Barren mountains in Pakistan’s north blossom with crops under agriculture development scheme 

Villagers are busy planting trees on a land developed under the Economic Transformation Initiative for Gilgit-Baltistan (ETIGB) in Ghanche, Pakistan, on June 3, 2021. (Photo courtesy: ETIGB)
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Updated 26 January 2023

Barren mountains in Pakistan’s north blossom with crops under agriculture development scheme 

  • Economic Transformation Initiative for Gilgit-Baltistan has helped farmers in a region where only 1 percent of land was cultivated 
  • $120 million scheme has sought to increase crop yield by giving farmers land, building water channels and farm-to-market roads

KHAPLU: Farmers in Pakistan’s northern Gilgit-Baltistan region have been able to irrigate barren land under a government scheme introduced in 2015 to create livelihood opportunities and increase the agricultural income of about 100,000 rural households, said its beneficiaries while speaking to Arab News.

The Economic Transformation Initiative for Gilgit-Baltistan (ETIGB) was originally envisaged as a multifaceted, seven-year project which had to end last September. Given its success in achieving its primary objectives, however, it was further extended for about two years.

The $120 million initiative not only sought to increase the agricultural output by organizing farmers by giving them substantial land but also supported them further by building water channels and farm-to-market roads.

As a result, the project enabled a large number of families cultivate their own crops while benefiting others in the community in a region where only one percent of the land has been used for agriculture. The rest of Gilgit-Baltistan’s nearly 72,000 square kilometers of administrative territory consist of 52 percent rangelands, four percent forests while the remaining portion has mountains and barren land.

“There are 106 households in our village,” said Muhammad Abbas, a 45-year-old retired soldier, who got his own land under the scheme and has since been growing wheat, potatoes and beans in his native town. “Every household got eight kanal of land.”

This aerial posted on October 5, 2022, shows tomato crops cultivated through vertical farming in ​​​Shimshal valley in Pakistan’s northern Gilgit-Baltistan region. (Photo courtesy: ETIGB)

One kanal measures about 506 square meters.

The Gilgit-Baltistan administration gave vast swathes of barren lands to people after the project was co-financed by International Fund for Agriculture Development (IFAD) that works under the auspices of the United Nations. The initiative was viewed as highly significant since the area remains heavily dependent on subsidized wheat from Punjab due to an acute shortage of irrigable land.

“The length of the upper side of our main water channel [build under the project] is about 13,900 feet and the length of the sub-channels is almost 5,400 feet,” Abbas said. “We get the water for farming in April and it reaches our lands in one and a half hours from the source.”

He informed he was not the only one benefiting from the initiative, adding that hundreds of other farmers in different valleys of the region had similar stories to tell.

60-year-old Zulaikha, who goes by a single name, is one of them. She told Arab News she had been growing wheat, potatoes and spinach on her land after getting adequate water for farming.

“I have been growing wheat and spinach etc. for the last two years since we have got enough land for farming,” she said. “Previously, we purchased wheat for home, but we are now producing it on our own.”

Barkat Ali, a deputy program coordinator at the ETIGB, said the success of the project required the construction of 400-kilometer farm-to-market roads and bridges.

“The purpose of this project was to increase the agricultural income and employment of rural households in Gilgit-Baltistan through sustainable development of agricultural value chain,” he said. “The construction of roads and RCC [reinforced cement concrete] bridges was not only to meant to address the connectivity issue among valleys and main roads of the district but also to reduce the distance between the production areas and markets.”

A farmer is throwing seeds to grow wheat crop on a land developed under the Economic Transformation Initiative for Gilgit-Baltistan (ETIGB) in Astore, Pakistan, on June 10, 2021. (Photo courtesy: ETIGB)

“So far, we have been able to reach out over 65,000 farmers across Gilgit-Baltistan through our intervention which includes introduction of improved farming practices and value addition of fruits,” he added. “The intervention also ensured the availability of improved varieties of vegetables and other seeds for the community and farmers. We have established 500 commercial orchards and over 30 nurseries of verified varieties of apple apricot and cherries.”

The ETIGB official informed that 42,500 acres of barren land had so far been cultivated under the project against the initial target of 50,000 acres. He added that 78 irrigation channels of about 550 kilometers had been built across four districts of the region while seven RCC bridges and 385 kilometers of farm-to-market roads had also been constructed.

Asked about the challenges faced during the implementation of the initiative, Ali said Gilgit-Baltistan offered a limited “working season” to carry out infrastructure activities.

“COVID was another factor affecting the program implementation,” he continued. “Other than that, there were community conflicts and other social problems that sometimes slowed down the pace of the project.”

A view of a newly constructed water channel in Ghanche, Pakistan, on December 6, 2022. (AN Photo)

Away from such programmatic challenges, Abbas said he was eager to see the market response to his agricultural yield after the initiative was fully implemented.

“We are very hopeful that this place will become our future source of income,” he said while tilling his land.

This report was written and produced as part of a media skills development program by the Thomson Reuters Foundation

Pakistan calls for Israeli occupation end, settlement reversal at International Court of Justice

Updated 53 min 6 sec ago

Pakistan calls for Israeli occupation end, settlement reversal at International Court of Justice

  • The country’s interim law minister tells the court Israel is seeking annexation of Palestinian lands through military action
  • He recalls how France withdrew a million settlers from Alegria in 1962 who were more numerous and better established

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan called for an end to Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories on Friday at the advisory proceedings of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in which several other states have also participated in recent days.
The country’s legal position over the issue was presented by its interim law minister, Ahmed Irfan Aslam, who said the ICJ proceedings inspired hope since it provided the world the opportunity to develop jurisprudence and to advance essential principles of international law that preserved and upheld basic human dignity.
The Pakistani minister noted it had been the United Nations stated position not to condone legal changes to a territory as a result of military action. He reminded the court the UN had also asked Israel to withdraw its forces from from all the territories it had invaded in the 1967 Arab-Israeli Six Day War.
However, he maintained Israel’s policy was not just to occupy but annex the Palestinian lands.
“Israel’s occupation is no longer, if it ever was, the military occupation. It is annexation,” the minister said.
“This may have been the intention all along,” he continued. “[Israel’s first] Prime Minister [David] Ben Gurion affirmed in 1950 that ‘the Israeli empire must comprise all the territories between the Nile and the Euphrates.’ And this was to be achieved as much by invasion as by diplomacy.”
Aslam said Israel’s current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had also declared his government would its sovereignty over all the communities formed by moving Jewish settlers to Palestinian lands.
He maintained Israel had created “irreversible facts on the ground” by following its settlement policy to make it as difficult as possible to end its prolonged occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
However, he pointed out the world had dealt with such problems in the past in other contexts while specifically mentioning the French government’s withdrawal of a million settlers from Algeria in 1962.
“France’s settlements in Algeria were not only more numerous they were also far older and better established than Israel’s West Bank colonies,” he continued.
The Pakistani law minister sought the reversal of the policy while saying: “Israel’s occupation is unlawful and unlawfulness must have consequences.”
The ICJ proceedings have come at a point when Israel has been accused of carrying out the genocide of Palestinian people in Gaza.
It besieged the territory and launched airstrikes after a surprise attack was initiated by Hamas on Oct. 7 in response to the deteriorating condition of Palestinian people living under Israeli occupation.
The Palestinian death toll in the war has almost 30,000, with most victims of the conflict being women and children.

Leading VPN brand raises censorship concerns as Pakistan faces fifth Internet restriction in 2024

Updated 23 February 2024

Leading VPN brand raises censorship concerns as Pakistan faces fifth Internet restriction in 2024

  • Surfshark says Pakistan willing to take any measure ‘to cut citizens off from each other and the rest of the world’
  • It mentions a spike in censorship, saying Pakistan witnessed four Internet restrictions in 2023 and three in 2022

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan’s recent restriction on social media platform X marks the country’s 5th Internet restriction in 2024 alone, said a leading virtual network (VPN) brand on Friday, raising concerns about growing Internet censorship in the country.
The social networking website has largely remained inaccessible to users in Pakistan for nearly a week since a senior bureaucrat last Saturday accused the country’s chief justice and top election commission official of rigging the controversial February 8 election.
The blockage has raised widespread concerns about democratic expression and media freedom, with the United States and several international organizations urging the government to provide unhindered Internet access to people.
Surfshark, a leading VPN brand, said Pakistan witnessed three restrictions in February that were “directly related to the election, while the remaining two happened in January during virtual events organized by the opposition [Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party].”
“These new cases mark a worrying spike in Internet censorship in Pakistan,” it said in a statement. “2024 has only started but has already exceeded both 2023 and 2022 in new restriction count — there were 4 Internet restrictions in 2023 and 3 in 2022.”
It added Surfshark had witnessed an increase in VPN usage in Pakistan since February 18.
“Daily new user acquisition rates have grown three to four times compared to the previous month, indicating a growing reliance on these services for Internet access and privacy,” it added.
The company noted that Pakistan had imposed restrictions on VPNs which could lead to difficulties when connecting to the circumvention tools.
“Pakistan’s Internet censorship efforts have been alarmingly increasing, and 2024 may be a record year for the country regarding Internet restrictions,” Lina Survila, Surfshark spokeswoman, said. “With reports of VPN restrictions coming to light as well, it seems that the country is prepared to take any means necessary to cut its citizens off from each other and the rest of the world.”
Earlier, NetBlocks, an Internet monitor based in the United Kingdom, said that restriction on platform X had entered the sixth day, making Pakistan join “a handful of countries that ban access to international social media platforms.”

Ex-PM Khan’s party says no intention to compromise Pakistan’s economic interests in letter to IMF

Updated 23 February 2024

Ex-PM Khan’s party says no intention to compromise Pakistan’s economic interests in letter to IMF

  • Khan’s legal team said he wanted to write a letter to the international lender, asking it to seek election audit
  • Khan’s party says it cannot damage the country’s economy, recalls developing welfare plans for its people

ISLAMABAD: A top Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party leader on Friday denied speculations that former prime minister Imran Khan wanted to compromise the country’s economic interests to make political gains in a letter to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), saying his party would never work against Pakistan.
The statement came a day after an IMF spokesperson told the media that the international lender did not want to comment on political developments in Pakistan in the wake of the general elections earlier this month which Khan’s party said were heavily rigged.
Prior to that, Khan’s legal team said he would send a letter to the IMF, which helped stabilize Pakistan’s economy when it was nearing default, requesting its officials to seek an independent audit of the February 8 national polls.
Pakistan is already under a short-term IMF loan program that is due to expire next month. The newly elected government is expected to negotiate yet another bailout package with the international lending agency in the coming months.
“We will not do anything that poses a threat to the state, causes harm to the state or damages the country’s economy,” Barrister Gohar Khan, PTI’s top leader in Khan’s absence, told a group of journalists in Rawalpindi. “The letter will be shared with you. You can read it.”
“Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf has developed projects for the welfare of the people,” he continued. “It brought investment to Pakistan [during its tenure].”
Former PM Khan has faced legal challenges since he was ousted from power in a no-confidence vote in April 2022. He has been in prison after being convicted on corruption and other charges since August last year.
Another high-profile PTI leader, Barrister Ali Zafar, also tried to defend Khan’s decision to write to the IMF, saying Pakistan always came first and foremost for his party.
“We believe that Pakistan should continue to engage with IMF in order to ensure financial discipline, good governance and economic stability which is critical for the prosperity of the people of Pakistan,” he said in a statement.
“While we will continue to support all steps in this direction taken for the benefit of the country and in national interest, PTI will continue its struggle for democracy and raise its voice at all forums and expect the international community’s support,” he added.
According to media reports, Pakistan plans to get a new IMF loan of at least $6 billion, with the talks likely to begin in March or April.

International drivers from Saudi Arabia, Iran, US, rev up for Pakistan Cholistan Desert Rally

Updated 23 February 2024

International drivers from Saudi Arabia, Iran, US, rev up for Pakistan Cholistan Desert Rally

  • The annual 19th Cholistan Desert Jeep Rally started in Bahawalpur this week
  • Over 150 racing enthusiasts from Pakistan and abroad are participating this year

ISLAMABAD: The annual 19th Cholistan Desert Jeep Rally started in Bahawalpur this week, with over 150 racing enthusiasts from Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran and other countries participating.

The Cholistan Desert in southern Punjab forms part of the Greater Thar Desert, which extends to Pakistan’s southern Sindh province and the Indian state of Rajasthan. Cholistan was once a center for caravan trade, leading to the construction of numerous forts in the medieval period to protect trade routes, of which the Derawar Fort in Bahawalpur is the best-preserved example.

The 19th edition of the desert rally, which spreads over 500 kilometers, started on Tuesday. Drivers from Saudi Arabia, the UK, Afghanistan, Iran, and the US are participating this year, Managing Director of Tourism Development Corporation of Punjab (TDCP) Humaira Akram told state-run APP.

“The women’s category has been made more active,” the official said. “The event will highlight the history and culture of the Cholistan Desert, the historical palaces of Bahawalpur, historical buildings, historical backgrounds, tourism, and culture through beautiful cultural dances in addition to light and sound shows.”

A qualifying round was held in Cholistan on February 22, followed by the first round of prepared cars on February 23, and a stock category race along with a dirt bike race on February 24, followed by a cultural show.

“On February 25, the prepared category race and truck race will take place, followed by the prize distribution ceremony,” Additional Deputy Commissioner Headquarters Sumera Rabani told media. 

“The Cholistan Fort will be adorned with beautiful decorations during the Cholistan Rally. The Sports Department will organize competitions including Kabaddi, traditional wrestling, volleyball, and tug of war.”

Pakistan Supreme Court defends ruling on minorities after backlash

Updated 23 February 2024

Pakistan Supreme Court defends ruling on minorities after backlash

  • Ruling by chief justice related to blasphemy has sparked online backlash, led to thinly veiled death threats
  • CJ Qazi Faez Isa ordered the release of a man from Ahmadi sect, considered heretical by Muslim scholars

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan’s Supreme Court has defended its top judge after a ruling he issued related to blasphemy that sparked an online backlash and led to thinly veiled death threats.

The campaign targeting Supreme Court Chief Justice Qazi Faez Isa began after he ordered the release of a man from the Ahmadi religious sect, considered heretical by hard-line Muslim scholars.

The man had been accused of disseminating a forbidden Ahmadi text, which firebrand clerics consider tantamount to blasphemy, a hot-button issue in Muslim-majority Pakistan where even unproven allegations of offending Islam have sparked violence.

The Supreme Court issued a statement on Thursday evening defending the ruling, denying that it went against the Islamic constitution.

“This impression is absolutely wrong,” it said. “The organized campaign against judiciary and judges is unfortunate.”

Isa’s ruling first went unnoticed two weeks ago, before it was highlighted by social media accounts linked to the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan party which has been behind violent anti-blasphemy protests.

The Pakistani chapter of the Taliban militant group — known as Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) — called Isa “an enemy of Islam” and “a damned man.”

Ahmadis have been discriminated against and persecuted for decades in Pakistan. The second amendment of Pakistan’s constitution, made in 1974, declares Ahmadis non-Muslims. The law also prohibits them from professing to be Muslims or spreading their faith, and allows the death penalty for those found guilty of insulting Islam.

In his judgment, Isa ruled that according to the constituion, “every citizen shall have the right to profess, practice and propagate his religion.”

“Freedom of faith is one of the fundamental tenets of Islam. But sadly, in matters of religion, tempers flare up and the Qur’anic mandate is forsaken,” he added.

He also said the book allegedly disseminated by the accused had not been outlawed at the time of the alleged crime in 2019.

Cleric Fazlur Rehman, the influential leader of the conservative religious party Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam, said Isa’s reasoning was “false and based on bad intentions.”

In 2011, the governor of eastern Punjab province was killed by his own bodyguard after calling for reforms to the stringent blasphemy laws.