CPEC stumbling on public ire


Manzoor Ahmed

Communities living along the proposed China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a disastrously ambitious infrastructure project funded by China, are now becoming more vocal in protesting the unfair means of acquiring their land and the damage such a massive project is likely to affect their way of life and living.

Protests have broken out at various places where the proposed road-rail network is likely to pass through, destroying not only the pristine environment in the fragile Himalayan ranges skirting the mighty Indus but also farms, orchards and grazing grounds of local communities.

The latest of these protests has come from the garrison town of Abbottabad which falls on the route of the proposed corridor. Land owners whose farms and houses fall along the corridor are unhappy with the compensation package offered to them. The farm and house owners, whose property are set to be sacrificed for the Chinese project, have now threatened to hold a protest in front  the Chinese embassy in Islamabad in the near future.

More perturbed are the industrialists and businessmen who see the Chinese project as a serious threat to their businesses. They fear that the Chinese business houses, once the corridor is operational, would  kill the local industries and rake in profits at the cost of domestic entrepreneurship by flooding the market with cheaply produced Chinese products.

The three chambers of commerce of Gujrat, Gujranwala and Sialkot are perturbed about the Chinese proposal to set up industrial unis and warehouses along the corridor. They believe that the proposal will prove to be a death knell for the local industries and lead to immense economic losses and unemployment. These three towns, called as the “Golden Industrial Triangle”, are home to large industrial clusters. Sialkot is considered to be an “export powerhouse“.

What has miffed the industrialists is the secrecy around the corridor and the government’s refusal to share the present and future plans of the Chinese industries which have an immense stake in the project. There is a growing apprehension that while the Chinese industries are likely to enjoy tax benefits and other “ease of business” provisions while the local industrialists are going to face increased tax scrutiny to “bring them around”. The businessmen are also not sure whether they will get similar access in China in reciprocation as the Chinese business houses are said to be getting in the corridor project.

In an editorial titled “Pain in the heartland”, the influential English daily, DAWN (January 3, 2017) aptly summed up the apprehensions of the local industries about the corridor and how it was likely to favour the Chinese businesses. “The apprehensions are shared by many others in the business community, who are increasingly feeling that the government is largely unresponsive to their voice while making every effort to accommodate Chinese investors.“

The editorial asked: “Does investment into Pakistan really have to be such a one-way affair?”

The newspaper said the “the voice from the triangle of industrial clusters in Punjab’s heartland is part of a growing chorus of voices that are increasingly apprehensive about the attitude of the government towards domestic industry.“It is feared that  traditional export hubs like Sialkot have been hit hard by drastic decline in exports over the years and unless they accessed the nearby Chinese markets, the corridor might prove to be a double whammy for them.

Far away from the Punjab’s industrial corridor, the problems from the Chinese project are vastly different in Gilgit Baltistan (GB), the gateway to the entire corridor. The people of Gilgit Baltistan, however, remain oblivious to the benefits of the project to their lives. They only see destruction—roads getting choked, air getting polluted and their rivers and farms getting submerged with construction debris. The government in Islamabad is indifferent to the interests of the people of Gilgit Baltistan and so is the local government which acts on the whims of Islamabad, leaving the local communities at the mercy of the drastic changes brought about the destructive corridor which runs through their mountains, rivers and homes.

A local from Baltistan expressed his community’s fear in another Pakistani newspaper THE NATION (Jan 3, 2017): “The region, which is enriched with all kinds of natural resources and indispensable for the CPEC dream, is completely oblivious and far removed from the benefits from the CPEC. The inhabitants of GB, having no representatives in National Assembly, are quite unhappy, as the government has divested them of their rights to demand or contribute anything.“

He wrote that “the impotent GB government, who tells fabricated stories for the assurance of people, is helpless as they are working under the compliance of the federal government.This step-motherly treatment of our government is really testing the patience of people which may turn to protest in the future“.

It is not a secret that neither the Chinese nor the Pakistani government has paid any attention to augmenting the present infrastructure in GB. The narrow Karakoram Highway (KKH), the only land route to GB from the mainland, has for long been perilous for container trucks and other large vehicles; landslides, rockfalls and heavy snowfall during the winter months have for years cut off GB from the mainland for weeks. The number of accidents and casualties as a result has been large and the addition of the Chinese container traffic is likely to raise this number many times over.

The locals rue that the only benefit they have gained from the Chinese project is environmental pollution, exhaust gases and road accidents.

Thus, from Punjab to Gilgit Baltistan, the Chinese project is attracting an increasingly vocal public ire and protest which has all the potential of snowballing into a bigger stumbling block than imagined.