Gilgit: Until November last year, Masroor Wali had never considered leaving Gilgit for somewhere else. He stayed on even as others packed their bags to leave – with families in tow – for cities in the plains to escape the harsh winters of the mountainous Gilgit – Baltistan.

Cold grips Gilgit – Baltistan from November till April every year with temperature dropping to a freezing -10 Celsius in all valleys including Gilgit and Skardu. For majority of people who stay back, the biting cold makes life miserable. As cold intensifies and snow buries the land, firewood that is usually cheaply available across the valleys turns scarce, with prices rising as supply dwindles.

To Wali, it meant either staying back in cold weather or spending the amount he will on firewood in Gilgit – about Rs 60,000 – elswhere. He chose to spend it in Rawalpindi, a warmer city around 500 kilometres from Gilgit.

“I used the money to stay in Rawalpindi,” says Wali, a teacher in a government school. “Besides it gave us a chance for an outing and we get to meet relatives settled in Rawalpindi.”

Wali is among the thousands of people from Gilgit who temporarily migrate to warmer climes in winters. The valleys of Gilgit – Baltistan present an abandoned look as folks join their relatives and friends in cities across the rest of the country.

With the efflux of population, money also leaves Gilgit-Baltistan, the local markets are starved of capital as it is channeled to bigger cities. For Gilgit-Baltistan, financially fragile from absence of industry, it mean a further weakening of the economy.

Until winters this year, the 40 years old Wali had never left Gilgit. Wali, father of three kids, says he was convinced by his relatives settled in Rawalpindi to leave Gilgit to escape the wrath of winters. “I never moved out of the town before although life is tough in winters. If you have to survive the winters, you have to burn wood for heating. Kerosene oil or gas heaters are not a viable option as fuel for heating because of the high cost.”

The price of firewood rises in winter and this year, 40 kilogram of wood is available for Rs 600 as compared to Rs 530 in 2014. “About 30 kg of wood is required for 24 hours heating, which simply means you burn Rs 500 every day,” says Wali. “This practice usually continues till March.”

Farman Ali, a resident of Skardu, the second largest town of Gilgit – Baltistan, is a farmer. All through the short summer, he helps his father till the land to grow crops. “But in winters, the fields are barren due to freezing cold and I usually go to Lahore to find a job,” says Ali, 30, who plans to marry next year.

Ali said he worked in a hotel in Lahore for four months last year and was able to take back home about Rs10,000 but would prefer to help with domestic work. “The hotel job is hectic and requires more energy for lesser wages. This isn’t the case with domestic work which is much more relaxed.”

Lack of facilities is another reason why people, especially the rich, choose to leave the region inhabited by nearly 1.5 million. While natural gas is not available in the mountain valleys, the price of liquid petroleum gas [LPG] also spikes up in winters. And as the water level in the rivers goes down, so does the production of electricity, resulting in a power cuts lasting up to 22 hours a day, further affecting life and business in the region.

The shivering cold and lack of facilities aside, the exodus people, especially the businessmen, turns the economy sluggish, lowering investment, sale and purchase in the markets.

“Business is so dull in winters that you can’t do anything but wait for customers,” says Fazal Hussain, a wholesale dealer of furniture and carpets. “The city wears a deserted look and business activity comes to a standstill. I’m not the only person to face this, the whole market does,” says Hussain, pointing to other shops adjacent to his’.

Hussain, who also supplies old and new furniture to government departments, says his business registers a 60 percent drop in winters as demand fades.

Though there are no statistics available, it is estimated thousands of people from Gilgit – Baltistan leave for warmer places in winters. The migration usually starts from November and continues till March – the time when education institutions are closed for winter vacations.

“I know hundreds of families who shift to Rawalpindi and other warmer places every winter,” says Tariq Mehmood, former vice president of G-B chambers of commerce.

“All those who can afford to live away from here do avail the opportunity,” says Mahmood. “Some stay back wherever they migrate to, settling down permanently for better job opportunities and education while many others only visit for a couple of months in winters.”

The efflux of people and money, says Mahmood, leaves local market dormant, setting back the economy and costing the individuals and the region dearly.

“Rawalpindi, Karachi and Lahore keep absorbing a large number of GBians every year,” Mahmood tells News Lens. “In those cities, localities named after those in GB such as Nagar, Hunza and Baltistan, have cropped up.”

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