Gilgit-Baltistan: Thousands protest in freezing cold against the end of wheat subsidy

Last fiscal year, 2023, the Gilgit-Baltistan government imposed heavy taxes on dozens of items. In response, the Traders Association, Hotel Association, and Transport Union protested against these taxes through their respective platforms. However, no significant movement emerged against these oppressive taxes, emboldening the current coalition government. In October last year, amidst a financial crisis and pressure from the federal government to end wheat subsidies, cuts were made, leading to an almost 60% increase in wheat prices. This prompted widespread protests from the poor working class, small shopkeepers, low-wage workers, and the general public of Gilgit-Baltistan, who were already burdened by soaring inflation and new taxes.

Previously, in 2014, the people of Gilgit-Baltistan, along with various political and religious parties and social organizations, formed a coalition under the name of Public Action Committee to protest against the reduction in wheat subsidy, successfully reversing the price increase imposed by the PML-N government at the time. However, after achieving the restoration of the wheat subsidy and reductions in various taxes, the public movement faced fragmentation and internal disputes starting in 2017.

At the beginning of 2023, the PTI government led by Khalid Khurshid made lofty claims of improving wheat quality and increasing per capita wheat allocation, only to raise the price of wheat by 8 rupees per kilo. However, due to the government’s tall claims and the absence of an effective organization among the public, no significant public response emerged. In July 2023, after the disqualification of the former Chief Minister, the newly established coalition government decided to increase the wheat price from the subsidized rate of 20 rupees per kilo to 52 rupees per kilo, which led to severe public backlash.

Under pressure from this public reaction, the government halted its decision. Meanwhile, attempts were made by government parties and administration to weaken the Public Action Committee through deceptive negotiations. A government-sponsored jirga (meeting) was convened, which resulted in increasing the previous wheat price from 20 to 36 rupees per kilo, a move that was rejected by the public. The Public Action Committee was reorganized with a 15-point Charter of Demands against the government, including demands to set the wheat subsidy rate to 2022 levels, repeal the GB Finance Act 2023, eliminate all taxes, stop the government from forcibly seizing uninhabited and barren lands, grant industry status to hotels and transport to promote tourism, cancel leases granted to large non-local companies and individuals on various minerals, and issue all mineral leases in the name of the local population collectively, replace the current administrative order with a powerful constitutional assembly, and establish engineering and medical colleges in Gilgit-Baltistan.

To organize this movement, a 42-member core committee was formed, and Ehsan Ali, Advocate of the Red Workers Front, was appointed as the coordinator of the Public Action Committee Gilgit-Baltistan. The new Public Action Committee, with the support of the Traders Association, Hotel Association, and Transport Union, initiated a formal protest movement and started organizing protest rallies and processions in various districts. In November 2023, a successful shutdown strike was held across Gilgit-Baltistan, escalating the protest movement and deciding against negotiations with the government at any level. From the last week of December 2023, the protest movement intensified in Skardu Baltistan, while protests and sit-ins began in Gilgit and other districts from December 2nd.

The public movement in Skardu Baltistan has intensified, with more than ten thousand people participating in protests daily, even in the freezing cold of January, with temperatures dropping to minus 12 degrees Celsius. Meanwhile, the number of protesters in other districts varies daily. Despite the government’s repeated invitations for negotiations, the Public Action Committee boycotted talks at all levels and announced organized protests and sit-ins in district headquarters. Today (January 21) marks 26 days of sit-ins in Skardu, while protests in Gilgit Baltistan’s headquarters and other districts have been ongoing for 17 days.

As the number of participants in the sit-ins increases over time, it is surprising that despite the widespread participation in this protest movement across Gilgit Baltistan, the government has yet to acknowledge the demands for wheat subsidy and other issues. In response, the Public Action Committee has decided to unite its protest movement and make it more effective by including protesters from other districts in Gilgit and Skardu. This new phase of the protest is expected to start within a week, with protesters from six districts of Gilgit and Diamer Division marching to the Gilgit headquarters, while those from four districts of the Baltistan Division will march to Skardu.

This will increase political pressure on the current coalition government and suspend its administrative and political activities. Pakistan Trade Union Solidarity Campaign supports the public protest movement and salutes the Public Action Committee in playing a crucial role in organizing the public around genuine demands.