Nov 22, 2014
Developed nations are known by their efficient infrastructure, especially the road network. Road network plays a pivotal role in the economy of any country and is known as the backbone of the economy. In regions like Gilgit-Baltistan, where the main population centers are not only scattered all over the region but are also separated by the glaciers, rivers, streams, valleys and towering rocky mountains, a reliable transport road network becomes all the more important and essential.
Skardu, the epitome of the natural beauty, was connected to the external world in the 1970s. Before the 70s the region was a self-sustained region away from the external world which would generate most of their livelihood necessities by themselves. In early history, the Skardu city was a pivotal junction linking the Tibet and the India with the central Asian countries via the Silk Route. Before the partition, most of the trade of the Baltistan region would be with Tibet and India via Kargil. Even for studies, people visited Srinagar and other Indian cities than Pakistani cities because they were easily accessible and nearer than today’s Pakistani cities.
After the partition people of the region opened a revolt against the Maharaja of Kashmir and after a fierce war with the Dogra Raj acceded to Pakistan. This fulfilled the sentimental needs of the people, but they became alienated and suffered not only in term of culture and tradition but also in economics. As after the 1948 war LOC (Line of Control) was drawn between Skardu and Kargil which not only ended the centuries-old trade link but also divided the families living across the LOC. Since then the families are separated by an imaginary border. Families living about few kilometers away, having the sight of one another, cannot reach each other because it costs them more than performing a pilgrimage to the holy city of Makka. To visit the family on the other bank of the valley they have to cover a distance of 2700 kilometers.
For Skardu, at the time Kargil was more important strategically than Gilgit because of a few reasons. Firstly, it was nearer and had easy access to other regions of India. Secondly, the way to Gilgit was more arduous than Kargil. Thirdly Gilgit itself was not a sustainable city as it was dependent on other cities of Pakistan which were hundreds of kilometers away. It was a time when people would travel on horses, donkeys, and yaks on precarious narrow paths along the mighty cliffs of Karakorum and Himalayas. In this sense it was almost impossible to reach Islamabad; it would take months. So most of the trade would take place with Indian cities and Tibet region.
The Gilgit-Skardu Road was completed by the Pakistan Army by the end of the 1970’s decade. Initially, it was an unmetalled road which was soon metalled. It linked the lonely region to the Pakistan and the outer world through Karakorum highway. As the population grew in size, the necessities of the city expanded and trade and commerce became inevitable. Presently, this road is a lifeline for the four districts of the Baltistan region having an approximate population of one million. But with the passage of time the road has become dilapidated because of the apathetic approach by the government and now only its ramshackleness can be observed.
For a recent decade, this road has become a political tool for parties to woo votes. Before the election, the parties make a dozen of hollow pledges among them the reconstruction and repairing of the Gilgit-Skardu Road top the priority. But soon the election is ended it can only be seen as the headline of local newspapers, meanwhile parties hurling allegations on one another for the incapability of reconstructing the road. The project was announced by the prime minister of Pakistan before the GB election. The same project was announced by the previous government of PPP, but it has been confined to the announcements and never been materialized.
Accidents and veering off the vehicles in Indus River have become a common phenomenon. Only 225 km of distance between Gilgit and Skardu is covered in about six hours. While traveling on the road one prepares the mind that I have to bear the jolts for six hours after that I would be in Skardu or Gilgit to rest for soothing the fatigue.
The government has never been serious about the widening and repair of the road, but the apathy and mum of the military leadership on this issue is totally un-understandable. The road is not only important for the indigenous people, but it is one of the strategic roads in term of defense. It is the only road which leads to the PAF base Qadri and Siachen in Skardu, the latter is the world’s highest battle-ground. PAF base in Skardu is the forward operating base protecting about 90000 square kilometers of Gilgit-Baltistan and Azad Kashmir. Skardu is the gateway to the world’s highest battle-ground Siachen as well. If we compare the infrastructure of Baltistan with that of adjoining regions of Ladakh, India has upgraded and expanded its road network from foothill of Siachin to the top of the Tiger Hill, which they claim to be captured from Pakistan Army in Kargil War. In another perspective Gilgit-Skardu road is the only way to supply ammunition and ration to the whole army battalions in Baltistan. If this road is blocked at one point the whole army in the Baltistan region would ultimately fail, which was depicted in Kargil war when within a week troops were so helpless that they were forced to eat mud.
Although, if the government intends Skardu can be connected to Islamabad by three routes. First, through Gilgit-Skardu road which joins KKH at Alam Bridge in Gilgit and total length up to Islamabad is 750 kilometers. Second: via Skardu-Kargil road, which joins Ladakh-Srinagar highway known as 1-D at Kargil town, which after crossing the LOC and entering the Muzaffarabad reaches Islamabad. The total length of this route is about 640 kilometers. Third, via Skardu-Deosai-Shounter road which would be the shortest route if materialized with a length of only about 520 kilometers.
If all these options opt Skardu will be a trade and tourist hub. Opening the Skardu-Kargil road will not only boost the trade and tourism but it will also open ways for the residents to see their dear ones separated decades ago by a virtual boundary. If Lahore can be linked to Delhi and Muzaffarabad to Srinagar: then why Skardu can’t be linked to Kargil? Both regions across the LOC i.e. Baltistan and Ladakh regions are peace loving and there has never been any unrest in the region as compared to the Jammu and Azad Kashmir. Although the region has been a battleground for 1971 and 1999 wars between the two nuclear powers, despite there has never been any insurgency and peace issue.
After seeing the incapability and mum of the government over this issue, local right and social activists have started a moment to aware the people regarding the Gilgit-Skardu road and collect the donations to build the road by themselves. But such massive projects are not in their scope. National level print and electronic media are also keeping mum over the issue except the local newspapers, asserting the notion that this road is of not any importance and it is only the problem of GBians. The government needs to take serious actions regarding the road which is the only lifeline and source of income for the locals. When unemployment and inflation are at peak, the road is the only source of livelihood for indigenous people, whether skilled or unskilled, from the tourism industry. But due to the deteriorated condition of the road tourism industry is also in jeopardy, leaving the unsupported workforce to more marginalization. Also, if the road is once repaired or reconstructed, a permanent patrolling and maintenance force to keep the road functional is necessary, because the road is often hit by landslides, flash floods and the road is washed away when Indus River rise creating dangerous breaches. Pakistan Army’s Engineer sections deployed in the region often take the responsibility for clearing the road, but they have not been functional as they are equipped with outdated and small machinery which take several hours to clear the road even it is a small amount of debris.