India’s opposition to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor has remained constant since its proclamation, but recently Chief Minister of Indian-held Jammu and Kashmir, Mehbooba Mufti’s statement regarding Kashmir’s inclusion into CPEC stunned observers across the Line of Control.
She suggested that due to the central geographical location of the erstwhile State of Jammu and Kashmir, it could act as a bridge between South and Central Asia. The arrangement would supplement the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. However, it is unclear whether she spoke with the consent of New Delhi or not, but her statement shows that CPEC has generated expectations beyond imagination.
Pakistan had also extended an olive branch to New Delhi to become part of CPEC in recent weeks. Speaking at Balochistan Frontier Constabulary Headquarters, Commander Southern Command Lt. General Amir Riaz invited India to join the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and share the fruits of future development by shelving anti-Pakistan activities and subversion. He said that India should shun its enmity with Pakistan and join CPEC along with Iran, Afghanistan, and other Central Asian countries.
Interestingly, a Chinese newspaper echoed General Amir Riaz’s suggestion and advised New Delhi to become a partner in CPEC, instead of playing the role of a spoiler. However, these assertions could not trigger much interest in India, as the BJP-led government is not willing to engage Pakistan in a constructive dialogue, what to talk about inclusion into CPEC.
Like all provinces, the Azad Jammu and Kashmir government has to make enormous efforts to convince Islamabad to get its due share in CPEC. Although three major hydel power projects are being made a part of CPEC, the AJK government wanted to include a few major infrastructure development projects in CPEC, particularly a few major roads connecting AJK to the mainland Pakistan, and also the northern region of Muzaffarabad to southern Mirpur.
After a long debate, the government of Pakistan has agreed to include some of the important projects of Azad Jammu and Kashmir in CPEC, which have the potential to transform the region’s socio-economic landscape. A 196-kilometre Muzaffarabad-Mirpur-Mangla (MMM) expressway plan has been approved as part of the first phase of CPEC. The second CPEC route from Skardu through Mustagh Pass leading to Neelum Valley, Azad Jammu Kashmir, through Shuntar Pass is also under consideration in the second phase.
Two economic zones to be established in Azad Jammu and Kashmir, i.e., in Mirpur and Bhimber are part of the first phase while a third industrial zone would be established in the second phase of CPEC. It is believed that this would create a huge number of jobs for the local people, particularly a large number of diaspora living in Europe is expected to make heavy investment in these two economic zones.
Mirpur is considered one of the richest cities in the region. Inhabitants of this city can bring massive financial and human resources in this area if it becomes part of CPEC. Many of these Kashmiris are entrepreneurs in the United Kingdom, enjoying good reputation in Europe and North America.
The manufacturing industry in AJK is mostly based in the Mirpur region due to its geographical proximity to the industrial cities of Punjab, which is its largest consumer market as well. Under CPEC, Mirpur’s industrial area will soon be revamped and all necessary facilities will be extended to make it vibrant.
AJK President, Sardar Masood Khan, talking to TNS, said that CPEC is about to bring massive investment and new jobs for the people of AJK. “Ten years down the line, there will be a completely changed Azad Kashmir if things go according to the plan,” he exclaimed.
The proposed CPEC projects in AJK offer a golden opportunity to the diaspora community to come back with resources, knowledge and technology and contribute in the progress of their motherland.
Trade at the Line of Control can also thrive if CPEC projects make a foothold in the AJK and its adjacent areas. In October 2008, India and Pakistan agreed to open two across-Line of Control trade routes called Srinagar-Muzaffarabad and Poonch-Rawalakot roads. Despite all odds, these two trading routes remained open, which is not less than a miracle. However, the level of trade has been quite low due to poor road infrastructure and limited productions on both sides of Jammu and Kashmir.
However, the business community in Kashmir has been urging India and Pakistan to open all natural routes connecting Jammu and Kashmir with the outside world. In the pre-partition era, Jammu and Kashmir State was interconnected with Central Asia and China through the Silk Road, passing through Bandipora-Gurez-Chilas-Gilgit. After the establishment of the Ceasefire Line in January 1949, this sole connection was snapped. It remained one of the busiest trade routes from April to October where even the British Army used to transport ration and weapons to Gilgit via this road which was in those days called Gilgit Transport Road.
It would be interesting to note that the erstwhile State of Jammu and Kashmir has been the cultural hub of all civilisations since ancient times as it shared 82 per cent of its border with Afghanistan, China, and Pakistan. Only 18 per cent of Indian-held Kashmir border is with India.
The partition of Jammu and Kashmir between two hostile neighbours and subsequent wars and proxy wars badly isolated the Jammu and Kashmir State, cutting off its natural trade and travel routes.
CPEC has generated enthusiasm across the Kashmir Valley and people are urging India and Pakistan to think creatively to restore the ancient route of the Silk Road. A few weeks ago, a group of senior Indian citizens, led by former external affairs minister Yashwant Sinha, had visited the Kashmir Valley to gauge the current situation and offer recommendations to the Indian government. The Yashwant Sinha-led group noted that Kashmiris wanted that India should not oppose the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor because it is seen by Kashmiris as a revival of the Silk Road. The delegation noted that most of the interlocutors suggested that India should participate in it so that Kashmiris can benefit from it.
The current upsurge in violence and the seven-month long agitation proved that people in Kashmir want a dignified end to the ongoing conflict. The Yashwant Sinha-led delegation also reaffirmed this observation, saying “Overall, the dominant feeling one came across was that no amount of financial packages will help resolve the political issue of Kashmir.”
Talking about regional economic integration is music to our ears, but Chief Minister Mufti has to work hard to find a political solution to the Kashmir conflict to stabilise the region.