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UNTAPPED WEALTH OF NORTHERN AREAS

Untapped wealth of NAs, Published in The Frontier Post dated February 28, 1999
By Syed Shams ud Din

Pakistan occupies a highly important place in the geo-strategic parlance and which has assumed still greater significance with the dismemberment of the Soviet Union in the early ‘90s and this becomes more relevant in the case of Northern Areas where Pakistan borders India, China, and Afghanistan while the nascent Central Asian States (CARs) lie only at a hand-shake away on the north-western fringes. It is however, noteworthy that the Tsarist Russia and Victorian England remained locked over the vast expanse  of the Central Asia steppes and the relentless struggle spanning most part of the nineteenth century, came to be known as the ‘Great Game’.

Many nations have been gravitating in regional groupings so far, to deliberate upon economic issues to resolve them through a mutually advantageous interaction in the context of trade and commerce. Pakistan is endowed with a huge potential in terms of mineral resources and manpower. This is in addition to her unmatched water resources coupled with vast plains which bode well for making stunning strides in agriculture. It is, however, true that manpower may become useful only when it is skilled. It is sine qua non for the economic development that a workforce is available for the exploitation of the untapped natural resources to raise productivity.

Economic experts aptly put it that human resources are the major determinants in the context of economic and social development. Such a notion clearly necessitates imparting requisite skills and education to the people for effective utilization in the nation-building process. There is no denying the fact that the vastness of mineral and water resources singly available in the Northern Areas besides the potential it offers for developing tourism in the country, augurs well for bringing about a prosperous economic change. The gigantic water resources available here suffice all the needs of bringing about a green revolution throughout the country provided these are prudently tapped.

Even a single sector, say, tourism, if receives the direly needed attention and prioritizing, is enough to catapult the nation to unimaginable heights. What to speak of the water resources, tapping of which attaches multi-dimensional significance in that the net results to be profitably achieved include generation of thousands of megawatts of power more or less six mega dams on the River Indus. It is indeed ironic emphasis is all along on the implementation of controversial schemes while these can conveniently be shifted towards such places where there can be no dispute.

In addition to building dams on the Indus, there is vast potential for generation of power by constructing mini-dams in nullahs and other tributaries of the main rivers here. A network of even mini-dams will help irrigate the arid land abundantly available here while the superfluous power could be supplied to the down country, not only for domestic consumption but also to cater to growing demand of the neighbouring countries.

One visiting the bordering Xinjiang Autonomous Region of China is amazed to see the stunning progress they have made not simply in tapping the mineral resources but in all the sectors of development. Not an iota of anything goes untapped there. To top them all is the dexterous tapping of the water resources that has enabled them to generate power besides giving a boost to mountain farming. But we, on this side of border, inspite of having the same resources, are not poised to achieve any progress. As regards tourism, we have failed to make that much progress in giving a genuine boost to it despite having a country of enduring charm and unmatched beauty. There are many developing countries like Egypt, Maldives, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bhutan etc whose economies squarely  depend on tourism as they have been able to attract the world tourists notwithstanding the fact that they have less attractions than Pakistan in terms of scenic beauty, rich cultural heritage. What is the need of the hour then is that concerted efforts are made to promote tourism in its truest perspective.

It is heartening that an international Convention on Tourism is being held at Islamabad these days. All issues confronted with in the context of tourism will surely be deliberated upon to find ways and means for an advantageous interaction in this regard. What is still significant is that such workshops would invariably be held in  all the provinces and the Northern Areas the first of which will certainly be at Gilgit in June this year. As reported by a regional weekly, the prospective convention at Gilgit to be arranged by the local administration, is to be attended by delegates numbering well over 200, from America, Canada, Britain, Germany, France, Japan and Spain, in addition  to a great number of tour operators, hotliers, climbers, trekkers from within and without, which will greatly help formulation of a national tourism policy.

Needless to mention that a report emanating from some foreign media sometimes ago put the number of foreign tourists visiting Pakistan every year at around 35,000 out of which 35 per cent visit Pakistan exclusively to see the Northern Areas. Still there is another large number of them visiting Northern Areas to visit China later, via Khunjrab Pass. This however, excludes various groups of adventurers destined to the Northern Areas for scaling the virgin peaks here.

As contained in the above referred comments, the prime source of attraction for the general tourists in Pakistan has been its unique geographic location where one is in a position to see all the seasons of the year at one and the same time ranging from the panoramic view of bewitching snow-clad mountains in the North to the diverse climate downwards. The enduring charm of beautiful moungtains in the North, tracks for hikers, rivers, lakes, rivulets, lush green valleys, diverse culture, handicrafts and what not that makes an enthralling and indelibly enchanting impact on the mind of the visitor.

The modest infrastructural facilities that are available at present are not instrumental in catering fully to the needs of tourists no matter the private sector too, has been actively involved. Leading organizations in addition to PTDC itself, have indeed, played a pivotal role while hoteliers render commendable service in the Northern Areas. Some native tour operators and personages engaged in tourism have made a great contribution. The names of Nazir Sabir and Ashraf Aman and lately of Mubarak, need a particular mention. The former two made a niche in climbing being the first Pakistanis who scaled K.2 two decades ago. Such persons having nexus with tour operators abroad are a veritable asset to the country if tourism is at all, to be promoted. In addition, the organizations like Northern Areas Transport Corporation (NATCO) too, have played a central role in facilitating movement of tourists throughout the Northern Areas.

It also redounds to the credit of this corporation to facilitate tourists going to the Peoples’ Republic of China. It has to play yet another important role from this May onwards when the transit trade between Kazakhstan, Kirghizstan, China and Pakistan gets underway. It is expected that the scenario then will change radically and there will be an enormous influx of tourists from the Central Asian Republics.

It appears that the proposal for setting up a dry port in Northern Areas is also underway to cope the rising demand especially with the commencement of the transit trade. The Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Northern Areas Gilgit has recently stressed the need for setting up of a port in Gilgit. They have pointed out that the number of trucks carrying transit goods and those destined for the CARs from Pakistan would eventually surge to hundreds per day and their facilitation at the present place of customs station would not, any way, suffice the needs in view of the fact that the land available there has shrunk to a negligible piece measuring only 27 kanals or so. They have further contended that the harsh climatic conditions obtaining at Sust do not augur well for keeping vehicles parked awaiting customs clearance, when the area turns into a veritable frigid zone in winters when temperature slumps down to minus 22 to 30 degree Celsius.

The chamber has also assailed any proposal to shift the station behind Gilgit downwards with the contention inter alia, that it will be enormously flawed in the context of prevention of smuggling as numerous conduits like Gilgit-Ghizar-Chitral, Gilgit-Skardu, and Babusar Road will render the area porous for unabated smuggling in future.

Whatever be the situation, these contentions prima facie appear to be quite incontrovertible. This aprior reasoning on the part of  of NACCI strikes the receptive chord in that the influx of the visitors and hosts of member of crew accompanying trade delegations and the fleets would have to be kept in view in the scheme of things. What the chamber additionally holds is the view that Gilgit is the metropolis of the Northern Areas with a vast administrative network to ease solving numerous problems besides helping allay any apprehensions of lawlessness and anarchic state that may simmer for enforcement of law in a far flung and remote area having such a station.

With the commencement of traffic via Khunjrab Pass, which was opened for general tourists in 1986, the government announced a benign policy of giving instant financial assistance on soft terms, to all intending hoteliers which came to be invariably availed by a great number. What exactly has been the result in a nutshell, today is the fact that a a slump in the number of tourists seems to have pushed all these enterprises into a quandary. However, the opening up of transit trade with the CARs from May this year will hopefully raise the number of tourists tremendously.

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