| Aqsa Khalid
China Pakistan Economic Corridor has been represented as a revolutionary turn in the development of Pakistan; it has projects related to infrastructure, energy et cetra. These infrastructural projects include extension on motorways and development of railways and dry ports. Energy projects include coal-fired power plants, hydropower stations and wind farms. Moreover, this economic corridor places a lot of emphasis on Gwadar and has laid down various projects to facilitate its development. Gulmit is known as the headquarters of the Gojaal Tehsil in the district Hunza. It’s located on the edge of the Karakoram highway and was my main focus of research: relation of Gulmit to the projects of CPEC.
The Gulmit community was unlike what you’ll find in the major cities of the state. It’s quiet, self-sufficient and most importantly integrative. The community rebuilds itself after disasters on its own, it carries out daily trash drives, and conducts efficient scout programs for boys and girls. The literacy rate in the entire Gojaal district is inspirational- more than 80% of the people know how to read and write according to the international Education Index. Those who have completed their intermediate, mostly travel outside Gilgit to pursue their higher education. Gulmit’s history of development significantly revolved around the Aga Khan Devlopment Network. Aga khan health center is widely known for providing medical care to the community. Educational Institutes have also been established during the 1960’s and are still widely popular among the people. The community terms AKDN as a milestone in developing Gulmit to where it is today and has grown accustomed to government in its neglect to Gojaal. Community volunteer groups, scouts, FOCUS organization, Jammat-Khana are also some stakeholders in the development.
As a community that is accustomed to integrative projects of development, CPEC is quiet disappointing to local leaders and villagers. “We weren’t asked at all!” was generally the response of every individual. Gulmit has a strategic location on the karokaram highway where daily hundreds of trucks transport cargo. Upon inquiring if any particpation happened, some told how experts of CPEC met with the local leaders to discuss the future prospects. The meeting ended in further disappointment as the experts gave not only vague but incorrect answers; environmental concerns were shunned away and given low priority according to various locals.
With the progress of CPEC in the recent years, the people have lost trust in the government and China as a ‘friendly’ neighboring country. Already the locals have deep rooted reservations against the government for not providing them with water and electricity; these instances of neglect in planning of CPEC is further breaking them away from any hope. The cycle of trust of not being included in plans, is making the people of Gojaal even more susceptible to trusting only their local development networks. Locals feel a sense of betrayal on the subject of compensations. Till date, a total amount of two billion rupees has yet to be provided by the government for the land extension of Karokaram Highway 2007. Gulmit has raised the public concerns to the authorities but no outcome has been reached upon. People are therefore even more skeptical of the future of CPEC.
Gulmit is a region built upon an elevation; KKH lies at the foothills. A pattern can be vividly observed on the effects of environment as we move above and in to the heights of the village. Plastic bottles, wrappers, shoppers have been increasing in the outskirts of various tourist stops. In order to tackle this issue, volunteer groups of men and women spend every day carrying out garbage drives. Trailers carrying heavy cargo pass Gulmit’s outskirts almost every minute. These trucks are constantly adding pollution to the air which wasn’t present few years ago. Many residents also claimed that due to this pollution, local fruits like Mulberries have been destroyed by insects. 32-wheeler trucks are expected to arrive soon which would further deteriorate the breathing environment. These heavy trucks bring noise to a community that was accustomed to peaceful days and nights. Moreover, as Karakorum highway is located on the immediate entrance of the village, the accident rates have increased even more. Since the road is a highway there are no speed breakers and footpaths, making it difficult for pedestrians to commute within villages. Most importantly, with the emergence of tourists and drivers from the south, security concerns have increased. A local female, Maria, who had completed her masters from Karakoram University in Economics shares the differences of the environment in the recent years. “I could easily travel from Gulmit to Ghulkhin village in evening but now due to the tourists, we can’t travel within villages in peace”. Many other women share the same experiences; this influx in tourism in Gojal has led to a significant increase in the harassment incidents. Deforestation has increased considerably with the increased demands of hotels, restaurants and small tourist spots. This kind of unsustainable land degradation has led to landslides, loss of habitats and frequent weather changes reported by various local elders.
Khunjerab National Park, located in Gilgit-Baltistan, is also facing a giant threat from the plans of CPEC. The extension of KKH has to pass through this national park, which in general terms is not allowed according to international standards as it endangers the wildlife to further risks of extinction. Upon inquiring from a WWF representative, it came to our knowledge how enormous pressure form the government is blocking any sorts of research related to environment to take place.
However, on the lighter side of the narrative, CPEC aims to boost economic activity in Gulmit through the development of the tourism industry. Some even claim it to be the savior of this industry, especially after 9/11 due to which foreign tourism came to an unfortunate halt. KKH has proven to be the reason why domestic tourism has exponentially increased. This has further benefitted the stakeholder industries- hotels, wood cutting, food preserving, handicrafts, local shops, transport and trekking guides, banks. Famous local fruits like apples, mulberries, cherries, apricots have found a significant demand from the south and even as an opportunity for export business. With the arrival of banks, loans can be received rather easily than the local tanzeem system. The positivity found in the Wakhei Culture is culturally exchanged between the tourists. Local Musical instruments, and local poetry and music is also widely appreciated by many. Local musical groups get a chance to perform in hotel-affiliated bonfires/concerts and even out of Hunza due to their unique style.
With the youth travelling to Karachi, Peshawar or Lahore and other major cities to pursue higher education, upon coming back to Gulmit face a frustrated career path. Since the land was traditionally known for breeding careers only related to agriculture, food preserving or handicrafts, majority of the graduates remain unemployed. There is a dire need for jobs to open up in Gojal so the huge unemployment gap can be filled. With the emergence of CPEC, tourism industry alone, can be a focal point upon which potential economy can thrive.
The people of Gulmit have always been resilient to the internal and external changes. In the case of CPEC, they feel disappointed and helpless however, they also have a sense of acceptability in their nature to upcoming change. Some general remarks included: “Change is always welcomed”, “Government doesn’t support us, regardless we have to move forward”. The leader of the community, Prince Karim Aga Khan, has preached upon the lines of patience and tolerance due to which they do not protest against the government for degrading their land and culture. Even then, the locals are accepting and welcoming any change that will come. But it’s essential for them to manage tourism to ensure a sustainable future. At this delicate time, they should encourage entrepreneurship within their youth in order to inculcate a sense of responsibility so benefit from tourist opportunity can be taken. For Gulmit to survive and prosper, no can do it better than the self-sufficient community itself- they’ve survived the Attabad incident, the consequences of 9/11 and now they would have to patiently take benefit of the opportunities of CPEC too. However, it’s our job to support the communities of Hunza so their voices could be reached to the higher authorities regarding the injustice they are facing.