The protests by traders in Gilgit-Baltistan (GB) over Customs clearance duties have become loud enough to become an issue on the floor of the GB Assembly. The opposition parties in the GB Assembly and Awami Action Committee (AAC) warned on Saturday that if traders’ demands were not accepted, protests would be launched across the region. The protests are for the removal of Web-Based One Customs (WeBOC) system at Sust Dry Port, the imposition of which results in several taxes and duties on the traders. The opposition leader, Mohamad Shafi accused officials of Pakistan Customs and Federal Board of Revenue of hatching a conspiracy to fail the CPEC project and give a bad name to GB people.

The grievances of GB traders are not new. Contentions over taxes and traders have been an issue since far back as October of 2017. On December 21st of last year, GB saw organised protests against the imposition of taxes on its residents, with a large number of traders, transporters and business of the region began a march towards Gilgit from Skardu in a bid to pressurise the federal government for withdrawal of the taxes till provision of a constitutional status to the region.

The opposition parties and the traders do have strong arguments in favour of their stance. The GB High Court has granted a stay on the WeBOC system at Sust Dry Port, but the order is being disregarded by the FBR and Pakistan Customs, an indication of the attitude of dismissal the state holds to the authority of the GB courts. The GB Order 2018 may have made matters worse, as the amount of power over GB legislation given to the Prime Minister further undermines the authority of the people of GB.

There is also a case to be made for FBR; WeBOC is primarily aimed at trade facilitation and with training sessions and a trade facilitation centre, it could speed up disposal of consignments for CPEC. However, the State must realise that due to the geographical significance of GB in CPEC, smooth running of CPEC and trade between China and Pakistan cannot go on without approval of the GB people. The region is the only overland entry point for the corridor, and given the State’s eager regulation of funds for CPEC, it can adjust the budget to accommodate the demands of people from GB as well. Otherwise, these protests can cause a deadlock for CPEC and Chinese-Pakistan trade.