Government’s plans for Gilgit-Baltistan national parks spark debate, protests

This photograph shared by Prime Minister's Office on December 2, 2020, shows Pakistani premier Imran Khan during the inauguration ceremony of the Himalaya and Nanga Parbat national parks. (PID/File)
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Updated 06 March 2021
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Government’s plans for Gilgit-Baltistan national parks spark debate, protests

  • For generations, locals have been using huge swathes of public land for grazing animals and chopping firewood
  • As tourism to the valleys grows, conservationists argue parks are need of the hour

ISLAMABAD: In the snowy mountain village of Minimarg in Pakistan’s Gilgit-Baltistan, dozens of people walked through five feet of snow last month to protest notifications issued by the government to establish two huge national parks in the region.

The proposal to create the two parks spread over 3,000 square km in the regions of Diamer and Astore, has been met with scathing criticism among communities who say the move will deprive them of huge swathes of land which they have for generations used to graze animals and chop trees for firewood.

“The residents will be deprived of their lands after the conservation. We will never let the government change the status of public agency on local lands,” Abbas Mosavi, who is leading the protest against the national parks, told Arab News last week.

“We are not against tourism’s industry and conservation,” Mosavi clarified, but added that according to a 1975 act, the lands’ occupation and ownership could only be transferred from the people to the state.

In November last year, Pakistan announced its decision to grant Gilgit-Baltistan, an autonomous region it administered in the country’s far north, the status of a full province.

On Friday, Gilgit-Baltistan’s minister for wildlife and forests, Raja Zakaria, urged the federal wildlife department during the second session of the GB legislative assembly, to take local stakeholders into account before making any moves toward the creation of the national parks.

Prime Minister Imran Khan inaugurated the Himalaya and Nanga Parbat National Parks in Gilgit-Baltistan in December last year to protect endangered wildlife and promote eco-tourism in the area when he participated in the oath-taking ceremony of newly-elected members of the GB legislative assembly.

“Government announced and issued separate notifications of Nanga-Parbat and Himalaya National Parks without taking the stakeholders of the area into confidence,” a senior PML-N leader and resident of Astore valley, Rana Farooq, told Arab News.

“We are ready to sit with the government, if they take back the notification. Without reversing the notification, we will never let the government establish national parks in our area,” he said. 

“Under the decision, residents of the national parks can neither utilize her­bal products nor cut firewood,” he said.

Gilgit-Baltistan’s Environmental Protection Authority Assistant Director Khadim Hussain told Arab News that the issue was being politicized even though 80 percent of the proposed parks’ incomes would be going to local communities directly.

“To protect the natural environment and promote eco-tourism, the formation of more and new national parks is the need of the hour,” Hussain said.

“People are not aware of the benefits of national parks. Livelihood and economic conditions of people will be improved. If they resist and the decision is reversed... the natural environment will be destroyed due to growing tourists’ flows into the beautiful valleys.”

Conservationists agree with Hussain’s point of view.

“Gilgit-Baltistan is one of the most beautiful valleys of the world-- surrounded by lofty mountains and home to endangered species like ibex,” Dr. Mayoor Khan, a renowned conservationist in GB, told Arab News. 

“National parks strengthen the economic condition of spatial people and open doors of employment. They ensure the health of our environment as parks maintain healthy ecosystems, providing clean water and clean air, and enabling the conservation of natural resources,” he said.

“People who are opposing the parks are not aware of their benefit. Conservation in upper parts of Gilgit-Baltistan are necessary to protect the natural environment and resources. The standards of people’s way of life will be changed. GB already has four national parks and their communities are enjoying the benefits,” he said.

“This offers the public access to safe, affordable, and healthy ways to experience and appreciate nature,” he continued, and added that revenues generated by the national parks would go to local communities to further expedite conservation activities. 


Pakistan hopes for ‘greater success’ at LEAP conference in Riyadh amid push to grow local IT industry — minister

Updated 03 March 2024
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Pakistan hopes for ‘greater success’ at LEAP conference in Riyadh amid push to grow local IT industry — minister

  • The LEAP 2024 conference, to be held in Riyadh on March 3-7, will bring together thousands of tech professionals, firms and experts
  • Pakistan, faced with economic slowdown, is making aggressive efforts to grow its IT industry to attract much-needed foreign investment

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan’s Caretaker Information Technology (IT) Minister Umar Saif said on Sunday that his country was hoping for “greater success” at the annual LEAP tech conference in Saudi Arabia this week, amid the South Asian country’s push to grow local IT industry in the Middle East.
The LEAP 2024 conference is scheduled to be held in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia from March 3 till March 7. The global event serves as a meeting point for regional and international tech professionals, enterprises and experts, providing them a chance to network and secure lucrative contracts from regional and global tech giants.
Pakistan, faced with an economic slowdown, has been making aggressive efforts to grow its IT industry in the Middle East to attract much-needed foreign investment to support the dwindling $350 billion South Asian economy.
Earlier this week, Excellence Delivered (ExD), a Pakistani IT enterprise, secured the highly coveted SAP RISE implementation contract with the prestigious Middle East Specialized Cables (MESC) in Riyadh.
“Our push for growing Pakistan’s IT industry in the middle-east is producing great results,” Saif said on X, reacting to the development. “Onwards and upwards! Hoping for even greater success with the LEAP conference this week.”
Established in 1993, MESC is a leading manufacturer of industrial, instrumentation and process control cables, with manufacturing facilities in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
The ExD said it clinched the prestigious project after “fierce competition” from regional and global players.
Earlier this week, Pakistani tech companies discovered “promising leads” at the recently concluded Web Summit in the Qatari capital of Doha that would lead to an increase in business collaboration between entrepreneurs in the two countries, the head of the Pakistani software houses association said.
Entrepreneurs, investors, and business leaders from around the world converged in central Doha to participate in the four-day-long Web Summit 2024. Over 100 Pakistani delegates attended what was one of the world’s biggest tech conferences to showcase the country’s tech potential and interact with their global counterparts, sharing best practices and cutting-edge ideas.
“Several Pakistanis participated in startup rounds, where many found promising leads which will now materialize after further discussions and providing project papers and other details,” Muhammad Zohaib Khan, chairman of the Pakistan Software Houses Association (P@SHA), told Arab News on Thursday.
Khan, who attended the conference in Doha, said some Pakistani delegates extended their stay in the Gulf country to further discuss and work on the leads they had found during the event.


In a first, Pakistan to select assistants for Hajj 2024 through National Testing Service exam 

Updated 03 March 2024
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In a first, Pakistan to select assistants for Hajj 2024 through National Testing Service exam 

  • Pakistan selects hundreds of assistants, doctors every year to facilitate Pakistani pilgrims during the Hajj pilgrimage
  • Religious Affairs Minister Aneeq Ahmed says picking Hajj assistants via NTS will ensure transparency, better performance

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan will be selecting assistants for this year’s Hajj pilgrimage through the National Testing Service (NTS) exam for the first time in its history, the country’s caretaker religious affairs minister said on Sunday.
Pakistan selects hundreds of assistants and doctors every year to facilitate local pilgrims in Saudi Arabia in performing rituals of the annual pilgrimage.
The individuals who intended to assist pilgrims during this year’s Hajj sat the NTS exam on Sunday to be able to proceed further.
“An important work is starting today. The selection of Hajj assistants is being done for the first time through the National Testing Service,” Religious Affairs Minister Aneeq Ahmed said, after witnessing the examination process at an NTS center in Islamabad.
“Keeping transparency in mind, selection is being done through NTS for the first time in history.”
Last year, Pakistan selected 794 Hajj assistants, while this year the country intends to pick 625 individuals to facilitate the pilgrims, according to the minister.
There will be 540 doctors on Hajj duty this year, who would be providing medical attention to pilgrims.
“Those passing the written test will perform better during the Hajj pilgrimage,” Ahmed said, promising to facilitate the pilgrims to the best.
Hajj is an annual Islamic pilgrimage that has been in practice for over 1,400 years. It is one of the five pillars of Islam, and requires every adult Muslim to undertake a journey to the holy Islamic sites in Makkah at least once in their lifetime, if they are financially and physically able. This year’s pilgrimage is expected to run from June 14 till June 19.
Saudi Arabia last year restored Pakistan’s pre-pandemic Hajj quota of 179,210 pilgrims and abolished the upper age limit of 65 years. More than 81,000 Pakistani pilgrims performed Hajj under the government scheme in 2023, while the rest used private tour operators.
In December, Pakistan announced the results of a draw for Hajj 2024, with more than 63,000 applicants selected for the pilgrimage under the government scheme. The remaining candidates will apply through private tour operators.
Last month, the South Asian country began Hajj 2024 training workshops and educational sessions, designed by the government to educate pilgrims about the rituals and procedures of performing the pilgrimage.


Respite for residents as trade activities resume at Pakistan-Afghanistan border in Chaman

Updated 03 March 2024
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Respite for residents as trade activities resume at Pakistan-Afghanistan border in Chaman

  • The border was closed in Nov. 2023 amid protests over Islamabad’s move to restrict travel to those with valid documents
  • It comes as number of Afghans repatriated to their country reaches 500,000 after Islamabad ordered illegal foreigners to leave

ISLAMABAD: The resumption of trade activities between Pakistan and Afghanistan at the Chaman-Spin Boldak border crossing have brought respite to people living on either side, Pakistani state media reported on Sunday, citing residents.
Pakistani authorities closed the Chaman border in the southwestern Balochistan province in Nov. 2023 amid protests over Islamabad’s decision to limit cross-border travel to only those with valid passports and visas.
Border between the two neighbors has witnessed frequent closures of crossings in recent years over skirmishes between border forces amid heightened tensions between the two countries.
Trade activities through the Chaman-Spin Boldak border crossing resumed this week reportedly to facilitate the movement of goods for the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, which starts in March.
“The people have expressed great satisfaction over the resumption of trade activities between Pakistan and Afghanistan through Chaman-Spin Boldak border,” the state-run Radio Pakistan broadcaster reported.
“The local people have appreciated the endeavors of Pakistan Army and the government in this regard.”
Tensions between Pakistan and Afghanistan soared amid a spike in militant attacks, including suicide bombings, in Pakistan’s northwestern and southwestern regions that border Afghanistan.
Islamabad said last year the attacks involved a number of Afghans and ordered all illegal foreigners, mostly Afghan nationals, to leave the country by Nov. 1, 2023.
While Kabul denies the allegation and foreign government as well as rights groups have urged Pakistan to reconsider its decision, the repatriation of Afghan nationals, some of them living in Pakistan for decades, continues from different parts of Pakistan.
“So far, more than five hundred three thousand Afghans have been repatriated to Afghanistan,” the Radio Pakistan said in a separate report.
“Over five thousand Afghan nationals returned to their country over the last one week.”


Police make arrest in rare case of teacher throwing acid on female student in Karachi

Updated 03 March 2024
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Police make arrest in rare case of teacher throwing acid on female student in Karachi

  • The police say they are ascertaining the motive behind the attack in Gulshan-e-Iqbal area of city
  • Despite decline in recent years, acid attacks persist as tool of violence against women in Pakistan

KARACHI: Police in southern Pakistani city of Karachi have arrested a teacher for attacking his female student and two of her relatives with acid, an official said on Sunday.
The horrifying incident occurred when the student, who had just completed a certificate course at the Sahil IT Institute in the Gulshan-e-Iqbal area, this week showed up along her two uncles to collect her certificate which the teacher had refused to hand over after a heated exchange of words between the two a day earlier.
“When she arrived with her two uncles on Friday, the teacher, identified as Iftikhar, attacked them with acid, causing burns to all three of them” Qurban Ali, in-charge of the Aziz Bhatti police station, told Arab News.
The victims were taken to hospital and the police later arrested the suspect, according to the official.
“Investigation is underway but it has been established that the teacher had planned the attack as he had already arranged acid with the intention to harm the girl,” Ali said, adding the police were ascertaining the motive.
Dr. Summayia Syed, the Karachi police surgeon, said the student had sustained 13.5 percent burns while her uncles, Faizan Rasheed and Nauman Rasheed, sustained 14 and 9 percent respectively.
There had been a significant decrease in acid attacks in Pakistan since the enactment of a legislation criminalizing acid and burn violence in December 2011, according to a 2017 report by the Acid Survivors Foundation (ASF) rights group.
Between 2007 and 2016, there were 1,108 reported acid attacks in Pakistan, affecting 1,375 individuals. The severity of the issue was underscored by a surge in reported cases between 1999 and 2005, which peaked in 2002 (494 cases) and 2003 (417 cases), according to the report.
However, there has been a noticeable decline in such cases in recent years. In 2014, there were 153 acid attacks targeting 210 victims, followed by 69 in 2015 and 73 in 2016. The trend continued in 2017 with a further drop in the number of incidents to 39.
Despite the decline, acid attacks persist as a tool of violence against women and young children in Pakistan.
On Jan. 9, a 22-year-old woman schoolteacher was injured in an acid attack in the eastern city of Lahore after refusing a marriage proposal.


Opposition PTI says will cooperate with Pakistan government but continue protests against ‘rigging’ 

Updated 03 March 2024
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Opposition PTI says will cooperate with Pakistan government but continue protests against ‘rigging’ 

  • Coalition partner PPP says supporting government for sake of democracy and but will hold it to account
  • PM Sharif’s PML-N says he will prioritize fixing the economy, creating jobs for young unemployed Pakistanis

ISLAMABAD: The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), the country’s main opposition party, said on Sunday it would cooperate where ‘required’ with the new government of Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif but would continue protests against what it says was the rigging of last month’s elections and manipulation of vote counts.
Sharif beat Omar Ayub Khan, the candidate backed by jailed former Prime Minister Imran Khan’s PTI, who secured 92 votes. The PTI and a spattering of others parties have rejected the result of the Feb. 8 elections, alleging widespread rigging and carrying out nationwide protests since. The election commission denies the vote was manipulated in the run up to polls or during the counting process. 
“We would be putting the government to account for its deeds and we will cooperate with the government where it is so required,” PTI chairman Gohar Khan, who is also Imran Khan’s lawyer, told Arab News, saying his party would participate in all assembly sessions and “actively” play the role of the opposition. 
He said the PTI would not obstruct the functioning of parliament.
“We say we will definitely participate in the process and would actually like the government to move forward and we would like to actually participate in the legislation,” Gohar said. “But what we say is, until and unless our mandate is restored, we will continue our protests.”
The Muttahida Qaumi Movement-Pakistan (MQM-P), a coalition partner of Sharif’s government, stressed the need for the new government to hold a dialogue with “all of Pakistan.”
“I ask the PTI [Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party of ex-PM Khan] to fight for their rights legally and not to fight democracy,” the MQM’s Aminul Haque said, saying the country needed political stability for economic stability.
The Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), a coalition partner of the government which has so far refused to take any cabinet positions, said it was supporting the government for the sake of democracy and rule of law but would hold it to account where needed.
“We know that we are facing many challenges in the country like internal and external law and order issues. We have a big issue of inflation and millions of people are suffering below the poverty line,” Dr. Mahreen Bhutto, a member of the PPP Central Executive Committee, said. 
“We are supporting the PML-N right now but we will raise all these issues of the people of Pakistan in parliament with confidence and we will try to convince the government to take measures that are necessary to address all these relevant issues.”
Sharif is set to take oath on Monday. This will be his second term as PM, with the first one running from April 2022 to August last year.
The new PM’s PML-N party said Sharif had helped save the country from sovereign default in June last year by negotiating an IMF deal and would work again to improve the economy. 
“This is good news for all Pakistanis and for Pakistan,” Marriyum Aurangzeb, the party’s information secretary, told Arab News. “The youth who were unemployed will get employment again as the journey of progress will begin, the economy will prosper.”