As political parties make last-ditch efforts, voters seek basic facilities, gas supply and share in power projects.
KAIL, Pakistan-administered Kashmir (AA) – Under the shadow of snow-capped mountains, flourishing green forests, and towering hills on both sides of the noisy Neelam River, political parties are making a last-ditch effort to woo voters in the picturesque 144 km (89 miles) long Neelam Valley — the northern strip of Pakistan-administered Kashmir or Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK).
The region is going to the polls on Sunday.
Kail town, just a stone’s throw distance from Line of Control (LoC), the world’s most militarized border dividing Jammu and Kashmir into Indian and Pakistani controlled parts is buzzing with activity, as shopkeepers keep their businesses open for long hours to cash in on the frenzied electioneering.
“It has been a routine these days. Political leaders, activists, candidates, and their supporters visit this otherwise a small tourist-destination with new promises,” said Mushtaq Shah, owner of a restaurant located at a lop-sided dirt road.
Pointing out towards the pot-holed road, he complains about a “longtime neglect” of this area, 170 km (105 mi) from capital Muzaffarabad.
The area runs parallel to the Kaghan Valley of Pakistan from north and Kupwara and Bandipora districts of Indian-administered Kashmir from the south, hosting snow-covered peaks, some over 4000 meters above sea level.
“The area has potential to attract thousands of tourists every year if the road networks are developed and basic amenities like natural gas are provided,” said Shah.
While the initial 70 km (43 mi) road from Muzaffarabad to Kaeran village is smooth, the road is battered and potholed thereafter.
The LoC runs in the middle of Kaeran village, dividing it between Indian and Pakistani controlled areas. Indian tricolor flags fluttering over Indian border posts and vehicles and people moving on the other side are visible.
From Sharda to Kail, a distance of 20 km (12mi) the road is almost non-existent. The journey becomes much difficult due to sloppy terrain.
A motorbike had skidded off the road and had landed on the banks of the roaring Neelam River.
The election rally, which was proceeding to lure voters had stopped and locals were risking their lives to rescue bikers. One of them later died, while another had sustained serious injuries.
“It’s a normal affair here,” said Safeer Kyani, a jeep driver.
A candidate from the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party of Prime Minister Imran Khan, also lost his life along with his three supporters after their car plunged into the Neelam River last month.
Border tensions and continuous shelling and sniper firing from across the LoC have made it impossible to develop infrastructure in the region.
“Construction activities were impossible in these areas due to daily shelling from across the border. Even laborers were not ready to construct bunkers for us. They used to be targeted by Indian troops,” said Khawaja Akhlaq Ahmed, a resident of Khawa Sri village of Neelam Valley.
The government had begun constructing a road from Karen to Sharda following an agreement between the two militaries to honor the 2003 ceasefire agreement in February this year.
Laborers backed by heavy machinery were spotted working on several portions of the road from Karen to Sharda.
Locals give credit to the incumbent Prime Minister Raja Farooq Haider, who belongs to the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), for the development of road networks in the region.
According to Ameeruddin Mughal, a Muzzaferabad-based political commentator, the Haider government announced a special package for roads development along the LoC, which is underway.
While the remote Neelam Valley does have a network of schools, colleges, and hospitals, locals said they lack quality and facilities as available in big cities. In case of emergencies, patients are forced to travel hundreds of miles to reach Muzaffarabad or the Pakistani capital Islamabad.
Demand for piped gas and royalty
The whole AJK, except for a few parts of the wealthy Mirpur district, is without the piped gas supplies, forcing people to rely on cylinders or wood for cooking.
The region including the capital Muzaffarabad is experiencing load shedding, although there are several big and small power stations dotting the area, producing over 2500-megawatt power. Residents complain that this electricity straightaway from the Mangala Dam and other power projects is transported to Pakistani cities.
Mughal said the AJK government receives only 700 million rupees ($4.3 million) from the Pakistan government as annual water utilization charges against power production from Mangla Dam. In contrast, billions of rupees per year are paid to nearby power projects in Khyber Pakhtunkwa province.
While the AJK has established its tax collection authority, the AJK Board of Revenue, some key administrative and judicial powers still lie in the hands of Islamabad, including the appointment of the region’s top officials like chief secretary, police chief, and finance secretary.
Pakistan’s Prime Minister approves the appointments of the judges to the Supreme and High Court on the recommendations of the AJK government.
Earlier the Islamabad-based National Kashmir Council, led by a federal minister, would collect the taxes and release them in installments to the AJK government, making it difficult for the administration to manage financial affairs.
But, In June 2018, the PML-N dominated assembly approved the 13th amendment to the AJK Constitution, abolishing the council’s administrative and financial powers.