AJK unrest erupts as grievances over resource management and government transparency simmer. Will Pakistan address these concerns? [Image: WAPDA]

Decoding AJK Unrest

The scenic town of Rawalakot in Azad Kashmir (AJK) witnessed the seeds of discontent being sown in May 2023. What began as a peaceful sit-in by a few residents protesting rising flour and electricity prices quickly spiraled into a full-fledged movement. The initial protests were followed by a boycott of electricity bills, with non-payment reaching up to 93% in some areas.

The movement, spearheaded by the Joint Awami Action Committee (JAAC), has now entered its third phase, marked by violent clashes between protestors and police. The recent flare-up resulted in the death of a police officer and injuries to over 90 others.

The Triggers of AJK Unrest

AJK residents contend that power projects within the territory generate a substantial amount of electricity, exceeding their own consumption needs. They point to the Mangla Dam and Neelum-Jhelum Hydropower Project as examples, claiming these stations produce 3,000 MW, while AJK’s consumption is only around 400 MW.

The JAAC’s dissent stems from their claim that this power is routed to the national grid, and AJK residents themselves are charged a much higher rate for the electricity they generate.

The situation has been further complicated by accusations from some residents of Muzaffarabad and Mirpur regarding the Neelum-Jhelum hydropower project. They allege that the project’s impact on the environment and local communities has not been adequately addressed. Specifically, they claim the project has displaced rural populations due to freshwater shortages and contributed to a rise in annual mean temperatures in Muzaffarabad. Additionally, residents of Mirpur complain about both drinking water and irrigation water shortages.

The AJK government has attempted to quell the protests by offering some concessions, including the restoration of flour subsidies (similar to those in Gilgit-Baltistan where wheat flour is priced around Rs 750-800 per 40 kg due to difficult terrain and transportation costs) and a waiver of late payment fees on electricity bills. However, the protestors remain unsatisfied, insisting on a drastic reduction in electricity rates to match the production cost.

Joint Awami Action Committee (JAAC) and Its Demands

Building on the discontent over electricity prices, the JAAC’s ten-point charter of demands lies at the heart of the matter.

These demands include a reduction in electricity tariffs to be set at the cost of production from the Mangla Hydel Power Project, elimination of unnecessary perks and privileges for government officials, lifting of restrictions on student unions, and the scheduling of the Kashmir Bank. They argue that these measures would improve transparency, empower the youth, and bolster the local economy.

While there are genuine grievances, the demands of the Joint Awami Action Committee (JAAC) present complex challenges that require careful consideration. For instance,

  • The primary demand of the Action Committee concerns subsidies on essential food items, with a specific request for subsidies on 48 such items based on United Nations (UN) resolutions. However, upon closer examination, it became evident that the UN resolutions of 1948, 1949, and 1951 primarily pertain to conflict resolution, including ceasefire agreements, peace restoration, and the implementation of plebiscites according to UN-mandated parameters. These resolutions do not address matters related to “basic needs,” “financial assistance,” or “subsidies.”
    • The fact is that the federal government and the independent government are giving subsidies and relief to Azad Kashmir beyond their capacity. Azad Kashmir government is giving a subsidy of 14 billion annually on flour.
  • The second major demand of the Action Committee pertains to electricity and the issue of load shedding. It is highlighted that the government of Pakistan allocates 55 billion annually from its budget to distribution companies to ensure affordable electricity in Azad Kashmir, indicating existing subsidies. Additionally, there are claims of a written agreement during the construction of Mangala Dam, promising free electricity for the region, which upon scrutiny, has been found baseless.
    • Following this, the demand has been modified to seek electricity at production cost. However, it’s important to note that transmitting electricity from Mangala to Rawalkot incurs transmission costs, including infrastructure maintenance and salaries for the electrical staff. Providing electricity at production cost raises questions about funding for these essential expenses, estimated at around 20 to 25 billion rupees for the electronics department.
    • Furthermore, the suggestion to rent out electric poles and transmission lines is considered unreasonable, as such a practice is not observed anywhere globally. These demands, coupled with others deemed absurd, suggest an ulterior motive of inciting anarchy under the guise of protest.
    • However, demands falling within the purview of the governments of Pakistan and Azad Kashmir, which are legitimate, are open for discussion and resolution. The recent allocation of 23 billion rupees by the Prime Minister for Azad Kashmir exemplifies the government’s commitment to addressing the welfare concerns of the people. It’s important to recognize that government facilities worldwide are funded by taxpayers’ revenue, and the people of Kashmir stand to benefit first and foremost from electricity projects in Azad Kashmir. Any concerns regarding this matter are open to discussion and resolution by the government.
  • The third demand of the Action Committee, calling for a reduction in the privileges of the ruling class, is a valid concern that warrants discussion for resolution.
  • Regarding the fourth demand to elevate Azad Jammu and Kashmir Bank to the status of a full scheduled bank, it’s crucial to understand the intricate banking process involved.
    • This transition requires Azad Kashmir Bank to meet stringent criteria, including a minimum capital requirement of 10 billion rupees to be deposited with the State Bank.
    • Additionally, there are several other conditions that every bank must fulfill to attain Scheduled Bank status. Currently, Azad Kashmir Bank falls short of meeting these requirements, and it is financially impractical for the Azad Kashmir government to provide such a significant capital sum.
    • It’s essential to note that these funds should not be sourced from deposits but from capital or equity. Even with substantial deposits, meeting the criteria for scheduled bank status remains unfeasible. Thus, fulfilling this demand is beyond the financial capacity of both the Government of Azad Kashmir and Azad Kashmir Bank.
  • The fifth demand, focusing on the improvement of telecom and mobile services, is both justified and legitimate. It aligns with the ongoing efforts of the government to enhance public services. The availability of telecom and mobile services in Azad Kashmir is the result of collaborative efforts between the governments of Pakistan and Azad Kashmir.
  • The sixth demand, proposing the elimination of income tax, property tax, and GST in Azad Kashmir, is considered absurd due to its implications on the region’s fiscal sustainability. Currently, the Azad government operates with a substantial workforce of 130,000 civil servants, whose salaries constitute a significant portion of the non-development budget.
    • For instance, 30 percent of the non-development budget is allocated solely for education employee salaries, while 10-10 percent goes towards salaries in the electronics and health sectors. With a total budget of 232 billion rupees presented this year, eliminating these taxes raises concerns about the government’s revenue sources. Without tax collection, it becomes challenging to sustainably fund essential services and meet budgetary requirements. Therefore, the feasibility of this demand needs careful consideration to ensure the continued functioning of government operations and service provision.
  • The seventh and eighth demands, calling for the revival of student unions and providing funds to local government representatives, are reasonable. While political student unions already operate in colleges and universities without hindrance, formal notification from the government would ensure clarity. Similarly, it’s essential for local government representatives to receive adequate funding to carry out their duties effectively. These issues can be peacefully resolved through dialogue, and the government is open to discussions.

In addition, the lack of unified leadership within the Awami Action Committee further complicates matters.

The JAAC reportedly has 25-30 leaders from various regions, each with their own priorities and concerns.

The diversity within Kashmir, with regions like Mirpur, Bhimbar, Kotli, Rawalakot, Palindri, Bagh, Muzaffarabad, Hattian, and Neelam having distinct issues due to their unique geographical features, creates challenges. Hence, the lack of a unified voice among the protestors makes it challenging to find common ground. Reportedly some Kashmiri politicians are prioritizing their own agendas over seeking solutions.

Furthermore, external actors, like Indian Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) and anarchist groups, exacerbate tensions by exploiting the situation. Their actions, including spreading misinformation and inciting violence, undermine the quest for peace.

Despite ongoing protests, many Kashmiris yearn for a resolution. They understand the economic implications of prolonged unrest on their livelihoods, particularly on tourism and daily subsistence.

Also Read: Wheat Crisis? Pakistan’s Data-Driven Fix

Beyond AJK Unrest

The ongoing crisis in AJK has highlighted the complex web of economic disparity, resource management, and political disunity that plagues the region. It serves as a stark reminder of the ever-present vulnerability to external forces that exploit existing grievances.

In conclusion, Pakistan confronts a perfect storm of security threats engulfing its territory.

From the concerning surge in attacks in Balochistan and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa to Sindh’s transformation into a conflict zone marked by the struggle for dominance among different factions including sub-nationalists and criminal gangs, and Punjab facing unrest among farmers and traders, the overall situation is alarming. Additionally, the recent violent protests in AJK, add to the growing sense of instability across the country.

Many argue these events were preventable. For months, experts consistently issued dire warnings. Pakistan’s higher echelons, however, remained laser-focused on the western front. Their strategy for the eastern front, some allege, prioritized mere containment of threats, rather than actively dismantling them. Even this ‘containment’ approach, critics allege, wasn’t being effectively implemented, allowing these threats to fester and grow unchecked. This perceived inaction has emboldened sub-nationalists and hostile elements, leading some to believe Pakistan’s ‘offensive defense‘ approach is backfiring spectacularly.

Further complicating the situation are the political gamesmanship and finger-pointing. Both the government and opposition are accused of stoking the flames of dissent. The government contemplates deploying the army in AJK, a move perceived by some as falling right into the enemy’s trap. The opposition, meanwhile, faces accusations of perpetuating and providing cover for sub-nationalist movements, potentially aligning themselves with Pakistan’s adversary. This toxic political environment fosters instability and weakens the national response.

To pass through this complex web of threats, Pakistan requires a significant reevaluation. They must address internal issues with a renewed sense of urgency, while not neglecting external vigilance. Whether this means a shift in how Pakistan deals with dissent, a more proactive approach to combating internal threats, or a complete overhaul of its security strategy, remains to be seen.

One thing is undeniable: Pakistan cannot afford to remain on the back foot on any front. They must act decisively and strategically to restore stability and security across the nation.


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