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Rising Wheat Prices and Unprecedented Demonstrations: Pakistani Protestors Demand Autonomy

Over the past three months, tens of thousands of protestors have filled the streets of Gilgit-Baltistan (GB). Chants like “Hai Haq Hamra Khudmuktari!” (“Autonomy is our right!”) rang through the air. People from across the country came together in unprecedented numbers to demand change in this glaciated region of northern Pakistan.

Since Pakistan’s independence from Britain in 1947, GB has lacked political representation in the national parliament. Despite its historical struggle to end this inequality with other regions, GB does not have seats in either of the two houses of parliament.

In the 1970s, the Pakistani government began providing GB with a wheat subsidy which allowed for the purchase of wheat at one-fourth of the world price. Such subsidies are common in developing countries, including those in the Middle East. This arrangement arose out of the formation of a new constitution for Pakistan at that time: the people of GB had hoped for constitutional rights and increased representation in the main Pakistani government, but instead, they received the wheat subsidy, among other subsidies for essential goods. This past November, the GB chief minister announced a reduction in the subsidy and significant increase in the price of wheat due to pressure from the federal government. Because GB is a poor and disputed region that depends on government subsidies for basic necessities, for protestors the wheat subsidy withdrawal represents further weakening in government support. Thus, the current protests embody a growing desire for autonomy and self-governance that the Pakistani government has historically not granted the people of GB.

Map of Pakistan with Gilgit Baltistan highlighted in red.
Map of Pakistan with Gilgit Baltistan highlighted in red.
(Milenioscuro / Creative Commons)

The protests, led by the Awami Action Committee (AAC)—an alliance of political, social, and religious groups—center around the fight for restoring the wheat subsidies, along with other demands outlined in a 15-point Charter of Demands released in January 2024. Recent coverage indicates that the protests are ongoing and will continue until all demands are met. The protests are historical and unprecedented, being the longest in the region’s history and bridging a wider spectrum of demands than past protests.

While the wheat subsidy helped alleviate food insecurity, economists say it also stunted the growth of the region’s self-sufficiency and disincentivized local production of cereal crops. GB region is rugged and mountainous: it contains little agricultural land and relies on the government for many basic necessities like food. The region has specialized in the production of high-value crops on its land suitable for farming, particularly vegetables such as potatoes and peas, and became dependent on imported grains for food. The prevailing price of wheat until recently had been Pakistani Rupee (PKR) 20 per kg, the equivalent of 0.072 USD. This past January, however, the government raised wheat prices from PKR 20 to PKR 36 per kg (0.13 USD)—an 80% increase—with the intention of gradually raising the price further, to PKR 52 per kg (0.19 USD).

This change to GB wheat policy is connected to both climate change and the Russia–Ukraine war.

Walter Baethgen, senior research scientist at the Columbia Climate School, explained how climate change has exacerbated the existing agricultural challenges. Since 2010, climate change–associated temperature rises have caused significant glacier melt, resulting in floods and landslides which have killed and displaced many people in GB. Glacier melt also impacts traditional irrigation systems that have long supported GB’s basic food supply and market crops.

Baethgen noted that wheat is sensitive to excess water in the soil, “so anything that results in soil water logging is bad for wheat production.” He added that climate change also causes “higher frequency heat waves that affect human health but also crop yields.”

Even before the temperature rise and flooding, only a limited area in GB was suitable for agriculture. “The production costs increase because of lower wheat availability in international markets due to the war,” Baethgen explained. With the combined impacts of glacier retreat and the war in Ukraine, however, both local and imported food sources have suffered, leading to increased hunger in the region.

Landscape with irrigated fields
Landscape with irrigated fields near the town of Phundar, in Ghizir, GB. (Imran Shah / Creative Commons)

Prior to the war, Ukraine was the largest exporter of wheat to Pakistan, but Russia has since taken its place. In July 2022, Russian missiles hit and destroyed wheat silos in the Odesa port that were storing Ukraine’s wheat harvest, sending global wheat prices to historic highs; they even surpassed the prices during the 2008 global financial crisis. This economic turmoil has resulted in a decrease of wheat supplies to GB. The Pakistani government raised the price of wheat partially because of its high foreign debt, which makes importing grains more expensive. Now, the increased food insecurity in GB, compounded by many other human rights concerns, has resulted in months of civic unrest.

Still, the protests carry global significance because they represent the convergence of militarization, climate change and a struggle for autonomy. “There is no doubt that the decrease in wheat allocation to GB is a direct result of the global crisis facing Pakistan including very high foreign debt,” said Manan Ahmed, a historian at Columbia University in an interview with GlacierHub.

Kamini Masood is a Ph.D. candidate in the Columbia University history department who hails from central Pakistan. Masood noted that the GB protesters are demanding more than just a reinstatement of the wheat subsidy. Many other subsidies are also being revoked in historically marginalized areas like GB, “putting increasing economic pressure on a population whose access to health, education and employment infrastructures is already severely limited,” she explained. The protesters are therefore also demanding greater allocation of government expenditure for GB under the National Finance Committee award from the central government of Pakistan.

Because Pakistan is still slowly recovering from the enormous damages caused by 2022 floods, “It does not seem likely that the demands of the protesters will be fulfilled to any meaningful degree,” Masood said.

According to Masood, these protests are particularly notable for their size and the range of demands around which they coalesce. While Masood characterized the revocation of the wheat subsidy as “germane,” she explained that it is a significant symbol of the often “extractive and exploitative” relationship between the Pakistani state and GB region.

Ahmed believes that these issues are likely to “spread across Pakistan as other urban centers face incredibly high inflation, rises in food costs and a failing electric grid.” Even in light of the environmental issues wreaking havoc in areas like GB, the Pakistani election season was marked by a notable lack of climate agendas. With another hot summer on the horizon and no end in sight to the Russia–Ukraine war, these environmental issues are still relevant. Though the government has agreed to lower the price from PKR 52 to PKR 36, the price remains above 2022 levels. The protesters are unmoved; after staying out in the streets of GB at sub-freezing temperatures through this past winter, they now march into spring until more of their demands are met.

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