Pakistan has openly and illegally awarded more than 2000 leases in Gilgit Baltistan (GB) for the mining of gold, uranium and molybdenum to China, in complete violation of State Subject Rule. Chinese companies and labour are everywhere in GB, especially in the Hunza-Nagar district, which is rich in uranium ….writes Dr Sakariya Kareem
At the end of May 2019, Capt. (Retd.) Shafi Mohammad Khan, leader of the opposition in the Gilgit Baltistan Legislative Assembly (GBLA) raised the issue of the minerals exploitation policy of the Gilgit Baltistan (GB) government, which he alleged was being driven by the Federal Government in Islamabad at the behest of the Chinese and other vested interests. Capt. Khan claimed that the minerals policy did not take into account the views of the people of the region and was being partial in its decisions regarding the exploitation of precious metals and minerals found in abundance in the region.
There is an element of truth in what Capt. Khan said. Gilgit-Baltistan’s geology has a large number of mineral deposits, including metallic, non-metallic, energy minerals, precious and dimension stones, and rocks of differing industrial value. The problem however is that mining in Pakistan is dominated by the public sector through federal and regional development corporations, mainly from China. Mineral exploitation contributes only about 1 per cent of the country’s GDP (International Alert 2015), but is seen by centrally based development planners as the key to good governance and inclusive growth.
A perusal of documents of the GB Mine and Minerals Department shows that while efforts have been made to implement Pakistan’s National Mineral Policy 2013, there has been no major break-through in the sector. This is primarily due to the lack of infrastructure facilities in the mineral bearing areas and high risk nature of investment. Constitutionally, the Government, of Pakistan is responsible for policy formulation, generation of geological data and setting of exploration targets. In terms of value, annual extraction of gemstones from GB is worth around Pak Rs. 500 million. Efforts are on to explore other precious minerals also.
A review of the Mining Concession Rules of 2016 by the Gilgit Baltistan Policy Institute in Islamabad revealed that the draft GB Mining Concession Rules 2014 was more influenced by the Mining Rules of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and FATA, and very accommodative of corporate sector investment, particularly for the international companies, but was less reflective of customary laws and ownership rights of the local communities. This makes it clear that over the years, both Federal and local authorities have given customary laws a wide pass and have adopted mining policies to suit their vested interests. This is the core of the arguement made by Capt. Shafi Mohammad Khan, opposition leader in the GBLA.
It needs to be recalled that the draft 2014 Mining Concession Rules were rejected by the GBLA as it sought to take away the powers vested in the local authority in GB to issue mining licences, to the GB Council Secretary in Islamabad. The people of GB are having to suffer the double whammy of continued Federal control over their territory and its resources as also increasing Chinese influence in their lives. This is in the long-term harmful for the GB people.
In October 2017, the GBLA’s Standing Committee on Minerals, Commerce and Industries rejected the mining concession rules, terming it a move to deprive local people of their right on their own natural resources. The members alleged the new rules barred GB people from getting mining exploration and mining licences of minerals in their own territory.
The point made by Capt. Shafi Khan is that a number of foreign companies with the support of corrupt officials in GB are exploiting more mineral resources than permitted, to the detriment of the local economy. The challenge of over mining, as well as of illegal mining persists in GB. This has a long history in Pakistan and there is no doubt that it is a source of rural employment and revenue. However, in the absence of a regulatory authority, and the lack of a long-term strategy to harness labour force potential, such practices have only mushroomed in Pakistan. Further, the role of Chinese mining companies illegally extracting uranium is worrisome.
The GB region is anyways losing its ethnic identity as people from Sindh and Punjab have been resettled here, from the time of Gen. Zia onwards. The patronage shown to non-local companies for mining licences by the GB administration makes this situation worse. Not only are the local people deprived from access to their own resources, they are also denied employment in their own land. Local communities claim that the government in Islamabad awards licences secretly without anyone in the local administration knowing. There have also been a couple of cases of ghost companies are known to be operating in GB; this could be either operating on behalf of the Army or the Chinese.
Pakistan has openly and illegally awarded more than 2000 leases in GB for the mining of gold, uranium and molybdenum (which is used in space technology) to China, in complete violation of State Subject Rule. Chinese companies and labour are everywhere in GB, especially in the Hunza-Nagar district, which is rich in uranium. Far more serious is the creation of ‘no-go’ areas by the Chinese, who prevent locals from accessing these areas. This is apparent in some areas in upper Hunza, for instance, the Chapursan Valley, where the Chinese have done both tunnel building and mineral exploration.
The exploitation of GB has been going on for a long time now. The ingress of Chinese companies is at least two decades old and reports dating back to 2010-11 attest to the Chinese presence in GB. However, since the signing of the pact on CPEC in 2013, the Chinese presence in the mining sector in GB has become sort of legitimate. That is why in June 2016, reports came in of shutter down strikes in Gilgit and Skardu, by locals who claimed that CPEC was a Chinese project which had nothing to do with GB. Speakers during the protests rejected the Mining Concession Rules of 2016, and said the law deprived GB people of their own resources and shifted ownership to the Ministry of Kashmir Affairs and Gilgit-Baltistan.
In the long run, whatever the impact of CPEC on Pakistan, maximum sufferers will be the people of Gilgit Baltistan. The Chinese have entrenched themselves in GB fully and will exploit the region and its resources to the hilt. This has had a deleterious effect on the population, environment and ecology. The world must take notice of the rampant exploitation of natural resources in GB at the cost of human lives before it is too late.