Questioning The Inclusivity Of Development Initiatives In Gilgit-Baltistan

Questioning The Inclusivity Of Development Initiatives In Gilgit-Baltistan
Gilgit Baltistan has become a famous tourist destination for both national and international tourists due to the majesty of its innumerable natural features - mountains, forts, deserts, waterfalls, national parks and lakes. According to the Government of GB, more than 2 million people visited Gilgit Baltistan in 2022. With the increase in the number of visitors, environmental degradation compounds the already devastating impacts of the climate crisis in the region. The recent floods in Gilgit Baltistan are a particular example; according to the Gilgit Baltistan Disaster Management Authority (GBDMA), the estimated losses due to the flood stand at about PRS 7406 million. According to a UNDP report, 33 glacial lakes which are at risk of outburst at any time have been identified in Gilgit Baltistan.

The Government of Gilgit Baltistan has announced a complete ban on plastic bags from 1st January 2023. This sounds like a well-intentioned measure to tackle some of the impacts of the climate crisis, but this measure is just like the COP27 - which was sponsored by Coca-Cola, the world's most prolific plastic producer. Ironically, GB’s plastic free initiative is sponsored by Nestle Pakistan, in collaboration with the District Council, the Gilgit Baltistan Waste Management Company and the Karakoram Area Development Organization.

In previous years, such initiatives were initiated by different district administrators such as in District Skardu, Hunza and Kharmang but ultimately, these initiatives completely failed. The main reasons for this failure were financial problems and a shortage of feasible alternatives to plastic bags. When the plastic-free campaign was started in district Hunza in conjunction with Nestle Company, the Government of Gilgit Baltistan was also responsible for providing financial support but the lack of funds caused failure of the initiative in Hunza.

Once again, in initiating the ‘Gilgit Baltistan Plastic Free Campaign,’ the Government of GB has demonstrated that it has learnt no lessons from failures of the past. The government has announced a number of loan packages for entrepreneurs with zero percent interest rates to incentivize the manufacture of plastic bags substitutes. On one side, the GB government protested over the shortage of funds and conversely, they announced a series of loan programs for successful implementation of the GB Free Plastic Campaign. Providing interest-free loans to manufacturers will hopefully ensure a steady supply of substitutes to plastic bags in markets.

This is a welcome step, but a lack of skilled human resources may affect the supply mechanism. Grocery shops, pharmacies and other small businesses may use alternatives to plastic bags, but this will not produce any effective result because the government has no policy to ensure a ban on the use of plastic, where plastic and polythene are used in packaging all manner of consumer goods. In Gilgit Baltistan, most commodities and goods have to be transported from other parts of Pakistan, all of which have to packed in polythene plastic. Without implementing plastic-free campaigns all over Pakistan, no tangible impacts can manifest only through running the campaign in Gilgit Baltistan.

While it comes to environmental credentials, the GB government announced the plastic free campaign on one hand, but in the same breath, they have signed an agreement with European company Jacob Aaron to generate 180MW of electricity using fossil fuels such as gas and diesel for a period of 15 years, for a cost of PKR 1.5 billion. Diesel is a source of greenhouse gas emissions such as carbon dioxide, which exacerbate the climate crisis – albeit it must be recognized that the climate caused catastrophes afflicting the region are primarily caused by historical emissions from the global North. Nonetheless, the agreement between the European company and the government raises a whole host of questions about the government’s initiatives and the latter’s approach towards sustainable development in the region.

GB as a region is highly rich in natural resources and has a huge capacity and potential to produce electricity from renewable resources such as hydropower. When foreign investors want to invest in the hydropower sector, government officials refuse to deal with them. Officials believe that such investment will increase the price of electricity; however, when the currently contracted European firm starts to generate electricity, there is no guarantee that prices will not increase nor any framework to address increases.

People are relatively unaware about the harmful impacts of plastic bags on the environment, which is why mass public campaigns through social media ought to be considered as an important tool, but in many areas of GB, internet access is not available. The Government should approach NGOs which work at the village and district level to run awareness campaigns to deliver the message of the campaign to the population at scale.

The ban of plastic bags for groceries shops and other small shops will definitely not produce any effective results; the government should also adopt strict checking policies at all entries into GB which ensure that only non-polythene plastic packed goods and commodities are allowed to enter GB. In the past, other provinces also took such types of initiatives but they ultimately failed due to the unavailability of efficient substitutes for plastic bags; the government should also take necessary steps to make availability of substitutes to plastic bags at the lowest possible price.

The agreement between the European company needs to be revisited and the government should focus on generating electricity using renewable energy sources such as hydropower, and shifting all the government offices and institutions to solar panels. In case of a shortage of funds, the door should be opened to investors who want to invest in renewable energy sources but only under such conditions that can save both the region’s resources and consumers from exploitation by said investors.

The Government of GB should keep in mind the significance of this region, when formulating and planning projects or initiatives. Furthermore, without consulting all stakeholders in Gilgit Baltistan - politicians, religious leaders, civil society, business people and ordinary citizens alike, projects and initiatives cannot be successfully implemented, whether the project in question is the ban on plastic or power generation agreements with European firms.

Wajhullah Fahim is a research student at the Pakistan Institute of Development Economics (PIDE), Islamabad.