OneWorld South Asia
22 October 2003
Ahmad Naeem Khan

Pakistan's Neglected Northern Areas Now on Development Map

LAHORE, October 22 (OneWorld) - The mountainous Northern Areas of Pakistan bordering China and Indian administered Kashmir, finally have a chance of emerging from poverty and backwardness, thanks to increasing attention from international donors, particularly a US $123,641 grant from Japan last week.

The Northern Areas, home to 1.2 million people spread across 1,123 villages, were unrepresented in Parliament for the last 57 years. For all practical purposes, they are governed directly by Pakistan's federal government.

The food insecurity zoning map of Pakistan prepared by the UN World Food Program (WFP) ranks this as among the most food insecure zones, despite producing fruits, medicinal herbs and handicrafts.

Staple foods from the rest of the country do not reach here due to high transport costs, with the people relying on local production for their needs.

Following up on this finding, a study was conducted by the Islamabad-based Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI) titled "Impact of trade liberalization on lives and livelihood of mountain communities."

According to the SDPI's Dr Abid Qayyum Suleri, the study found rapid trade liberalization coupled with ignorance about the World Trade Organization, even among government functionaries, has made the people very vulnerable.

He urged the government to define the status of the area and allocate development funds according to the formula applied to Pakistan's four provinces. He stresses that the ambivalent position of the federal government on the status of this region has created a sense of deprivation and alienation.

Even rapid Islamisation. For the federal government is tackling a simmering religious issue here, with minority Shia Muslim residents demanding a separate course in Islamic Studies in state-run schools and colleges.

They consider the existing curriculum to be against their beliefs.

In July, thousands of Shia students smashed shop windows and pelted police with stones in the popular tourist resort of Skardu, demanding separate Islamic Studies textbooks. The syllabus is now being reviewed.

A number of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have now arrived in the 72,496 square kilometer region which boasts a density of only 12 persons per sq kilometer, to launch micro-development programs for the uplift of the people.

Under its grassroots assistance scheme last week, the government of Japan granted over US $123,641 to two community projects for rehabilitation of historic settlements and to provide basic hygienic facilities for inhabitants of 12 villages in the remote Hunza and Baltistan valleys here.

The Agha Khan Rural Support Programme (AKRSP) is the largest development network in the region, providing funds totalling US $100 million. It is headed by Prince Aga Khan, spiritual head of the Ismaelites (an offshoot of the Shia sect) which comprises one-third of the population.

The Agha Khan and his father were regular visitors to the area during the prince's childhood, when he developed a special affection for its people.

The AKRSP revolves around community-based organizations. "Our job is to facilitate and monitor...we sit there as observers," says general manager of the Agha Khan Rural Support Program (AKRSP), Hunzai Izhar.

The Kathmandu-based South Asia Watch on Trade, Economics and Environment (SAWTEE) has also been working in the region under a program to secure the livelihood rights of farmers in the Hindukush range of the Himalayas.

According to official figures, in the early 1980s, the per capita income of the area in the was less than one-fourth of the national per capita income.

By 1998 it was about half, or US $245, compared to the national average of US $500 per capita.

Syed Jafar Shah, the Northern Areas president of the Pakistan People's Party of former Pakistan prime minister Benazir Bhutto, says Supreme Court guidelines issued on May 28, 1999 had led to the establishment of a toothless 28-member Northern Areas Legislative Council here.

He says the Supreme Court had directed the federal government to provide the right of governance through the chosen representatives, and have access to an independent judiciary.

But, he says, the chief executive of the region is not an elected person. The existing judicial system works as an adjunct of the Kashmir Affairs and Northern Areas (KANA) division, which he terms a violation of the Supreme Court ruling.

Remarks Northern Areas Chief Executive and Federal Minister for Water and Power, Aftab Ahmed Khan Sherpao, "Sufficient funds had been provided by the federal government for the development of the area. Legislators have been asked to identify development schemes in their respective constituencies."

The minister also says a separate court of appeals with a seat in Gilgit was being established to provide speedy justice to the people of the Northern Areas in accordance with the decision of the Supreme Court.

These activities have had some impact, but poverty levels among the local people remain alarmingly high. For instance, only 0.96 per cent of the 69,480 hectares of land is under cultivation, the rest lies barren.

At the same time, per capita land holding is decreasing day by day, dipping to an abysmal 0.124 hectares.

Deforestation is another problem, caused by poverty coupled with flexible legislation, a weak civil administration, lenient timber disposal policies and political pressures.

Advocate Asadullah Khan, the President of the Young Lawyers' Forum in the Northern Areas, feels the problems of the area can only be solved if residents are allowed to play an effective role in administration as well as development.

He says, "It is time Islamabad devolves real administrative and legislative powers to the elected Northern Areas Legislative Council and decides, the status of this region, once and for all. The people deserve effective representation in the National Assembly."