Concrete social change will benefit Gilgit-Baltistan-I

The Muslim dated September 20, 1997
Author: Syed Shams ud Din

Viewed in retrospect, the Northern Areas seem to have, all along, lagged behind other parts of the country insofar as over all development and human-resource building is concerned. The situation naturally persisted until the construction of the Karakoram Highway (KKH) was completed about two decades ago.

The economically infernal state resulted directly from the ominous geographical setting that always impeded overall progress in the complete absence of perennial outlet for an access to the outside world except the ‘legendary Silk Route’ of the ancient times  -  a journey along which was extremely difficult due to the vagaries of weather and allied natural catastrophes which obviously precluded ordinary people from a free and unfettered journey.

However, in the aftermath of independence, a jeepable road called the ‘Indus Valley Road’ linking the Northern Areas with the rest of the country via Babusar Pass, was constructed during the post-independence era, which too happened to be purely seasonal linkage with the down country.

Its construction eased to some extent, movement compared to the primitive living of the past in these landlocked areas albeit the same did still fail to usher in a prosperous change for the simple reason that this seasonal linkage say for 4-5 months remained always bedeviled by vagaries of weather. No machinery could then be transported along, by this road into these areas nor could the direly needed material be shifted for the implementation of development projects on the above score. Air service has all alon g been available to these areas but this meant the passage of the people alone while no good whatsoever, could ordinarily be airlifted.

A quaint-modelled jeep called ’50-model’ would seasonally shuttle between Gilgit-Hazara Division via Babusar during summers  -  provided the climatic conditions were conducive for an unhindered plying of vehicles for a safe passage into the Kaghan valley. The local traders would solely rely on these ’50-models’ for carriage of their merchandise from Rawalpindi to Gilgit.

In order to cope with the direly needed requirements of essential commodities, this seasonal trading was however, bolstered by the camel-caravans from Kaghan and other adjoining places of Hazara Division that would flock the beasts laden with these essential commodities including salt, for delivering the same to the locals of Chilas and Gilgit. The caravans would also bring along, donkeys, mules and some horses for sale in these mountainous regions.

The governmental authorities of the day would not remain contented with these scanty supplies hence adequate quantities of wheat, salt, kerosene oil and sugar etc. had to be airlifted by chartered C-130 flights during winters and the goods thus transported were kept in storage to meet the impending requirements. These items would then be doled out to the inhabitants strictly against cautiously issued ration-cards for each hearth. Such was the state of affairs obtaining in the regional capital of the Northern Areas i.e Gilgit while that in Skardu and other places was no much better either.

It would be worthwhile to mention here that the Kirghiz of the Pamir and others of the Wakhi enclaves there, would frequently sneak in to the Chapursan Valley in Gojal and Sukhtarabad in Ishkoman Valley, to sell flocks of sheep and goats to the people of the Northern Areas. The sale would preferably have been a barter especially for tea and other items of daily use as those people mostly happen to be nomads with no agrarian activity at all, to cater to their needs. This trading has always remained constricted to the Wakhi populace of Gojal and Ishkoman as nothing of the kind ever broadened to Gilgit, from times immemorial.

The living conditions of the people of the North on the whole and those of the far-flung areas here used to be still worse than those of the dwellers of Gilgit and Skardu due to scarcity of items of daily use and the persistent state of being unvictualled in the face of the acute geographical barriers. Making availability of the present day infrastructural facilities could never be dreamt of in those days.

The inhabitants of the adjoining areas would traverse long distances which would have been a vexatious journey to come over to Gilgit and Skardu for getting essential commodities  -  only the direly needed ones.

There used to be rope bridges consisting of three ropes of twisted birch or willow bark whereby the one crossing the same had to walk on one rope, made up of smaller ropes, usually three twisted together. Clinging grimly to the other two which were used as flexible, insecure banisters or rails, joined by short withies to the footway. The end of the ropes were lashed to baulks of timber buried in stones, on either bank. Crossing by the birch-bridges was a very difficult experience where the traveler would go down steeply till a third of the way across where it would be comparatively level, until the last third would be reached when climbing steadily. Col R.C.F Schomberg has well depicted such experiments in his travelogue ‘Between the Oxus and the Indus’.

At places there used to be inflated rafts of goat-skin which would be noodle across to facilitate movement of people especially during summers when the water level of rivers would escalate enormously. Beneath Danyore Shrine, there used to be a boat aided by raft for the passage across the Hunza River, until the construction of the present suspension bridge was completed in  mid-sixties. In short, transport-communication system here was of the crudest kind and necessity alone had made the inhabitants of these areas intrepid cragsmen who would pass with ease over all the dangerous places where experienced mountaineer would clamber dismally.

Agricultural economy those days was in shambles but despite this, land-tax was invariably leviable throughout the Northern Areas which was called ‘malia’ in Gilgit and adjoining places. The ‘malia’ was in fact a legacy of the colonial era which became to be indiscriminately foisted upon the people only to be revamped later even after independence. The place where ‘malia’ was being collected and stored was called ‘kamsarait’.

The building reminiscent of this back-breaking system was demolished a decade and a half ago thereby obliterating the horrible vestiges of the preceding oppressive regimes. It will be pertinent to mention that there used to prevail this taxation system with all the ancient fiefdoms and principalities of these areas from times immemorial which the successive occupying forces adapted in totality for giving indefinite currency afterwards.

Whatever be its justification under the specific circumstances, it was a very tormenting system that was literally breaking the back of the poor people who would beat very difficult tracks for delivering the same to the governmental authorities of the days. Only the lucky ones would arrange its carriage on donkey-back for the mere reason that the tracks providing a linkage with Gilgit and Skardu were all mostly meant for pedestrians with the exception of a very few then serving as mule-tracks for driving the beasts of burden along.

However, the ‘malia’ system was in toto, revamped after the liberation of these areas and so long as this was finally done away with in the wake of the administrative reforms of 1973. The tax-system then prevalent in the former tiny kingdoms of Hunza-Nagar and other principalities of the time, was still more perplexing in the sense that the rulers of these states would invariably impose the tax on all agricultural produce besides that on livestock and their byproducts which their subjects were constrained to pay quite unhesitantly each and every year. Other ceremonies are said to be taxed by the rulers.

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