By Ateet Sharma
How much is $1.5 billion in Pakistani rupees? The figure would make many eyeballs pop out in Islamabad. But, for the people of Gilgit-Baltistan in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK), it’s zilch.
Locals don’t care if billions of dollars are being spent in the region. The $1.54 billion investment agreement for the Azad Pattan Hydropower Project signed on Monday is the latest addition to the high-value projects for the region — Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan says the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) would be a “game changer”.
What really irks locals is high Chinese presence in the area, massive construction of dams, and river diversions threatening their very existence.
As China’s Gezhouba Group was signing the agreement and Imran Khan announced on national TV that the project would benefit Pakistan “from all sides”, thousands came out on the streets of Muzaffarabad shouting slogans against China and even the ruling government.
“If you try to divert the Neelum-Jhelum river, then remember that our direction will be towards the Islamabad Parliament,” said one protestor. They also demanded action against both China and Pakistan for violating the UNSC resolutions by “occupying” the rivers.
While reporting a very ‘successful’ and ‘complete shutter-down strike’ called by the ‘Darya Bachao, Muzaffarabad Bachao (Save River, Save Muzaffarabad) Committee’ earlier this year, Pakistan’s leading daily, Dawn, said: “Once roaring Neelum river now gives the looks of a small rivulet right from Nauseri to Domel, where it merges in Jhelum river. While the residents of Muzaffarabad are already reeling from the adverse effects of diversion of Neelum River, the proposed Kohala project, which envisages diversion of Jhelum River through a similar tunnel system, has compounded their worries.”
As protesters chanted slogans like “Neelum-Jhelum behne do, humein zinda rehne do” (let the Neelum and Jhelum rivers flow, let us live) in the background, Faisal Jamil, a leading social activist, quoted a Kohala Hydro Power Project E-flow assessment report which said that after diversion of the Jhelum river, the dry period of the area would increase by 100 days.
Most experts connected with The Darya Bachao Tehreek consider the new hydropower project agreement ‘hostile’ to the people of Muzaffarabad and PoK.
Shaukat Nawaz Mir, chairman of the Markazi Anjuman Tajran, a trade union based in Muzaffarabad involved in the protests, was quoted by Third Pole organization as saying, “The problem is our government is just a puppet government, it cannot fight for our rights. When it meets with the Pakistan government, it acts as a yes man.”
This, however, isn’t the only worry for the residents of Gilgit-Baltistan, a region in deep crisis because of the “step-motherly” treatment meted out by the Pakistani authorities for decades.
Demanding better connectivity, the youngsters of the region are holding protest rallies against the government and boycotting online classes for the last couple of months.
With almost every project going into the hands of the Chinese, from PoK till Balochistan, bundles of dollars are coming to Pakistan but good internet connectivity is still elusive in the country.
(This content is being carried under an arrangement with indianarrative.com)