By Asim Saeed
Over the years, the education level has enormously improved in Gilgit-Baltistan – a region in the far north of Pakistan, widely acclaimed for its literacy rate; which is comparatively higher than other provinces of the country. Many students from the region move down country for pursuing their higher studies and a very big chunk of professionals are pursuing their career in almost every city of Pakistan and abroad.
However, on the economic front, the average income of households in Gilgit-Baltistan is comparatively lower than other parts of Pakistan. This leads one to ask why this huge investment in the human face is not transferred into material wellbeing and improved quality of the lives of the people of the region.
I believe there are some important factors that explain the very situation of the region. First is the structural aspect of economy. The regional economy is agriculture based while trend of education and trainings of the local population is more inclined towards service sector. This leads to a huge gap between knowledge and practices and people are left with few economic opportunities in the region. In anticipation, the young professionals choose to migrate to urban centers to afford bread and butter.
Secondly, the region stands as marginalized when it comes to infrastructure development by the government. The population of the region stands at about 1.3 million, but there are no adequate facilities in education and health. For a population of more than a million, there is a single public university, no access to hospitals in remote areas, and no medical and engineering college.
The region is rich in natural resources; unfortunately, the regional government has so far failed to use these natural resources for the betterment of the local population. It has also failed to attract investments in exploration of these natural resources that could generate employment opportunities for the local population. In such a case, when there are little chances of employment locally, the young professionals choose to move to cities for job opportunities.
Thirdly, the local population has not been able to get a grip over the trade and commerce between Pakistan and China, which takes place through the Khunjerav border. As a matter fact, the local traders lack the resources and trainings to engage themselves in large trade activities. It should be noted that the terrain of the Gilgit-Baltistan is very rough, which, coupled with harsh weather of the region, makes trade activities in the region highly unpredictable. High risk, narrow resources and externalities are responsible for dissuasion of local trader of the region from larger trade pertaining activities.
Since the area is strategically located and heterogeneous in terms of sects and ethnicity, much security related issues have been popping up from time to time over the years, and now at a much greater pace, which have brought Gilgit-Baltistan in the limelight for something that is gradually damaging image of the region. A region well known for peace and harmony is now facing huge problems stemming from radicalization and sectarianism. Unfortunate events occurring due to sectarianism have further plunged the regional economy to a halt, especially the tourism industry. This is yet another significant factor that can be held accountable for flight of human resource from the region.
There are also numerous governance related issues faced by the region. The government of Gilgit-Baltistan has been widely accused of corrupt practices and politicians and government officials alleged of rent-seeking economics. There are several reports in the media that the regional government officials are involved in selling of public jobs. Moreover, blatant violation of merit in employment allocations in the civil bureaucracy has been witnessed. These factors create mistrust between rulers and the local population. When people face hurdles in finding opportunities locally, they tend to move down country for better economic opportunities.
These factors are operating in harmony to promote brain drain from GB and it is gradually getting acute. While professionals are continuously moving to urban areas for better opportunities, their places at the regional level are filled with non-professionals and people who have ascended via unfair means, thus destroying public institutions due to their inefficiency and bad governance.
On the other side, one can argue that the local people residing in the cities and urban centers earn income and can remit back their incomes to their hometown. Yes, they can, but due to rising inflation and depreciation of the country’s currency, the cost of living in the urban centers has increased enormously. The salaried class and professionals witness difficulties in coping with these monetary pressures. And these remittances have a very less share in the local economy.
The need of the hour is to come up with policies that are more compatible and fine-tuned with the regional economy. There are scopes for agriculture, horticulture, handicrafts, tourism, trade and mining in the region. Proper planning is required for skill development of youth in these fields. Government should establish economic zones, so that it could generate local employment opportunities for youth and help retain flight of human capital from the region. Planning for mobilization and materialization of local resources should be sought out. Governance structure should be made better; the focus should be on self-sufficiency. And it is a rightly claim that self sufficiency is the key to economic progress.
The government of Pakistan’s plan to establish Pak-China Economic Corridor through Gilgit-Baltistan is a promising one, but the challenge remains as to how much benefit the regional leaders secure from the mega project for the region and its inhabitants.
Asim Saeed, hailing from Gilgit-Baltistan, is a student of social sciences at SZABIST. He has a passion to write about economics, social issues, politics and culture. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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