Lack of status contributing to poverty in northern areas

Pakistan's leading independent rights body expressed grave concern this week over the poor humanitarian situation across remote parts of northern Pakistan.

A 10-member group from the Human Right Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) visited the Federally Administered Northern Areas (FANA) in late August to assess the level of social services and infrastructure in this poorly developed part of the country.

"Immediate attention is needed to address the humanitarian situation [in the FANA] on account of an acute shortage of health and education facilities," Syed Iqbal Haider, secretary general of the HRCP, said in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad.

"It was very painful to see the health conditions there - in Skardu [second largest city in FANA after Gilgit] the 50-bed hospital, built some 30 years ago, now contains 500 patients," Haider said. "To take a patient to a specialist - it takes 22 hours to reach Islamabad by road only under normal weather conditions, much longer in winter."

The report noted that mother and child clinics in the region established under a World Bank loan, were generally found to be understaffed and lacking basic equipment and medicines.

FANA, a region of about 72,500 square km, borders Pakistan's North West Frontier Province (NWFP) to the west, Afghanistan and China to the north and Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir to the east.

Unlike the country's other four provinces, the FANA has no political representation and no status under Pakistan's constitution. Instead all the region's affairs are subject to the control of a federal minister through an elected council with limited legislative powers.

Islamabad views the FANA as part of the disputed state of Jammu and Kashmir, and turning it into a fifth province could be interpreted by India as acceptance of the line of control in Kashmir as an international border. "The uncertain status of the area is the biggest cause of its underdevelopment, political frustration of the people and indirectly the spread of sectarian violence," the HRCP report noted.

The region has a number of internally displaced people (IDPs) - the result of skirmishes between India and Pakistan in the Kargil area in 1999.

"The displaced from the Kargil conflict have been forced to take shelter in camps in other parts of the northern areas, they need immediate compensation and assistance for rehabilitation," the report stated.