultural onslaught. Exposing local cultures to the market forces and the Chinese civilisation might force people to adopt elements of an alien culture without any civilisational context. This is not to suggest that cultural exchange should be shunned altogether. Instead, we must be aware of the perils inherent in the disproportionate level of reciprocity between local cultures with a civilisation.
In addition, the environment is also a source of serious concern due to the relatively high volatility of the region to global warming. Increased industrialisation, smoke emission from vehicles in a small space and migration could threaten the environment and result in glaciers melting and landslides. This could affect the tourism sector, which is the backbone of the region’s economy.
The greatest fear is the intrusion of big businesses onto communal land and properties that are still managed under customary laws. With the diminishing power of traditional laws and the absence of modern laws to regulate communal properties, a legal vacuum has been created. This provides a foothold for big investors to grab communal land. There are reports that a few big businesses are using local proxies to acquire communal land in different parts of Gilgit.
Given the proportion of CPEC and its impact on the region, it is imperative to understand the Chinese mindset and systems. The first step should be to increase cultural and education exchange programmes. Currently, hundreds of students from GB are studying at Chinese universities on Chinese scholarships. These scholarships are tailored to meet Chinese interests.
The government of GB can develop a strategy to select students according to the specific requirements of the region. This can be done through a strategy that will exclusively identify areas of interventions and address local requirements in the broader context of CPEC. For this purpose, the government needs to develop a strategy that can provide guidelines to tackle the challenges in collaboration with the local communities, academics and development practitioners.
In order to protect the environment and enhance tourism, there is a need to develop an environmental management plan and introduce a standardisation and certification programme for tourism. Safeguarding the local culture and languages should also be on the agenda and institutions should be established to preserve these soft and material cultural assets.
So far, CPEC focuses only on the infrastructural and economic dimensions at the expense of social and political aspects. To achieve sustainable development, it is indispensible to address the political and social dimensions. Engaging local communities and political representatives at different CPEC forums will enable the government to mainstream local aspirations in an initiative that has global dimensions.
Riding roughshod over local aspirations will reduce horizons of opportunities related to CPEC. Broadening highways into corridors without expanding the horizons of opportunities will have negative repercussions in the long term.
The government must make CPEC a game-changer by expanding its social, political, economic and mental horizons. If it fails to do so, it will remain only a name-changer where the locals will only witness the same apathetic attitude of large powers that has existed from the time of the Great Game to the game-changing CPEC.
The writer is a freelance columnist based in Gilgit.